by Ana Visan

President of self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria, Evgheni Sevciuk, announced recently that the separatist region is prepared to hold a referendum on independence.

Transnistria, the small strip of land in Eastern Moldova, won a brief war of independence against Moldovans after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, but without obtaining recognition in the international community.

Moldova has not given up its sovereignty over Transnistria, making the conflict solving a critical issue in its efforts to move closer to the European Union. On the other hand, Transnistria wants to move closer to Russia, which has raised concerns in Moldova and abroad after the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula – and after Russia has voiced its own concern of Moldova’s strengthening ties with Western Europe.

The region wants to move the process towards independence forward by public referendum.

“This is one of the shortest ways to resolve conflict, by solving the problem in terms of how people living in conflict want to live from now on in their region. We are ready to consider the possibility of holding a referendum on independence, if so providing that the Transnistria people will be recognized and treated with respect”, said Sevciuk, the president of the self-proclaimed republic, according to Point.md.

“We expect Russia to recognize the state. There are legal and historical reasons for this,” says Nina Stanski, the so-called foreign minister of Transnistria.

Moldova and the EU

Moldova has significant economical reasons for approaching EU. The Association Agreement between EU and Moldova goes significantly further than classical forms of economic integration, offering not only improved trade and investment opportunities but also assistance in trade-related reforms with the aim to contribute to economic recovery and growth and to better integration of the Moldovan economy with the world markets.

Moldova will benefit from new trading opportunities and easier access to the EU market. The Agreement will allow the Moldovan economy to catch up with the EU in terms of competitiveness and thereby gradually find its place in the world economy. This will open up new opportunities not only in EU-Moldova trade, but in Moldova’s trade with the rest of the world, given the worldwide recognition of EU norms and standards. The most sensitive sectors will benefit from long transitional periods to ensure the smooth adaptation of Moldova’s economy.

The issue of Transnistrian independence can thus puts a spanner in the works of Moldova’s movement towards the European Union. The presence of Russian troops in Transnistria does not make the situation any simpler.

The Russian presence

After the war, several thousands of Russian soldiers were detached in Transnistria to act as “peacekeeping force”, despite Moldova’s persistent protests against it. Negotiations on the separatist republic are currently blocked. With this in mind, from the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Moldova, Natalia Gherman, voiced that Russia must withdraw its peacekeeping force from Transnistria, and be replaced with an international civilian mission. “We count that Russia will complete the process of withdrawal (of troops) without further delay. We also believe that bringing the peacekeeping arrangements in line with international law standards by transforming the current military operations in an international civil mission will influence positively the peace process”, she said.

In other words, Gherman pointed out that the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria “creates additional obstacles” in advancing the peace process. Moreover, she qualified the restrictions imposed by Russia on importing products from Republic of Moldova as ‘unreasonable’. Additionally Chisinau’s commercial relations with all countries of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) have suffered. “We hope the ongoing dialogue with our Russian partners governed by the law of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the CIS will help us to restore the regular trade relations” said Moldovan Foreign Minister.

As with Ukraine, Russia has expressed concern about Moldova’s efforts to strengthen its relations with Western Europe and threatened with sanctions. The Russian president’s envoy in Transnistria, Dmitry Rogozin, warned that Moldova can even “lose” Transnistria if continuing its European path.

Russia has a diplomatic mission in Tiraspol and of course the 2,500 soldiers stationed here. Moreover Gazprom, the largest investor and Natural Gas Company provides free gas here since 2007 and dominates the market. An annexation of Transnistria just as Crimea’s model is feasible, but the fears of the West are exaggerated. There is little chance that Moscow is risking a new diplomatic conflict after being hit by the West’s sanctions and pressure on the Ukrainian peninsula. In addition, the Moldovan separatist region has not the same strategic value as the Black Sea peninsula has. And, of course, the main argument against Western fears of a hostile Russian takeover is that Moscow already has de facto control of Moldovan territory.

In conclusion, Transnistria remains the main security threat to the Republic of Moldova and the main obstacle in its path towards European integration as long as this territory is controlled by Russia. However, there is a long way from proclaiming to gaining real independence and recognition on the international political scene.. According to international laws, Transnistria is a part of the Republic of Moldova and a referendum for independence would be hardly recognized as long as the Russian troupes dominate the local environment.

The frozen conflict in Transnistria is the main threat to the security of the Republic of Moldova and the European Union’s Eastern region. In this context, finding peaceful solutions to resolve this dispute is a priority for Moldova and the European Union, as long as both want to strengthen an solidify their bilateral relations.