Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 185

Russia and Moldova are exploring a possible settlement of the Transnistria conflict on a bilateral basis, outside the international 5 + 2 format. Russia is the initiator of this approach, pulling a reluctant but still hopeful Moldova along.

The Russian-desired outcome would: reunify Moldova nominally, albeit under Russian oversight; show that Russia can single-handedly settle a “frozen” conflict in Europe’s East, marginalizing the Euro-Atlantic community in the EU’s own neighborhood; and demonstrate that countries such as Moldova that do not seek to join NATO can hope for a more lenient Russian treatment, unlike Georgia and Ukraine, which Russia threatens to dismember or partition if they progress toward NATO membership.

For its part, the Moldovan leadership pursues the twin goals of reunifying Transnistria with the rest of the country and winning the upcoming general elections in the spring of 2009. Commitment to reunification of the state is a defining policy of the Vladimir Voronin presidency (unlike the two predecessor leaderships). The president is now completing his second, final term of office. Constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, Voronin seeks instead a place in history as the re-unifier of the country and also to ensure his party’s (communist in nothing more than name) continuity in power. To couple the country’s reunification with the party’s electoral calendar and power-retention strategy, however, is to risk compromising both goals, to Moscow’s benefit.

Moscow is capitalizing on Chisinau’s impatience, lack of Western initiatives on Transnistria and other conflicts, and the fright-effect of Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Although Moldova does not border on Russia and is therefore not exposed to military strikes, the Moldovan leadership has drawn its political conclusions from the West’s incapacity to deal with Russia’s war on Georgia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held talks with Voronin in Sochi on August 25 and with Transnistria’s leader Igor Smirnov in Moscow on September 3. In those meetings, a new negotiating process was planned (Interfax, Moldpres, August 25-26, September 3-4).

The brunt of negotiations would shift from the 5+2 format (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, the United States, European Union, the Chisinau government, and Tiraspol authorities) into a new, 1+2 format (Russia, Chisinau, Tiraspol). The new process would exclude the West while leaving Chisinau isolated to face Moscow and Tiraspol.

The process would begin with Chisinau-Tiraspol meetings at the level of experts; continue with a Voronin-Smirnov meeting, possibly with an official Russia-Moldova-Transnistria meeting; and culminate in a Medvedev-Voronin-Smirnov meeting for signing the conflict-settlement documents. Russia would act as facilitator at all stages and become the guarantor of a final settlement, if achieved. Almost certainly, Russia would insist on retaining a military presence as “guarantor” of that settlement.

The object of negotiations would no longer be Chisinau’s 2007 “package” proposals, which Moldova’s Western partners endorsed and which Russia sidestepped but never rejected. Instead, some kind of synthesis would be attempted with the “package” and earlier proposals, including “elements” of Moscow’s infamous 2003 Kozak plan, as well as some new Russian contributions (“narabotki”).

Russia seeks a settlement that would confer to Tiraspol, i.e., to Moscow through its Tiraspol proxies, effective blocking powers against the policies of a reunified Moldovan state in the future. To that end, Russia will again seek to amend Moldova’s constitution and legislation, introduce numerical overrepresentation of deputies from Transnistria in a reunified Moldovan parliament, and enable Tiraspol authorities (under a new constitutional dispensation) to stop Moldova from harmonizing its legislative framework and policies with those of the European Union.

Moscow and Tiraspol also seem set to pressure Chisinau through pro-Russia leaders in the Gagauz autonomous territory. Those local leaders demand a status equivalent to Transnistria’s within Moldova, should it come to reunification under Russia’s auspices. On September 22 the Gagauz territory’s legislative assembly narrowly approved a resolution recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia and praising Russia’s recent actions in Georgia (Basapres, September 22, 23).

Chisinau easily concedes to Russia’s demand that Moldova should remain permanently neutral, assuming that this implies maintaining a clear distance from NATO. Indeed neither Moldova nor NATO can see valid reasons for Moldovan membership in the alliance in any foreseeable future. Russian representatives, however, told Moldovans in recent contacts that the European Union was not merely an economic and political union, but also potentially a political-military bloc, and that Moldova’s goal of accession to the EU would be incompatible with Moldova’s neutrality.

Within the moribund 5+2 format, and despite its agony, all sides say that it remains the only legitimate forum for negotiation and decision. But they attach differing meanings to this phrase. The Western representatives, Ukraine, and Moldova take the position that only the 5+2 format can produce a legitimate outcome. Russia takes the position that any format, including 1+2, can be considered legitimate if it produces a solution mutually acceptable to “the parties” (Moldova and Russia/Transnistria), i.e., if Moldova is cajoled or pressured into it. At the same time, Russia and, again, Moldova consider it possible to reach a political settlement directly in the 1+2 format and then refer it afterward to the 5+2 format for Western blessings (perhaps with minor editing) there.

Chisinau seems caught between these two interpretations at the moment. It is pressed for time and has lost its earlier confidence in a Western-delivered solution.

The United States and EU recommend patience and postponement of a solution until a more favorable context develops, both internationally and locally. In the aftermath of Russia’s war on Georgia, however, it seems difficult to persuade Chisinau that a favorable context can be created any time soon. And it seems correspondingly difficult for Chisinau to avoid the temptation of the Moscow-laid, 2+1 trap.

More than a decade ago, Moldova’s then-presidents Mircea Snegur and Petru Lucinschi embarked on appeasement of Russia in Transnistria after seeing the West leaving Georgia face-to-face with Russia in Abkhazia. As Snegur told this author at the time, “If [Georgian] President Shevardnadze with all his great diplomacy was not helped to retrieve Abkhazia, what can a Moldovan president do about Transnistria?