(An updated version of this analysis taking into account the government crisis in Moldova in March 2013 was subsequently published in World Politics Review.)

On the 29th of November 2012, I presented a study on the Transnistrian conflict at the European Parliament. This was the same day when the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, began his two-day visit to Moldova during which he praised the country’s commitment to EU integration. It was also the day when the participants in the 5+2 process were meeting in Dublin for another round of negotiations, which also marked the first anniversary of the resumption of the official negotiations.
Ten days earlier, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council had concluded that Moldova had fulfilled all benchmarks under the first phase of the Action Plan on Visa Liberalisation, and decided to launch the assessment of second-phase benchmarks.

A little over a month before, on 19 October 2012, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgement in the case of Catan and others vs. Moldova and Russia regarding a violation of the right to education as established under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Court held that Russia exercised effective control in Transnistria and that Russia therefore incurred responsibility for the violation of the right to education claimed by the applicants. In light of this conclusion, the Russian Federation was ordered to pay each applicant €6,000 in respect of non-pecuniary damage, as well as €50,000 in respect of costs and expenses.

What is the current situation in Moldova and Transnistria?

Taking all of these events together, there has clearly been a significantly increased international interest in the Transnistrian conflict over the past two years, triggered by the so-called German-Russian Meseberg Memorandum of June 2010 and facilitated by the political changes in Moldova after April 2009 and Transnistria after December 2011, as well as the resumption of official talks between the Sides in the 5+2 process in autumn 2011.

Until the summer of 2012, the broader conflict settlement process gathered considerable momentum and saw some real progress, including an agreement on an agenda and a set of rules of procedure for the 5+2 talks, a new dynamism in the direct relationship between Chisinau and Tiraspol, both alongside a process of enhancing EU-Moldova relations and progress in the negotiations on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and visa liberalisation.
Since then, however, progress on conflict settlement has stalled. The Sides’ positions have become more entrenched on the ground and Russia has reasserted its influence in the region while maintaining its commitment to Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and pushing for the country’s accession to the Eurasian Union.

At the same time, the economic situation in both Moldova and Transnistria remains difficult, more and increasingly so in Transnistria and corruption and organised crime continue to pose problematic challenges.

The political situation in Chisinau has stabilised over the past year with the election of a President, continuing broad public support for the government’s course on European integration, and more constructive relations with Russia. In contrast, the situation in Tiraspol remains volatile in a climate of mutual distrust between the president and the main opposition party.

As a consequence, the significant level of enthusiasm that the Transnistrian conflict might finally be nearing a solution has by-and-large evaporated over the past six months. Having said that, it is also important to recognise that the current situation is still better than at any time over the past decade before the autumn of 2011.

Is a settlement of the Transnistrian conflict increasingly more or less likely?

In the past, there has been no shortage of hope, proposals and efforts to bring about a settlement. Yet, despite all of this, no real progress has been made and the factors for this remain the same. The interests and agendas of the conflict parties do not overlap sufficiently as yet in order to facilitate concrete steps towards a settlement. Russia continues to be more interested in preserving the status quo at present. This status quo has proved stable over time, and given various “enhancements” achieved through various pragmatic agreements between the Sides has benefited Chisinau and Tiraspol enough to reduce the need for moving beyond the status quo.

Yet, it is also important to bear in mind that the re-launch of official negotiations in the 5+2 process has created important facts on the ground: together with the mediators, guarantors, and observers, the Sides have formally engaged in talks for more than a year; they have agreed on principles and procedures for the negotiations and an agenda; and the foreign ministers of the OSCE member states issued a statement (PDF) at their annual meeting (on 7 December 2012 in Dublin) in which they “look forward to advancement of the negotiations on all three baskets of the agreed agenda: socio-economic issues, general legal and humanitarian issues and human rights, and a comprehensive settlement, including institutional, political and security issues.” In particular, the specific mention of all three baskets in this context is significant: to date, both Transnistria and Russia have been reluctant to allow inclusion of status-related issues in the agenda of specific rounds in the 5+2 negotiations.

In addition to these facts on the ground, progress on conflict settlement is also critically dependent on developments in respect of EU-Moldova relations. Crucially, the envisaged completion of negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) between Moldova and the EU by September 2013 will have a real impact on the settlement process. Unless Transnistria is included in the new arrangements (either formally or by some sort of “fudge”), an internal customs barrier would need to be erected – with the obvious consequences of cementing, further increasing, the already existing separation between the Sides. This would also push Transnistria further into the Russian orbit and into Russia’s own Eurasian Customs Union (PDF).

Related to these specific dimensions of Moldova’s relationship with the EU are specific domestic political implications beyond the relationship between Chisinau and Tiraspol. In the same way in which Transnistria’s inability to participate in the DCFTA would have dire consequences for an already weak, export-dependent economy, the immediate social impact of the DCFTA on Moldova, especially the likelihood of rising food and commodity prices, does not bode well for the prospects of the current pro-European government coalition to hold on to its majority in the April 2014 elections.

At the same time, the current government, which is committed to both further European integration and a settlement of the Transnistrian conflict, may have to make tough choice between them. Further progress towards European integration is critically dependent on concluding the DCFTA (and passing the second phase of the visa liberalisation assessment), while keeping the prospect of settling the conflict with Transnistria may require slowing down, or temporarily suspending, further moves to the EU. To date, there remains a majority of the Moldovan public in favour of closer ties with the EU, while settling the conflict with Transnistria is hardly a priority for people on the right bank of the Nistru river. Yet, not resolving this conflict, or at least making credible progress towards a settlement, will eventually put limits on further EU integration.

What does this mean for the EU?

The EU has an undeniable long-term interest in, and commitment to, the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. In the short and medium-term, however, this translates into an interest in preventing the deterioration of the status quo, progress in advancing negotiations on DCFTA and visa liberalisation, avoiding increasing fragility in Transnistria, and stabilising relations with Russia.

Put differently, the EU has a keen interest in the long-term viability of state institutions in Moldova and Transnistria and thus needs to work in the short and medium-term to make such an outcome feasible.

Concretely, this requires the EU to facilitate further progress on Moldova’s European integration agenda without excluding Transnistria from these developments. The EU needs to increase its support for confidence-building measures and help both sides to build their capacity to engage constructively in the 5+2 negotiations. The Union has to remain fully engaged in the 5+2 negotiations, support the mediation efforts of the OSCE, and work with its partners in the 3+2 format (OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, US, EU) to enable constructive talks between the Sides. Equally importantly, the EU must use all available channels to engage (with) Russia and the secure a commitment from Moscow to a constructive 5+2 process. This means recognising that Russia has a stake in the conflict without prioritising Russian interests over those of the Sides or its own. Moreover, the EU, its institutions and member states should work directly government officials, parliamentarians, civil society, and the media on both sides to increase mutual understanding and build support for a sustainable settlement of the Transnistrian conflict.

The EU has a clear opportunity to contribute to the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict and prove itself an effective conflict manager and actor for stability and security in its own neighbourhood. This is a task that is not without challenges, but these challenges are of such a nature that the EU can, and must, confront them.