Time is running out to solve Moldova’s Transnistria question

Chișinău’s plan for its breakaway republic rests on its dream of EU membership and Ukraine winning the war

After decades of conflict, Moldova finally has a plan to reintegrate Transnistria, its pro-Russia separatist region on a thin strip of land between the Dniester River and the country’s border with Ukraine – but it’s unlikely to succeed.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, frenzied speculation over whether Transnistria will be dragged into the conflict has been rife, as has discussion about a final settlement of the separatist conflict, which would likely involve Transnistria’s reintegration into Moldova.

Moldovan president Maia Sandu may not have a formalised strategy for Transnistria. But this summer her administration’s vision has become clear: to link the reintegration of the region to Moldova’s candidacy for the European Union.

Such a move would stretch out the reintegration process for years, likely due to fears that it may be hard for Moldova to politically and financially digest if it happens any earlier.

But it may not be so easy to kick the issue into the long grass: the Kremlin is likely to attempt to force authorities in Chișinău, the Moldovan capital, to face their ‘Transnistrian problem’, regardless of whether they are ready to do so.

Does Chișinău have a strategy?

Negotiations for a final and comprehensive settlement have been frozen for almost 20 years. But the Ukraine war has created an entirely new context around the issue.

Russia’s plans for southern Ukraine are suspected to include linking it up with Transnistria via a land corridor. In fact, the region’s short distance from the frontline may be a major factor that influences the positions of the parties in the Transnistrian conflict.

Ukraine’s early success in withstanding the Russian assault and then engaging in large-scale conventional warfare gave Chișinău reason to be optimistic about its separatist problem.

In the early days of the war, a consensus formed among Moldova’s ruling party and its experts on Transnistria that a Ukrainian victory – and the ensuing chaos in Russia – would create an opportunity to resolve the problem once and for all while the Kremlin was distracted and unable to support the separatists.

But more than a year later, there is no end in sight for the war, and Moldova still does not appear to have a strategy for reintegration that does not rely on Ukraine's military success.

The trouble started in 1990, when groups in largely Russian-speaking Transnistria declared independence from Moldova after the country made Romanian, spoken by the indigenous population, its official language. The language law, the first of its kind among the former Soviet republics, proclaimed Moldovan, and later Romanian, as the official language of Moldova and replaced Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet for the transcription of Romanian.

The separatist groups in Transnistria, which still use Cyrillic, clashed with the Moldovan police and army and it took until 1992 for a ceasefire, brokered by Russia, to be agreed. The parties have not since returned to the negotiating table to resolve their conflict.

The main negotiating format on Transnistria is known as 5+2; Moldova and Transnistria as parties to the dispute, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE as mediators, and the US and the EU as observers. It has long focused on confidence-building measures between the right and left banks of the Dniester River. Issues such as the recognition of Transnistrian documents on education, licence plates for Transnistrian cars and land use in the disputed territory have been discussed, but not the final settlement of the conflict.

In autumn 2021, before it invaded Ukraine, Russia sought to resume dialogue on the status of Transnistria, perhaps to secure its interests in the region or to improve its standing in Moldova ahead of the so-called “special military operation”. At the time, Russia tried to “gas blackmail” Moldova, raising the price of gas and reducing the flow of exports to Chișinău in order to force it to start negotiations on Transnistria. This led to record-high inflation and widespread discontent and protests against Sandu’s government, at a time when Moldova was seeking to implement the reforms necessary to join the EU. But Moldova refused to discuss the Transnistrian problem in tandem with the issues of gas supplies.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine, making it impossible to continue negotiations in the existing 5+2 format, possibly forever. Though Moscow and Tiraspol, the de facto capital of Transnistria, are still trying to preserve the 5+2 format and Russia’s role in the negotiations, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy dismissed Ukraine’s special representative for Transnistria in December 2022, leaving the position vacant.

Chișinău hopes

While the Moldovan government’s conceptual framework for the reintegration of Transnistria won’t be published, statements made by top officials suggest it believes that, sooner or later, both Moldova and Ukraine will become EU members, and that Russia will lose the Ukraine war and will never again presume to meddle in the Transnistrian issue.

Chișinău thinks Transnistria will then have no choice but to go along with the rest of Moldova as it moves towards EU membership.

The slow approach of the Moldovan authorities has, so far, found support in the West. In June, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said the Transnistrian issue would not prevent Moldova from joining the EU. During a visit to Chișinău, he said, “Cyprus became a member of the European Union while having a territorial problem. Moldova can do it.”

There are several reasons for Moldova’s slowness in tackling the Transnistrian issue – and the West’s approval. These include concerns in Chișinău that Moldova may not be able to cope if reintegration happens suddenly, and that reintegration could derail its EU accession by triggering the rise of pro-Russian forces in the country.

With upwards of 90% of Transnistrian residents holding Moldovan citizenship, Moldova, which counts about 2.7 million inhabitants, would be faced with around 300,000 new voters, many of whom have Russian sympathies. It would also have to deal with one of Transnistria’s largest companies, Sheriff, which is owned by a former KGB officer, who wields unparalleled power in the region. Reintegrating Transnistria could mean troubling new influences on Moldova’s internal politics.

Chișinău believes speedy reintegration would benefit only the Kremlin, which has always tried to use Transnistria as a deadweight to prevent Moldova from moving towards the West.

In July, 17 months after it invaded Ukraine, Russia’s delegation to the OSCE demanded a return to negotiations on Transnistria, or else it would block the work of the OSCE mission in Moldova from January next year. But, appeased by soothing statements from the EU and other Western partners, Moldova has failed to take the initiative and formulate a viable plan that might be acceptable to the residents of Transnistria as well as its business elite – the only way for Chișinău to ensure it is not held hostage in the Kremlin's geopolitical games.

The wildcard for Chișinău, of course, is whether Ukraine will indeed secure an unconditional victory against Russia, particularly if the Republicans win the White House in 2024 and US support for Kyiv waivers as a result.

What to do on 1 January 2025?

Russian gas is another important reason for Chișinău to deal with the Transnistrian issue sooner rather than later.

Breakaway Transnistria relies heavily on Russian supplies of gas so cheap it is practically free. But it hasn’t paid Moscow for gas in 30 years and its local government puts all the money it raises from utilities bills into a special ‘gas account’ that constitutes nearly half of its budget. If free gas from Russia were to stop flowing into Transnistria, its ‘independence’ would probably collapse in a matter of months and a humanitarian crisis ensue.

It’s not just the left bank of the Dniester River that would suffer. Roughly 80% of the electricity in Moldova, on the right bank, comes from Moldova GRES, a power plant in Transnistria that uses Russian gas. This arrangement could be threatened by a rise in electricity tariffs, as well as any potential problems with the delivery of Russian gas via Ukraine.

On 31 December 2024, the 2019 transit contract between Moscow and Kyiv will expire and Ukraine is preparing to suspend gas exports from Russia to Europe from 2025. In June, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy said it is unlikely the contract would be renewed.

In the event of a complete halt in gas transit through Ukraine, Russia will have only one route for exports to Europe – through Turkey and the Balkan countries. Technically, Transnistria could also receive gas via this route. But given the additional logistical difficulties and the limited capacity – the route has a smaller pipeline and no storage facilities – there are sure to be problems with the delivery of Russian gas to Transnistria and Moldova, or, eventually, Europe

That scenario would likely lead to a humanitarian crisis, which Moldova could use to try and reach a mutually acceptable solution with Transnistria. But nobody in Chișinău seems sure how it would do so.