Transdniester's breakaway leaders utter threats in order to protect their privileges

On February 28, during a rare gathering in Tiraspol, the Transdniester separatist leadership appealed to Moscow for ‘protection’. Given the alarmist speculations about a possible annexation announcement in the run-up to the ‘congress’, Moldova seemingly dodged a bullet. Andy Heil from Radio Free Europe argues that the real aim of the much discussed meeting was to protect the elite from economic measures that would harm their personal interests.

Delegates vote during the 'Congress of the Transdniestrian People's Deputies' in Transdniester on February 28 (Photo: Telegram)

By Andy Heil 

Whether initiated in Tiraspol or behind the scenes in Moscow, the rare gathering of the 'Congress of the Transdniestrian People's Deputies' produced an appeal by its breakaway leaders to the Kremlin for protection ahead of a major annual address the next day by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The congress’s final statement appeared crafted to contribute to Kremlin talking points about safeguarding the rights of beleaguered Russian nationals and Russian speakers in those places. But it stopped well short of expressly renewing calls for recognition or annexation by Moscow.

'The Congress is asking the Russian Duma and the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia's parliament) to implement measures to protect Transdniester in the face of the increasing pressure applied by the Republic of Moldova,' it said.

But Putin, despite laying out a lengthy list of perceived grievances and threats against Russia’s neighbors and the West, made no mention of the Transdniestrian situation in his February 29 speech.

The last meeting of the Congress of the Transdniestrian People's Deputies came at the height of local tensions in 2006, when the separatists organized an unrecognized referendum on 'potential future integration into Russia' and rejected reintegration into the rest of Moldova.

This week’s separatists’ congress, in the shadow of the war next door in Ukraine, followed two tumultuous years in which Moldova has expressed fears of becoming a second Russian front and accused Moscow of trying to dramatically destabilize the country and its pro-Western government.

Russian troops intervened in a 1992 war that pitted separatists against Moldova’s then-pro-Western leadership and derailed Chisinau’s EU aspirations for decades, and Moscow has kept a contingent of troops in Transdniester - a sliver of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border - despite Moldovan demands for a withdrawal.

Moldova was granted EU candidate status in mid-2022, after accelerating the bid following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

More recently, President Maia Sandu and Moldova’s pro-European government this year embarked on highly public campaigns to reassert influence in vital parts of the economy in Transdniester, including a new customs code and reintegrating natural gas and power flows to the region into a national framework. Also, after weeks of deliberation, Chisinau in early February announced a tougher stance toward Moscow’s routine circumvention of its objections to Russian polling stations being opened in Transdniester, this time for Putin’s reelection to a fifth term in a March 15-17 election.

Separatist leader Krasnoselski reiterated his determination to seek Transdniester’s integration into Russia as recently as a year ago

Separatist leader Vadim Krasnoselski had reiterated his determination to seek Transdniester’s integration into Russia - pursuant to an unrecognized 2006 referendum - as recently as a year ago.

Then in late February, Krasnoselski called for a convocation of the 'Congress of the Transdniestrian People's Deputies at all levels' to discuss alleged 'pressures exerted by the Republic of Moldova.' He cited threats to the 'rights' and 'social situation [and] economy of the Transdniestrian people,' shorthand for the roughly one-fifth of Moldova’s population who live on the so-called Left Bank of the Dniester River outside central government control.

Official news from the separatists’ de facto capital, Tiraspol, dried up ahead of the congress.

Transdniestrian separatist leader Vadim Krasnoselski (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But speculation by a former separatist official who eventually ran afoul of Krasnoselski’s regime sparked fears a week ago that the congress was aimed at issuing what he described as 'a request…on behalf of citizens living on the Left Bank to Russia to accept Transdniester into the Russian Federation.'

Writing on Facebook, Ghenadi Ciorba expressly linked the congress to the Putin speech and suggested that 'most likely, based on an analysis of the situation, a command was passed on from Moscow to hold this congress.'

