Moldova And Transnistria Take Small Steps Towards Special Status
12 December, 2017

“This is like theater of the absurd,” says one participant in the negotiations on the Transnistrian conflict. “This is a breakthrough, which has not happened in 10-15 years,” exclaims another.

For the first time in over a year, negotiations were held in Vienna on resolving the Transnistrian conflict, which has lasted more than a quarter century.

The unrecognized “republic” wrenched free of Moldova in the early 1990s and has been locked in a so-called “frozen conflict” with the country since 1992, when a ceasefire ended two years of fighting between Russian-backed Transnistrian forces and the Moldovan army.

To date, Transnistria’s political status remains contested.

Why Did The Talks Happen?

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stated that it did not intend to hold a meeting just for the sake meeting. Tiraspol — the de facto capital of Transnistria — and Moscow insisted on conducting year-round negotiations in the 5 + 2 format, which involves Moldova and Transnistria as parties to the conflict; Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE as intermediaries; as well as the United States and the EU as observers.

To this day, Transnistria is significantly dependent on Russia. The unrecognized “republic’s” territory houses warehouses of Russian weapons and around 1,700 Russian troops — including 400 so-called Russian peacekeepers, who arrived in 1992 as part of an agreement with Chisinau, and the 14th Russian Army, which has remained in Transnistria since the waning days of the Soviet Union. Moldova insists that they be withdrawn.

Photo credit: 

Since 2008, Moscow has paid Transnistrian retirees’ pensions. According to the Nezavisimaya Gazeta new, Russia spends about 1.5 million dollars on the allowances each month. Transnistria also does not pay for Russian gas and is $6 billion in debt to Moscow.

The recent meeting was held because Tiraspol and Chisinau agreed to open the bridge across the Dniester River. The bridge runs from the Gur-Bikului village on the Moldovan side to the Bychok village in Transnistria and was destroyed in 1992 during the  military conflict. It was rebuilt at the beginning of the 2000s but long stood unused. Now, Transnistrian leader Vadim Krasnoselsky and Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Phillip have finally opened it more than a decade later.

The OSCE believes that the opening of the bridge is not only symbolic, but also a useful solution for both banks of the Dniester.

“I now use this bridge myself,” said Michael Scanlan, a representative of the OSCE in Moldova.

On November 25, the eve of the talks in Vienna, Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister Gheorghe Balan and Transnistrian “Foreign Minister” Vitaly Ignatiev signed contracts from last year's “Berlin Protocol” containing a number of provisions.

READ MORE: Moldova's Russian-backed Transnistria Selects New President

The protocol called for Moldova to recognize Transnistrian diplomas, recognize Transnistrian license plates, restore telecommunications between the banks of the Dniester and solve environmental problems in the Dniester river basin. It also stipulated that the issue of criminal cases against  politicians on both sides of the conflict must be resolved and called for safe border crossings.

What Was Agreed Upon In Vienna?

Following lengthy negotiations on November 27 in Vienna, another protocol was drafted.

The final “Vienna Protocol” called for Chisinau to recognize diplomas from the “Taras Shevchenko Transnistrian State University” and for Moldovan farmers to receive access to land in the Dubossary district, which is currently under the control of Transnistrian authorities.

It also urged the parties to agree on allowing cars with Transnistrian license plates to travel abroad by the end of February 2018 and stated that schools in Transnistria need to use the Latin alphabet.

Furthermore, the agreement stipulated that, during the next year, Chisinau and Tiraspol should allow unrestricted border crossing by officials from both sides and establish a telephone connection between the left and right bank of the Dniester, a problem that has existed for over a decade.

“To simply contact relatives or friends, we had to dial a dozen digits, make phone calls through a satellite and through other countries,” Balan told Hromadske in an interview.

The OSCE, Moldova, and Transnistria are convinced that they have achieved an unprecedented breakthrough. The parties also expressed their support for the “rhythmic work” of the negotiation process, but what this means remains unclear.

Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE

And although some questioned whether it would still be another half a year before the parties fulfilled their commitments, OSCE Ambassador Michael Scanlan was optimistic about the timing.

