Moldova’s new government of the Alliance for European Integration (AEI) has inherited a deeply frozen negotiation process on the Transnistria conflict. Russia, a direct participant in the conflict, with troops in place, continues successfully to evade responsibility by portraying it as an internal Moldovan conflict between the two banks of the Nistru, rather than an inter-state Russia-Moldova conflict. As long as this pretense is accepted internationally, the new AEI government will –just like the nominal communist government before it– be severely constrained in its options.
The new government’s approach to the Transnistria problem closely resembles that pursued by President Vladimir Voronin’s advisers, led by Mark Tkachuk, from 2004 onward, and ultimately shelved by Voronin in late 2008 to early 2009. The AEI Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, announced the new government’s approach on September 25 as part of the government’s overall program approved by the AEI’s slight majority in parliament (Moldpres, September 25). It calls for:
1. Withdrawal of "foreign" troops.
2. Replacement of the existing “peacekeeping” operation by an international mission of civilian observers, under an international organization’s mandate.
3. A special status for Transnistria within Moldova, based on Moldova’s 2005 law on the status of the left-bank districts.
4. Reviving the negotiations in the 5+2 format (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, the United States, European Union, Chisinau government, and Tiraspol authorities –a format scuttled by Moscow and Tiraspol in March 2006 after only five months in operation).
5. Seeking a more active E.U. and U.S. role in the 5+2 format.
6. Renewal of the dialogue involving administrative structures, business circles, and non-governmental organizations on the two banks of the Nistru (dialogue supported by the predecessor government, but interrupted during Moldova’s two consecutive parliamentary election campaigns this year).
7. Eliminating “border” controls and “taxes” imposed by left-bank authorities that hinder the movement of citizens across the demarcation line.
8. Advancing reforms in right-bank Moldova to render it more attractive to Transnistria’s population.
9. Combine internal and external resources for socio-economic programs designed specifically to reintegrate the country (Moldpres, September 25).
The new government’s program also references Moldova’s constitutional commitment to neutrality (implying a self-imposed abstention from seeking NATO membership). Chisinau regards this commitment as an incentive for Russia to settle the Transnistria conflict on terms acceptable to Moldova. However, the new government may later use the hypothetical possibility of abandoning neutrality to create a bargaining chip with Russia. The predecessor government had portrayed the country’s neutrality as final and immutable, thus renouncing a potential bargaining chip vis-à-vis Moscow.
Moldova’s permanent envoy to the United Nations, Alexandru Cujba, presented Moldova’s old/new position in detail, in his speech at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. The speech also mentioned Tiraspol authorities’ violation of Moldovan citizens’ right to receive education in their native language (Moldova Suverana, October 2).
Filat and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lurie Leanca have since added some clarifications. According to Leanca, Moldova prefers the E.U. to be the mandate-granting organization for the desired civilian observer mission to replace Russia’s “peacekeepers.” Chisinau is ready to initiate discussions with the E.U. about this (Newsin, September 28). Returning from their first Brussels visit, however, Filat and Leanca introduced a note of caution by averring that resolution of the Transnistria conflict is a “medium-term and perhaps even a long-term task,” to be pursued “only through agreement among the sides involved” (Infotag, October 1) –an oblique acknowledgment of Moscow’s and Tiraspol’s de facto veto power.
The basic continuity of policy simply reflects the continuation of the facts on the ground and Moldova’s limited options at this stage. Whether they are nominal communists or nominal liberal-democrats, Moldovan leaders face the same dilemmas in Transnistria.
The new government has tasked Victor Osipov as deputy prime minister with responsibility for the Transnistria problem. By the same token the government has abolished the Reintegration Ministry, which had previously handled the negotiations and related matters on Transnistria. While the position’s upgrading looks impressive, the appointee Osipov is a radio journalist and personal protégé of one of AEI’s leaders, with no prior experience of international negotiations or of Transnistria issues.
The E.U.’s High Representative for the Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, advised Filat “not to overlook this [Transnistria] issue, crucial for consolidating the Moldovan state” (Moldpres, October 1). Such advice reflects concern that the AEI government might neglect Transnistria for the sake of closer ties with Romania.
While the similarities with the Tkachuk team’s 2004-2008 negotiating position are striking, the AEI government does not show the same eagerness as that team did to resolve the conflict in short order through some coup de theatre. It is not even certain that Transnistria will rank near the top of the AEI government’s priorities, whereas Voronin had made it his top priority. And while Voronin’s domestic rear front was stable until almost the end of his presidency, leaving him a free hand to negotiate with Russia, the AEI government faces an acute internal power struggle, compounded by latent rivalries among AEI leaders themselves. In this regard, a hypothetical Ukrainianization of Moldova could disable its leadership from handling the Transnistria problem with the necessary effectiveness.