Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 16

The authorities of Transdniester at last seem to be concentrating the minds of Russia’s Defense Ministry, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union by challenging them all simultaneously. In one way or another, the interests or prestige of these actors is now at stake. Tiraspol probably counts as it has these past ten years on the support of Russia’s intelligence agencies, which often wield more clout than the military in Moscow, and which may well be the ones who disburse the salaries of Tiraspol leaders. In its current, calculated bluff, Tiraspol appears to have also found some sympathy in official Kyiv.

Transdniester’s authorities are physically blocking the evacuation of Russia’s military property and ammunition stockpiles from the area to Russia. They have also blocked access to the Colbasna ammunition dump, the largest in Europe outside Russia, and the highly dangerous site of a planned disposal plant to be funded by Western countries through the OSCE. The Russian government obligated itself in 1999 to complete the evacuation and/or disposal of the equipment and ammunition by December 2002, which is also the deadline for withdrawing its troops from this part of Moldova.

Last week, two diplomats from the OSCE’s Mission in Chisinau en route to Tiraspol were–to their humiliation–turned back by Transdniester police from the “border.” On January 21, two military representatives of the mission en route to Colbasna also were. The Mission’s spokesman complained publicly that Transdniester’s authorities had not bothered to answer the Mission’s “inquiries” and protests regarding these cases, which–the spokesman added–“are not the first instances where OSCE representatives have been treated in this manner” by Tiraspol.

Indeed, the mission’s American chief, Ambassador William Hill, had been turned back from the demarcation line twice by Transdniester security troops shortly before the recent end of his term in Moldova. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin experienced the same indignity last May. Yet, through all this, the mediating parties–Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE itself–persisted in treating both Tiraspol and its leader Igor Smirnov as a legitimate interlocutor, and pieces of paper signed with him as a desirable goal. For his part, Voronin has withdrawn from this ten-year old “negotiating process” which, in his view, can never succeed as long as Smirnov’s group is in charge in Tiraspol.

Since December 21, Transdniester’s authorities have imposed a halt on the removal of Russian military equipment by train to Russia. Only three train convoys [echelons] hadup to that point been “permitted” to leave. Tiraspol claims that Moscow has fallen behind in paying compensation for the equipment being removed. Under a November 2001 agreement, Moscow is to write off US$100 million from Transdniester’s gas arrears and to hand over a whopping 20,000 tons of metal equipment or parts, for use as scrap at the Itera-owned Ribnita steel plant. On January 15-16 the deputy chief of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate for Missile Troops and Artillery, Lieutenant-General Gennady Bayev, held talks in Tiraspol with the political and military authorities, but failed to unblock the evacuation process.

On January 20, Russian state television broadcast footage filmed two days earlier, which showed Transdniester officers defying and enraging Lieutenant-General Valery Yevnevich, hitherto the commander of Russia’s troops there. Having just been promoted deputy commander in chief of Russia’s ground forces, responsible for “peacekeeping” troops, Yevnevich attempted a final inspection at the Colbasna stockpiles. Stopped repeatedly on his way, he had to negotiate and shout his way through successive checkpoints, only to find that Transdniester’s military had cordoned off the site’s perimeter, dismantled the rail line and placed cement blocks on the track. Transdniester’s would-be defense minister, Lieutenant-General Stanislav Hadzhiev, was cited as having ordered these measures, evidently to make the evacuation impossible.

The filming of the scene and its broadcast on Russian television might be intended to discredit Tiraspol’s leaders, preparatory to an attempt to dislodge them. The official presenter remarked several times sarcastically that the Transdniester officers, who were insulting a Russian general, were “aggressive toward the command of Russian forces,” at the behest of “leaders who keep on vowing their eternal love for Russia.” In the past, Smirnov’s group clashed several times with higher Russian authorities, but was each time rescued by its protectors in Moscow.

Has official Kyiv now decided to take on that role? On January 14, Smirnov appointed a “special envoy” to represent Transdniester in Kyiv. Two days later, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ihor Dolhov was cited as offering assurances that Transdniester representatives would not be received in Kyiv “on an official level.” That same week, however, Transdniester’s would-be foreign affairs minister Valery Litskay held talks in Kyiv with Foreign Affairs Ministry officials. On January 18, President Leonid Kuchma publicly appealed to Moldova to resume the old “constructive dialogue” with Smirnov.

On January 20, Ukraine’s ambassador to Moldova, Petro Chaly, visited Smirnov in Tiraspol and gave him an opportunity to second Kyiv’s call for resuming the “negotiating process,” thus implicitly making Moldova appear as the recalcitrant side. And on January 21, Transdniester’s Supreme Soviet chairman Grigory Marakutsa declared–at one with Smirnov–that any resumed negotiations would proceed from the “common state” plan, promoted by Moscow as the basis of an eventual political settlement.In Chisinau, presidential adviser Mark Tkachuk–the most influential figure in Voronin’s entourage–commented that “Ukraine has become Transdniester’s supporter.” Since September 2001, the Ukrainian government is engaged in unlawful trade with Transdniester, accepting the latter’s invalid customs stamps, seals and forms, which are not recognized by any country. With this practice, Kyiv disregards Moldova’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It also abets illicit flows of international transit trade. On Kuchma’s instructions, publicly reported by Kyiv officials, Ukrainian border troops and customs service have refused to cooperate with their Moldovan counterparts in halting the massive contraband between Ukraine and points west via Transdniester and Moldova.

If GUUAM looks moribund, then Kyiv’s recent policy on the customs issue and its joint moves with Tiraspol behind Chisinau’s back would seem to drive a nail into GUUAM’s coffin-in-the-making.

The European Union seems to view Kyiv’s stance as incompatible with international law and detrimental to the European economic order. In a resolution last week, the EU’s “troika”–composed of the currently presiding country, its immediate predecessor and its scheduled successor–asked the Ukrainian government to cooperate with the Moldovan government in the effort to “carry out joint customs controls at the common border.” Noting that Moldova has joined the World Trade Organization and is implementing WTO’s requirements, the EU underscored that Chisinau took those decisions “in the exercise of its sovereignty.” “If Transdniester, a region belonging to Moldova, tries to block the implementation of the new customs rules, the EU considers that it should discourage these obstructionist actions through all available means.” The resolution reflected the discussion on this matter at a meeting of the EU-Ukraine working group the preceding week in Spain, the EU’s currently presiding country. Clearly, Kyiv’s recently adopted stance on Transdniester interferes with Ukraine’s aspirations for closer relations with the EU and for early accession to the WTO.

Yet, the root of the Transdniester problem lies in Moscow, as Voronin clearly understands when urging Russia to recall the Smirnov team from Tiraspol. This, however, only underscores the urgency of preparing the ground in Transdniester itself for a post-Smirnov political dispensation. This would have to abandon the facile assumption that Transdniester equals the russified city enclave of Tiraspol; instead, it would ensure the political participation of the native majority of Moldovans and Ukrainians. Failing this, Moscow may well attempt to install in Tiraspol another proxy group, only with a more human face than the current, Soviet-faced set. That could facilitate Moscow’s known goal–seldom publicized, but restated to an AFP correspondent yesterday–of keeping 1,500 troops past December 2002 in this part of Moldova as “peacekeepers.” Flux, Basapress, Infotag, Interfax, January 14-21; Russian Television, January 20; AFP, January 22; see the Monitor, November 28, December 12-13, 19, 2001, January 14, 18).