Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 6

by Nicu Popescu

A decade ago, shortly after the European Union signed a treaty establishing a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in February of 1992, Moldova engaged in a short but disastrous war with its eastern province of Transnistria. At that time, activating the CFSP in the Transnistrian settlement was not even an issue to be discussed. But with the double enlargement of NATO and the EU, and the gradual emergence of a European Security and Defense Policy, the idea is becoming more and more relevant. Europe, however, still lacks a vision in the role it might play in the reintegration of Moldova.

For the past ten years the EU has accepted Russia’s leading role in the never-ending negotiations over the Transnistrian conflict. But the EU and NATO enlargements make resolution of the Transnistria problem no less urgent for the members of these two organizations than, say, the stabilization of Macedonia. There are 40,000 tons of arms stockpiled in the region; they are controlled by the internationally unrecognized regime in Tiraspol.

At the summit of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul in 1999, Russia promised to withdraw its arms caches and troops from the region. But there has been little progress thus far. When the deadline for the withdrawal expired on December 31, 2002, the OSCE meekly agreed to extend it another year. Moscow argues that its military presence guarantees peace and stability in the region. But what it also guarantees is the stability of the authoritarian regime in Transnistria, and Russia’s indirect influence over all of Moldova.

Russia’s current strategy consists of downplaying the Istanbul commitments to an unconditional withdrawal, while trying to link the withdrawal to the search for a settlement between Moldova and the breakaway province. Since the prospects for a settlement seem remote, one can expect a continued Russian military presence for the foreseeable future.

Romania is slated to join NATO in 2004 and the EU by the end of the decade. If the present situation persists, then Transnistria–which is a haven for a wide array of criminal traffic, from arms to drugs to humans–will lie less than sixty miles from the border of the enlarged NATO and EU. The security challenges posed by the unsettled Transnistrian conflict to a united Europe are obvious. Another damaging by-product of the current situation is that it is impossible for Moldova to emerge as a viable state.

While EU security interests in Moldova are legitimate, it is hard to see how the Transnistrian conflict poses any direct security challenges to Russia, which is 350 miles distant. Russia’s presence in Moldova is a matter of geopolitical ambition, not a vital necessity.

Furthermore, it is not clear in the post-enlargement context why the EU and NATO should grant Russia near-monopoly power over Transnistria. Since Russia was given a say in the peace process in Kosovo and Bosnia (far removed from the Russian border), it would seem inappropriate for Moscow to deny the same rights to its Western partners in the settlement of the Transnistrian issue. It is also not clear why Russia should be included in NATO’s decision-making process (via the NATO-Russia Council), while NATO and the EU are excluded from Russia’s deliberations in a region where NATO and the EU have legitimate security interests. Asymmetry of this sort is damaging for Western Europe, a point which European leaders seem to be publicly recognizing. Since December of 2002 the EU has issued three declarations addressing the situation in Transnistria. That is an unprecedented level of attention on its part.

A second development that would favor a more proactive Western policy lies in the failure of the current negotiating format between the conflicting parties to produce any movement toward reunification of Moldova. The current arrangement includes the Moldovan government and Transnistria, assisted by Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE as mediators and guarantors. But ten years of negotiations have produced nothing but a continued strengthening of the separatist regime.

The past decade has seen a considerable evolution in the nature of Russia’s relations with the West, from one of animosity to strategic partnership. But this dramatic change has failed in one respect–it has left the Transnistrian conflict unresolved. Victory by a pro-Russian communist government in Moldova’s February 2001 elections has all but exhausted any possibilities of political change, and even a newly established “strategic partnership” between Moldova and Russia has failed to contribute to any significant progress in negotiations.

Since the existing framework for negotiations is apparently incapable of ensuring any favorable outcome in the negotiations, even despite the current rapprochement between Moldova and Russia and the strategic partnership between Russia and the West, then it is clearly time for a new approach, one in which the EU plays a more central role.

The current negotiating format provides a dominant role for Russia; indeed, Moscow controls multiple seats at the negotiating table. In addition to being one of the mediators, Russia is able to veto OSCE initiatives and to influence Ukraine. In addition, most of the separatist leaders, including the self-proclaimed “president of Transnistria,” are citizens of Russia. The breakaway republic itself is, arguably, a product of Russian power politics in the region. It has always been heavily dependent on Russian political, economic and military support.

The lack of any progress in the Transnistrian settlement suggests the following: either Russia is incapable of influencing Transnistria in order to stabilize the region, or Moscow has no interesting in seeing the conflict settled.

Russia itself is claiming that it was unable to withdraw its troops before the OSCE-agreed deadline because of opposition from the separatist regime in Transnistria. Moscow has also tried to make any future withdrawal of its troops conditional on the absence of “technical obstacles.” Formal opposition to any withdrawal of Russian troops by the pro-Russian separatists in Moldova, it should be noted, could be interpreted by Russia as one of these “technical obstacles.” That opens the way to a prolonged Russian military presence in Moldova.

Given this evidence of Russian intransigence, and against the background of NATO’s and the EU’s looming enlargement, the West’s indifference to the Transnistria conflict is difficult to explain. Indeed, the West’s stake in the conflict is becoming larger.

Perhaps it would not be too fanciful to propose that the worth of the new strategic partnerships between Russia, on one hand, and both the EU and NATO, on the other, might be demonstrated by a joint effort aimed at stabilizing a region which should no longer be thought of as part of Russia’s “near abroad”–but also as an “immediate neighborhood” of an enlarged Europe? Russia might thereby prove its worth as part of the solution (rather than being part of the problem), while the EU could demonstrate its ability to solve an “old” conflict using the “new” foreign and security policy instruments of a united Europe.

Nicu Popescu is the editor of the “European Integration of Moldova” Web Project.