One cannot engage in mediation in pursuit of a settlement of a protracted conflict such as that between Moldova and its breakaway Transdniestrian entity without being a hopeless optimist. Nonetheless, the events of November-December 2017 in the Moldova-Transdniestria political settlement process might seem to bring renewed hope to even the most dejected participants in the negotiations, whose optimistic aspirations have been battered over the past decade and a half by the unwavering intransigence of the parties to the conflict and by geopolitical competition among the external facilitators, so-called mediators and observers.

Chisinau and Tiraspol reached agreement in November on five of their self-identified eight priority issues in the settlement process, which their international partners welcomed in a subsequent Five-Plus-Two meeting (representatives of Chisinau and Tiraspol and mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, joined by observers from the EU and the United States). In early December, the OSCE Ministerial Council adopted a statement welcoming these achievements of an “output-based” process while also reaffirming support for a settlement preserving Moldova’s territorial integrity and affording a special political status for Transdniestria within Moldova.

Over the past fifteen years, the Transdniestrian conflict has increasingly been portrayed in press accounts and expert analyses in stark geopolitical terms: a pro-Western, democratic, recognized state on the right bank of the Nistru/Dniestr River, seeking European integration, confronted by an authoritarian, corrupt, left-bank secessionist region oriented toward and supported by Russia.

Indeed, Tiraspol and Moscow have been and are generally closely aligned, in opposition to Chisinau and the Western participants in the Five-Plus-Two. However, behind the façade of this stark East-West split, a number of changing economic, social, and political factors complicate both this straightforward depiction of the dividing lines in the conflict and prospects for its resolution. In fact, the settlement process since 2016 has been characterized primarily by a joint position and in-country coordination between the mediators and observers urging engagement and concrete results by Chisinau and Tiraspol. 

The recent seeming breakthrough on the Transdniestrian question comes against a background of increasing domestic polarization and political conflict in Moldova, growing popular disenchantment with Moldova’s current political parties, and sharpened debate over the country’s geopolitical direction, all with an eye toward national parliamentary elections that must occur before the end of the year, probably in the autumn.

Since the late 2016 election of the pro-Russian candidate, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) leader Igor Dodon, as president, the government and the presidency in Chisinau have been in near-constant conflict with one another. The Parliament and government are dominated by the ostensibly West-leaning Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), headed by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is accused by many of using his wealth to capture and manipulate the state for his own benefit.

Plahotniuc, his party, and his government claim to pursue a pro-European, pro-EU course. That claim is hotly contested by Moldova’s two largest center/center-right political groupings, the Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) and the Dignity and Truth Platform Party (PPDA), which grew out of broad popular demonstrations in the winter of 2015–2016 against both the Socialists and the current Democratic Party government.

In view of this polarization, local representatives of the mediators and observers in the Transdniestrian settlement process have met collectively with the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of Parliament to ensure Chisinau spoke with one voice in the negotiations. 

Both the 2016 presidential voting and most recent public opinion polls show the country almost equally split between advocates of the current pro-EU, pro-West course and a redirected pro-Russia, pro–Eurasian Economic Union orientation. This current split should not be surprising, as it represents a continuation of a basic division in the Moldovan electorate and society since the mid-1990s.

According to its constitution and legislation, Moldova must hold national parliamentary elections by the end of this year (2018); given recent significant changes in the electoral system, combined with the deep ongoing political schisms, the possible results are more uncertain than usual even as the geopolitical stakes seem higher. The outcome of this year’s political battle might well counteract the recent progress toward lessening or removing the protracted Transdniestrian conflict as an ongoing source of regional uncertainty and instability.

Progress in the Five-Plus-Two 

After two years of a coordinated “results-oriented” approach, developed under the 2014 Swiss and 2015 Serbian OSCE chairmanships and successfully implemented by the 2016 German and 2017 Austrian chairs, November 2017 witnessed the dramatic resolution of a number of long-standing practical issues that had divided Chisinau and Tiraspol for years.

