Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin is pulling back from the bilateral, non-transparent negotiations with the Kremlin, on which he had embarked in September 2006. Concessions offered by Chisinau incrementally in the negotiating rounds with Russian Security Council Secretary Yuri Zubakov and, periodically, with President Vladimir Putin during 13 months did not bring a settlement of the Transnistria conflict any closer. Voronin still seemed prey to illusions in that regard as late as July-August (see EDM, July 27, August 1); but no longer, as he makes clear in a carefully prepared interview (Komsomolskaya pravda v Moldove, October 4).
Equally significant — perhaps more significantly for the immediate international implications — Chisinau insists on the full and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova, which is a prerequisite to international ratification of the adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE). Germany and some other chancelleries would help Russia break or loosen that linkage, for quick-fix ratification on Russian-defined terms. Moldova needs to demonstrate unambiguously its firmness in the upcoming bargaining, lest its position be misinterpreted and its interests sacrificed. (Georgia faces a similar problem, albeit on a lesser scale than Moldova.)
In parallel with Voronin’s lengthy interview, Moldova’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a firm statement on the Russian troops, and Minister Andrei Stratan backed it up in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Both documents call unambiguously for complete withdrawal (no exemptions for Russian “peacekeepers,” as Berlin and a few others suggest) and replacement of Russian troops by a multinational mission of civilian observers. The adapted CFE treaty “can only be ratified as a consequence of a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Moldova’s territory” (Moldpres, Moldova Suverana, October 1-4).
In his Russian-language interview (intended for Moscow and Tiraspol, rather than public opinion at home) Voronin himself calls for international civilian observers to replace the Russian troops and goes on to outline a program for mutual understanding with Tiraspol authorities. While addressing its proposals to those authorities generally, Chisinau seeks to capitalize on the ongoing erosion of veteran leader Igor Smirnov’s power, the emergence of a competing power center in the Supreme Soviet there, and the interest of Transnistria business circles in normalizing their activities and obtaining international access via Moldova. These incipient cleavages in Tiraspol allow Chisinau to make its overtures without dealing with Smirnov and his team, who remain unacceptable to Moldova. While Chisinau does not officially engage with Transnistria’s ordinary population, some non-governmental organizations in Chisinau are seeking interlocutors on the societal level on the left bank of the Nistru River.
Voronin made public on October 4 the following offers to Transnistria authorities:
1) Legal access of Transnistria firms to European Union markets as of January 1, 2008, enjoying the same trade preferences that Moldovan firms enjoy in the EU, provided those Transnistria firms register with Moldovan commercial authorities (tax payments under this system are reduced to nominal processing fees);
2) Joint modernization and use of two highways that connect Ukraine with Romania via Moldova (Leuseni-Chisinau-Dubasari, continuing through Ukraine to Poltava; and Chisinau-Tiraspol-Odessa, necessitating the reopening of a bridge over the Nistru that was repaired with EU funds but is blocked by Tiraspol’s military);
3) Creating a common Chisinau-Tiraspol television studio, to be managed by civil-society groups from both banks of the Nistru River;
4) Turning Transnistria’s “state” university (which is not recognized internationally) into an institution open to students from all Moldova and that could be accredited by Moldova’s Education Ministry for international recognition of its diplomas;
5) Sharing with Transnistria the international humanitarian aid that right-bank Moldova is receiving to overcome the consequences of the drought;
6) Authorizing Tiraspol authorities to share in the income of Moldovan railroad lines on the left bank and use of those lines for legal foreign trade operations, if Tiraspol recognizes Moldova’s legal ownership of those lines (Tiraspol de facto appropriated those railroad lines and stations with some rolling stock in 2005);
At the same time, Chisinau wants Tiraspol to remove its unlawful “border guards” and “customs” posts from Transnistria’s purported “border” with Moldova and to embark on disarmament and demilitarization measures in parallel with Moldova.
If cooperation proceeds along such lines, Voronin would initiate a request to the EU and the United States to lift the travel ban that they imposed in 2003 on some 20 leading Tiraspol officials.
For its part, Tiraspol has taken a few small steps toward détente with Chisinau. In late September it lifted the 100% “customs” tax from some categories of Moldovan goods. Tiraspol had imposed that payment in April 2006 in retaliation for the customs and border regulations that Moldova had introduced on its eastern borders in March 2006 with EU backing. Also in late September, Tiraspol abolished the “migration tax” that it had earlier imposed on all foreign citizens — including Moldova’s citizens, deemed “foreign” — that entered Transnistria even for private or family reasons. The Supreme Soviet initiated both of those small steps.
For the time being at least, Chisinau does not seek to discuss Transnistria status issues with Tiraspol. Nor does it discuss that with Moscow any longer, as it had since September 2006. Chisinau again reserves such discussions for the 5 + 2 international format and hopes it will reconvene.
(Moldpres, October 1-4; Komsomolskaya pravda v Moldove, October 4)