Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 111

The U.S. State Department’s newly appointed special negotiator on Eurasian conflicts, Steven Mann, paid his first visit to Moldova on October 14-15. Mann, who has long experience with South Caucasus-Caspian energy affairs (a State Department post he continues to hold concurrently with the conflict-resolution post), is new to Moldova. Unfamiliarity might explain the envoy’s apparent, and wholly unnecessary, decision to take on board his failed predecessor’s methods.

Mann’s visit, described as a get-acquainted trip, was in fact a heavily prescriptive exercise. He urged Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin to once again accept Russia’s lead role in settling the Trans-Dniester conflict and, thus, Moldova’s fate.

Mann ignored Voronin’s almost desperate pleas since July for Western support to change the format of “five-sided” negotiations toward Moldova’s “federalization” with Trans-Dniester; a format in which Russia has four votes, Moldova one, and the West none. The envoy asked Voronin to return to those negotiations without delay. Mann implied that Moldova’s reluctance to negotiate was primarily responsible for the deadlock. He also brushed aside Moldova’s pleas for internationalization of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation. Although Chisinau has sought such changes for years, Mann claimed (as the State Department has routinely done) that the moment is not right for reconsidering the “peacekeeping” arrangement.

While granting that the existing negotiating and peacekeeping formats contain some flaws, Mann called for continuation of these formats with the argument that Russia is unwilling to accept changes. He cited the failure of a U.S. attempt to convene an international conference on Moldova in May of this year (the U.S. quickly gave up in the face of Russia’s veto). He also cited the European Union’s abandonment of its 2003 proposal for a peace-consolidation operation in Moldova; from this, Mann concluded that there are no countries willing to participate in international peacekeeping in Moldova. For an overarching argument, Mann vaguely mentioned Russian interests in the region that need to be taken into account.

Implying that the situation of the few remaining Latin-script schools in Trans-Dniester had somewhat improved, Mann used this as an argument to restart the “five-sided” negotiations. Such an argument ignores two basic facts: First, the Trans-Dniester authorities’ assault on the schools was the trigger, not the cause, of Moldova’s withdrawal from those negotiations and from “federalization” as such; Chisinau has explained the causes in detail to Washington and Brussels. Second, the issue of those last six Latin-script schools is only a small part of the overall problem of forced linguistic Russification of Trans-Dniester’s native majority by the non-native ruling minority. And even if the situation of some of these last schools improves somewhat, the Latin script will remain locked inside a few school buildings, while being banned throughout Trans-Dniester. However, Washington and Brussels persist in treating the issue as a minor distraction from the real business of “solving” the conflict in Moldova.

Mann reaffirmed U.S. support for Moldova’s goal to rid the country of Russian troops. However, that support continues to suffer from several weaknesses. First, it mainly invokes Russia’s 1999 OSCE Istanbul Commitments, which have since been largely eviscerated by Moscow, not without OSCE’s and Washington’s cooperation (lifting of deadlines, rephrasing of “obligations” into mere “intentions,” tolerance of troop and weapon transfers from official Russian forces to Russian-led secessionist forces, etc.). Five years later, therefore, Moscow openly dismisses the “1999 Istanbul” argument. The second weakness in the U.S. (and EU) position on the troop-withdrawal issue is the acceptance of Russian “peacekeeping” troops, thus further undermining the troop-withdrawal obligation. A third weakness is the reluctance to pursue this issue with Russia at a high level and with the necessary emphasis.

In Chisinau, Mann promised that the U.S.-Russia dialogue on this issue would continue. But he was only able to cite his upcoming trip to Moscow as evidence, while admitting that the process was getting nowhere. Thus, the issue continues to be pursued mainly at middle bureaucratic levels while Moscow’s position is hardening with every passing year.

While under no illusion regarding a withdrawal of Russian troops, Washington and Brussels call for rapid movement toward “federalization” in the “five-sided” format, with Russia as main “guarantor.” This position, as represented in Chisinau by Mann, can be summed up as: Russian-guaranteed “federalization” now, Russian troop withdrawal later, maybe.

October 21 marked the tenth anniversary of the 1994 Russian-Moldovan intergovernmental agreement, whereby Russia (under then-prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s signature) obligated itself to withdraw all troops from Moldova within three years (i.e. by 1997). Russia’s Istanbul Commitments are now halfway toward their tenth anniversary.