Forgotten Conflicts Part IV: Frozen conflicts and great power games



In the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, its fifteen constituent republics established themselves as independent states in which conflict flared. Military activity at these flashpoints quickly subsided under international pressure but negotiations usually failed to resolve the complex disputes. Consequently, the flashpoints became ‘frozen conflicts’ that were soon forgotten. In recent years, many of these frozen conflicts have thawed and Russia has used the resultant crises to extend its power and influence in its ‘near abroad’. One frozen conflict that remains on ice, in Moldova, remains vulnerable to Russian exploitation.

The Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Moldova) was established in 1940 from territory ceded by Romania to the Soviet Union. During the 50-year Soviet period, eastern Moldova became heavily industrial and populated by ethnic Slavs from Russia and Ukraine. The end of Soviet hegemony saw a rise in Moldovan nationalism and a push to reinstate Romanian cultural values, and possibly unify the republic with Romania. This alarmed the Slavic population and in 1992, the east of the country declared independence. A short war followed in which hundreds were killed. The conflict resulted in the de facto separation of a narrow strip of territory between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, now called Transnistria.

Modern Transnistria bears all the trappings of a sovereign state. It has its own constitution, parliamentary government, currency, and standing army. Home to half a million people, it is heavily reliant on Russian financial assistance and energy supplies and serves as a base for 1500 Russian troops. Nevertheless, it has failed to gain official recognition, even from Russia. This is despite a 2006 referendum that saw 95% of Transnistrians reject reunification with Moldova, and 97% support independence and a proposal to eventually join Russia.

Attempts to resolve the frozen conflict have achieved little. Talks led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine, resulted in a 2003 Russian plan for asymmetric federation. This was rejected by Moldova after nationalist demonstrations in the capital, Chisinau. In 2005 the US and EU joined the talks as observers, but negotiations stalled when Chisinau passed a law affirming the ‘unitary nature of the state’—a rejection of federalism. Formal negotiations resumed in 2011, but the latest round of talks in June this year saw little progress.

Geopolitics is a major contributor to the impasse. Moldova has been actively pursuing EU membership. In June 2014, Chisinau signed an association agreement with Brussels, which included a free trade agreement and closer cooperation in a number of areas. Russia has opposed Moldova’s pro-EU alignment, slapping the country with a wine ban in 2013 in retaliation for the impending association agreement. Of even greater concern to Moscow is the fear that Moldova could join NATO, bringing the military alliance closer to the Russia heartland.

However, like Transnistria, Moldova is highly reliant on trade and energy ties with Russia and it cannot afford to draw Moscow’s ire. This may partly explain a controversial declaration by the Moldovan parliament in May that proclaimed the ‘the inviolability, sovereignty, independence and permanent neutrality of Moldova’. Rather than targeting Transnistria, the declaration asserted Moldova will not join NATO or reunify with Romania—an idea that remains popular domestically.

Transnistria provides further leverage for Moscow. Military exercises staged in the breakaway republic as recently as August serve as a reminder of Russia’s military capabilities and dissuade Moldovan thoughts of ending the conflict by force. If Moldova shifts closer to the EU or NATO, Russia could recognise Transnistria’s independence, immeasurably—and perhaps irreparably—complicating the situation. Finally, Russia could move to unify the region as sanctioned by the 2006 referendum. This would shock observers, but should come as no greater surprise than the annexation of Crimea. Transnistria’s current president Yevgeny Shevchuk has even issued a decree to adjust the region’s legal system so that it conforms to Russian law, though this is likely a ploy to gain Moscow’s endorsement before December elections.

Moldova’s own presidential election on 30 October could also change the power games at play. In 2014, Chisinau lost $1 billion—roughly 12% of the nation’s GDP—in a financial scheme. The scandal badly damaged the credibility of ruling pro-Western politicians and Russia-friendly Socialist leader Igor Dodon is projected to be the next president. Further polling indicates 82% of Moldovans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and 50% would prefer to join the Russian-led Eurasian Union to the EU. Russia has again used Transnistria to encourage this pro-Russian turn by signalling its willingness for the region to have ‘special status’ within Moldova, a shift from its past advocacy for asymmetric federalism.

For now, the Transnistrian conflict remains on ice. Moldovans and Transnistrians can expect more of the same: Transnistria’s de facto independence and ineffectual negotiations. However, Russia has utilised strategic surprise to great effect in recent years, from the Crimean annexation to the Syrian intervention. If Moscow thaws the frozen conflict, it could outflank Ukraine, push back against NATO and further undermine the EU. Transnistria remains a place to watch.

William Baulch is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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