The congress would remind the world about the 2006 referendum on joining Russia, he claimed, and he predicted that 'on February 29, Putin will announce this in his address, and the Federal Assembly, in an accelerated order, will decide to grant the request.'

Referendum 'warning'

Ciorba’s prediction prompted the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which follows the region closely in connection with the Ukraine war, to publish a 'warning' that Transdniester 'may organize a referendum on annexation to Russia to support [a] Russian hybrid operation against Moldova.' While it acknowledged that it appeared 'unlikely' that Putin would 'in the most dangerous course of action,' declare the annexation of Transdniester, the ISW said the Russian leader 'will more likely welcome whatever action the Transnistrian Congress of Deputies takes and offer observations on the situation.' It called it a 'a high-impact event of indetermined probability.'

As the Ciorba post and its reverberations abroad spawned considerable local coverage, RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service highlighted his past as a senior official in what Chisinau calls the 'separatist regime,' including his leadership of the Transdniestrians’ media and communications service. It quoted a former Moldovan deputy prime minister for reintegration, Alexandru Flenchea, who suggested the event being organized in Tiraspol was 'a political and propaganda response to Chisinau's economic actions.'

Dionis Cenusa, a political risk analyst and visiting fellow at the Eastern Europe Studies Center of the Royal United Services Institute, similarly said on February 28 that the breakaway Transdniestrians were aiming to use the '"annexation scenario" to provoke concern and therefore interest in the region’s claims.' He suggested that Tiraspol was using the 'security crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine' to elicit 'carrots' from Chisinau at a time of heightened 'political competition in Moldova.'

'Tiraspol is using the security crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine' to elicit "carrots" from Chisinau'

Rather than any genuine appeal for recognition or annexation by Russia, he said, 'The whole event is an exhibition of the separatist region’s concerts to the [international] community.'

'Small steps' for reintegration

In Tirana for a Ukraine-Western Balkans summit, Sandu fielded a question about Transdniester by saying Moldova was 'safe today thanks to the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers' and she reiterated Chisinau’s determination to resolve the frozen conflict over Transdniester without violence.

'Moldova is committed to a peaceful solution to the Transdniestrian conflict,' Sandu said. 'What the Moldovan government is doing today is making small steps for the economic reintegration of the region.'

A deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Christopher Smith, also visited Tiraspol in the days before the congress. Krasnoselski reportedly complained to Smith of the threat of economic pressure on the region from Chisinau.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry also commented on the speculation about a possible annexation announcement. 'For several days now, people in Chisinau have been speculating and wondering what decisions this forum might make,' ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, before pivoting to suggest the ginned-up expectations were cause for Western concern. 'Well, apparently, the same panic gripped NATO.'

So, the congress and the resulting resolution indeed drew international attention to Transdniester and its separatist dilemma.

However, the separatists’ appeal to Moscow was accompanied by a plea to the United Nations and to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union, the latter two of which have led past efforts to negotiate a permanent peace to end the 'frozen conflict' over Transdniester. They urged those international groups to 'prevent Moldovan pressures' and renew negotiations.

Much of what the Moldovan government has set out to do threatens the breakaway elite who have amassed huge fortunes under the status quo

But the Transdniester question and greater integration of the region into the national power grid and national life remain potential obstacles to Moldova’s EU membership, although the bloc made it an official candidate country when a handful of bids accelerated after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022.

And much of what the Moldovan government has set out to do - bringing economic activity in an otherwise lawless Transdniester to heel, particularly in regulating trade with the European Union, punishing separatism, and shutting down Russia’s patronage through heavily subsidized natural gas supplies to separatist groups - threatens the breakaway elite who have amassed huge fortunes under the status quo.

That points to what might have been the real aim of the Transdniestrian separatists’ congress and the premature warnings of an imminent referendum or push for annexation by Russia.

'Due to its authoritarian and semi-criminal character,' in the words of Cenusa, the political risk analyst, the Transdniestrian administration 'must, in fact, find a new balance of forces to coexist with the new conditions put in place by Chisinau.'

This article was origionally published by Radio Free Europe.

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