Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 69

On April 6, Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Stratan held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on a full range of bilateral issues, including the Transnistria conflict. President Vladimir Voronin set the stage for Stratan’s mission through a public supplication for Russian benevolence and a promise to change Moldova’s approach to relations with Russia.

The Russian embargo on wine and other agricultural products has hit Moldova so hard as to force Chisinau to shift its priorities in bilateral relations. It now appears to seek urgent political accommodation with Russia in hopes of ending the embargo while de-emphasizing the goal of conflict-resolution in Transnistria, at least publicly and tactically. Meanwhile, Tiraspol is blocking those negotiations with Moscow’s open support.

For the last four years, Moldova’s top presidential adviser, Mark Tkachuk, and Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova were in charge of negotiating on Transnistria. Their Russian counterparts were usually an inter-agency team led by Russian National Security Council Deputy Secretary Yuri Zubakov. The Moldovan MFA was a second-hand player at best in those negotiations, often not in the loop.

Stratan’s Moscow visit might herald a transfer of Moldova’s negotiating authority to the MFA. It also seems linked to Stratan’s recently launched bid to increase his power in Chisinau and his influence on Voronin, preparing for a presidential run in 2008-2009. When Zubakov last visited Chisinau in early March, he reportedly handed over the latest Russian document as a basis for negotiations to the Moldovan MFA, not to his old counterparts.

In a Russian television interview, reported in Moldova on April 6, Voronin declared that bilateral relations could be optimal, were it not for “misunderstandings” regarding Transnistria. Almost pleading guilty for having “viewed our relations through the prism of the Transnistria conflict,” Voronin called for a new approach: “We must cooperate with the Russian side in all fields and all dimensions, so as to establish the best and most effective relations. In that case, the Transnistria problem will have become only a small part of our [otherwise] fruitful relations.” He credited Putin personally with “lending impetus” to developing relations during their two meetings in August and November 2006 (NTV Mir, April 4, cited by Moldpres, April 6). Whatever the impetus may have been, the embargo is in force and apparently driving Chisinau into ingratiating rhetoric as a last resort.

Stratan followed that line — which he may have recommended in the first place to the president — in an interview appearing on the day of his Moscow visit: “Both sides have drawn proper conclusions from the events of the recent past, which have only brought them closer.” Moreover, “Our cooperation has withstood the test of ‘natural calamities’” and Moldova seeks Russian capital investment “in all areas from A to Z.” In any case, “Moldova would be unimaginable without the Russian language and culture, Russian history and Russian spirituality” (Nezavisimaya Moldova, April 6). While Stratan did mention Moldova’s European choice as irreversible, it seems unclear how it can be reconciled with genuflections to Russian influence and an all-out bid for Russian investments while failing to attract any substantial European investments.

Both men only alluded to the Transnistria conflict and the Russian military presence when arguing that temporary disagreements must not affect centuries-old relations. And both believe that Russia could only gain by helping achieve an early resolution of the conflict, so as to demonstrate its capacity to play the key role in other situations as well. Voronin, moreover, asserts in the sixth year of his presidency that Chisinau has finally “succeeded in understanding Tiraspol’s internal mechanisms and the causes behind so many events that happened.” He did not specify what those mechanisms might be or why the understanding took this long to be reached; nevertheless both men now profess confidence in an “early” resolution of the conflict (NTV Mir, April 4, cited by Moldpres, April 6; Nezavisimaya Moldova, April 6).

Apparently unimpressed, Moscow insists on resolving the conflict on its own terms. Statements issued by Lavrov’s office and by the Russian MFA chief spokesman Mikhail Kamynin in connection with Stratan’s visit made the following points (, Interfax, April 6).

The Russian side “urges Chisinau to engage in a consistent search for compromises in order to un-block the negotiating process.” This places the onus on Chisinau to bring Tiraspol back to the negotiations through unilateral concessions (such was the negotiations’ dynamic for many years until 2005, at which point Tiraspol blocked the negotiations in October that year with Moscow’s support).

Conflict settlement is only possible through “agreements between the parties [Chisinau and Tiraspol] on an equal basis” as well as a “reliably guaranteed status of Transdniester.” In the Russian vocabulary of these long-running negotiations, co-equal treatment of Chisinau and Tiraspol implies a contractual solution along “federal”/”confederal” lines; while “reliably guaranteed” implies mainly Russian political and military guarantees. Voronin conclusively rejected that approach in mid-2004; and Moldova’s organic law of July 2005 rules out any external guarantees.

“Russia is ready to assist the multi-ethnic people of Moldova in establishing a democratic, law-based, neutral state.” It also calls for “preserving the traditional positions of the Russian language in Moldova.” Defining Moldova as “multi-ethnic” implies a droit de regard over the situation of the Russian language in the country. “Assisting” Moldova to be neutral also implies an external droit de regard. Moldova’s own constitution enshrines the country’s neutrality and bans the stationing of any foreign troops on the country’s territory — in this case, Russian troops.

The commander of Russian troops in Transnistria, Major-General Boris Sergeyev, reiterated on the same day the standard claim that Russia has already fulfilled all its 1999 obligations regarding troop withdrawal from Moldova’s territory and has no intention to withdraw its military stockpiles either. Russian troops will continue to fulfill their dual mission: guarding those stockpiles and “peacekeeping,” Sergeyev declared (Interfax, April 6).

Moscow’s position is familiar and remains entrenched. However, Chisinau hopes against hope that President Putin, with his unassailable authority, might deliver a settlement consistent with Moldova’s interests before he leaves the scene (if he does) in spring 2008. While this proposition is worth exploring for lack of anything better, Moscow might draw Voronin into negotiations toward the deadline of Moldova’s parliamentary and presidential elections, late 2008-early 2009, as well as with an eye to Voronin’s legacy as president. Russia would probably like to see Moldova enter into bilateral negotiations from weakness, under a triple pressure: the commercial embargo, electoral deadline, and presidential legacy considerations.