Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 168

A new American chief has just taken over at the OSCE’s Mission in Moldova, scene of a “frozen conflict” orchestrated by Russia on what has now become the border of NATO and the EU. From 1993 to date, the OSCE has attempted in vain to resolve the Transnistria conflict. It is not just the fact of that failure, but the particular ways and means of that failure that have contributed to discrediting this organization as a security actor.

Led by U.S. diplomat William Hill for a record-breaking period of more than six years until August 2006, the OSCE’s Moldova Mission has accumulated considerable political and conceptual ballast that the new Mission Chief, Louis O’Neill, will have to clean out in order to restore the Mission’s credibility.

That problematic legacy stems in part from a few U.S. State Department diplomats of the “Russia-First” school of thought who were in charge of the Transnistria dossier in 1999-2004, and the last of whom left in 2006. It also stems in part from some of their German and French counterparts in the respective capitals and in this Mission from 1994 to date. Moldovan authorities are eager to work closely with the Mission’s new chief: indeed, Chisinau insisted, as did Washington, that the post of Mission Chief remain in American hands, notwithstanding the outgoing chief’s track record. While Washington and Brussels have demonstrated a far clearer understanding of the Transnistria conflict since 2005 than had previously been the case, and corrected their policies accordingly to a significant extent — as did their representatives at OSCE headquarters in Vienna — the OSCE’s Moldova Mission awaited its own perestroika.

The Transnistria conflict is not one between two parts of Moldova, or the two banks of the Nistru River and their respective populations, or some kind of inter-communal conflict. The OSCE will continue to fail unless it recognizes the conflict’s real nature: An inter-state conflict in which Russia has seized a part of Moldova’s territory by military force and installed its political and administrative appointees there. The ongoing “negotiating process” and diplomatic terminology long associated with it are obscuring that reality. Imposed by Yevgeny Primakov in 1997 on a then-isolated Moldova, and supported by a line-toeing OSCE Mission to date, that process and that terminology misdefine Transnistria as a “party to the conflict” (ostensibly co-equal with the rest of Moldova); and Russia as “mediator” between two parts of Moldova, ignoring Russia’s actual role as initiator of and party to the ongoing conflict. Moreover, Russia claims the role of “guarantor” of an eventual political settlement of the conflict thus defined.

Those concepts have no basis in any legally valid documents. They are only set in records of discussions within the “negotiating process” over the years, which Moscow and Tiraspol regularly cite in demanding “observance of previously reached agreements” as a condition to progress in the negotiations. Chisinau broke out of that trap in 2004-2005, avoiding any reference to Russia as a “mediator” and “guarantor.” Continuing use by the OSCE of that terminology would be seen, at best, as confirmation that the discredited “negotiating process” goes nowhere; and, at worst, as a fallback to the 2002-2004 policy of consigning Moldova to Russian dominance.

Power-sharing between Chisinau and the Tiraspol authorities, under any constitutional guise — “federalization,” “autonomy,” “distribution of competencies,” “devolution” — is a goal that condemns the negotiations and the OSCE itself to failure. The authorities in Tiraspol represent Russia, not the population of Transnistria. As part of any such deal, Moldova would in fact be sharing power with Russia on Moldova’s territory and in the presence of Russian troops. “Federalization” is only the most radical among these power-sharing proposals; and Russia’s 2003 Kozak Memorandum differs only in degree, not in kind, from the 2002-2004 “federalization” project — a mainly Russian draft championed by the OSCE Mission at the public level. Even now, the departing Hill and others want the Mission to dust off the 2004 “mediators’” document as a basis for negotiations, although Chisinau had rejected all versions of “federalization” in 2004 when it chose Europe over Russia.

A package of military Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBM), worked out at the OSCE’s Vienna headquarters and by a French general seconded to the Mission, forms a military accompaniment to the political project of “federalization.” It would legalize Transnistria’s armed forces and put them on a par with Moldova’s army for an open-ended period, for the declared purpose of reducing tension and cutting force levels toward the demilitarization of Moldova’s entire territory, under a Russian-dominated inspection mechanism that could not function effectively in Transnistria. The proposal explicitly exempts Russia’s forces in Moldova from cuts or inspections. Presented officially as late as 2005, the package was publicly criticized by Western military attaches at the OSCE in Vienna as well as by leading analysts in Chisinau. Other than the first, symbolic and redundant step of voluntary exchanges of data on force levels, implementation of this CSBM package would adversely affect Moldova’s security.

The conceptual cleanout ought also to include the postulate that Transnistria possesses a special political identity that could serve as one of the bases for autonomy of the left bank. This postulate originates with the 1994 report of a German diplomat in the OSCE Mission on his first, and brief, assignment to Moldova, where he never returned afterward. In reality, the left-bank and right-bank population contains the same ethnic mix (Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Russians being the main ethnic groups, in that order) with many related families on both banks. The one specific feature in Transnistria, however, is the successful Soviet political socialization among Russian and Russified town dwellers — a feature hardly worth considering as part of a left-bank political identity, let alone justifying autonomy for the left bank.