Levon Nikolyan explores the complicated geopolitical triangle between Russia, Ukraine and Transdnietria.
Given the current geo-political tensions in Eastern Europe, many fear that under Russian influence, Transdniestria could become a threat for Ukrainian border security. Indeed, there are concerns that Russian troops and Special Forces may cross into Ukrainian territory through its border with Transdniestria, which is infamous for being badly guarded and as a gateway for illegal trafficking of both people and goods. However, with more than one external actor interested in its future and no immediate borders with Russia, the region can ill-afford to be taken for a ride.
Ukraine plays an important and poorly appreciated role in maintaining the status quo in Transdniestria. With an unfriendly neighbour in the west (Moldova), Transdniestria relies heavily on Ukraine for its transit goods and passenger transportation. With Western backing, Moldova has been seeking Ukraine’s agreement to introduce harsher customs requirements for Transdniestrian exports. However, it is not for a simple goodwill towards Transdniestria that Ukrainian border has been available for Transdniestrian businessmen. Analysts claim that since the 1990s, some top Ukrainian officials and business elites have profited enormously from both legal and illegal trade to and through Transdniestria.
With Russian support, Transdniestrian authorities have usually been able to find a common language with their Ukrainian counterparts. However, every time Ukraine takes a Western course, Transdniestria has to struggle against economic blockade. During the presidency of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko (when current President Petro Poroshenko was a close adviser to Yushchenko), Ukraine tried to gain weight in the negotiation process and initiated a settlement plan for the Transdniestria conflict. Because Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov realised the importance of mutual working relations with Kyiv, he met Yushchenko in July 2005, and had no choice but to cooperate with Ukraine on the “Plan for the Settlement of the Transdniestrian Problem” (“Yushchenko or Poroshenko Plan”). According to this plan, Transdniestria would be granted a special status under the constitutional system of the Republic of Moldova.
Pressure from Ukraine led Smirnov to agree that the EU and United States could join the settlement negotiations as observers in a new five-plus-two format in October 2005. “It was not clear whether the “two” were Moldova and Transdniestria, or the United States and EU”, as William Hill quipped in a 2012 book on the subject. In November 2005 the Yushchenko government agreed with Moldova to accept international (EU) monitoring on the Ukraine-Moldova border, including the Transdniestrian segment of Ukraine’s territory. In return, Moldova was to effectively control the territory’s customs and exports, including tax-collection.Smirnov called the customs rules by Ukraine an “economic blockade” and Transdniestrian authorities blocked three trains carrying goods from Ukraine to Moldova as they passed through Transdniestria. However, this tension gradually relaxed and Tiraspol-Kyiv relations normalised once pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych took office in 2010.
As the cycle of pro- and anti-Russian governments in Ukraine again settles on an antipathetic relationship, it is again time for Transdniestrian authorities to fear an economic blockade from Ukraine. However, besides being a pro-Western president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshennko also represents the Ukrainian business elite, and may as well have a stake in preserving the status-quo of Transdniestria. This and Transdniestria’s role in preventing Russians from penetrating into Ukraine raises the chances that Transdniestria may find a common language with Ukraine’s current authorities. After all, Transdniestria will only lose out if relations with Ukraine worsen.
In a war-like situation, it is hard to imagine Russian aid easily reaching Transdniestria. Transdniestria has no borders with Russia, and while some may fear that Russia can bring more troops into Transdniestria and then into Ukraine, this has to be done through either Ukrainian or Moldovan territory or air space. Moreover, even if the Russian troops currently stationed in Transdniestria try to move to eastern Ukraine, they would have to cross the whole country from west to reach east (unless they target Odessa). Therefore, in the secretly recorded conversation between the Transdniestrian minister of interior Gennady Kuzmichev and the deputy chief of the State Border Service of Ukraine (south region) Vladimir Gorozhakin, the Transdniestrians stressed that no threats or provocations on the Ukraine-Transdniestria border should be expected. The alternative, as recent escalations in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine suggest, could be an outright military threat to their quasi-independence.
Transdniestria is situated in the south-eastern part of Europe and borders with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova. Its territory is about 4,163 square kilometres. Official languages are Moldavian, Russian and Ukrainian, and the monetary unit is the Transdniestrian ruble.
The conflict over Transdniestria, started partly in response to Moldova’s threat of unification with Romania, has been lasting for over two decades. The war ended with the intervention of former Soviet 14th army and the defeat of Moldovan forces. The cease-fire agreement established a trilateral peace-keeping mission (Russia, Moldova, Transdniestria) and a security buffer zone along the Dniestr/Nistru River. (see the Map) Besides Moldova and Transdniestria, the negotiations over the Transdniestrian conflict have included the OSCE, Ukraine and Russia as co-mediators, as well as the USA and EU (since October 2005) as observers.