Moldova declares “war” on separatists: how Transnistria’s elite and Russia plan to prosecute

The beginning of February 2023 claims to be a historic, key period in neighboring Moldova in resolving the so-called “Transnistrian conflict,” that is, the liberation of the left bank of the Dniester River from Russian occupation, which has been going on since 1992.

After 30 years of attempts at reconciliation and dialogue with the leaders of the pro-Russian regime in Tiraspol, the Moldovan authorities decided to turn their Transnistrian policy around and passed a law that would now lead to the criminal prosecution of the entire Transnistrian leadership. During its discussion, the law was also changed to include parts that could lead to the Russian military leadership being charged with crimes.

Tiraspol has already said that Chisinau is getting ready for “repressions” and has warned that “the negotiation process will be destroyed.” The Moldovan authorities were not fazed by this; on the contrary, it is quite possible that such destruction was the goal of the amendments to the criminal code.

Now, based on the law, the economic blockade of Transnistria should begin. And reconciliation talks with the separatists should be replaced by coercion to reintegrate.

However, the real consequences will be much more modest.

The law cannot be fully implemented in its current version.

According to its norms, representatives of the Moldovan government should be prosecuted… After all, their actions fill the budget of the separatist regime. This is just one of the many problems with the new “anti-separatist” law.

Most likely, Chisinau will only implement parts of the revolutionary law. It will use it as a possible threat and a way to pressure Tiraspol and stop separatist feelings in Gagauzia, another pro-Russian region.

But Maia Sandu must sign the document first, even though some international partners are putting pressure on her to do so.

Separatists in the law

The Republic of Moldova is one of the countries of the former Soviet Union, where a phenomenon called the “frozen conflict” was created in the 1990s. This is about the left bank of the Dniester River in Moldova, which has been occupied by Russia for more than

The Republic of Moldova is one of the countries of the former Soviet Union, where a phenomenon called the “frozen conflict” was created in the 1990s. This refers to the territory of Moldova on the left bank of the Dniester River, which has been under Russian occupation for over 30 years.

In 1992, the Russian armed forces waged an open war against the newly formed Moldovan army. After the military defeat, the Moldovan leadership was forced to sign an armistice agreement with the then President of the Russian Federation, and Transnistria remained under Russian control (there are international court decisions confirming this). Chisinau’s military defeat was no less important than its informational defeat: Russia, with the help of systematic propaganda, was able to turn into a “peacemaker” in the minds of the majority of the participants in the Transnistrian conflict.
But in addition, under the informational influence of the Russian Federation in Moldova, the word “separatism” was informally banned.

Its use in Moldova has become a lingo – because it is said to be offensive to Tiraspol. That is why, despite the existence of a region beyond the control of the central government, and even despite the “independence referendum” held in Transnistria in 2006, there has been no mention of this term in Moldovan legislation. Not to mention the punishment for such actions.
The current composition of the Moldovan parliament decided to break this taboo.

More than two months ago, they registered amendments to the criminal code that define separatism and establish penalties for it and related actions. The project was co-authored by top representatives of the ruling party, including Speaker Igor Grosu, so the document received party support and was adopted in the first reading in December. Then it was supported by the Moldovan government; the Ministry of Justice proposed amendments that MPs took into account, and finally in February, the law was approved as a whole.

The document has not yet entered into force, so it is too early to talk about specific criminal cases.

Who will be convicted

The new version of Moldova’s Criminal Code says that the Transnistrian government itself is illegal. It’s hard to believe, but this has not been clearly defined in Moldovan legislation until now!

In particular, “the so-called authorities established outside the constitutional norms” and not recognized by international treaties are now defined as “unconstitutional entities.” At the same time, the Moldovan parliament and only imprisonment ranging from three to seven years are provided.

Meanwhile, all the activities of the Transnistrian authorities are aimed at secession from Moldova, which means that the “president of Transnistria,” Vadim Krasnoselsky, and all members of his government should soon face criminal prosecution.

At the same time, the law provides a safety net so that Tiraspol officials can’t say they were just following Krasnoselsky’s orders or the requirements of Transnistrian law to avoid blame. Because making a reference to this is seen as a bad thing, the penalty goes up to 15 years in prison.

Those Moldovan citizens who cooperate with “unconstitutional entities” and “go over to the side of the enemy” are equated with traitors to the homeland and face a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. But this clause is still just a statement, since Moldova has not yet reached the point where it can call Russia an “enemy.” One law that is a little bit more important is the one that calls Moldovans who tell Transnistrian authorities about state secrets “traitors” and gives them up to 20 years in prison.

