Transnistria: Foreign Policy

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

By: Šárka Humlová

External Sovereignty of Transnistria

The creation and the implementation of the Transnistrian foreign policy (FP) has been divided among various state bodies.

The president is not only the main representative of the Transnistria in its international relations, but he is also responsible for determining the main directions of Transnistria’s FP (MFA PMR 2012b; Communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

While the Supreme Council is responsible for the ratification of the necessary international acts for the conduct of the foreign policy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the executive body “exercising state administration” in relations with foreign states and international organisations (MFA PMR 2012b).

It is also responsible for developing proposals outlining different FP strategies, direct implementation of the foreign policy course, monitoring the implementation of international obligations as well as controlling the activities of the missions abroad (ibid).

In 2015, the new foreign minister, Vitaly Ignatiev, was also appointed as the special representative of the president in the negotiations process as well as in interactions with international organisations and diplomatic missions, hence empowering his role in Transnistria’s foreign policy (ibid).

Apart from these state bodies, civil society also has the opportunity to express its opinion on “important decisions in the field of foreign policy” through the work of Public Chamber of Transnistria, the Public Expert Council under the MFA of Transnistria as well as through other forms of interaction with civil society (ibid, written response B from a former official of the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

The impact of the public in general and civil organisations in particular is especially evident from the pro-Russian orientation of the foreign policy, since a pro-Russian sentiment (demonstrated for example by the 2006 referendum, where 97% of the voters supported Transnistria’s independence with a subsequent accession to Russia) dominates among the general public (communication with a former Official from MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

The influence of the civil society on the foreign policy is; however, constrained not only to solely expressing an opinion rather than being actively involved in the making of the foreign policy, but also by the fact that only a small number of organisations are allowed in the Public Chamber (ibid).

Igor Smirnov, the former ‘president’ of Transnistria (1991-2011), has identified Russia as a foreign policy priority. The foreign policy’s eastern orientation has prevailed until today since the main goals include the need to maintain the Russian presence in Transnistria as well “furthering the cooperation with CIS countries and Ukraine, and integration into the Eurasian Union” (Berg & Vits 2018: 399).

Nevertheless, the 2014 crisis in Ukraine forced Transnistria to expand its recognition strategy beyond Russia and Ukraine, leading to the intensification of international contacts particularly with Western countries (communication with a former Official from MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Furthermore, Transnistria’s involvement in the peace talks as well as its close economic cooperation with the EU through the framework of EU-Moldova DCFTA might provide a platform for a greater engagement with the EU or its members; however, the “mistrust of locals towards Western institutions and their intentions” is at the moment hindering the engagement in other spheres (ibid).

Although the limited financial resources of contested states, often lead to the outsourcing of some of the usual foreign policy functions and staffing functions (Berg & Vits 2018: 395-396), Transnistria’s foreign policy is mostly implemented through its own institutions.

For example, the vast majority of MFA officials were educated at the Pridnestrovian State University, which offers bachelor and master’s degrees in international relations (communication with a former Official from MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Additionally, the MFA of Transnistria founded the Council of Young Diplomats, whose members are the potential candidates for vacant posts at the MFA PMR (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

The main purpose of this Council is to train professionals specialising in international affairs and to develop their professional qualities (MFA PMR 2012a).

Still, the Council also includes a possibility for upgrading the participants’ skills further in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and the Transnistria MFA staff annually undergoes internships at the Diplomatic Academy of Russia as well as the MFA of Russian Federation (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Overall, it could be said that Transnistria partially relies on the expertise of some Russian institutions to train their diplomats.

This is linked to one of the academic debates relating to unrecognized countries - their dependence on patron states and the negative impacts it is likely to have on the unrecognized country’ autonomy.

In the case of Transnistria, its economic and military dependency on Russia presents Russia with various “opportunities to influence [Transnistria] and to direct the decision-making process” (Berg & Vits 2018: 396).

This allowed Russia to influence the course of the conflict and subsequent peace-building efforts.

At the same time, Transnistria retains a separate seat at the negotiations table as an equal partner in the ‘5+2 talks’ and so “formally speaking, it cannot be said that Russia speaks on behalf of [Transnistria], at least when the peace talks are discussed” (ibid).

In addition, the Transnistria has engaged in various bilateral and multilateral relations of its own, which are not necessarily aligned with Russian interests and will be analysed in more detail in the next section.

Finally, Transnistria’s authorities have attempted to address Transnistria’s negative image abroad by creating websites in an attempt to promote their own information about Transnistria (Isachenko 2009: 96).

