Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 73

Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov (L) and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (R)

The first meeting since 2001 between Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transnistrian “president” Igor Smirnov (see EDM, April 168) marked the resumption of direct negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol after a seven-year hiatus. This direct channel might lead to a quick resumption of the international 5+2 negotiations (Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, the United States, the European Union, Chisinau, and Tiraspol) and resolution of the conflict within the year, as Chisinau and its Western partners hope.

But the Chisinau-Tiraspol negotiating process could also become a long detour and even diversion from the international 5+2 process, as Moscow and Tiraspol probably calculate. The genesis of Voronin’s and Smirnov’s April 11 meeting to relaunch direct negotiations is instructive in this regard. The Kremlin initiated it as part of its attempts to shift the discussions away from Moldova’s “package” of proposals for the political resolution of the conflict. The package is a sound one, withholding any significant concessions to Moscow or Tiraspol, while putting an onus on Moscow to respond positively and engage in the 5+2 format. Moscow is unwilling to do either and equally unwilling to be seen as an outright spoiler. It claims to be considering negotiations on the package, while at the same time introducing preconditions to such negotiations.

International recognition of Moldova’s neutrality and resumption of the Voronin-Smirnov negotiations are the latest Russian preconditions, by far the most onerous to date. Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Voronin during their January 21 meeting in Moscow to seek that international recognition, clearly an insuperable task. At a February 22 meeting with Voronin during the final gathering of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Moscow, Putin asked Voronin to start negotiations with Smirnov as a prerequisite to Russia engaging in 5+2 negotiations on the package. Such tactics can delay the 5+2 negotiations and a political settlement of the conflict for as long as Moscow deems it expedient.

The Kremlin’s latest demand particularly humiliates Voronin. The Moldovan president had naively entered into negotiations with Smirnov in 2001, only to be confronted with brazen demands for Moldovan recognition of Transnistria’s de facto secession under Russian protection. For the next seven years, Chisinau and Voronin himself characterized Smirnov and his regime as a hub of organized crime and political usurpers. Voronin staked all his hopes on working directly with Putin to remove Smirnov from Tiraspol and facilitate a political settlement. Instead, Putin is now sending Voronin back to Smirnov, who has stonewalled since 1990 under Moscow’s instructions and is fully capable of continuing to do so, outwaiting Voronin’s final year in office, unless Voronin finally caves in on the settlement terms.

Moscow and Tiraspol are apparently using the Chisinau-Tiraspol process to restore a basic negotiating principle from the 1990s: a spurious “equality” of Chisinau and Tiraspol as “sides to the conflict” and “negotiating parties.” Built by Moscow into the negotiations, this principle predetermines only two possible results: either a deadlock (“frozen conflict”) or Chisinau and Tiraspol sharing power in a dysfunctional Moldovan quasi-state.

As foretaste of a restored “equality,” Moscow and Tiraspol orchestrated a demeaning ritual for Voronin and Moldova in connection with the April 11 meeting. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov arranged for Voronin to telephone Smirnov and solicit a meeting. As Smirnov promptly revealed (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 9), Voronin duly took this step on April 7, proposing a venue in Chisinau-controlled territory; but Smirnov imposed a venue in Tiraspol-controlled Bendery. Tiraspol also forced Chisinau to accept demeaning protocol arrangements: Smirnov used one of his regime’s administrative buildings to “receive” Voronin, with “equal” Moldovan and Transnistrian flags and state symbols displayed for the occasion. Apparently by prior coordination with Tiraspol, Chisinau’s official communiqué rather flatteringly referred to Smirnov for the first time as “rukovoditel” of Transnistria. Aside from the latter detail, the official media in Chisinau tried to hide those concessions, but Tiraspol publicized them (Olvia Press, Moldpres, April 7, 11).

In the meeting, Smirnov stunned Voronin with a draft treaty on “resolving” the conflict through Moldovan recognition of Transnistria’s secession with Russian troops in place (see EDM, April 16). The Moldovan presidency kept mum about this setback, apparently expecting Tiraspol to treat this document with due diplomatic discretion. Tiraspol, however, promptly made the document public.

No joint communiqué came out of the Voronin-Smirnov meeting, because at this stage their respective goals remain mutually incompatible, even tactically, let alone strategically. Voronin sought to “bring our positions closer, so that we can restart the 5+2 negotiations,” and discuss “confidence-building measures to that end,” according to his concluding remarks. Smirnov, however, defined his aims as handing over his draft treaty and restarting a “dialogue on an equal basis between the two bodies of state power, Transnistria and Moldova. We are returning to the equality of sides in the negotiating process.” His chief negotiator (“foreign minister”) Valery Litskay cautioned, “It is premature to speak about restarting the 5+2 negotiations on a political settlement. There will be more Chisinau-Tiraspol meetings; we have a lot of things to work on” (Moldovan Television, Interfax, April 11, 12).

The Moldovan presidency and government have developed two sets of “confidence building measures” on the assumption that these can facilitate the resumption of political negotiations. One set is socioeconomic, including road building and other infrastructure projects, partly funded by the EU, to reconnect the two banks of the Nistru River. The other set involves mutual reductions of military forces, leading gradually to disarmament and demilitarization on both banks.

Voronin has proposed these two sets of measures several times since 2001, most recently and in the most developed form in the autumn of 2007. At that point, his confidence-building measures were not regarded as a temporary substitute for political negotiations and their necessary precursor. Now, however, they seem to be so regarded by Chisinau and its Western partners, because Moscow and Tiraspol are evading political negotiations. Chisinau has created eight working groups on the confidence-building measures and it hopes to hold talks with Tiraspol in joint groups.

His painful experience in the meeting with Smirnov notwithstanding, Voronin has credited Russia and Putin personally with facilitating that meeting and paving the way for resumption of the 5+2 format (NIT Television cited by Infotag, April 14).

Chisinau now hopes to start the negotiations on confidence-building measures with Tiraspol. It seems that Moscow has succeeded in introducing yet another preliminary process to the ever-elusive political negotiations. Moscow is playing for time while Voronin is running out of it.