Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 99

The prospect of a political settlement between Chisinau and Tiraspol seems more distant than ever after the latest developments in the OSCE-mediated negotiations. The situation puts the prestige of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at risk as the deadline it has set for the withdrawal of Russian forces approaches without a single Russian piece of combat hardware or ammunition trainload being withdrawn.

The OSCE’s Chisinau mission is now racing against the clock for the adoption of an agreement on Transdniester’s political status. The hope is that such an agreement would either induce Tiraspol to give the green light for the withdrawal of at least some Russian armaments before the December deadline, or alternatively would give Moscow something to show for commencing the withdrawal. OSCE mediators have unnecessarily complicated their situation by accepting, in practice, to reinstate a linkage between the Russian troop withdrawal and the adoption of Transdniester’s political status. This was Moscow’s “synchronization” thesis, which guaranteed deadlock for almost a decade. The OSCE’s 1999 decisions eliminated any such conditionality in requiring the withdrawal of Russian forces. Moscow, however, held fast to the linkage tactics, and some OSCE mediators apparently felt that they had to go along with that logic.

The de facto return to synchronization, as well as the time running out on the OSCE, has apparently led the Transdniester leaders rightly or wrongly to conclude that their leverage has increased. They are in any case escalating their demands and preconditions to a political settlement with Chisinau. Earlier this month, they demanded that Moldova join the Russia-Belarus Union, confer the status of state language on the Russian language in Moldova and accept the permanent stationing of Russian troops.

On May 1, for the first time, Transdniester troops physically prevented a Moldovan head of state–President Vladimir Voronin–from visiting territory controlled by the secessionist authorities. Tiraspol, moreover, announced that Voronin must from now on request permission from Transdniester’s self-styled president Igor Smirnov for any visit there. The situation is all the more poignant as Voronin is a native of Transdniester and used regularly to visit his mother there until becoming president of Moldova. The May 13 incident followed the seizure of a monastery and theological seminary on the right bank of the Dniester by left-bank Transdniester troops under ex-KGB officers’ command. That sort of event had probably not been witnessed in Europe since Stalin’s days, yet it seemed to have passed without condemnation by any of the three mediators.

Also this month, Transdniester has raised demands for Chisinau to recognize that it committed military aggression in 1992 against “the people of Transdniester,” to apologize for it and to pay compensation for damages. These demands were first aired on May 6 in connection with the release of Moldovan militant Ilie Ilascu from a Transdniester jail, where he and three associates were being unlawfully held since 1992. International organizations and Western diplomats had for years demanded the release of the four members of what came to be known as the Ilascu Group. Igor Smirnov, however, now takes the position that he would release the remaining three in return for Moldovan apologies and reparations for the 1992 armed conflict.

On May 16, Smirnov reaffirmed those demands and made them a part of Transdniester’s preconditions to a political settlement with Chisinau, irrespective of the issue of those three remaining detainees. Along with an official admission of Moldovan war guilt, Smirnov demanded US$77 million in “compensation.” He presented those demands during OSCE-mediated negotiations in Tiraspol between delegations headed by Voronin and Smirnov.

Smirnov capped the May 16 negotiations by demanding that Chisinau officially repudiate the OSCE’s 1999 decisions on the withdrawal of Russian forces. Smirnov submitted a draft declaration whereby Chisinau would give up its demand for the troops’ withdrawal and would, in agreement with Tiraspol, endorse an open-ended stationing of Russian troops as “guarantors of peace and stability in this part of Europe.” Such a proposal dovetails with Russia’s position and seems likely to have been authorized if not initiated by Moscow.