At Berlin and Hamburg in June and December of 2016, Moldova, Transdniestria, and the other participants in the Five-Plus-Two agreed to concentrate on settling specific issues between Chisinau and Tiraspol as a precondition to holding higher-level, plenary negotiating sessions. The Five-Plus-Two participants generally endorsed the basic OSCE position since 1993—Transdniestria is a part of Moldova, but should have a special political status—but agreed to leave questions of final status aside while pursuing progress on specific, practical issues. The mediators and observers demonstrated remarkable cohesion in holding to this general approach, which stressed direct, expert-level contacts between the parties to the conflict. Shuttle diplomacy by the OSCE Mission involved senior leaders from Chisinau and Tiraspol, as needed, to reach agreement when lower-level experts got stuck.

The main substance of the negotiations in 2016–2017 was the “package of eight” issues (although there were other questions under consideration), in essence, a set of practical social, economic, and administrative questions that have divided and created mistrust between Chisinau and Tiraspol since the earliest days of the conflict. These questions include: (1) whether and how diplomas (and other documents) issued by Transdniestrian educational (and other) institutions should be recognized throughout Moldova and beyond; (2) whether vehicle license plates issued by Tiraspol should be recognized internationally; (3) how should Transdniestrian telecommunications be licensed and regulated; (4) how should Tiraspol and Chisinau cooperate to establish and enforce environmental standards for the Nistru/Dniestr River basin; (5) how to dispose of criminal cases brought against officials of each side by institutions of the other side; (6) how to ensure operation of Latin-script schools under the jurisdiction of the Moldovan Ministry of Education in territory under the control of Transdniestrian authorities; (7) how to ensure access for some farmers resident in Moldovan territory to sow and harvest on their lands under Transdniestrian control; and (8) how to ensure freedom of movement between the two sides of people, goods, and services (already guaranteed in many joint declarations and agreements between the sides), in particular the opening of the Gura-Bicului Bridge, damaged by the fighting in 1992, repaired by 2001, but never reopened to traffic.

These issues may seem ridiculously detailed, obscure, and simple to resolve. Yet Moldovan and Transdniestrian representatives have been remarkably stubborn and obtuse in failing to agree on what seem (at least to outsiders) obvious solutions. Disagreements on these questions do not arise from their substance, however, but from the fear of both sides that even the smallest concession on any of these specific issues might weaken that side’s position on the key questions of status and governmental competencies.

These fears are augmented by deep distrust on the part of governing elites on both sides, prompted and sustained by a long history of agreements and promises by both sides which have subsequently gone unfulfilled. Even now, both Chisinau and Tiraspol basically either refuse to engage with one another on the key question of status, or simply revert to their maximum positions: independence for Tiraspol or full application of Moldovan law and authority throughout the Transdniestrian region for Chisinau.

Despite this history of mistrust, obstruction, and evasion, by early November 2017 negotiators from Chisinau and Tiraspol signed an agreement to open the Gura-Bicului Bridge; the sides followed through and the span actually opened to traffic in mid-November. A number of donors, including the EU, have either promised or are considering assistance to repair the major highway from the Black Sea to the Baltic that uses the bridge, holding out the prospect of a possibly significant increase of trade and commerce through the region.

On November 25, 2017, in the old river city of Tighina/Bendery (where Charles XII of Sweden took refuge in 1709 after the Battle of Poltava), Transdniestrian and Moldovan negotiators signed four protocols apparently settling the questions of the operation of Romanian-language schools in Transdniestria; recognition of Transdniestrian diplomas; telecommunications licensing and operations; and access for Moldovan farmers to lands under de facto Transdniestrian control. These steps were followed by a formal meeting of the Five-Plus-Two on November 27–28 and the OSCE Ministerial Council in Vienna on December 7–8, both of which welcomed the recent progress and obligated the participants in the Transdniestrian settlement process to continue their present approach and efforts and to seek further solutions.

What produced such dramatic progress, after years of obstruction, stagnation, and only limited—if any—movement? First, one must give credit to a succession of OSCE chairs since 2011, who revived the Five-Plus-Two format; kept it alive during truly troubled, tumultuous years; and finally—under Germany and Austria—took advantage of the opportunity to fashion and maintain a consistent, coordinated approach to conflict management.

