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The ‘new Cold War’ keeps a frozen conflict on ice | The World Weekly

A small self-proclaimed state that lies along the River Dniester, landlocked by a few miles of riverbank before it gives out onto the Black Sea, has reportedly ordered all men aged between 18 and 50 to take part in a military mobilisation.

The show of force by the breakaway republic of Transnistria, a sliver of land in eastern Moldova, comes just days before negotiations over its tense political situation are due to restart in Vienna.

The reopening of talks signals a thaw in what has been dubbed one of eastern Europe’s last post-Soviet “frozen conflicts”, but the dispute’s sensitive role in the region’s power politics means international observers are keen for temperatures not to rise too quickly.

Transnistria’s political and cultural affinity towards Russia is reciprocated by the Kremlin, which has maintained a military peacekeeping force in the breakaway region and supported it financially ever since it declared independence from Moldova following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

No UN member states formally recognise Transnistria’s independence, though many Western sceptics suspect Moscow is not terribly interested in solving a conflict which gives it a useful military foothold between the worlds of East and West.

Meanwhile, Moldova itself straddles the blurred line between Russian and European spheres of influence. The country has an outwardly pro-EU government, but narrowly elected a staunchly pro-Moscow president, Igor Dodon, at the end of last year - a dynamic which has proved difficult when it comes to security issues.

A drop in the ocean

The resumption of negotiations in Vienna next week will bring together Russia, Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) along with observers from the EU and the US. Delegates will face the tall task of making headway where little concrete progress has been made in over two decades.

Transnistria’s provocative mobilisation comes as yet another sign that the talks could get off to a rocky start. In August, Moldova declared Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, persona non grata over “defamatory” remarks about the government in Chisinau.

Earlier this month, reports of a visit Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky paid to Mr. Rogozin incensed Chisinau. Among other "practical issues”, they are said to have discussed making it easier for young men not born during Soviet rule to obtain Russian passports.

The President of Transnistria Vadim Krasnoselsky (L) and Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin during a meeting

Few, however, believe the mobilisation will amount to much more than a show of force. A similar move two years ago led to concerns that Transnistria could become the next East-West flashpoint, as the war in neighbouring Ukraine raged on for months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Yet Transnistria’s ceasefire, in place since 1992, held firm.

Yet few believe the Vienna talks have a strong chance of resolving the conflict either. Many of the items on the agenda concern limited but sensitive issues, such as the situation of schools teaching Romanian in the Latin script - said to be persecuted by the Transnistrian government, which is in favour of the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia.

Several of the international mission’s aims have been achieved, such as the reopening of a bridge along the Dniester last week, which had been blown up during the fighting in 1992, but these are drops in the ocean considering the two sides’ reluctance to integrate for the last quarter of a century.

Falling on either side of the Russia-Europe divide has pulled the two sides apart economically. Moldova was given access to EU markets by the ‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement’ (DCFTA) in 2014, along with Georgia and Ukraine, with Transnistria added in 2015. But the deal’s implementation in Moldova has been much more effective than in Transnistria, which remains in dire economic straits and dependent on help from Russia.

The EU argues this is because the conditions it has attached to trade have not been met by Transnistria, which has been accused of lacking transparency in its border controls and fiscal system. Transnistria and its allies in Moscow, meanwhile, accuse Moldova and Ukraine of strangling the breakaway region’s economy.

‘Hostage to bigger geopolitical interests’

Some experts believe that allowing the situation to stagnate works in Russia’s favour. Stanislav Secrieru, a senior associate analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, suggests that the Kremlin has even conceded ground to the EU in order to keep the peace secure.

Russia opposed DCFTA in 2014, yet accepted the deal’s extension to Transnistria in 2015. One reason, he argues, could be that Russia’s economic troubles have made it less inclined to keep pumping money into Tiraspol - denying it a $130 million loan this year, for instance.

Another clue, he suggests, can be found in Moldova’s domestic situation. Although the country has long been split down the middle over its East-or-West leanings - Mr. Dodon beat the pro-European presidential candidate 52% to 48% - the balance appears to be tipping.

Many Moldovans see the ruling party as corrupt, with the EU’s image being tarnished by association. Brussels gave the country €561 million ($665 million) in financial assistance from 2007-2013, with another €700m set for the 2014-2020 funding cycle, but critics argue this has not been reflected in the country’s economic situation.

Moldova’s staunchly pro-Russian socialist party (PRSM) is likely to win the upcoming parliamentary elections, according to Mr. Secrieru, with the only question being whether they take enough seats to govern alone or in coalition.

“When Russia sees an opportunity to bring friendly political forces to power in Chisinau, Transnistria takes a back seat, at least temporarily,” he argues.

Many Kremlinologists suggest that Moscow sees conflict zones like eastern Ukraine and Transnistria as opportunities to build a buffer zone between Russia and Europe, adding to stable military allies like Belarus. Why risk a potentially costly military conflict in Transnistria when it can use soft power to bring all of Moldova on side?

There is no guarantee, however, as to how secure this status quo will prove. Mr. Secrieru argues that Russia could take a “much more aggressive” approach if the Moldovan elections do not go its way, whether through its proxies in Transnistria or through more direct means, holding its gas supplies to ransom. 

Transnistria may have only avoided descending into the kind of violence seen in Ukraine because it suits the Kremlin’s interests, leaving the importance of the Vienna talks in doubt.

“We should have no illusions that the [negotiations] can be actually aimed at conflict resolution,” says Matthew Rojanski, director of post-Soviet studies at the Wilson Centre, a Washington DC-based think tank.

Even though “small steps” like the reopened bridge are possible, he argues, Russia is unlikely to let Transnistria’s sovereignty return to the Moldovan government unless Chisinau chooses Eurasian over European integration.

“The conflict is hostage to bigger geopolitical interests,” Mr. Rojanski told The World Weekly.

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