The maintenance of the current situation “of bed” for two months and half comes to contradict the forecasts of some commentators who estimated in early March that the situation would be settled in less than two months. Or, certain analysts said, the new Ukrainian government created after the March 26 elections will cede and (for how many times?) will make a step backwards; or others estimated that Tiraspol will be incapable to control the costs and will have to accept the new rules of the game, being suffocated by self-blockade.
Although both viewpoints were based on pertinent arguments, the developments in the past weeks have contradicted the forecasts, prefiguring a third scenario — transformation of confrontation into a war of attrition in which Chisinau, the E.U. and the U.S. on one hand and Tiraspol and Moscow on the other hand seem to be decided to go till the end. Kiev remains part of the first camp. Paradoxically, it is the main piece de resistance without which the entire construction would collapse, as well as the weakest link on the Chisinau-West-Ukraine axis.
How irreversible is this welcome stance of the Kiev Government and how resistant it will be in time and in front of imminent internal (Party of Regions and interests of shadow economy) and external pressures (Russia)? In what measure the recent optimistic assurances of Ambassador Jacobovits that President Yushchenko will remain 100 percent devoted to the new customs regime and will not withdraw it regardless of negotiations on configuration of the new government will be confirmed? What are the main factors of risk and what could Moldova do to combat and to increase the chances to maintain Ukraine on its current positions? These are some of questions that we will try to answer below.
We will notice from the very beginning that Ukraine “plays” on the same side with Chisinau, Brussels and Washington against Russia and Tiraspol regarding the customs problem, and this is a historical premiere. The maintenance of Kiev on this line is as praiseworthy as the experience of the past several years could get us used to the ambiguity and inconsistence of our eastern neighbour regarding the border. Kiev has immediately retracted any decision in favour of Moldova on customs and border matters at least four times since 2001, making one or even more steps backwards. As for example:
As the decisions adopted under pressure of circumstances of conjuncture have the tendency to be reviewed after the change of external factors that caused them, so the attachment of Kiev for the new customs regime implemented at the border was susceptible not to resist much time after the March 26 scrutiny. Surveys have also offered reasons to anticipate such an evolution (or involution) in early March, as they indicated a governance alliance between Yushchenko and the Party of Regions of Viktor Yekhanurov, which is very critical over the new customs regime. Meantime, economic arguments have been released — millions of dollars that Ukrainian economic agents lose because the commodity flows from and to the Transnistrian region was suspended. Neither Moldova, nor the West compensates these costs.
Unquestionably, Kiev’s decision to join Chisinau, Brussels, Washington has harmed the Ukrainian interests in Transnistria on short term. And not only the economic ones. From political viewpoint, the anti-Ukraine hysteria started by Transnistrian propaganda and Russian mass media undermined Kiev’s influence on situation and processes in the region. Tiraspol and Moscow has skilfully used the information blockade of the regime of Igor Smirnov on population to create an image of enemy of the Transnistrian people to Ukraine, which “has sold itself to its American sponsors” interested to suffocate the “rebellious region”. Being obviously concerned with losing its influence and spoiling its image in Transnistria, Kiev asked Chisinau through diplomatic channels in the mid-March to intensify its efforts aimed at a better explanation of the essence of the new customs region to population and economic agents from the left bank of the Dniester river. Meantime, Kiev has prepared the ground for a possible “flexibility” of the process of registration of Transnistrian commodities. In this regard, it was proposed to award the right to the Ukrainian Customs Service to apply the Moldovan customs stamps. Although Ukraine has assured that this derogation from the December 30 Declaration will be temporary and the Moldovan customs stamps will be applied in the presence of European observers, Moldova has immediately turned down this proposal while the U.S. and the E.U. did not back it.
Ukraine did not table such ideas anymore, while the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and the head of the Kiev diplomacy have reiterated more than once Kiev’s support for an appropriate implementation of the December 30 Declaration. Even more, Kiev has categorically refused to discuss the new customs procedures at a round of consultations of mediators in Moscow on 19 April, insisting that this issue rests exclusively with its bilateral relations with Moldova. The Russian negotiator has tried at that meeting, which representatives of Chisinau and Tiraspol did not attend, to propose the resumption of the negotiation process in exchange for the comeback to the situation before March 3 regarding the customs regime. Ukraine’s support for the stance of the OSCE, the E.U. and the U.S. at that round has made some observers say that the format of that meeting was “4+1”. In this context, the appreciation of Olvia-Press that the format is “2+5”, in which five opponents (the U.S., the E.U., the OSCE, Ukraine and Moldova) play against two (Transnistria and Russia) seems to be justified as regards the new customs rules.
Truly, the standpoint of Ukraine mostly coincides with the stance of the OSCE, the U.S., the E.U. and Moldova. Thus, Ukraine regards the implementation of the Joint Declaration as an important step forward an efficient control on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and its securing, rejects the accusations of economic blockade, saying that this is a self-blockade imposed by Tiraspol in a move to destabilise the political and economic situation in the region artificially and to obstruct the positive evolution of the Transnistrian settlement process, condemns the actions of the Transnistrian region aimed to obstruct the registration of Transnistrian economic agents with the competent bodies in Chisinau, denies the existence of any premises for talks about the “humanitarian crisis”, etc.
