Eastern Team
6 February 2024

Piotr Oleksy
IEŚ Commentaries 1047 (23/2024)

Moldova is on the road to the EU. What about Transnistria?

Moldova is on the road to the EU. What about Transnistria?

ISSN: 2657-6996
IEŚ Commentaries 1047
Publisher: Instytut Europy Środkowej

Transnistria will pose a significant challenge in the process of the Republic of Moldova’s accession to the European Union. Until now, the issue has been relegated to the background. There have also been numerous suggestions that Moldova could join the EU without the separatist republic. In reality, however, these propositions should be regarded as part of a political game over the future status of Transnistria.

Brussels’ position. The European Union supports the territorial integrity of Moldova, meaning that in the process of settling the status of Transnistria, it is working towards its reintegration into the mother state. At the same time, Brussels points out that Moldova’s accession to the EU is not dependent on the reintegration of the separatist republic. This position was presented by Josep Borrell, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, during the European Political Community Summit in Chisinau (1 June 2023). While expressing that Transnistria would not be a problem on the path of Moldova’s European integration, Borrell referred to the example of Cyprus – a country that joined the EU in 2004, despite having part of its territory remain under the rule of the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Chisinau’s optics. Official statements made by Moldovan President Mai Sandu and government representatives indicate that Chisinau seeks to re-establish its own control over Transnistria while simultaneously preventing the issue from becoming the only obstacle to EU membership. On 20 September 2023, in an interview with France24 TV, Sandu stated that Moldova was preparing for the ‘geopolitical opportunity’ of reintegration that would arise after Ukraine’s victory in the war with Russia. On the other hand, on 27 October 2023, in an interview with Moldovan radio Vocea Basarabiei, the president said that the government had its own concept of rejoining the left bank of the Dniester, but that it was too early to talk about it openly. According to Sandu, the condition for reintegration is “getting rid of the separatist regime”. A statement by Nicu Popescu, then foreign minister, to the US edition of the Politico portal on 19 September 2023 was also telling: “The territory that is controlled by our government in Chişinău can join the EU irrespective of what happens to the east of us, and that includes the situation around Transnistria”. Furthermore: “a country’s EU aspirations shouldn’t be at the mercy of Moscow, which continues to support the breakaway region of Transnistria”.

Tiraspol in favour of separation. The Transnistrian authorities addressed the issue as soon as Moldova applied for EU candidate status. On 4 March 2022, the so-called Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the unrecognised republic issued a communiqué stating that by applying for EU membership, Moldova was “putting the final dot in the process of settlement” of the conflict. It pointed out that the decision to apply had been made without consulting Tiraspol, and urged Chisinau to recognise the independence of the separatist republic. On 21 October 2023, the so-called Foreign Minister of Transnistria, Vitaly Ignatiev, in an interview with the Russian agency RIA Novosti, referred to statements by Nicu Popescu and other signals about the possibility of Moldova entering the EU without Transnistria. In his view, this model “has its own logic”. He argued that Moldova and Transnistria have been developing as separate ‘states’ for more than thirty years. He emphasised the distinctiveness of their political systems and social identities. Popescu also expressed his conviction that it would not be long before “the necessity of politico-legal formalisation of an objective reality, which de facto has long been established”. The narrative of the Transnistrian media and statements made by less significant politicians directly express the view that Moldova’s accession to the EU should usher in the recognition of Transnistria.


– The reintegration of the separatist republic would signify a major challenge for the Republic of Moldova. Among the biggest problems that would be faced are: the pro-Russianism of the local population, which could significantly change the political scene in Moldova; the functioning of a specific socio-business structure – in which oligarchs linked to the Sheriff company play a key role, meaning that people accused of criminal activities and businesses dependent on them would be integrated into Moldova’s socio-economic system; Russian influence in local security services and business structures; the problem of the legality of the privatisation of enterprises carried out by an unrecognised regime; and the presence of Russian military units.

– The problems mentioned would affect the functioning of the state and the European Union as a whole. A part of the Moldovan political class has come to the conclusion that the best solution would be to formalise Transnistria’s status as a separate entity through the integration of Moldova into the EU. This logic may also be convincing to part of the European elite. According to Tiraspol’s official rhetoric, this scenario is considered the best option.

