The OSCE in Agony (Part Four)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 185

Source: Transnistria Diplomatic Service

Click here to read Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Moldova is the last remaining target of Russia’s “special status” playbook, in this case in Transnistria. This is also the last conflict in which the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) barely clings to its official “conflict prevention and resolution” role after having been ousted from Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan by Russia.

The organization’s annual ministerial meeting, in Poland on December 1 and 2, however, failed for the first time in memory to adopt a consensus-based statement on Moldova. This year’s exception occurred not because Russia dropped out of the OSCE’s traditional consensus on Moldova but because of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In this situation, most participating states declined entering into discussions with Russia on any concluding document for any issue. This is an indirect gain for Moldova, as the past annual statements almost invariably sacrificed Moldova’s interests for the sake of consensus with Russia (see below).

Russia has worked hand-in-hand with the OSCE on Moldova since 1997 at Chisinau’s expense. The organization chose to ignore the nature of the Transnistria conflict as an inter-state conflict. Its hallmarks include Russia‘s military intervention, unlawful “peacekeeping” operation, political control and economic sponsorship of Transnistria from 1992 to date. The OSCE has, however, all along accepted Russia’s misrepresentation of its own actions as a conflict between two parts of Moldova. Accepting this version is a convenient way for the OSCE to absolve Russia of its responsibility as a direct party to the conflict—its principal actor.

The OSCE is a stakeholder in the Russia-dominated negotiation format and supports its decades-old Russian design. Chisinau and Tiraspol are cast as co-equal parties to an internal Moldovan conflict, with Transnistria unrecognized internationally but recognized as a negotiating party in its own right, on par with Moldova. Russia is cast as one of the “mediators” despite underwriting Transnistria’s existence militarily, politically and economically while conducting political and economic warfare against Moldova. This setup gives Russia three voices: its own, Transnistria’s and Russia’s veto power in the OSCE. The Russia-hobbled OSCE and Ukraine are the other mediators, Kyiv having aligned with Moscow until 2014 but has broken free of Russia since then.

Russia has instrumentalized the OSCE to promote the “special status” project for Transnistria from 1993 onward. That year, the organization approved its Moldova Mission‘s mandate and terms of reference, still valid to date (, February 4 and March 11, 1993). The core task is to facilitate a settlement of this conflict through a special status for Transnistria to be negotiated between the parties—that is, between Chisinau and the Tiraspol-Moscow tandem.

This approach enables Russia to either impose its settlement terms (the worst-case scenario, which has lurked from time to time) or permanently block any settlement (second-worst scenario, continually in play). A Transnistrian special status acceptable to Russia would turn Moldova into a state with limited sovereignty, open to Russian indirect control via Transnistria—and even to a degree of direct control if Russia becomes, as it aspires, one of the guarantors of the eventual settlement.

The OSCE has implicitly accepted Russia’s conditionality for the withdrawal of its remaining troops from Moldova: namely, via a special status for Transnistria acceptable to Moscow and Tiraspol. This linkage is clearly implied in the Moldova Mission’s 30-year-old, still-valid mandate and subsequent documents (see above).

The OSCE‘s 1999 Istanbul meeting of the heads of member states (the last summit this organization was able to hold) broke that linkage by committing Russia to a “complete withdrawal of Russian forces from the territory of Moldova by the end of 2002,” with OSCE facilitation and assistance (, November 19, 1999). The summit did endorse the idea of a special status for Transnistria but set no deadline for it while setting a fairly early and clear deadline for Russia’s troop withdrawal, thereby de-linking the two issues. The OSCE’s 2002 Porto Ministerial Council, however, failed to hold Russia to its Istanbul commitments. Instead, it postponed the troop withdrawal deadline and reinstated conditions for the troop withdrawal: “provided that the necessary conditions are in place.” Most likely alluding to a special status for Transnistria, and not only that, the OSCE allowed Russia to interpret the “necessary conditions” at will, whereas the Istanbul commitments had been unconditional. The Porto conference similarly devalued Russia’s troop withdrawal commitment vis-a-vis Georgia (, December 7. 2002). At the OSCE’s next annual Ministerial Council, in Maastricht in 2003, Russia vetoed any further mention of its troop withdrawal commitments in the officially adopted documents. And this practice continues to the present day.

The OSCE’s Ministerial Council adopted every year through 2021 a document in Russia’s interest on Moldova, each annual version being almost copied and pasted from the preceding year’s document (, December 9, 2016; December 8, 2017; December 7, 2018; December 9, 2019; December 7, 2020; December 3, 2021).

In these documents, the OSCE invariably called for a special status for Transnistria while failing to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldovan territory. Both elements of this equation combined to put pressure on Chisinau. They signified negotiating a special status in the presence of Russian troops while turning the special status into a political precondition for the withdrawal of those forces.

Each annual ministerial document, moreover, attached stereotypical preconditions to the special status itself. Transnistria’s status had to “fully guarantee the human, political, economic and social rights of [Transnistria’s] population.” This implied taking Transnistria at least partially out of Moldova’s legal field by creating a “special” legal field—to be negotiated with Russia according to Moscow’s understanding of political and other rights. By the same token, a role for Russia in guaranteeing implementation would conflict with Moldova’s own constitutional guarantees for all its citizens, according to the European standards that Chisinau has pledged to follow.

With every passing year the Ministerial Council reaffirmed that the “5+2” forum (Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE as mediators, the United States and the European Union as observers, as well as Moldova and Transnistria as parties to the conflict) is “the only mechanism” for settling this conflict. The 5+2 format took shape between 1997 and 2005 and has remained unchanged since. The OSCE has not only failed to reform this setup but it has even ruled out changing it (“the only mechanism”).

The OSCE failed, moreover, to review Russia’s credentials for participating in negotiations over Moldova’s fate in light of Moscow’s military interventions and territorial annexations in Georgia and Ukraine from 2008 through 2022. This year’s Ministerial Council in Poland, exceptionally, stopped short of demonstrating consensus with Russia over Moldova but also failed to question Russia’s eligibility to participate in settling Moldova’s fate.

EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member and aspirant countries condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine with unprecedented (and commensurate) indignation at this year’s Ministerial Council. They also called, inter alia, on Russia to withdraw its troops from Moldova. They did so in their own national capacities because the OSCE’s ground rules do not allow it to speak, much less act, in its own name without Russia’s consent. And the death of Russia’s 1999 Istanbul commitments (see above) exposes an OSCE that lost the ability to implement its own documents 20 years ago, never to recover it.