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Worsening relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol

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November 11, 2002
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In early November OSCE and guarantor countries’ experts have declared that negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol reached a deadlock. According to them, negotiations could be resumed only after the parties clarify their positions and interests in settling the conflict via federalization of the Republic of Moldova. Rather it would be more appropriate to say that since OSCE presented the draft on federalization of the Republic of Moldova, negotiations haven’t even started. Only several consultation meeting were held in August — October between the five parties. Furthermore, those meeting were accompanied by a tough propaganda war. For instance Chisinau propaganda machine for one year didn’t cease speaking about “Smirnov Mafia and criminal regime”, whereas Tiraspol about “economic blockade” and 10-th anniversary of the “Moldova’s aggression against the Transdnistrian Republic”. That is why the fact that bilateral relations are the worst since 1992, comes as no surprise. Tiraspol’s new initiative falls perfectly within OSCE’s recent call to Chisinau and Tiraspol to clarify their positions. Thus Tiraspol intends to show that it has not only military but also economic power equal to Chisinau. That is why both parties would be treated equally at the negotiation table, as provided for in 1997 Memorandum signed by Republic of Moldova President, Petru Lucinschi, and Transdnistrian Leader, Igor Smirnov.

In this respect, on November 4 Transdnistrian leader, Igor Smirnov, issued a decree on an additional 20% tax on the goods imported from the Republic of Moldova. According to Smirnov the action was nothing but “an adequate response to the economic blockade set by the Republic of Moldova” when it introduced new customs seals, as a result of its adhesion to the World Trade Organization. According to Tiraspol “economic blockade” is Chisinau’s refusal to unconditionally hand it over its customs seals, so that Tiraspol could continue its uncontrolled foreign trade.

Given the above said, the deadlock reached in negotiations was easy to foresee. That is why last summer debates in mass media were pointless. On the one hand, Moldovan authorities, failing to understand what exactly the federalization means and how could it be achieved, were keen to announce loud the success awaiting them in settling Transdnistrian conflict once OSCE had presented its federalization plan. Democratic Agrarian Party, the two Socialist parties and Ravnopravie Movement unconditionally supported authorities’ position. On the other hand, center-right forces opposed federalization. Social-Democratic parties agreed in principle to federalization, however insisted on the ways it could be achieved.

In Transdnistria, on the contrary OSCE draft wasn’t received with much enthusiasm. Only the Chief of Diplomatic Service, Valerii Litskai, expressed some optimism with regard to the federalization plan, immediately after Kiev reunion where it was first presented. Local experts pointed that Litskai had a big price to pay for this, as he was for a long time in Smirnov disfavor. Later on, Tiraspol leaders formulated a new position, totally different from that of Chisinau. Thus, the Chief of the Supreme Soviet of Tiraspol, Grigorii Marakutsa and Litskai stated they saw no difference between a federation and a confederation. For them the most acceptable variant of building a unified state is the Serbia-Montenegro model, or the way Bosnia was formed in line with the Dayton agreement.

Let’s then consider the differences. One may say in Chisinau the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Alliance agree in principle with the federalization plan. Both see federalization as a realistic scenario. Indeed, if Russia were considered to be the main strategic partner and mediator in the negotiation process, then it would have a major saying in the process. Evghenii Primakov, former Prime Minister voiced Russia’s position on the resolution of the Transdnistrian conflict: neither Moldova a unitary state, nor Transdnistria an independent state. On the other hand, another Russian official, Boris Pastuhov stated that in the settlement of the Transdnistrian conflict “Russia would withdraw from Moldova upon the withdrawal of its munitions, however it would do so in such a manner so as to stay there forever”. This in fact summarizes the framework for settling the Transdnistrian conflict. And that is exactly why Communist Party and Social-Democratic Alliance view federalization as acceptable. Domestic experts believe Communist Party lacks a clear vision on how federalization could be achieved; nevertheless it supports federalization, as it would imply a constitutional reform. The latter would allow them to keep up electoral promises on which a moratorium was set under the PACE Resolution, namely declaring Russian a state language, revising the history taught in schools, etc. However, the risks of federalization are hard to evaluate. Even if we admit that an agreement would be reached with Tiraspol on a classic federalization model, as the German one, still two extremely complicated problems would arise during the federalization process.