At the final briefing, he said that, with bridge issue promptly resolved, there was hope that other issues would also be resolved quickly. Furthermore, the protocol defined clear deadlines.

Who Benefits?

Until the discussions in Vienna, Transnistrian diplomas were not recognized. Chisinau was opposed to the word “state” in the name of the “Taras Shevchenko Tiraspol State University.” And cars with Transnistrian plates were also not recognized — they planned to introduce neutral license plate numbers next year.

“A mutually beneficial solution to the issues is much better than looking for conflicts and obstacles,” said Ignatiev.

Wolf-Dietrich Heim, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process, commended the results.

Photo credit: OSCE / Liubomir Turcanu

“Over the past weeks, we have seen a historic breakthrough. We have a win-win situation, when the parties solved the problems which were being disputed for 10-15 years,” he said in an interview with Hromadske.

Balan said that without a solution to these problems, the reintegration of Transnistria into Moldova would be impossible. However, the main issue for the country remains the status of the region as part of a united state.

Balan said that all the issues resolved in the negotiations directly concern the resolution of the main one.

“Step-by-step, we are trying to bring the status discussions closer,” he told Hromadske.

Transnistria’s Status

For 25 years Transnistria has not been recognized by any state of the world. The 5 + 2 format was invented at that time to resolve the status issue. However, while solving socio-economic problems, the status issue has be left out of discussions. There are no agenda during the meetings and they are held with the consent of the parties.

When Hromadske questioned Balan and Ignatiev, who sat on opposite sides of the table during the final briefing, on the status of Transnistria they both smiled and remained silent.

Heim replied for them.

“We still have some socio-economic issues, the solution of which will improve the lives of the population...but we must not forget that the 5 + 2 format involves solving more general problems,” he said.

“For the past 25 years, when the parties did not reach a settlement, they were content with the negotiation process, maintaining the status quo, and not paying attention to the settlement. We managed to change this approach and we need to continue it.”

In a conversation with Hromadske, the Vice Prime Minister of Moldova noted that the country's authorities intend to offer Transnistria a “special status.”

The OSCE says that this is about legal, social and economic autonomy for Transnistria as part of the Republic of Moldova. However, Moldova has yet to prepare a document, which clearly spells everything out.

“There is some progress. We have not seen a document with the concept from Moldova, but we hope to see it. The document should outline how they see the this special status,” Heim told Hromadske.

He clarified that Gagauzia’s autonomy in Moldova might serve as a basis for granting Transnistria a special status. According to Heim, in Chisinau they think about which spheres should be given more autonomy.

Balan explained that it would be possible to speak to great powers in the cultural, social and economic spheres, but not in foreign policy matters. He assured that Moldova would prepare a document on the special status of Transnistria by the end of the year.

READ MORE: Window For Transnistria Breakthrough Opens

“We will present a draft document to our international partners. We promised to do so by the end of the year. Then discussion of a special status will begin,” Balan said.

He clarified that it will talk about the “broad autonomy” of Transnistria.

“Accordingly, we do not see the need for broader powers than “broad autonomy,” which would allow us to preserve certain cultural aspects and at the same time develop local economic potential. And to provide other support within the framework of this autonomy,” he said.

“We already have this sort of experience. We have the Gagauz autonomy, which since the 1990s has gained a certain status in the Republic of Moldova,” said Balan.

However, Chisinau’s proposals must still be approved in Tiraspol.

“If someone thinks that this is a simple process, it’s not. Chisinau will prepare a document, Transnistria will agree, and we will come up with a solution to the problem. I predict that this will last for several years. The process will be complicated,”  Viktor Kryzhanivskyi, special representative of Ukraine on Transnistrian settlement, told Hromadske.

The document may be the first throughout the conflict in which Chisinau expresses its own vision of a solution to the problem. Previously, other parties showed their own propositions. In 2003, the Kremlin proposed a plan for the federalization of Moldova – the “Kozak memorandum”​ (its chief initiator was Dmytro Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration). In 2005, then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko proposed a status of  autonomy for Transnistria.

/By Evgeniy Savvateev

/Translated and adapted by Sofia Fedeczko and Tanya Bednarchyk