Second, despite the bitter split with the EU and United States over the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia remained within the overall political consensus on approaching resolution of the Transdniestrian question, in particular in promoting practical reconciliation between Chisinau and Tiraspol, while continuing to recognize Transdniestria as a part of Moldova, not an independent entity.

Third, political and economic changes within Transdniestria, coming at the same time as the entry into full operation of Moldova’s Association Agreement with the EU, appear to have considerably changed Tiraspol’s political calculations.

Developments in the ongoing European geopolitical crisis are obviously important for conflict resolution efforts in Moldova-Transdniestria, although not always in ways that a casual observer might expect. The 2014 crisis and outbreak of war in Ukraine and Russian annexation of Crimea had a dramatic, negative effect on the NATO-Russia and EU-Russia forums in which much dialogue and cooperative efforts were conducted. With the establishment of the Special Monitoring Mission and the Border Mission in Ukraine, the OSCE experienced a distinct revival, not because of increased esteem or efficiency, but as the only venue in which Russia and its Western interlocutors could meet as equals. This seems plausibly at least one of the reasons that major European powers such as Germany and Italy have recently sought and held the OSCE chairmanship.

For some time, Berlin has considered the Moldova-Transdniestria standoff to be one of the more soluble of the so-called “frozen conflicts” on the post-Soviet periphery. For a number of reasons, Germany and then Austria have found Russia far more willing to deal on the Transdniestrian question than on conflicts in Ukraine or Georgia. As far back as 2008, Moscow separated Moldova/Transdniestria from the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, and has consistently declined to support Tiraspol’s aspirations for independence and recognition.

Although Russian negotiators in Moldova have often offered operational and tactical criticism of their Western colleagues, Russia has continued to participate in the Five-Plus-Two format and to accept the 1993 OSCE consensus on the main lines of any political settlement. Moscow’s aim seems clearly not simply to support a breakaway Transdniestrian entity, but to achieve maximum influence in all of Moldova, thus to ensure Russia-friendly policies out of Chisinau.

Russia’s long-term economic subsidy of the left bank continues, especially in the form of unpaid deliveries of natural gas. However, Moscow seems to be reducing or eliminating direct monetary assistance which has supported Tiraspol’s state budget and social payments since at least 2006. This may make Moldova/Transdniestria a place and issue where the international actors may find it possible to take risks and make concessions that none perceive as jeopardizing existential geopolitical interests elsewhere. 

The Transdniestrian economy has steadily deteriorated over the past decade. The left bank suffers from the same socioeconomic ailments as Moldova’s right bank—massive emigration of the working-age population and extreme dependence on remittances. However, Transdniestria’s once-robust string of Soviet-era industrial enterprises, run by a loyal cadre of “red directors,” has deteriorated, and only a small number of substantially weakened large enterprises remain.

The left bank’s economy is now dominated by the oligarchic conglomerate Sherrif, which permeates the retail, telecommunications, energy, services, and sports sectors. (Sherrif’s Tiraspol football club is the country’s UEFA Champions League representative, and boasts the best stadium in Moldova.) Having gotten its start in contraband and the gray economy, Sherrif is now at a point at which further expansion, let alone maintaining its revenues, will require moving beyond Moldova’s left bank, into Moldova proper, and—perhaps—Ukraine and Romania. This, in turn, will require some sort of recognized international status.

Since its rapid growth in the 2000s, Sherrif has increasingly dominated Transdniestrian politics, achieving a majority in the Transdniestrian legislature by 2005. Yevgeny Shevchuk, the speaker of the Supreme Soviet in the mid-2000s, began his career as Sherrif’s protégé, but then won the “presidency” in 2011 as a revolt against both Sherrif and longtime Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov. The current Transdniestrian leader, Vadim Krasnoselsky, who won the presidency in late 2016, is squarely in the Sherrif camp.