The first one is related to the number of the Federation subjects. Transdnistrian leaders insist on a federation formed by two subjects enjoying equal rights and equal representation in the Upper Chamber. The situation gets even more complicated as the Gagauz leaders insist that the autonomy should also be a subject of the federation, enjoying the same rights as the other two. In fact, the newly elected Bashkan (Governor) Gheorghe Tabunshcik, supported in elections by the Communist Party promised the very same thing during the electoral campaign. However, a federation formed out of three subjects based on ethnic criteria, having asymmetrical structure would be very dangerous, especially as Tiraspol and Comrat used to be strategic partners in fighting against Chisinau in 1990 — 1994. Upon federalization, those two subjects would hold 2/3 of the seats in the Upper Chamber of the Bicameral Parliament. This scenario is totally unacceptable for Chisinau.

Given the aforesaid, it’s difficult to understand how Moldovan authorities see federalization in action. In fact, President Vladimir Voronin refrained from commenting on the issue. Only the Prime-Minister Vasile Tarlev, several Communist deputies, and governmental press endorsed the federalization process, without giving further details.

Social-Democratic Alliance sees federation as formed of 7–8 subjects acting within the limits set in the OSCE draft. This would allow decentralization of power in the Republic of Moldova and would compensate for the would-be domination of Transdnistria and Gagauzia in the Upper Chamber of the Bicameral Parliament. However, this scenario runs counter to the Communist Party plans to reform administrative-territorial units. Communist Party didn’t give up the idea of restoring rayon system, depriving administrative units of economic sustainability. In such a case, rayons may just be internal units of a federation subject. This would very much complicate the structure of the federal state.

The second problem relates to the federation building procedure. It seems Chisinau prefers Republic of Moldova federation to be built according to the Russian Federation model. Namely, the center would grant additional prerogatives to the provinces, until they acquire the status of federation subjects. Under this scenario in the future federation national sovereignty would belong to all Moldovan people, not just its subjects. It is not surprising that 42 articles of the federalization draft were copied from the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

However, Tiraspol leaders do not accept the said method. They would rather prefer a federation formed by equal subjects according to the US model. For this to happen, Republic of Moldova would have to firstly recognize Transdnistria’s independence, and then the two equal subjects would conclude an agreement on founding the federation. It was Transdnistria’s supporters and lobbysts in Russia, such as Constantin Zatulin, who recommended Tiraspol this scenario. It implies that the sovereignty belongs to the subjects of the federation which choose to delegate some prerogatives to the federal center. Indeed, if the subjects were to disagree on any issue, they would withdraw the prerogatives they had delegated. That is exactly why Tiraspol leaders claim there is no difference between a federation and a confederation. This time, the scenario is unacceptable to the Republic of Moldova. If Republic of Moldova were to make the first step and recognize Transdnistria, there would be no guarantees that Transdnistria would make the second step and sign the federative agreement with the Republic of Moldova. Even if this was to happen, Transdnistria’ status as founder of the Federal Moldovan state would trigger a real revolution in the RM statehood and would tie the country forever to Russia. The said scenario would grant Transdnistria independence and entitle it to interfere in the RM internal affairs. Probably that is exactly what the Russian dignitary meant when saying that Russia should leave Moldova in such a manner so as to stay there forever. It is very unlikely that the opposition would go for such a scenario.

Going back to the recent developments we should mention that Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted rather strangely to Transdnistrian initiative to set an additional tax on goods imported from the RM. The Ministry appealed to foreign Embassies operating in Chisinau to assist them in settling this difficult situation. Needless to say, only guarantor countries could interfere. It is worth mentioning that Chisinau and Tiraspol relations reached a deadlock immediately after Smirnov’s consultations with Moscow. Furthermore, one could notice Russia’s increasing support to Transdnistria recently. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Tiraspol regime was not a criminal one, consequently it is worth negotiating with. Another example, Russia forgave Tiraspol’s $100 million debts for natural gas supplies in return for the possibility to evacuate Russian munitions from the territories Russia acknowledge as being under the sovereignty of the RM. This could only be interpreted as an aid to Transdnistria, whose annual budget amounts $80 million USD. Interestingly enough, Russia cancels Transdnistria’s $100 million debt at the time Russian forces fighting in Chechnya sue Defense Ministry to recover several millions USD in debts. Forgiving Transdnistria’s debts is very much different from the approach to Chisinau, namely the pressure exercised by Gazprom on Chisinau to regularly pay for the consumed gas. Russia’s generous gift would grant Tiraspol enough time and money to play “economic blockade” game and to procrastinate negotiation process.

One could understand Russian elite behavior. RM is of strategic importance for Russia, neither for military nor for economic reasons, but for totally different reasons. The fact is that RM is the only country in the world Russia could still beat on the military and diplomatic field. The Speaker of the Russian State Duma, Ghenadi Selezniov, who during a recent visit to Moldova recognized that Russia supported the edification of a Transdnistrian state, confirmed this fact. From this perspective RM is the perfect target for Russia’s nationalistic forces writing mockery articles about RM. They sublimate their damaged imperial complex, especially after USSR collapse and Balkans crisis when no one heard Russia’s protests and threats to help Miloshevici fight UE and US double standards. RM should be honored as it is of strategic importance for such a world power as Russia.

A similar “adequate reaction” in line with its attitude to Tiraspol regime, is to be expected from Ukraine as well. And this because Transdnistria’s goods marked by the old customs stamps are transiting Ukraine territory.

Under those circumstances, why wouldn’t Transdnistria enjoy the support of guarantor and mediator countries and set an economic blockade on the RM? Even the Chechens declares djihad to Russia, without enjoying the official support of any country. In this respect it is worth mentioning the letter of condolences sent by Transdnistrian leader Igor Smirnov to Vladimir Putin with regard to Nord-Ost tragedy, reading that “Transdnistrian people know very well what aggression and terrorism is”. However, Smirnov didn’t specify what was the difference between the Chechen separatism promoting terrorism and Transdnistrian separatism. Smirnov went beyond all the limits in his propaganda campaign. A witness to this may well be the famous journalist and supporter of Transdnistria, Alexandr Nevzorov, who in his movie “Buchet Moldavii” features fearless Cazacs from Transdnistria, who in order to show off their heroic deeds cripple the bodies of Moldovan policemen. The movie was broadcast on Russian TV, relayed on the entire CIS territory, in 2000. No one protested and no one wondered what was the difference between Transdnistrian and Chechen terrorism. It’s true, speaker of the Russian State Duma provided some insight on this. Transdnistrian breakaway regime was supported by the Russian Army, which according to a statement made by Smirnov in 1996 in the State Duma, “was under the Russian commandment during daytime, whereas during the nighttime was fighting for the ideals of Tiraspol regime”. In the separatist Chechnya, Russian Army burst in early 1995 to “reinforce constitutional order”, without being provoked to do so. No one mentions double standards here. Smirnov doesn’t even remember the provocations of the “third force”, which after Transdnistrian victory over “Moldovan aggression” totally disappeared from its territory together with “combat” Kostenco.

The case of the RM is different, as it chose such partners and mediators. For instance, facing the same problems generated by “the strategic partner” Georgia and Azerbaijan compensated the biased character by inviting other strategic allies such as US, Turkey, etc.

Under the given circumstances, opposition forces in Chisinau, such as Social-Democratic Party, have no other solution than demand the revision of the negotiation rules. However, it is very unlikely that someone would pay attention to such demands as long as RM itself cannot decide how does it wants Transdnistrian conflict settled. A similar proposal was made by the Social Liberal Party on “freezing the conflict” in order to look for new solutions and partners. Recent developments show that Transdnistrian regime gets stronger and stronger day by day. It is known for a fact that Transdnistrian administration and its supporters in Moscow strive to grant Russian citizenship to all Transdnistrian citizens, and to transfer the public estate in the property of Russia. In such a case, what’s the use of RM formal sovereignty on Transdnistria? The variant recommended by the Christian-Democratic Peoples’ Party is not to be neglected. They seem to accept the model of Serbia — Montenegro suggested by Transdnistria. Under a would-be increase of citizens’ sympathy to Romania as a result of its entry in NATO and EU, and Transdnistria’s clear orientation towards Russia and Ukraine the Communist and Christian-Democrats call for double citizenship seems logical. Accordingly, Moldova and Transdnistria relations would follow exactly the ones between Serbia and Montenegro.

In conclusion OSCE would have to wait for a while until Chisinau and Tiraspol would define their position on settling the conflict via federalization, unless a major international player would show them the right way.

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