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Transdnestrian conflict solution — a new stage

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March 19, 2003
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New political circumstances

Albeit a month already passed since the President made public his initiative on settling the Transdnistrian conflict via developing a new Constitution jointly with Tiraspol administration, the situation is still quite fuzzy. One thing is for sure, Moldovan authorities are willing to convert the country into a federation, whereas Transdnistrian side to accept the idea in principle. And although, OSCE, EU and US have intensified their diplomatic efforts in this respect, the outlines of the would-be federation are rather vague.

A change is to be noticed in the style of the media coverage as well, they tend to tailor their forecasts and comments to the latest developments and their likely impact on the conflict resolution.

Let us consider now the latest developments. It has been repeatedly pointed that this sudden interest in Transdnistrian conflict has been determined in the first place by the external environment, namely EU and NATO enlargement. One may say that Transdnistria’s turn has come to take the center stage and be in the spotlight of superpowers, i.e. UE and US. Western bureaucratic machinery functions in such a manner as center stage matters are seriously dealt with until an acceptable solution is reached.

From this perspective, the recently released document “Wider Europe — Neighborhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbors” of the European Commission opens new perspectives for the Republic of Moldova. Besides an outline of the EU polices towards neighborhood countries the document also includes a chapter on “Greater EU Political Involvement in Conflict Prevention and Crisis Management”. The chapter points that EU should take a more active role to facilitate the settlement of dispute over Transdnistria and engage in post-conflict internal security arrangements. The document reads that those actions are to be undertaken “in support of the efforts of OSCE and other mediators”.

Interestingly enough, another document, namely EU decision on banning Tiraspol leaders’ access to EU, was made public on February 27, 2003. Greece, currently holding EU Presidency announced that Transdnistria leadership, a total of 17 persons are banned from entering EU and US due to their “permanent obstructionism and refusal to work towards improving the current situation, thus thwarting negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol”.

Sanctions impact

Apparently, the event has taken Moldovan authorities by surprise, as it took them quite a while to react and endorse EU and US stance. On the contrary, Tiraspol authorities had an immediate, self-defense reaction, although not quite appropriate. Firstly, on March 1, 2003 they appealed to the Russian Embassy to the Republic of Moldova for help. The funny thing is that although signed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Transdnistria (pretending to be an independent state) the letter goes on explaining that the aforesaid persons are the citizens of the Russia Federation, consequently the Embassy Of Russian Federation should defend their rights.

Secondly, the funny thing is Transdnistrian authorities accused UE of applying “double standards” on the grounds that on the one hand they allow “Chechen terrorists’ access on the soil of EU”, and on the other ban Transdnistrians’ access. This time Transdnistrian authorities really blundered, when they couldn’t make their mind whether to speak up as leaders of an independent state (Transdnestria), or as citizens of Russia. During the last 10 years Transdnistrians have skillfully exploited “multiple personality syndrome”.

Needless to say, Tiraspol leaders compare Transdnistrian and Chechen conflict, however only to the extent it is suitable to them. However, others may draw those parallels to the end so as to clarify who is after all resorting to “double standards”. EU is indeed very consistent in its policies, namely insisting on political resolution of the conflicts. There was no trial on Chechen leaders and their war crimes have still to be proven, however they are not allowed to take part in the political dialogue with Russian authorities. The latter prefer, instead, to resort to force and to cooperate with the Chechen groups loyal to them.

On the other hand, the case of Transdnistria is totally different, i.e. the breakaway leaders are sanctioned for obstructing the negotiations with Moldovan authorities, that are endorsed by the mediator and guarantor countries.