Although these websites no longer exist since their maintenance required a lot of money that the Transnistrian authorities needed elsewhere, most of the state bodies and institutions have websites in Russian as well as English, which provide a lot of information about Transnistria (communication with a former Official from MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Bilateral Relations of Transnistria

When compared to the other unrecognized countries in the region, Transnistria “shows the least interest in forging a wider representation network” (Berg & Vits 2018: 395).

This is; however, mostly limited to the establishment of official representations, because otherwise Transnistria is “one of the most active [unrecognized countries] in foreign relations” (Shelest 2013: 1).

According to the MFA of Transnistria, it holds “regular meetings with officers of diplomatic representations, delegations of foreign countries and international organizations including the UN and the OSCE” (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

For instance, during just one month (April 2019), the MFA of Transnistria has hosted representatives from: South Ossetia, Lithuania, Rossotrudnichestvo (the federal agency of the Commonwealth of Independent States), and Russia (MFA PMR 2019c).

Despite the fact that these visits as well as the visits of Transnistria’s delegations abroad are often carried out unofficially, they enjoy a great deal of publicity (including pictures with flags and summaries of what was discussed at the meetings) within Transnistria (Shelest 2013: 2).

Moreover, by 2009 representative offices of the Treansnistria were opened in Moscow, Kiev, Sukhum (Abkhazia), and Tskhnival (South Ossetia); however, in January 2012 the representations in Russia and Ukraine had to be closed down due to the expenses (Shelest 2013: 2).

A new representative office was nonetheless opened in Moscow in January 2019, which mainly aims to assist Pridnestrovian (Transnistrian) citizens in Russia, but it also helps in maintaining direct contacts with Russian authorities (communication with an Official from the MFA of Transnistria, 14 June 2019).

Finally, the representations in Moscow and Sukhum (Sukhumi) have their own websites, which among other things include recent news and events involving these representations as well as some information about Transnistria and the representations themselves.

The MFA of Transnistria also plans to open official representations in Brussels and Kiev (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019), these cities were likely chosen since they are of importance to Transnistria, yet so far neither Ukraine nor the EU expressed support regarding the establishment of these representations (communication with a former Official from MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Transnistria has traditionally enjoyed close relations with Ukraine, therefore an office in Kiev might serve as a platform for developing further relations with Ukraine.

Brussels, on the other hand, is the host of several EU institutions as well as many representations from foreign states and international organisations, thus Transnistria would be able to interact with a wider network of actors than in other locations.

Furthermore, some scholars argue that EU itself can shape positions of states (especially of its members and aspiring members) on recognition, therefore lobbying the EU institutions could influence a wider network of countries than engaging with them on an individual basis (Ker-Lindsay 2012; Newman and Visoka 2018).

In its turn, Tiraspol is a host to one of the offices of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, an on-site point of consular service of the Russian Federation to Moldova and the official missions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

The presence of these offices and representations not only provides an opportunity for closer cooperation among the various actors, but it also directly demonstrates the capacity of Transnistria to enter into relations with other states (although predominantly unrecognized countries themselves).

Besides, Transnistria’s foreign office maintains contacts with embassies of foreign countries and representations of international organisations that are located in Chisinau (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Transnistria has traditionally kept close economic, social, cultural, and political ties with the local administrations in the Odessa and Vinnytsia regions in Ukraine.

Thanks to these ties, the local administrations would help Transnistria “to lobby central political institutions, including ministries and the presidential administration in Kiev” (ICG 2004: 16).

For instance, when the new Moldovan customs stamps were introduced essentially blocking Transnistria’s trade with the outside world, the authorities in Odessa and Vinnytsia played a key role in persuading the central Ukrainian authorities to provide relief for Transnistria (ibid).

Nevertheless, Transnistria’s relations with the Ukrainian regions “slowed down” as a consequence of the 2014 Ukrainian conflict, for which Transnistria tried to compensate by strengthening its cooperation (economic, cultural and humanitarian) with regions in the Russian Federation - e.g. Moscow and Bryansk regions (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

The cooperation with the Russian regions mainly involves exchange of delegations and maintaining contacts on intergovernmental and inter-agency level (ibid).

Finally, Transnistria has also maintained some contacts within Cuba, Venezuela and Gagauzia, but these interactions were mainly focused on cultural exchange and to a lesser extent economic cooperation (communication with a former Official from MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

Apart from the engagement with sub-state actors, since 2012 Transnistria has also employed another diplomatic tool - the ‘Order of Friendship’ (OoF).

The OoF is a state award bestowed primarily upon foreigners “for special services in strengthening peace, friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding between peoples’” (President of PMR 2012).

