Maia Sandu won the presidency of Moldova in November and the majority in parliament in July with the promise to reorient her country towards Europe and fight corruption.
One issue that didn’t feature much in either Sandu or his former party’s manifesto was Transnistria, the breakaway state that covers 11% of Moldova’s territory and is home to 500,000 people.
But it could be problems in Transnistria that emerge as the new president’s first big challenge. It is certainly on the radar of Moscow, which is licking its wounds after losing an ally in Chisinau to former President Igor Dodon and his coalition of communist and socialist parties in parliament.
Just one day after the early parliamentary elections in Chisinau on July 12, Leonid Kalashnikov, head of the CIS State Duma Affairs Committee, Eurasian integration and relations with compatriots, said that Russia was waiting to see how Sandu gets closer. to Transnistria, where Russia has 2,000 soldiers.
“If this government repels Russia, then of course we will act accordingly,” he said, “strengthening our Transnistrian factor.”
Sandu was careful not to upset Moscow during his election campaign, a fact that was noted by the Kremlin, but Kalashnikov said Russia was concerned about its “pro-Europeanism” and would seek to “merge” Transnistria – or even Moldova – into Romania.
Since 1992, Transnistria has been separated from the rest of Moldovan territory after peace talks broke down following a conflict between separatists and the Moldovan army.
Transnistria is now roughly divided into three equal minorities: Ukrainians, Russians, and Moldovans, and in some cases they have four passports, Ukrainian, Russian, Moldovan, and Romanian. About half of those living in Transnistria have Russian citizenship and their government is close to Moscow.
Russia has between 1,500 and 2,000 soldiers in Transnistria, ostensibly as peacemakers, and the status quo remains one of the longest “frozen conflicts” in central Europe.
That suited Moldova and the Kremlin during decades of largely Pro-Russian leadership, but the election of a pro-European president with a parliamentary majority, the first in Moldova’s history, raises the possibility of a turnaround when it comes to Transnistria.
The PAS obtained 52.80 percent of the votes, while the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists, BECS, obtained 27.17 percent and Ilan Shor, 5.74 percent. PAS will have 63 seats, BECS 32 and Ilan Shor Paty only six of the 101 seats in Parliament.
Support for Sandu
Traditionally, Transnistria has played a huge role in the Moldovan elections.
Moldovan citizens in Transnistria have been bussed down the Dniester River to vote, with special polling stations organized to serve them.
In previous years, Transnistrian votes were enough to win elections for pro-Russian candidates, including former President Igor Dodon, who lost power to Sandu in November 2020.
In July, of the 28,173 who voted from Transnistria, 62.21 percent voted for the pro-Russian BECS.
But in the November presidential and July parliamentary elections, a surge in support for Sandu and the PAS from the Moldovan diaspora managed to topple Dodon and his BECS, including with Transnistria.
Even Vadim Krasnoselsky, the pro-Moscow leader of the breakaway Transnistria region, has called the July 11 outcome “predictable” and has vowed to continue the dialogue with Chisinau.
“The current changes in Moldova have an evolutionary character, and not revolutionary, as happened before: the people supported the course set by the political elite,” he said.
Krasnoselsky’s spokesman did not respond to questions from Euronews.
As far as Transnistria is concerned, the new Chisinau government and Sandu herself have refrained from commenting on the issue.
The PAS manifesto included a commitment to continue talks with the European Union, the United States, Ukraine and Russia with the OSCE as mediators, known as the 5 + 2 framework, which has achieved little so far.
The talks have tended to focus on security, free movement, human rights and economic issues rather than the elephant in the room: that is, whether Transnistria and its people will rejoin Moldova.
Speaking to Euronews, the newly elected PAS deputy Rosian Vasiloi said that discussions on these issues will continue, specifically on smuggling across the territory’s border with Ukraine.
“The national authorities must seize the border. They will guarantee effective management so that the citizen does not feel intimidated, as is happening today. In addition, there must be a barrier for thieves who do business in the region,” Vasiloi said.
Meanwhile, PAS interim leader Igor Grosu said political will is needed to end the Transnistrian conflict, including from the Kremlin. If resolved, it could be an example of how to end the so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space.
“We need to explain to interlocutors in the Russian Federation that the resolution of this conflict is much more natural than other conflicts in the CIS space,” Grosu said in a political television program broadcast on July 13 by TVR Moldova.
‘Internationalize the problem’
Valeriu Ostalep, a political analyst and former Moldovan diplomat, told Euronews that while relations were good at the moment, that could change in the future depending on who becomes deputy prime minister, the position that traditionally has responsibility for relations with Tiraspol. .
The socialists, now in opposition, may try to create problems for the government in Transnistria, he said, but it would not be in Tiraspol’s interest to create problems with Chisinau.
“I believe that the Transnistria region will have no reason to disturb the waters. Under regional conditions, a peaceful approach would be an advantage for Moldova,” he said.
As for Kalashnikov’s remarks, Ostalep said it is “preventive blackmail and it is annoying,” and the Russian official has engaged in such rhetoric about the Transnistria dossier earlier.
Others hope that there will be a genuine focus on improving the lives of the residents of Transnistria.
Policy expert Mihai Isac told Euronews that Moldova’s new government is committed to fighting corruption and that many of the country’s murkiest companies are closely linked to Transnistria.
“Solving the Transnistria problem will lead to the removal of a gray area and increase the attractiveness of the state for foreign investors,” Isac said.
Looking at the big picture, Isac believes that President Sandu hopes that the participation of the world community will grease the wheels.
“He wants to internationalize the issue so that Russia can start negotiations on the political status of the region,” he said.
“International support, including from the US and the EU, will largely depend on the next period.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism