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The reason for “freezing” the Transnistrian conflict

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Maxim Kuzovlev / April 15, 2009
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“Cut short your hope;
bad, the time passeth as we talk”

The conflict in the Transnistrian area has kept on for about 20 years. During this term, the conflict has passed through a series of stages — from its “hot stage” (military actions in 1991–1992) to the present status quo. A new generation has grown up all these years, which does not know the Soviet times and has lived in the actually divided state.

By the way, after the active stage, the parties did not sign a final peace agreement; there is only the Cease-Fire Accord of July 26, 1992.

The other numerous documents signed by Tiraspol and Chisinau mostly refer to the economic sector. Most of those documents do not work, as their provisions have power on paper only. Both conflict sides display numerous claims and accusations, but, for the moment, none of them is ready, or, at least, willing to unfreeze this situation, being firm that any cessation would mean marring its own interests.

What would be the reason that the conflict remains unsettled? In the opinion of a number of Western experts, out of all the frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space, the Transnistrian conflict is the simplest in terms of settlement. But its maintenance for such a long period can serve as a very serious reason to ponder and understand how it comes that the simplest conflict in the post-Soviet space to solve cannot be settled either harder or easier.

This matter requires a profound and serious approach, but also a detailed analysis of all the causes and collisions of this conflict. Apparently, if there is a need, such an analysis can be made, below we however want to present our view, our conclusions, which practically are at hand and can’t help being noticed.

During its existence, the conflict itself was subjected to transformation. Like a living being, the conflict has developed and changed. Figuratively speaking, it would be like a layer cake now. Or, different interests of different countries interfere in this area, and, first of all, the ones of the Russian Federation. Russia itself, more exactly, its governances have had a number of views on Transnistria. During Yeltsin’s office, Russia tried to maintain its influence in the region first, it used to get actively involved in the processes running in Transnistria, it had a numerous military contingent in this area, however it changed its stance in time and started to actively withdraw the troops. By the end of Yeltsin’s presidential mandate, those processes slowed down, there remained 1,300 Russian military in the area, plus a battalion of peace-keepers, Russia started to withdraw but the armament.

Later, Russia’s presence in the area gained momentum. Especially after the failure (not signing) of the “Kozak Memo” in November 2003, the Moldovan-Russian relationships worsened sharply, the Russian Federation started to get actively involved din the area, especially economically, privatizing key industrial facilities, practically setting its control over the gas pipe leading to the Balkans. Meanwhile, Russia started to strengthen its positions on the international arena, turning from a debtor country to a donor country. The Transnistrian area started to be used in the big political games. For instance let’s remember when there emerged the issue of granting the Kosovo province independence; Russia’s position was intensely negative, as it had been very predictable. In case of recognizing Kosovo’s independence, Russia reserved the right to recognize the unrecognized state entities within the ex-Soviet space, including Transnistria. In the long run, it did not recognize Transnistria, limiting itself to recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and of Abkhazia. We could however be certain that Transnistria’s role as a small entity claimed for Russia’s abuses will keep on for a long while. At the same time, Russia conditions the total retreat of its troops from Transnistria’s territory by “the final settlement of the Transnistrian issue in a manner acceptable for both sides in conflict.”

There are some 100,000 Russian citizens living in the area, a large number of local population works in Russia. Most of the inhabitants are Russian-speakers. All the official correspondence, all the documents in Transnistrian region area are written in Russian (although Moldovan and Ukrainian are also official languages as Russian.)

“The national problem”, which served as a catalyst for the processes of the late 80s — early 90s, returns in the news now and then. It’s not a secret that most of the population from the villages close to the territory controlled by Moldova have a rather reserved attitude, and sometimes rather negative towards the Transnistrian authorities. But our view is that, as the time has passed, the language issue is not the most significant. As always, the key issue has become the economic or political-economic profit.

Some believe that the conflict has turned into a business project. They say some (first of all, the present Transnistrian administration and the most important business entity in the area) lead a well-to-do life. The situation is very convenient for them, they are “on the wave” and, in fact, they do not have any obvious stimulus to resort to cardinal solutions.

The conflict took shape as the USSR was dismantling. Now the realities are different, as well as the relations are. Meanwhile, several economic-political elites have changed in Moldova, and the same has happened in the Transnistrian area.

Only a single thing has remained steady, we can state this fact as a finding. At any talks “on the final settlement of the conflict” the Moldovan side guides itself by the principle “one step forward, two steps backwards.” A permanent change of conditions, a continual state of “false bottom”, “stable instability.” All the negotiators have got accustomed to that, plus the participants, which, by changing the members, do not modify the traditions.

There is one more interesting point. The Transnistrian conflict has not been a priority already for Moldova for a decade. In general, all have put up with it, while the negotiating process is sporadically resumed because of reasons objective and subjective. Moldova cannot live without this conflict, for the time being it cannot even imagine such an existence. In all the spheres of life, including the economic sector. A unique situation has been keeping on for a second decade: two customs spaces within the same country. And both Chisinau and Tiraspol know to capitalize on this unique situation.

The Transnistrian conflict is often being used by both sides as a scarecrow. The Moldovan officials keep complaining they cannot steer the Moldovan ship because of the Transnistrian breech, while the Tiraspol administration complains of being viewed as part of the Moldovan ship.

First of all, in terms of governance, both sides exist on the principle “it’s good for me when it’s bad for you” and none of them is ready to get closer. The steady calls on the greats of the time- the EU, Russia, the USA — mean nothing but attempts to draw enhanced attention to oneself and to draw them to one’s side. Or, all these appeals do is to split the sides farther, and consequently there emerges a situation when not the conflict sides are to deal with the problem, but the greats of the time, who have enough problems of their own. Nobody shoots, the people rub along somehow, no big reserves of natural gas and crude oil have been discovered, there is certain stability, a balance of interests, so everything is perfect, that is let it be how it is. At this moment, neither the EU, nor Russia, nor the USA has a clear and weighed scenario concerning the Transnistria area. All have different wishes, although stating a joint goal — reintegrating the country.

Is Transnistria going to follow the fate of Northern Cyprus recognized only by Turkey and existing only due to Turkey? In the Transnistria variant, this would mean only Russia recognizes this area and its existence is insured also on Russia’s account. Such a scenario is not deemed as possible in a near future. Transnistria has no common border with Russia, Ukraine displays a special stance in relation to Transnistria, that is “no friend, no foe,” Moscow would not like to depend on Kyiv’s moods (hypothetic closures of borders, new customs rules, etc.) in case Russia recognizes Transnistria.

The Moldovan elite are not pining for Transnistria now, since it stringently needs to clarify its own problems in Chisinau. Thus, there emerges a new time segment when everybody is not aching, so it means a gap even bigger. How many segments of this kind are to follow?

Perhaps Transnistria can follow Montenegro’s fate, which was nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, while it actually was an independent state entity from 1796 to 1878. Montenegro’s independence was recognized as a consequence of a controversy (the Russian-Turkish war from 1877–1878) between the greats of the time, that was the Russian and the Ottoman Empires.

Certainly, the times are different now. It’s only the algorithm of the behavior of the ruling elites that has always been extremely predictable.

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