According to Pacher’s (2019: 2) study, OoF is used to co-opt individual recipients that control considerable resources that could be channelled towards Transnistria, “into relational ties by conferring honour upon them for their past deeds.”

The bestowal of the awards itself not only honours the recipient but the accompanying grand ceremonies signal respect and create expectations of reciprocity (Pacher 2019: 8).

Also, reporting these award ceremonies publicly through photographs, videos and the mass media in general also captures the “symbolic togetherness of [... Transnistria] with foreign elites” (Pacher 2019: 9).

Yet another important aspect that can be concluded from Transnistria’s strategic use of the OoF is that the foreign policy of Transnistria goes well beyond its patron state (Russia), although Russia still remains the most important aspect of its foreign policy.

This is clearly shown by the fact that 46% of the recipients are from Russia, then South Ossetia (21%), Abkhazia (13%), and the Catholic Church (8%); with the rest being from Transnistria (17%) (idem: 14).

Finally, although Ukraine has traditionally been one of the informal supporters of Transnistria, there is no Ukrainian recipient, which according to Pacher (2019: 22) could be caused by increasingly worsening of Russian-Ukrainian relations at the time of the establishment of the OoF.

Multilateral Relations of Transnistria

The multilateral relations of Transnistria are mostly consists of two dimensions, the first one being the ‘5+2’ talks of the peace negotiations, where Transnistria is an “internationally recognized side of the Pridnestrovian settlement process” and can therefore take part in the development of settlement mechanisms, make proposals and negotiate with Moldovan counterparts (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019).

The other dimension of Transnistria’s multilateral relations are the interactions with other unrecognized countries through their own international organisations.

Yet, Transnistria also tries to participate in various international conferences and events, since they not only provide a good platform for trying to convince the participants of Transnistria’s claim to independence but also widening Transnistria’s network of contacts.

For instance, during the last couple of years representatives from Transnistria have spoken at the UN as well as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe both of which provide a great opportunity for networking as well as presenting Transnistria’s cause to a large audience (ibid).

The creation of their own international organisations allows them to “cooperate fruitfully in number of fields” (MFA PMR 2012c).

These fields include sports, education, art, human rights, trade, science, and culture (MFA PMR 2019b). Within the framework of these international organisations, the interactions between these entities “neatly copy the principles and practices of diplomacy” (Berg & Vits 2018: 395).

An example would be CONIFA (The Confederation of Independent Football Associations), where teams “representing nations, minorities, isolated dependencies or cultural regions” are able to participate in friendly matches, tournaments as well as their own European Football Cups, or the CONIFA World Cup (CONIFA 2017a).

Transnistria is one of CONIFA’s 47 members yet “until today the Transnistrian national team did not play any international matches but is eager to start playing very soon” (CONIFA 2017b).

The lack of participation might be partially explained by the inclusion of Transnistria’s main football club - FC Sheriff Tiraspol; in the Moldovan football league, which is atypical for unrecognized countries (Berg & Vits 2018: 401).

The key international organisation established by contested states in 1992 was called the ‘Union of Unrecognised States’. Besides the four post-Soviet unrecognized countries, it also included Republika Srpska, and Serb Krajina (both of which ceased to exist in 1995).

Still, the organisation exists more on paper than in reality, since “their cooperation is limited to declarations and statements which confirm continuous support to their policies but lack any real substance” (Berg & Vits 2018: 402).

In 2000, the four post-Soviet states attempted to renew the organisation by establishing a permanent coordinating body - The Council of Foreign Ministers, as well as an expert advisory board that was responsible for preparatory work for meetings, which were to be held at least twice a year.

Although a number of meetings was held within the framework of the ‘Union of Unrecognised states’, it could be argued that it resembled a “forum rather than a real institution” (Shelest 2013: 2).

In 2006 the leaders of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia signed an additional ‘Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance,’ through which they created a ‘Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations’ (MFA PMR 2012c).

One of the main advantages of the Community was that it enabled them to collectively promote their interests in the international arena (communication with an Official from the MFA PMR, 14 June 2019), hence providing the opportunity for mutual assistance by not only having more resources (through pooling them together) but also having a stronger voice internationally.

Among the main objectives of the Community was increased cooperation in political, economic, environmental, humanitarian, and cultural fields; some of the specific aspirations included the creation of joint peacekeeping forces or joint social programs (ibid).

These increased ambitions; however, did not translate into significantly heightened relations among the contested states, since Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) did not participate in it at all and with the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia in 2008 the community practically ceased to exist.


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