It was supposed that under panic, Transdnistrian authorities forgot that their appeals to Russia might not only lead to confusions and misinterpretations but also may tarnish the image of the guarantor country itself. For one thing, Russian press has recently followed the issue of “double standards” from a totally different perspective, i.e. Russia was fighting secessionism on its own territory, while it encouraged it in Moldova and Georgia. There is another reason why it was dangerous to compare Transdnistria and Chechnya, Council of Europe is considering establishing a War Crime Tribunal on Chechnya. Although it is not clear yet if this would really happen, Russians still have enough reasons to worry. Furthermore, 4 judges of the European Court for Human Rights are on a visit in Chisinau to determine, among others, what was Russian Army’s involvement in the 1992 Transdnistrian military conflict. This is another reason why the comparison with Chechnya was inappropriate.

Russian authorities had a reserved but adequate reaction. In an attempt to preserve their influence on the breakaway region, official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Aleksandr Iakovenko, stated “Russia pleads for handling very carefully the ban for Transdnistrian leaders’ travel to EU”. This rather diplomatic wording was aimed firstly to defend Russian citizens who established a breakaway regime on the soil of the Republic of Moldova and secondly to warn the guarantor countries on the pitfalls of such decisions, in particular over obstruction of the negotiation process.

Noteworthy, Ukrainian authorities endorsed the ban on Transdnistrian leaders’ travel to EU and US. Furthermore, under the pressure of the EU, now they are willing to recognize and observe customs requirements of the Republic of Moldova, under which Transdnistrian goods would cross the Ukrainian border only if bearing the customs seal of the Republic of Moldova. If this happens, Transdnistria would loose the main vantage in claiming an equal status to the Republic of Moldova, or its reason d’etre as an independent state.

Tiraspol’s diplomatic victories

Albeit the conjuncture became more favorable to Chisinau, Tiraspol leaders have proven on numerous occasions that they have numerous diplomatic resources to their asset and are able to covert them into propagandistic achievements. Since OSCE made public its federalization plan, the model of the federation to be chosen has been at issue, as have been the prerogatives of the center and its subjects. So far Tiraspol leaders have managed to get ahead of Moldovan side by convincing guarantor countries and OSCE to sign draft agreements suitable for them only. Later on they announced that “the entire international community endorses resolution of the Transdnistrian conflict, except for the obstructionist Chisinau”.

This was the case on December 5, 2002 on the eve of Porto Summit, when Transdnistrian authorities, together with OSCE and guarantor countries signed draft Agreement on the so-called “contractual federation”. Another example is the Protocol on the mechanism of working out and adopting the Constitution of the federative state released on February 28. Again guarantor countries and OSCE endorsed the document, which Chisinau refused to sign. Needless to say there is no mention in the Protocol of the draft Agreement developed by President Voronin, an alternative to the Protocol. Moreover, clear recommendations from the President Voronin’s Agreement have been replaced by very loose and vague ones in the Transdnistrian Protocol. This was probably done to enable Transdnistrian side to better negotiate the principle of “equality of the parties”, which it has been promoting. For instance, under the Transdnistrian Protocol the Constitutional Commission to be established would start its activity by defining some principles already provided for in the Chisinau’s Agreement. Again, the reason for these changes might be to break the deadlines set by Moldovan authorities for settling the conflict, namely by the next parliamentary elections. Good thinking from Transdnistrian side, as being in a shortage of time Moldovan authorities would be more willing to make significant concessions.

It is worth mentioning that mediators stated on numerous occasions they would endorse any proposal both parties would agree with. Having said that it is not clear why OSCE and guarantor countries endorse documents not signed by Moldova. For instance guarantor countries and OSCE refrained from signing the draft Agreement worked out by Moldovan authorities two weeks earlier, although this document was apparently chosen as a basis for future negotiations. Obviously, Moldovan diplomacy has failed to convince mediators to sign the Agreement launched by President Voronin. To achieve a balance, Moldovan diplomats may want to pursue mediators to endorse only the documents already signed by the Republic of Moldova, or those signed by both parties to the conflict.

The limits of the compromise

Under given circumstances new grounds for compromise are being sought. Chisinau could not afford to be too optimistic, even if the recent developments seem to be on its side. And this because Republic of Moldova still heavily relies on Russia’s energy and distribution markets, which in the long run makes Chisinau politically dependent.

