The Russian stance on Transnistria appears to be shifting, especially after the incorporation of Crimea and the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Here’s how the Transnistria situation could play out over the next year.

A Russian peacekeeper at the checkpoint near Bender, a town in Transnistria. Photo: RIA Novosti

 For a very different take read: "Revealing the post-Soviet identity complex in Transnistria"

Back in 2012, a high-ranking Russian diplomat noted, “Transnistria could live separately from Moldova only if flying to the moon. And because such a possibility is not yet in sight, Moldova and the Transnistrian region will obviously live together.”

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, many wonder whether Transnistria can secure Russia’s recognition—perhaps even join it—without making the suggested voyage into space. Two interrelated factors could upset the status quo: the breadth of the ongoing military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and conditions for Transnistrian companies’ entrance to the EU market beyond 2015.  

The link between Transnistria and the military situation in Ukraine

Over two decades, Russia claimed that Transnistria should be part of Moldova. This was in tune with Moscow’s strategy to leverage the conflict. Rather than definitively separating the region, Russia strived to re-combine Transnistria with Moldova (e.g., the Primakov memorandum in 1997, the Kozak memorandum in 2003) on the conditions Tiraspol would gain the right to veto Moldova’s domestic and foreign policy decisions. The ultimate goal was legitimization of the Russian military presence and the overall “Transnistria-zation” of Moldova.

In the wake of Crimea’s annexation, speedy “passport-ization” of the population in Transnistria, intensification of Russian military drills in the region and declarations (e.g. those made by Russia’s presidential envoy to Crimea) that Transnistria would one day be a part of Russia all seemed to indicate that the Kremlin’s position is under revision.

Although potentially threatening for Moldova, Russia’s recent discourse and actions in Transnistria are, however, primarily aimed at Ukraine. Continuous sabre rattling in Transnsitria is part of a strategy to spread Ukrainian armed forces as wide as possible along the eastern front. Kremlin also attempts to engage authorities in Kiev in a guessing game as to the direction of any potential surprise military strike.

Moreover, Transnistrian territory is used as a base for mushrooming attempts to destabilize the situation in Ukraine’s Odessa oblast. Still, in the absence of massive escalation in Eastern Ukraine that would open a land corridor to Transnistria, reignited hostilities between Chisinau and Tiraspol would little serve the Kremlin.

On the contrary, in such circumstances, resumption of the Transnistrian conflict would challenge the narrative about the “success story” of the Russian-led peacekeeping mission in the region used by Russian diplomacy to fend off initiatives to internationalize the peacekeeping format.

As long as the conflict in Ukraine is contained to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia prefers to peddle an alternative track in Moldova, namely, investing in pro-Russia political projects (Socialists or Our Party), which have shown relatively good results during the November 2014 general elections and June 2015 local elections.

Instead of occupation, Russia relies on cost-effective and sanctions-free ways to manage the political process in Moldova from a distance. Should Moldova’s pro-European forces be unable to form the government and deliver on promises soon, Russia’s lever in domestic politics might grow without necessarily using the Transnistrian conflict in its favor.

Alternatively, the eventual proliferation of fighting in Donbas to Ukraine’s south might provide Russia with a tempting military opportunity to “solve” Transnistria’s issue once and for all.

Transnistria’s make or break moment, viewed in economic terms

With military conflict burgeoning in the neighborhood, the economy in shatters (a projected 40 percent budget deficit in 2015) and the upcoming electoral cycle, the Transnistrian leadership is in a delicate position.

On the one hand, it should demonstrate loyalty to Moscow in a bid to extract more dividends necessary to offset economic decay and win support for the re-election campaign in 2016. On the other hand, it needs to avoid embroilment in the military conflict with Ukraine or Moldova that would curtail access to the European market and Moldova proper—the two main destinations for Transnistrian goods.

One way to show loyalty is to scale up reunification with Russian rhetoric, denounce Moldova’s “economic blockade” and decry exclusion from or negative repercussions of Moldova’s EU integration. Often, this discourse is far from reality.

Despite over-cited results of the 2006 “referendum” in Transnistria for independence and subsequent association with Russia (97.2 percent), opinions in the region are not so uniform; they are less ideological and more practical.

To begin with, Russia was not the only state Transnistria wanted to reunite with in the past. For instance, in 2011, during a chill in relations with Moscow, Transnistrian leadership pondered organizing a “referendum” to join Ukraine.

If one were to look at societal attitudes, a public survey conducted by a reputable public opinion research company, IMAS, in 2012, on both banks of the Nistru River will be quite telling.

Accordingly, 32 percent of respondents in Transnistria would vote for joining the EU, with 19 percent undecided. Were Transnistria to have a more pluralistic mass media, opinions would probably be even more balanced on the issue.

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Besides referendums and public polls, citizenship in Transnistria also speaks volumes about population preference. Out of 500,000 citizens living in the region, 300,000 hold a Moldovan passport. As of April 2015, around 75,000 of Moldovan passports in Transnistria were biometric (and the number keeps growing), which opens the door for visa-free travel to the EU.

In addition, there are 200,000 Russian and 70,000 Ukrainian passports. Data shows that, besides individual survival tactics, a variety of citizenships reflects the diversity of attitudes towards Transnistria as a project.

Claims of economic suffocation, exclusion or negative spillover from EU integration are also misplaced. Otherwise, why would Moldova invite Tiraspol to participate in talks on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU, ask the EU to extend the preferential trade regime exclusively for Transnistrian companies till the end of 2015, or extend protocol on railway transportation of goods via Transnistria till 2016?

These steps clearly demonstrate that Moldova seeks to extend advantages of European integration and contribute to the economic stability of Transnistria.

As long as businesses are running, few in Transnistria would like to turn the region into a full-time war zone or live in a bombed-out neighborhood. Allegedly, Transnistria selectively leaked information to Ukraine about a planned destabilization in the Odessa oblast.

Thus, the foiling the plot of the “Bessarabian People’s Republic” in May 2015 in Odessa is no surprise. Heavily dependent on exports to the EU and Moldova proper (more than 70 percent) at the time when Russian market is rapidly contracting, Transnistria needs Western trade connections as air to breathe. The dilemma is on which terms to accomplish it.

As EU trade preferences for Transnistria are set to expire in 2015, it is crunch time to join DCFTA provisions and adapt the economy to international standards.

Russia discouraged Transnistria from joining the DCFTA. Consequently, Tiraspol has declined to adhere to the DCFTA and instead opted to speak in the language of ultimatums (e.g., threats to introduce a 100 percent tariff on Moldovan products), hoping to get an extension of free trade with the EU without reforms.

While the EU and Moldova might show flexibility on the issue, softened conditions on DCFTA-related adjustments are likely to be attached to any decision to offer preferential access to the EU market.

If, however, sides fail to hammer out a deal, Transnistria’s economy could collapse in 2016, opening the way for a variety of possible conflicting scenarios in the region. For instance, Russia might decide under pretext of “humanitarian aid” to reinforce its troops in Transnistria (using the airport in Tiraspol). As the most probable way to deliver “aid” is by violating Ukraine’s air space, Transnsitrian issue could easily reignite military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.