Efforts Underway To Reanimate Negotiations On The Transnistria Conflict (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 32

The OSCE office in Tiraspol, Transnistria, 2006. (OSCE)

The establishment of the European Union’s External Action Service, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairmanship by Lithuania, and the electoral success of Moldova’s pro-European governing coalition, are cumulatively energizing international efforts to unblock the negotiations on the Transnistria conflict. These converging trends also inspire at least some in Washington to urge the US to resume its once-active role in those efforts.

The priority at this stage is to re-start official negotiations, which Moscow and Tiraspol have blocked since March 2006 in the 5+2 format (Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, EU, US, Chisinau, Tiraspol). Concurrently, Germany seeks to induce Russia to cooperate on Transnistria, in return for the establishment of an EU-Russia Political and Security Committee, which Russia desires. And in parallel with these international processes, Chisinau pursues local bridge-building efforts, reaching out to some business and political circles in Transnistria, below “president” Igor Smirnov’s level and around him.

On February 8-10, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Audronius Azubalis, paid his first visit to Moldova in this capacity. His special representative for the conflicts, ambassador Giedrius Cekuolis, had paid a preparatory visit in mid-January. For the Lithuanian chairmanship, tackling the long-”frozen” conflicts is a high-priority, low-expectation endeavor (EDM, February 2).

In line with this realistic assessment, Azubalis announced that the OSCE Chairmanship supports “small steps” toward resuming official international negotiations and developing confidence between Chisinau and Tiraspol. In both places he noted that the 5+2 format has not exhausted its potential [indeed it had only operated for five months, October 2005-February 2006]. Azubalis asked Tiraspol authorities to adhere to the rules of the game in this format.

Azubalis did not take on board the idea of equalizing the EU and US status as “observers” with Russia’s, Ukraine’s, and the OSCE’s status (“mediators”) in the 5+2 framework. Indeed, such a formality would be meaningless in practice, as Moscow would either veto it outright, or bargain hard for some quid-pro-quo, using the excuse to delay the process even further. The 5+2 format limps on through “unofficial consultations,” more or less at six-month intervals, mostly in Vienna, with no decisions or documents adopted. With the government in Chisinau stabilized since January, Chisinau’s and Tiraspol’s chief negotiators are now starting a bilateral process of regular meetings (BNS, Interfax, February 9-10).

While in Chisinau, Azubalis handed over letters of gratitude to Moldovan members of the first elected parliament (1990), which voted in April 1990 to recognize the restoration of Lithuania’s independence. With that decision, Moldova became the first state-entity anywhere in the world to recognize Lithuania’s reestablished statehood. Awarding the letters, Azubalis contrasted Moldova’s 1990 gesture with the attitude of far more powerful countries at that time (Moldpres, February 10).

The OSCE’s Moldova Mission has been mandated to promote the resolution of this conflict since 1993, led by US diplomats uninterruptedly since 1996, and has taken a back seat to the EU since 2005. The Mission’s failure is a testament to the failure of the concept of cooperative security as embodied by the OSCE. The Mission has now been tasked to host a conference event this year for promoting dialogue about this conflict. The Lithuanian chairmanship cannot perform miracles in this situation.

As of February 1, the EU has abolished the post of Special Representative, which had handled the Transnistria conflict since 2004. Instead, the EU has appointed a higher-level official, Miroslav Lajcak, to participate in negotiations on the Transnistria conflict. Lajcak is the Managing Director for Russia, the [EU’s] Eastern Neighborhood, and the Western Balkans, in the EU’s newly created External Action Service. Formerly Slovakia’s Foreign Minister, Lajcak has witnessed and even helped manage several conflicts and secession processes during his diplomatic career: the secession of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia (as a Czechoslovak diplomat initially), of Serbia from Yugoslavia (as Slovak ambassador in Belgrade), Montenegro from Serbia (as EU special representative for Montenegro’s referendum), as well as EU Special Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina (also the International Community’s High Representative there).

Lajcak is tasked to attend the 5+2 meetings, whereas the EU’s Delegation in Chisinau would handle day-to-day activities related to the Transnistria issue, as part of its overall Moldova brief. In the internal debates leading up to this arrangement, some argued that the EU should have retained the Special Representative’s post.

Indeed, the Special Representative was dedicated full-time to the conflict-resolution process by virtue of his mandate; meeting regularly with the other players in that process (notably, with top-level Russian officials); and –as major asset with the job– possessed a commanding knowledge of the Transnistria dossier and the negotiations’ record, with all its diplomatic and semantic nuances. A higher-level official, however, covering a vast territory that includes much of Europe and Russia, and attending the negotiations on Transnistria from time to time, can hardly match such specialized knowledge and insights. The same holds true of the US negotiator on Transnistria, in recent years a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State covering a vast territory in Eastern Europe and Russia. The Russian diplomats involved in these negotiations enjoy the advantages of narrower focus, in-depth specialization, institutional memory, and continuity in the job.

On the other hand, a high-level EU official in charge of this dossier can hope for better access to High Representative Catherine Ashton. Some of these same issues are now being debated in connection with the EU Special Representative post for the South Caucasus, which is at risk of being abolished or having its brief curtailed.

Hungarian diplomat, Kalman Mizsei, served as the EU’s Special Representative for the Transnistria conflict during the past four years (February 2007-February 2011), with a highly-rated performance. Moldova’s internal political crisis from March 2009 onward, however, forced the Special Representative to act as a mediator between political forces in Chisinau, and provided a fresh excuse for Moscow to block the negotiations.