The article “financing separatism” deserves special attention. This is “providing or collecting” funds or property “for the purpose of using it, in whole or in part, in the organization, preparation, 5–10, or commission of acts of separatism,” which under the new law is punishable by imprisonment for 5–10 years and a fine of up to 350,000 euros. This article, however, has serious side effects; we will talk about them, as well as another problematic provision, later.

Before that, let’s talk about a provision that is aimed not at the Transnistrians but at the Russian leadership.

At the last stage of the law’s review, at the request of the Moldovan Ministry of Justice, a part was added that makes it illegal for “objects used for military purposes to cross the Republic of Moldova’s airspace without permission.”

The ministry confirms that the main practical goal of this clause is to make it illegal for Russia to fire missiles at Ukraine, which also cross Moldovan airspace. The mere fact of a missile flying over should be punishable by imprisonment for a term of 3–12 years, and if the missile injures or kills a person, the punishment increases to 10–20 years.

Which Russians will be prosecuted (even if in absentia), and what will happen if a missile from Ukraine’s air defense forces flies into Moldova, remains unknown. Although the Moldovan government has repeatedly stated that the culprit behind the downing of C300 missiles on Moldovan territory is exclusively Russia, Ukrainian air defense is acting legally when it defends the country from air attacks.

A virtual “Act of Aggression”

Given that the law’s punishments are harsh and there are no other options, it is not surprising that the Moldovan parliament’s decision caused a real storm in Tiraspol.

Key local officials criticized the law. The most active speaker was the head of the so-called “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Transnistria,” Vitaly Ignatiev, who had been protesting against the consideration and adoption of this law since December. This is not surprising, since working as the head of the separatist regime’s “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” is itself a violation of Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This makes Ignatiev one of the most likely suspects, as stated by Moldovan lawmakers.

On February 8, the “parliament” of Transnistria protested against the punishment for separatism. The deputies all agreed on a statement that called Chisinau’s actions “an act of aggression meant to hurt the negotiation process” and “a cover for massive violations of human rights.” Tiraspol now expects “tensions to spill over from other conflict zones” and “possible escalation.”

At the same time, Transnistrian propaganda began spreading “scare stories” to its population, saying that from now on all residents of Transnistria are subject to criminal prosecution.

Chisinau replied that no, not all of them, because the law doesn’t apply to regular people who didn’t help spread information about separatism.

However, Moldova’s position here is weak.

There is no turning back

Now the Moldovan media and politicians are also asking how the law will work if it is impossible to fully implement it. No one seems to have an answer to this question.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu, whose signature is needed for the law to enter into force, refrains from commenting.

Western partners are not happy about the law, which destroys the status quo in Moldova, although they do not make categorical statements on this issue but try to act in a non-public way.

For example, the joint statement of the Moldova-EU Association Council of February 7 included the phrase that “the EU encourages the continuation of the dialogue to avoid destabilization.” This statement is mentioned in the joint bilateral document, with a focus on the fact that this is a unilateral position of the European Union (Moldova did not agree to sign it). In the past, when the Association Council has talked about Transnistria, they have always said that it is a bilateral issue.

However, all observers agree that Sandu will not be able (and will not want) to “kill” the law that her government has been working on. At most, the Moldovan president can propose changes to correct the most ridiculous provisions, but the key one—punishment for separatism—will undoubtedly remain in place and soon come into force.

And this has the potential to devastate Transnistria’s negotiation formats.

Because it is much easier to turn a blind eye to small and difficult to prove in court norms, such as the financing of the Transnistrian budget, than to the key norm of the law that has attracted so much attention.

And once criminal cases are brought against the leaders of Tiraspol, talking to them will be pointless. This could indeed bring the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict to a new level. However, it is impossible to predict in detail how this scenario will develop. Moreover, Chisinau has no clear action plan. The law’s contradictory language and Chisinau’s silence, which shows that it is waiting to hear what its partners think, are clear signs of this.

And the only thing that can be added is that not all of Moldova’s partners oppose Chisinau’s abrupt moves.

For example, Ukraine, which has the formal status of a guarantor state in the Transnistrian settlement, has been and remains on the side of the hawks. Recently, an interview with Mykhailo Podoliak became popular in Moldova. In it, he told the Moldovan government to ignore the separatists’ protests and tell them how to reintegrate. “You have your territory and your rules,” he said.

Well, the Moldovan authorities have now at least begun to think about what these rules are in the new geopolitical reality.

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