The conglomerate, which now controls both the Transdniestrian legislature and presidency, appears to have decent working relations with Russia, but is also clearly not simply a creature of Moscow, with economic and political interests that do not appear to coincide fully with those expressed by Russia. Krasnoselsky is still subject to Moscow’s influence (and sometimes veto over personnel or policies), but he and his negotiator Vitaly Ignatiev have demonstrated resilience and persistence in pursuing tangible improvements in the daily life of the left bank’s population through lower-level negotiations in the expert groups and direct talks with Chisinau. Transdniestria has also conducted protracted talks with Moldova and the EU and has made considerable concessions so that left-bank enterprises may share the benefits of trade preferences under Moldova’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and move toward a legal footing.

However, in contrast to Russia’s position in the Five-Plus-Two, Transdniestria has explicitly not abandoned its rhetoric on independence and international recognition as its ultimate goal in the negotiations. Tiraspol explained its acceptance of the OSCE approach under Germany and Austria and its recent agreement on various points of the “Package of Eight” as steps to improve the socioeconomic condition and humanitarian welfare of its population, and not as acknowledgement that it is a part of Moldova.

Immediately after the OSCE Ministerial Council adopted the most recent declaration on the Five-Plus-Two in Vienna last December, the Transdniestrian “Foreign Ministry” issued an eight-paragraph statement stressing that Tiraspol had not participated in the OSCE meeting and did not agree with or accept all of its provisions, in particular with respect to Moldova’s territorial integrity. Thus, as the Five-Plus-Two moves from specific, practical questions to the issue of eventual status, it remains to be seen how long Transdniestrian cooperation will continue.

Prospects for the Five-Plus-Two as Italy takes the OSCE chairmanship seem mixed. The mediators played an important role in the progress in 2016–2017, as the Moldovan and Transdniestrian negotiators did not always have particularly good personal chemistry. As of early January, Moldova has a new deputy premier for reintegration and chief negotiator, a young career official from the Ministry of the Interior, Cristina Lesnic. It is too soon to tell whether this change will make any difference.

Immediately after his inauguration, Moldovan President Dodon met with Krasnoselsky and then Putin to discuss the Transdniestrian question, and made achieving a settlement one of his priorities. However, the key relationship in the settlement process may not be Dodon-Krasnoselsky, but PDM-Sherrif. During the summer and autumn, the lead in the Transdniestrian question appears to have passed to Plahotniuc, who was widely reported to have become more active on the Transdniestrian question and who was also reported to be in direct contact with Sherrif.

Putin almost certainly would prefer to assist Dodon in any effort the Kremlin makes toward a Transdniestrian settlement. However, given the current political struggle in the Moldovan government, it may turn out that Plahotniuc is his only choice as an interlocutor on the right bank.

Moldovan Politics: Deep, Unresolved Divisions

On Moldova’s right bank, the current conventional wisdom portrays a Parliament with a pro-European majority, led by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, a pro-EU government headed by Plahotniuc loyalist Pavel Filip, both opposed by the pro-Russian President Igor Dodon. In this case, the conventional wisdom would be correct, but not sufficient to understand the current problems and prospects for right-bank politics. To grasp the nuances of and motivations behind the current battles in Moldovan politics, it is necessary to keep in mind several important long-standing features and divisions in Moldovan society and public opinion.

Since gaining independence in 1991, Moldova has been almost equally divided between West and East. For years many polls showed Vladimir Putin to be the most popular political figure with the Moldovan populace. Even today, in the most recent Barometer of Public Opinion compiled by Chisinau’s independent Institute for Public Policy (IPP), 47 percent of the respondents said they would vote for joining the EU, while 42 percent would opt for the Eurasian Economic Union (or 38 to 32 percent in favor of the EU, in an either-or vote). Almost 22 percent said they would vote for union with Romania, up substantially from a decade ago; however, 33 percent said they would vote for Moldova to join the Russian Federation. Ultimately, increasing numbers of Moldovan voters say they want results, not geopolitical slogans, from their political leaders.

