A syndrome of impunity characterizes Transnistria’s attitude toward the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the lead international actor in the Transnistria conflict-management and -resolution process. With Moscow’s support, Tiraspol is continually stretching the limits of the OSCE’s tolerance of Transnistrian breaches of the ground rules of this process (see Parts One and Two, EDM, July 17, 22). Several recent episodes provide a representative snapshot of the politics and the psychology of this relationship.
On July 11, Transnistria’s representative, Leonid Manakov, delivered a speech during an official session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, seeking observer status for Transnistria—a form of international quasi-recognition. Manakov is the head of the “Transnistrian Republic’s Official Representation in the Russian Federation,” which opened in January this year in downtown Moscow. The Moldovan government protested against the existence of this office more than once, and also over the Geneva speech. The OSCE kept silent, although both of Tiraspol’s moves contravene its status in the OSCE-led negotiating process. On July 12, Chisinau protested against Tiraspol’s decree that tightens the restrictions on movement across “Transnistria’s state border” (demarcation line within Moldova) by “foreign citizens” (i.e., Moldova’s citizens). The OSCE remained silent again, although it officially promotes free movement on the negotiating agenda.
At the same time, the OSCE Mission has even-handedly urged both “sides” to refrain from holding military exercises in the buffer zone, although it is Transnistria that routinely holds such exercises, sometimes jointly with Russian troops. Most recently, Tiraspol militarized its unlawful “border” checkpoints (on the demarcation line from the rest of Moldova) and installed additional “Transnistrian border troops” there. The OSCE Mission does not make an issue of all this, possibly for fear of exposing the organization’s incapacity to react effectively (Mfa-pmr.org, President.gos.pmr.org, July 11, 12; Moldpres, July 11, 12, 26; RFE/RL, July 24).
The OSCE Mission tolerates all this passively because Russia is the real actor behind Tiraspol’s moves. It is Russia that is hosting Transnistria’s representation in Moscow, Russia that co-opted Manakov into its delegation in Geneva—giving Tiraspol the floor there—and it is Russia that regularly conducts joint exercises of its troops with Transnistrian-flagged troops (themselves integrated into Russia’s command chain). The OSCE’s internal system, however, precludes the organization and its field missions from taking positions contrary to Russia’s interests on European security affairs (participant countries may do so in their own name within the OSCE, but not the organization or its representatives). Unable to cope with Tiraspol’s day-to-day provocations at the tactical level, and gagged by Russia’s veto, the OSCE presides over a negotiating process that consolidates Transnistria’s functional separation from Moldova.
The OSCE, however, is also a proactive contributor to this process. The current name of that process is the Berlin 2016 Package of “small steps,” which OSCE diplomats work to complete and develop further. This process requires unilateral Moldovan socio-economic and legal concessions to Tiraspol, cementing at the same time the political and military status quo that favors Tiraspol and Moscow. They win thereby on both counts.
The primary origins of this process are traceable to the measures proposed by Russia’s then–prime minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2009 as preconditions to any political resolution of the Transnistria conflict. Moscow went on to block the whole process from 2011 until 2016, the year of the OSCE’s German chairmanship and final year of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister. Steinmeier’s small-steps package, coordinated with Russia ab initio, is more substance-filled and streamlined than Medvedev’s concept had been; but the basic rationale remains that of meeting Russian preconditions to a resolution of the Transnistria conflict. Another Russia-friendly diplomat, Franco Frattini, was appointed by the OSCE’s Italian and Slovakian chairmanships in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to promote the Berlin Package (see Parts One and Two).
Russia’s tactic consists of adding precondition upon precondition to withdrawing its forces from Moldova’s territory. The OSCE’s 1999 summit decisions (not vetoed by Russia) had stipulated the early, complete, unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces. In 2002, however, the OSCE decided, at Russia’s insistence, to introduce the notion of “conditions,” without specifying what they were, thus leaving them up to Russia’s interpretation. In 2003, the OSCE simply eliminated the withdrawal deadline. From 2005 onward, German diplomacy under Steinmeier argued, in the OSCE and elsewhere, that Russian “peacekeeping” troops are a stabilizing factor and should remain in place (their illegal status notwithstanding). In 2009, Russia introduced Medvedev’s concept (see above), a precursor to Berlin’s 2016 “small steps” and their current expansion.
Meanwhile, Russia has added the “permanent neutrality of Moldova under reliable guarantees” as yet another precondition to the resolution of the Transnistria conflict. Russia refuses to withdraw its troops until a political solution is agreed upon. And that solution must (under the Russian-written ground rules of the 5+2 format) be “acceptable to both sides,” i.e. subject to Tiraspol’s veto, which conveniently frees Russia from the onus of using its own veto.
It is, therefore, chimerical to believe, and misleading to pretend, that satisfying Moscow on the Berlin Package would suffice to meet Russia’s preconditions for negotiating a political and military resolution of this conflict. Chisinau had apparently chosen to believe in this linkage during Vladimir Plahotniuc’s rule, but is reconsidering its view after the regime change. The small steps are not preconditions to a solution, but merely to starting negotiations toward a solution. The participants in the 5+2 negotiating format define the eventual solution as Transnistria’s return to Moldova with a “special status”—the euphemism for a negotiated federalization.
Russian and Western diplomacy in consonance employ that euphemism because federalization is anathema in Moldova. Even President Igor Dodon has acknowledged this fact, following the recent regime change in Chisinau. A long-time proponent of federalization, Dodon has now cast this goal aside, declining to be rushed into political negotiations and suggesting a slow-down instead (see EDM, July 18).
The Berlin Package is not a finite one but seemingly open-ended, now being referenced as “Berlin Plus.” Its “small steps” are a pied piper’s tune. It seeks to guide Moldova toward sovereignizing Transnistria in the form of a special status, pre-determining its elements without political negotiations, and without seeking a quid pro quo in the form of progress on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova’s territory.