Moldovan President Wants Out Of Russia’s Orbit

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 87

For the first time since 1991, a Moldovan president has boycotted a CIS summit, proclaiming a one-directional European orientation rather than balancing between Europe and Russia. Vladimir Voronin recently allowed Moldova’s official media to criticize Russia for blocking a political settlement in Trans-Dniester and appealed to the West for support on that vital problem. For the moment, however, the West seems to be turning a deaf ear.

In a September 14 interview, President Voronin stated that he was staying away from the CIS summit (held in Astana on September 15-16) because “Moldova has firmly set its priority in terms of integration: the EU, with whom it will sign an action plan in the coming months.” The CIS Common Economic Space is incompatible with Moldova’s membership in the World Trade Organization and its European orientation, Voronin said. Alluding to Moscow’s sponsorship of the Tiraspol leaders, Voronin asserted, “We have nothing further to discuss with Trans-Dniester’s incumbent chieftains.” He called on the European Union, the United States, OSCE, and Moscow to “help Trans-Dniester’s population to identify new, genuine representatives of its interests, new politicians capable of thinking in modern democratic terms” (Novosti Moldova, September 14; Nezavisimaya Moldova, September 15).

On September 10, Moldova’s main government newspaper accused Russia of practicing double standards: “Russia rejects any negotiations with Chechen rebels, while constantly urging us to recommence negotiations with criminal Tiraspol authorities.” On September 14 that same, normally tame mouthpiece launched a broadside not seen in Moldova’s official media in a decade. The editorial disputed Russia’s credentials as “mediator” and “guarantor” for conflict settlement, as Russia “is in reality the aggressor” and “covert ruler of Trans-Dniester.” Citing the long-obvious flaws of the negotiating format, the article commented, “Moscow resists direct Western involvement deliberately, so as to delay indefinitely a political settlement.” Russia supports OSCE involvement because “the Kremlin understands that the OSCE is not viable and cannot solve any conflict.” The editorial observed matter-of-factly that Moldova’s appeals to the international community go unheeded because “the main players . . . avoid irritating the Kremlin” (Moldova Suverana, September 10, 14).

Following the assault on the last remaining six Latin-script schools, left-bank Trans-Dniester’s security forces on September 6 seized the Bender railroad station on the right bank, a major junction that controls Moldova’s rail links with Ukraine and Russia. On September 8, Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov announced a takeover of all Moldovan railroad lines and assets in Trans-Dniester-controlled territory. The railroad was the last Moldovan economic entity operating in that part of the country. It has now become the “Trans-Dniester State Railway, to operate on the basis of Trans-Dniester’s laws,” Smirnov said (Olvia Press, September 9).

The railroad’s seizure coincided almost to the day with Russia’s takeover of the Georgian State Railway’s section in Abkhazia (see EDM, September 16). Both moves occurred under protection of Russian and local proxy troops. Chisinau asked Russian “peacekeepers” to stop the seizure, inasmuch as it involved the use of force within their zone of responsibility. Predictably, the Russian command refused to take any steps (Basapress, Flux, September 10).

The OSCE Mission in Moldova also did nothing. Mission staff are often denied permission to enter Trans-Dniester-controlled territory. At the moment, a complete interdiction of movement is in force “until further notice.” The Mission is generally barred from checking military units, stockpiles, and arms-manufacturing plants, including those located in the security zone. In the latest episodes, Trans-Dniester forces stopped Mission staff from delivering food and water to pupils and teachers in two besieged Latin-script schools. Such deliveries were the sole ameliorative step that the Mission has been able to take in Trans-Dniester since last year. The OSCE in Vienna is unable to protect its Mission’s dignity, because veto-wielding Russia stands behind Tiraspol. The organization is keeping these failures under tight wraps, because it is mainly preoccupied with its own survival. In such circumstances, to entrust the OSCE and its Mission with a regional security role in Moldova, pre- or post-settlement, would be ridiculous.

Russia and the OSCE are jointly pressuring Moldova into recommencing negotiations with Trans-Dniester in the Russian-dominated “pentagonal” format (Chisinau, Tiraspol, Russia, Ukraine, OSCE), toward “federalization,” under mainly Russian guarantees. Although the main Western players would be marginalized by this arrangement, they are adding to the pressure on Moldova in deference to Russia.

Thus, during the OSCE Permanent Council’s September 9 meeting, the EU collectively urged Moldova to return to the pentagonal format. The EU statement also misdescribed the situation of schools by deploring “the conditions in which they resumed the school year” (thus avoiding direct reference to the school closures). The EU blandly “noted with concern the situation with the railroad.” Finally, the EU capped its collective statement by “appealing to both sides for restraint” — the ultimate evasion through moral equivalence. This prompted a Moldovan rejoinder: noting that Moldova’s appeals for support are often met with attempts to equate the aggressor and the aggrieved party, the Moldovan delegation asked the authors of such responses (in this case, the EU) to ponder the consequences of the signals they are sending.

France and Germany were the main authors of the EU statement. For its part, the United States indignantly condemned the school and railway developments, but proposed no response. Moreover, the U.S. statement urged Russia to urge Tiraspol to resume the “pentagonal” negotiations. As in August, this message missed the mark: Tiraspol (like Moscow) insists on retaining that negotiating format unchanged. However awkwardly, the U.S. statement showed continuing support for that Russian-orchestrated format, from which Moldova seeks to escape.

On September 10, a communique from the OSCE’s Bulgarian Chairmanship called on “both sides to ease these tensions and work out negotiated solutions to various disputes,” thus declining to assess the situation on its merits. The communique referred to “the Moldovan and the Trans-Dniester leaderships,” an obvious breach of diplomatic etiquette. And it asked Moldova to return to “pentagonal” negotiations. The only difference between the Bulgarian and Russian positions is that Russia asked Moldova “insistently” to do that.

Thus, the OSCE Chairmanship ignored Voronin’s September 9 direct appeal for steps in response to Tiraspol’s “open contempt for law and human rights” and for internationalizing the peacekeeping operation and settlement negotiations. Russian “peacekeepers” tolerate Tiraspol’s offenses, and the “pentagonal format has long discredited itself,” said Voronin in his published response to Bulgaria’s ex-president Petur Stoianov, who was recently appointed special envoy for Moldova by OSCE’s Chairman Solomon Passy (Basapress, Flux, September 9, 10). These officials from NATO member Bulgaria have excellent relations with Washington, but this fact does not seem to advance NATO security interests on this long sector of the alliance’s border. The State Department policy of supporting pentagonal negotiations toward empowering Trans-Dniester’s leaders in a Russian-guaranteed federation would allow a Russian protectorate over Moldova. Meanwhile, EU policy on this issue has become equally deferential to Russia.

Voronin’s decision to break out of Russia’s orbit and his pleas for Western support to that end have become loud and clear in the last three months. As of now, however, the West seems to be turning a deaf ear.