– In reality, however, all sides see serious drawbacks to the aforementioned solution. In less official conversations, both representatives of the Moldovan power camp and EU diplomats admit that a ‘divorce’ between Chisinau and Tiraspol would generate problems of even greater gravity. This would create a grey zone between Moldova and Ukraine (ultimately two EU member states), with a strong Russian influence. This situation would have a very negative impact on the security of the region – military, economic, and social. For this reason, the implementation of this scenario would not be acceptable to the West.

– In fact, this scenario is also of little benefit to the Transnistrian elite. Their business success is dependent on maintaining close relations with the EU and Western markets (‘Comments of the IEA’, No. 529). This sort of economic arrangement has been developing since 2016 (i.e. since the Sheriff camp took power in the parastatal and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU was introduced). Moreover, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has further reduced (even minimised) the importance of Eurasian Economic Union markets to the economy there. Being thrown out of the zone of close trade relations with the EU along with experiencing concomitant hostility from Ukraine (which will result in a lack of export opportunities to the East and across the Black Sea), would mean business death for the Transnistrian oligarchs.

– The declarations so far should therefore be interpreted primarily as part of a political game over the future status of Transnistria. Chisinau and Brussels aim to signal to Moldovan society and Tiraspol that the issue will not block Moldova’s EU membership. By doing so, the Transnistrian elites are made to understand that their influence on the overall dynamic is limited – either join or be left behind.

– As far as Tiraspol’s objectives are concerned, the situation is somewhat more complex, as there are two power verticals. The first, the oligarchic one, is primarily oriented towards business pragmatism. It demands both cooperation with Moldova and the EU as well as concern for its own independence, which provides opportunities to pursue interests within the existing model. The aim of this group is, therefore, to raise the stakes in the game of the future status quo in order to obtain the greatest possible freedom, privileges, and perhaps even security guarantees. The second power vertical is related to the military sphere and security services – it is primarily oriented towards the strategic objectives of the Russian Federation. In this case, these include a maximum obstruction of Moldova’s EU integration process. The position of these two groups in relation to each other is largely dependent on the situation on the Ukrainian front and in the international environment. At a time when Russia seemed to be on the defensive, the oligarchic group was more inclined to seek an agreement with Moldova and the EU. Now that the dynamics on the front and in the international environment appear more favourable to Russia, the position of the two groups has moved closer. This is due, among other things, to the fact that the conviction has weakened among local oligarchs that the most important decisions – such as the presence of Russian soldiers and the status of Transnistria – will be made in the near future. In addition, contrary to earlier perceptions, there is now widespread belief that Russia will continue to have significant influence over the situation in Eastern Europe.

– The recognition of Transnistria was never in the interest of Russia, which treated the separatist republic primarily as a tool to place pressure on Moldova. This is still the case today – Transnistria can serve as a tool to destabilise the socio-political situation in Moldova, e.g. through diversionary activities, creating social tension and an atmosphere of fear.

– The optimism of the Moldovan ruling camp on the issue of Transnistria was conditioned by the dynamics present on the Ukrainian front and in the international environment; hence, Mai Sandu’s statements about preparing for a ‘geopolitical opportunity’. This attitude is now in need of revision. It is unclear whether Chisinau actually has a concrete idea for solving the Transnistria problem, as the representatives of the authorities are very restrained in their statements. This is somewhat understandable, as prematurely defining objectives may be troublesome in a situation where the solution to the problem will be conditioned by many factors beyond the control of the Moldovan authorities. Nevertheless, in light of the pace of rapprochement with the EU, the lack of a clear agenda on the Transnistrian issue creates an increasingly visible gap in the sphere of strategic communication.

– It should be noted that both Chisinau and Brussels do not raise the issue of the future of Russian military units on the left bank of the Dniester. There is no doubt that this will have a decisive impact on the future status of Transnistria. It is difficult to imagine Moldova joining the EU together with Russian soldiers. However, there is no answer to the question of how to get Moscow to withdraw its troops. Carrying out a Ukrainian military intervention is unlikely due to the political damage involved (‘Comments of the IEA’, No. 832). At this point, it should be noted that the vast majority of soldiers serving in these units are people born and raised in Transnistria, often holding Moldovan citizenship (estimated at 70-80% of this group). Therefore, the withdrawal of these Russian units will not mean the departure of the people serving in them. The attitude towards them and towards the personnel of the Transnistrian armed forces, police and security services (about 5,000 people in total) will pose an immense challenge to the stability of the state, as well as to its social integrity.