The 5+2 group—Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United States, the European Union, Chisinau, Tiraspol, in this shape since 2005—is officially titled as “Permanent Conference for Political Questions in the Framework of the Negotiating Process on the Transdniestrian Settlement” (its Russian-defined terms of reference). Even under these terms, the 5+2 group is officially tasked to promote and negotiate a political solution. However, this group has in recent years been downgraded and used for promoting socio-economic measures with legal consequences in Tiraspol’s favor Those “small steps” in the Berlin Package (see Part Three, EDM July 29) have become the heart of the 5+2 group’s work. They are officially promoted as “measures to improve the life of the inhabitants on both sides,” as if to redefine the 5+2 from a political-diplomatic to a social-work forum. Some residents might benefit in some peripheral ways, but the main beneficiaries are Transnistria’s authorities.
The 5+2 annual meeting this coming October seems set to consider the possible recognition in some form of Transnistria’s distinctive banking system, its telephone network, and its railroad. These would become the next “small steps” under the generic, open-ended Berlin Package. The OSCE looks forward to the approval of those measures in a “result-oriented meeting” (Mfa.gospmr.org, July 24; Moldpres, July 24, 25).
The socio-economic “small steps” began producing legal consequences already in 2018: recognizing distinctive Transnistrian car license plates for international traffic, erasing Moldova’s law on private agricultural land ownership in the Tiraspol-controlled territory (thus turning Moldovan farmers into conditional tenants), renouncing Chisinau’s earlier legal jurisdiction over the “Moldovan”-language schools that use the Latin script (these schools are merely tolerated now, and barely) (see EDM, July 23, 2018; September 20, 26, 2018).
Such steps are cumulatively eroding Moldova’s formally recognized titles to sovereignty in Transnistria. The steps currently under discussion on banking, the telephone system, and the railroad, could advance this trend further. While piecemeal, the trend points toward a de-sovereignization of Moldova and, correspondingly, sovereignization of Transnistria.
Those arrangements (and the planned ones ahead) are, ostensibly, bilateral ones between Chisinau and Tiraspol under the OSCE’s mediation. Yet, they need moral-political blessing in the 5+2 framework in order to be seen as legitimate—which, from Moldova’s standpoint, means the blessing of the EU and the US within that collective framework.
Brussels’s and Washington’s presence in this format is only symbolic. They are merely observers to the negotiations (they can look on and comment), a status inferior to that of Russia, the OSCE, and Ukraine as full participants. But the OSCE—outwardly the lead mediator—is not an independent actor, laboring as it does under Russia’s veto power inside the organization. Washington has, from time to time, worked around the 5+2 group, using instead the US-held post of OSCE Mission Chief to nudge Chisinau into the small steps of the Berlin process in 2017–2018. This confused Chisinau at the official level and disappointed Chisinau’s core pro-Western groups. Brussels is practicing its own economic diplomacy toward Transnistria, while the EU’s position in the 5+2 group follows Germany’s “small steps” policy. Germany also pursues its own policy, outside the 5+2 format; but Germany has recently entered the 5+2 format semi-officially by taking (from the US) the helm of OSCE’s Chisinau Mission and promoting the Berlin Package. Slovakia is chairing the OSCE in Vienna this year but has agreed to prolong the mandate of Moscow’s self-declared friend, Franco Frattini, as the OSCE chairmanship’s representative in these negotiations. Ukrainian diplomats, worried that a possible special status for Transnistria could set a precedent to be used against Ukraine, have nevertheless hunkered down in the 5+2 forum until now (RFE/RL, July 1).
The 5+2 forum has failed both to provide a genuine negotiating platform and to protect Moldova’s interests. Failure was unavoidable since Western diplomacy accepted Russia’s terms for this group’s composition and ground rules. From 2005 onward, Russia used this forum to imitate negotiations while Transnistria consolidated its de facto statehood. Western diplomacy went along passively for a decade but shifted to a more active stance from 2016 onward with the Berlin Package. This is a rare case (and the only case of a post-Soviet conflict) in which Russian and Western diplomacy seem to have worked out a consensus.
The official designation, “negotiating process,” correctly suggests that it is not “frozen.” It is crawling forward but in the wrong direction. A temporary, undeclared freeze would be the least bad option in this situation and could still be considered informally by some of the participants in the 5+2 negotiating format, ahead of the annual meeting in October and the OSCE’s own year-end meeting.
Advancing this process any further is possible only at Moldova’s expense and to Russia’s and Transnistria’s continuing satisfaction. The OSCE’s institutional-bureaucratic interest drives it to “move forward” and “show results,” particularly by conference deadlines (twice in Bratislava this year). Berlin is also vested in this process in the context of its own policy toward Russia. But there is no discernible reason for Washington, Brussels or Kyiv to promote such a process. They could justifiably halt this process temporarily, for a thorough reconsideration of its premises and its objectives. A pause for thought is long overdue, and it need not be termed a “freeze” even if it would amount to one.