However, how long Kiev will maintain these positions? The head of the Tiraspol foreign department, Valerii Litskai, has said more than once that the March 3 decision of the Ukrainian government is intermediary and a more serious stance may be discussed only after the creation of a new cabinet. On March 15, Litskai said that “the scenarios will be outlined after 20 May” [it means the next days and weeks]. It seems that this is the stake of Tiraspol — the wait for a Ukrainian government of coalition with the Party of Regions, which could annul the new customs regime. According to Litskai, “the joint declaration was signed by the Kiev government head; when he will be changed, his successor will have a whole mandate and all the reasons not to be influenced by commitment of his predecessor.”
However, if the optimistic scenario of Ukraine is materialised and the Joint Declaration is implemented in continuation after a new Government is created, this will not guarantee that Tiraspol will give up its standpoint soon.
A lot of things (but not all) depend on Moscow’s stance, because it is strongly “playing” in this case. The Russian Foreign Ministry criticised vehemently on 4 and 17 March 2006 the decision of Ukraine to enforce the Yekhanurov-Tarlev Declaration and asked it to give up and to restore the status quo ante (the theses of these documents have been reiterated more than once by Russian officials and diplomats). Russia was aiming among others to discredit the Yushchenko-Yekhanurov tandem before elections, as well as to strengthen its levers of economic and political control on Transnistria, in the detriment of Ukraine and Moldova.
The Kremlin has used the alleged “humanitarian catastrophe” (with chock-full markets of Transnistrian cities and villages with different food products) to “shoot two rabbits” at once. Firstly, to demonstrate to the national public opinion that it is capable to take decisive actions by organising a campaign of collection of humanitarian aid to “brothers in danger” and punishing Moldova by hardening the economic sanctions. Secondly, to prepare the ground to take over the control on few valuable economic objectives that it did not seized yet, offering credit lines for actions of important enterprises, which manage to pay salaries, but they will reimburse the “credits” in kind and for a much lower price than the real value of these companies, as the process of trading of goods is stopped.
On the other hand, Moscow’s stance allows Igor Smirnov to play his internal game and to start preparing for the December-scheduled “presidential” elections in the region. The Tiraspol leader radicalises the population of the region by artificially worsening the tension and challenging the psychosis of a “besieged fortress”, marginalising the more temperate forces. Or, this radical stance of Igor Smirnov is the only one capable to maintain him in the administration of the region. In this case, the Transnistrian leader relies on radical and chauvinistic forces from Moscow, which use the hysteria of mass media to press the Kremlin to adopt a harsher stance over Moldova. And this would be one more argument for the acting Tiraspol administration, as Moldova’s image of “enemy” has strengthened after March 3, because the worse the Moldovan-Russian relations will be, the more the positions of Smirnov in the region will be consolidated. “The leaders are not changed in times of tribulation,” this is the slogan of actions of Transnistrian propaganda makers.
This game may be successful in one case only: if Tiraspol and Moscow are able to hold the information monopoly in the region in continuation by laundering the brains of population with all kinds of untrue stories. One of them, which has come in handy very well, is that Moldova aims to seize the Transnistrian economic potential and to cover the holes in the own budget by taxing them. Another story tells the “huge difficulties” faced by economic agents based in the region while willing to get registered. The fact that a large part of the Transnistrian region believes these lies until now when a) the registration is a formality of 30 minutes and b) Transnistrian exporters must not pay any leu to the budget except for the symbolic price of 0.18% for customs procedures reveals the failure of Chisinau to “break” the information blockade in Transnistria.
The intensification and optimisation of efforts aimed to combat the propaganda of the regime of Igor Smirnov by creating some mechanisms to tell its stance to population from the eastern districts and to inform it about the real state of things on the left bank could be one of the most important directions on which Chisinau should focus its efforts.
As Tiraspol and Moscow do not show any signals that they are ready to cede at least something regarding the customs regime, the encouraging of democratisation on the left bank and allowing the residents of the region to inform themselves from alternative sources would complicate the stances of the Smirnov regime. If the distribution of forces in the new customs regime problem is now 2 (Russia, Tiraspol) and 5 (Moldova, Ukraine, the OSCE, the E.U. and the U.S), an effective democratisation of Transnistria would bring another important ally to us — the population of the region — turning the format into “2+6”.
Regarded from Chisinau, Kiev, Brussels and Washington, the benefits of the new customs regime and the entry of Transnistrian economic agents in the legal and regularised trade, which would provide them access to new markets under preferential conditions, seem to be absolutely evident. It is also obvious that the Tiraspol administration, rather than Moldova and Ukraine, has imposed the blockade on the region and led to the stop of functioning of tens of enterprises. However, these truths are not evident for common population of the region yet. Many people cannot get rid of some cliches of the Transnistrian and Russian propaganda behind the information wall built by Tiraspol.
However, the situation could change dramatically in our favour, if Moldova assisted by its friends breaks this information blockade and ensures the right of the region residents to right information. However, if some of dangerous trends revealed in the past 2.5 months are not inverted, the situation may develop dramatically against a normal customs regime and an approach to a lasting settlement of the Transnistrian conflict.