These results track quite closely with similar polls and voting patterns over the past two decades, and are probably not the result of recent Russian information campaigns in the region. Moldova has always had a Russian-speaking population substantially larger than that which identifies itself as ethnic Russian, and affinity for Russian language and culture has always been strong in Moldova, in particular in northern urban centers, such as Beltsy, and in substantial portions of the countryside.

In addition, almost 500,000 Moldovans currently work in Russia and send money home to their families, irrespective of how often they return to Moldova. In the 2016 presidential election’s second round, Igor Dodon garnered 52 percent of the vote in a head-to-head contest with pro-Western candidate Maia Sandu. But this was not unprecedented; Vladimir Voronin’s communists received just over 50 percent of the vote in the February 2001 parliamentary elections, which led to eight years of Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM) rule in Moldova.

If one desires another simple rule of thumb to augment the conventional wisdom about Moldovan politics, it is that the left tends to be pro-Russian, the right tends to be pro-Romanian, and a large center tends to be “Moldovanist,” that is, for an independent Moldovan state, irrespective of its geopolitical orientation. Since independence, this center has moved either left or right, depending on economic conditions and the performance while in power of left- or right-leaning governments.

Will this pattern hold in 2018? Here are some of the factors which may contribute to the answer to that question. The Democratic Party more than doubled its number of deputies in Parliament since the November 2014 election, from 20 to 41, and controls the ruling coalition. The manner in which this has been accomplished has not helped the local or international reputation of Plahotniuc’s party.

The PDM was not able to entirely escape the fallout and popular anger from the 2014 billion-dollar banking scandal, although the bulk of that anger was directed at the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM) and the Liberal Party (PL), which had been members of the previous ruling coalition along with the PDM. The current Filip government was installed in the dead of night (literally) in early 2016, against the backdrop of massive popular street protests against the parliamentary parties whose corruption and incompetence led to the looting of three Moldovan banks and widespread economic distress.

This massive popular movement (Moldova’s “Maidan”) produced two center-right parties—the Party of Action and Solidarity and the Dignity and Truth Platform Party—which currently are the two leading pro-European parties in the polls. With 41 deputies out of a total of 101, Plahotniuc’s PDM polls only at 2.8 percent (5.1 percent of likely voters), not enough to make it over the threshold into Parliament in the previous proportional electoral system.

In addition, in the most recent Barometer, over 30 percent of those responding identified Plahotniuc as Moldova’s most corrupt politician, over 20 percent more than any other figure received. Dodon’s Socialists (PSRM) lead all parties with 26 percent; if the political situation in Moldova does not change appreciably, this could portend significant gains for the Socialists and Dodon in this year’s elections.

The fundamental challenge facing all of Moldova’s political parties is that the slightly larger half of the electorate still favors a pro-European, pro-EU course, but that same electorate is generally disgusted with the performance of the ostensibly pro-European politicians who have been in power and is disillusioned with the apparent unwillingness or inability of the Western patrons of these politicians to make them live up to loudly professed Western values. One can expect a large protest vote in Moldova’s upcoming elections; what is uncertain is the direction this protest will take.

One possible way to handle such a challenge is to change the rules of the game, and Plahotniuc and Dodon have done just that. In July, over the express objections of leading Western institutions such as the Council of Europe and the EU, the PDM and PSRM rushed through Parliament a fundamental reform of Moldova’s electoral system, to provide for election of half of the deputies by the existing method of nationwide party lists, and half of the deputies in single-mandate electoral districts.

The measure was widely criticized as a way for well-funded and well-organized parties (or simply rich individuals) that could not win a national vote to enter the legislature by purchasing smaller districts and groups of voters. By using his wealth to support individual candidates, Plahotniuc is thought by many to have a chance to return to Parliament, an otherwise unlikely outcome with the previous electoral system. The Socialists inherited much of the Communists’ strong nationwide organization, and thus probably stand to gain the most of the other existing parties in Moldova.

Plahotniuc’s proteges, Prime Minister Filip and Parliament Speaker Andrian Candu, have been working hard to cast the current government and PDM-led parliamentary coalition as real pro-European actors to a disillusioned and skeptical Moldovan public. The PDM has hired lobbyists in both Brussels and Washington to do the same, often by hyping the Russian threat.

