Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 153

On August 8 in Tiraspol, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov held their fourth negotiating session in the five months since Voronin took office in Chisinau as president. The experience of the first three rounds had led Voronin to declare, before the fourth one, that negotiations with Smirnov are futile, that a political settlement is impossible as long as Smirnov is in control in Transdniester and that it is high time for Moldova and the international community to use economic levers to resolve the political situation in Transdniester.

Their fourth meeting has confirmed Voronin’s assessment. Smirnov refused, as he had at previous meetings, any serious discussion either on military and security issues or on Transdniester’s political status. That refusal forced the discussions again into secondary and unproductive directions. With that, Tiraspol continues defying the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose Chisinau mission had insisted that this round at long last deal substantively with Transdniester’s political status.

The status issue is the core of any settlement, but Tiraspol to all intents and purposes excludes that issue from the political negotiations, relegating it to expert groups instead, and making sure that Transdniester’s experts block the negotiations at that level. The tactic mirrors that used by Abkhazia in the negotiations with Georgia’s central government. These tactics have been paying off for years in both cases, mainly owing to Russia’s destructive role in each of the two mediating groups and its military muscle in either region. Seemingly wasting time, Transdniester and Abkhazia as well as Moscow gain time. Undoubtedly, Tiraspol and Sukhumi have been comparing notes on their negotiating techniques, most recently at the secessionist regions’ quadripartite consultative meetings in Tiraspol and Stepanakert.

The August 8 negotiations in Tiraspol resulted in three “protocol decisions,” which add to the four “protocol agreements” Voronin and Smirnov concluded on May 16. Those have remained dead letters or were nixed by Tiraspol afterward–for example, by introducing “Transdniester republic citizens’ passports.” The term “protocol agreements” or “protocol decisions,” adapted from Russian bureaucratic parlance, signifies nonbinding documents that can range from records of negotiation (minutes) to conditional statements of intent, subject to further consideration both internally by either party and among the parties. Such “protocol” documents are typically used as substitutes for real agreements, in order to keep the “process” going.

Unlike the first set of four documents, the latter three have not immediately been detailed for the public. These three deal, respectively, with military confidence-building measures, the procedure of bringing earlier agreements into effect and ecological protection of the Dniester River. The military document may prove useful if it leads to implementation of Voronin’s recent force reduction and military unification proposals. Tiraspol’s consent, however, seems unlikely after Smirnov rejected those proposals just before the Tiraspol meeting.

The document on bringing earlier agreements into force will cause concern until made public in order to defuse that concern. Its heading suggests that Tiraspol hopes to use it for its perennial purpose of bringing the 1997 Moscow memorandum and similarly one-sided documents into effect. Over the years, Moscow and Tiraspol have jointly capitalized on the weaknesses of Moldovan leaders, making them sign documents that go against Moldovan state interests. Although these have usually been statements of intent, with no legal validity, and never ratified by the Moldovan parliament, Moscow and especially Tiraspol have held the negotiations with Chisinau hostage to its bringing such documents into effect.

The Moscow memorandum of 1997, bearing the seal of then-foreign affairs minister, now chief Russian mediator Yevgeny Primakov, envisions a “common state” of Moldova and Transdniester under Russian oversight. Primakov had the common-state blueprint officially approved by Russia’s Duma last month. Transdniester continues insisting that any political settlement with Chisinau must proceed from the Moscow memorandum. Although lacking any validity in international law, this memorandum serves Tiraspol in at least two ways: as a basis for unacceptable demands on Moldova and as a pretext for blocking the negotiations as long as Chisinau “refuses to bring signed documents into effect.”

Voronin and his chief negotiator Vasile Sturza have publicly distanced themselves from the Moscow memorandum. Unlike his noncommunist predecessors, Voronin seems to have realized from the beginning of his presidency that past documents of that type only serve to block the negotiations and to stop Moldova’s return to the ranks of self-respecting states.