Albeit OSCE draft Agreement of July 3, 2002 and President Voronin Agreement released on February 14 outline the principles for edifying a federative state, the principles of negotiation are still unclear. Transdnistrian leaders continue to insist on a “contractual federation” based on the “equality of the parties” stipulated in the Memorandum of May 8, 1997.

Meanwhile, EU and US decision to ban Transdnistria’s leaders travel as well as many decisions to follow on the export of goods indicate that the parties are not equal. Furthermore, it is for the first time that sanctions have been applied to Tiraspol and they actually proved to be effective in determining Tiraspol to make concessions, in particular regarding the withdrawal of the Russian munitions from the region. One may say, this is an expression of goodwill from Tiraspol authorities, an attempt to avoid other sanctions in the future. In fact they stated that the sanctions were nothing but “inertia effect” from the time negotiations were at a deadlock. However, it is clear now that Chisinau does not object such inertia effects.

Moldovan authorities may want to clarify what other sanctions could be imposed on Tiraspol and to what extent they would determine further concessions, however so as not to affect the negotiations or displease Russia. In fact during his last meeting with President Voronin, Vladimir Putin insisted on granting Transdnistria a “reliably guaranteed status”. This is a rather broad scope, but trespassing it would cause considerable economic problems to Chisinau. That is why, in the negotiations that have resumed this week all these grounds would be tried out.

According to some experts, the next sanction might be “freezing personal bank accounts” of the Tiraspol leaders. In fact, nobody knows if such accounts really exist. Last year Transdnistrian press reported that the highest official’s salary amounts to $150. However the incident in Vienna airport, when Igor Smirnov was detained for several hours leads us to idea that after all, Transdnistrian leaders have an interest in travelling to the West.

Indeed these are just speculations aimed to prove that behind the pretended modesty displayed by Transdnistrian authorities lie their obscure economic interests. Undermining those interests might determine Tiraspol leaders to give up their hopes on the regime that they had established.

If we were to assess the opportunities and risks in the conflict settlement, we would find out that they are balanced. Indeed, the changes in EU policies towards neighborhood countries may provide a good opportunity for the Republic of Moldova to make public its stance and actually impose it, although it was previously ignored by the guarantor countries mainly preoccupied with their own interests. Having said that, Moldova may count that guarantor countries would agree on granting Transdnistria the prerogatives ranging between those Crimea enjoys within Ukraine and those of Russian Federation subjects. Experts claim that the efficiency of one model or another may be tested only when applied in practice. However the guarantor countries should not insist on models they themselves refrain from using.

In this respect the proposal of the Russian Ambassador to Moldova seems rather interesting, namely working out the federative Constitution of the Republic of Moldova based on the Constitution of Chechnya, especially as far the citizenship of the federation subject is concerned. Nevertheless, this proposal might work only when the Constitution of the federation subject, i.e. Transdnistria, would be developed. As for the federative Constitution of the Republic of Moldova it has to include the same basic principles the Russian Federation Constitution does. This refers in particular to vertical structure of the law enforcement structures (Justice, Prosecutor Office etc), army, finance, customs, etc. In fact draft Agreement developed by President Voronin provides for all this. As for the citizenship, Article 2 of the Russian Federation should be referred to, providing that Russian citizenship is “unitary and equal”. Consequently, if we are to rely on Russian experience than provisions from both federal and federation subjects legislation should be applied accordingly in the case of Moldova.

Going back to the risks, they are considerable as well. Even if the “diplomatic and economic blockade” of Tiraspol regime was to succeed, Russian authorities have already pledged to recompense Transdnistria for not obstructing its munitions withdrawal from the region. This compensation might be sufficient for keeping alive Tiraspol regime up until Chisinau authorities would run short of time, on the eve of parliamentary elections. Furthermore, one may not rule out that economic pressure would be exercised on Chisinau as well, so as to determine it to make concessions as far as the “reliable guaranteed status” for Transdnistria is concerned.

One way or another, future developments in the upcoming months would be rather turbulent.

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