As part of this effort, the government and Parliament seem to have gone out of their way to sharpen Chisinau’s relations with Moscow. The expulsion of several Russian diplomats, and the declaration as persona non grata of Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Russian representative to the Moldovan-Russian Commission, Dmitry Rogozin, seem as much appeals to pro-EU voters as real measures against Russian influence. PM Filip’s attempts to burnish his pro-reform credentials with the EU in autumn 2017 also appear to have a clear electoral dimension. Finally, Plahotniuc, the PDM, and the government have been increasingly active in picking fights with President Dodon.

Plahotniuc has been considerably more open in exercising his leadership of the PDM and the government, even though he holds no official position other than party leader. He has traveled to Turkey and the United States, and has met with various foreign leaders. Once reported to have some sort of modus vivendi with the Kremlin, he is currently on the outs with Moscow, which recently attempted to procure an Interpol warrant against him for his alleged part in an assassination attempt on a Russian banker in London.

Most notably, on December 19 Plahotniuc personally announced a reorganization of the government, with seven new ministers, including former prime minister Iurie Leanca as Deputy PM for European Integration. The PDM had to get the Constitutional Court to overrule a defiant President Dodon, who refused to confirm the new ministers, arguing that they had been party to the massive bank fraud in previous governments. The court temporarily suspended Dodon, and as acting president, Speaker Candu signed the decree confirming the new officials. This procedure was used once before to confirm a member of Leanca’s European People’s Party (PPE) as Minister of Defense. Plahotniuc explained the move as the installation of a more “technocratic” government, the better to pursue reform without getting caught up in electoral politics.

Plahotniuc and the PDM also resorted to temporary suspension of Dodon to ram through Parliament and promulgate a controversial law aimed at barring retransmission of Russian news and public affairs television and radio programs in Moldova. The legislation was explained as a measure to protect Moldovan public opinion from manipulation and disinformation.

Russian media will reportedly still be available to Moldovans via cable networks, but the measure may have significant effects in rural areas, in a media landscape already dominated by outlets owned by Plahotniuc. The legislation will indubitably be used not only to limit Russian support for Dodon’s Socialists in the upcoming campaign, but also to help the PDM attract Western-oriented voters away from Maia Sandu’s Action and Solidarity and Adrian Nastase’s Dignity and Truth.

The Choice in 2018

The success of the Transdniestrian settlement process in 2016–2017 may raise hopes that Chisinau and Tiraspol are moving toward an actual resolution of their conflict, but barely 1 percent of Moldovan voters cite the Transdniestrian question as an important issue for them. Debate inside Moldova over the Transdniestrian question is less likely to be about the substance or conflicting visions of conflict resolution.

The danger of actual, widespread physical violence between Chisinau and Tiraspol is minimal. The debates over the Transdniestrian issue and Russia’s ongoing support for Tiraspol are not likely to figure prominently in the 2018 election campaign in Moldova, except as symbols representative of the deeper battle over the nature and geopolitical orientation of the Moldovan polity.

As the 2018 parliamentary elections approach, Moldova faces once again the question whether it can effect real reforms in governance, the economy, and rule of law. Previous pro-West and pro-East governments have promised such reforms, but have consistently failed to deliver. Moldova remains depopulated, dependent on remittances, and ruled by largely corrupt, self-serving elites. Moldova’s political candidates and its external partners all face the challenge of how to break free of this stubborn, enduring status quo.

Moldova may well also appear to choose a geopolitical direction in the 2018 elections. A victory for the Socialists will undoubtedly be interpreted as a win for Moscow. Conversely, victory for either Plahotniuc’s or Sandu and Nastase’s followers will likely be trumpeted as a win for pro-Western forces. In either case, it is unlikely that the 2018 election will alter the fundamental divisions and balance in the Moldovan population that have been demonstrated so consistently in elections over the past twenty-five years. Only real reform, economic growth, and an end to the endemic corruption are likely to change that enduring reality.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • William H. Hill