International organizations, as well as an indifferent U.S. State Department, are proving unable or unwilling to deal with “linguistic cleansing” in Trans-Dniester. All players involved are treating the Russian authorities’ forcible closure of the last six Latin-script schools as an unwelcome distraction from negotiations toward Moldova’s “federalization” in partnership with those same Trans-Dniester Russian authorities. The United States, European Union, OSCE, and Council of Europe, in unison with Moscow, are urging “both parties” (the usual formula equalizing Chisinau and Tiraspol) to return to the “five-sided” negotiations, (Russia-Ukraine-OSCE-Chisinau-Tiraspol), a format that consigns Moldova to Russian control while excluding the West.
Western diplomats and international institutions are merely asking that Tiraspol reinstate those six Moldovan schools, for a quick return to business-as-usual, but the school issue is a symptom of the larger issue of linguistic russification of Trans-Dniester’s Moldovan and Ukrainian indigenous populations.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote to Moldova’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Andrei Stratan, on July 30, expressing concern over the assault on schools. Powell’s letter warned Trans-Dniester’s leaders that they might face isolation, unless they return to the “existing, international negotiating format.” The message seemed to miss its address, since Trans-Dniester and Moscow strongly favor that negotiating format, which Moldova is now desperate to escape. The letter promised to “restore the positive course toward a political settlement” within that format, although no one considers that route to be “positive,” including the State Department. Powell’s message (as published in Chisinau) failed to warn Trans-Dniester over the linguistic cleansing (Moldpres, July 30; Vremya [Chisinau], July 31).
In a statement to the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna on July 29, the U.S. delegation urged the Russian government to “use its influence with Trans-Dniester’s leadership, many of whom are citizens of Russia, to halt their current provocations.” With this, the statement acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, that any “federalization” would be a gross misnomer as one contracting party represents, and is fully influenced by, a foreign power. Asserting against all evidence that “the existing five-sided talks remain the relevant mechanism,” the U.S. statement expressed readiness “also” to give favorable consideration to Chisinau’s proposal for an international conference on the Trans-Dniester conflict (OSCE press release, July 29).
According to Moldova’s ambassador to Washington, Mihai Manoli, the U.S. State Department had favored such a conference with participation by the U.S., the EU, Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova, thereby including the West and reducing Tiraspol’s role. Such a conference had been envisaged as recently as May. But, according to Manoli, “certain parties” — evidently meaning Moscow — had thwarted the proposed conference (Basapress, Flux, July 29).
On July 28 the European Union’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, telephoned Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin personally; and two days later, the EU member countries’ Chisinau ambassadors made a common demarche to Voronin. While criticizing the assault on schools, the EU asked Voronin to resume negotiations with Trans-Dniester. Voronin replied, “We cannot remain hostage to that unlawful regime and those backing it [i.e., Moscow]. We can no longer tolerate its abuse of our citizens and our children. As president, I cannot betray my country’s interests.” Voronin insisted on internationalization of the negotiating process.
On July 31, Solana appealed to Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, “in view of Russia’s role as a key mediator . . . to persuade the Trans-Dniester leadership to halt their campaign against Moldovan schools and to return to the five-sided format of talks” (HR CFSP communique, July 31). The appeal reflected the EU’s reluctance to become active in settlement efforts. By terming Russia a “key mediator,” the appeal also unwittingly acknowledged that the OSCE and Ukraine play figurehead roles.
In a July 31 statement, the Council of Europe’s Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer decried the “dramatic deterioration” of the situation with the schools, and termed the Trans-Dniester authorities’ actions “frightening” and “simply inhuman.” However, Schwimmer merely urged tolerance and more efforts toward a peaceful resolution (CE communique, July 31). On July 26, the chairman of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Petersen, referred to Moldovans in Trans-Dniester as a national “minority,” apparently taking a cue from U.S. ambassador Stephan Minikes’ July 22 misstatement to the OSCE Permanent Council.
Effective from August 1, the Moldovan government has introduced restrictions on the export operations of Trans-Dniester industrial and trading companies that do not pay Moldovan taxes. Such exports will no longer receive certificate-of-origin documents from Moldova’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry; may no longer be cleared by Moldovan customs; and may no longer be transported on Moldovan railways. The government’s decision, signed and publicized internationally on July 29, “temporarily” suspends the privileges that the same Moldovan government temporarily made available in June 2003. The main condition required in 2003 was registration with Moldova’s legitimate authorities and submitting shipments to Moldovan customs inspection, without having to pay Moldovan taxes.
Trans-Dniester’s main export destinations are Russia and “Cyprus” (i.e., Cyprus-registered Russian firms), which account for slightly more than 50% of the value of Trans-Dniester’s officially registered exports. Tiraspol is denouncing Chisinau’s decision as a “blockade,” and threatens retaliatory steps. For its part, Chisinau points out that it has merely suspended privileges granted earlier; that Trans-Dniester authorities have completely thwarted Moldovan customs inspection, thus breaching the 2003 arrangements; and that any “blockade” is out of question as long as Trans-Dniester freely, though unlawfully, exports its goods via Ukraine.
Trans-Dniester is one of Europe’s major channels of contraband and money laundering. Chisinau’s restrictions may somewhat hinder those practices in the unlikely event that Tiraspol accepts Moldovan customs inspections on its territory. However, the real solution would be to introduce customs control on the Trans-Dniester-controlled sector of the Moldova-Ukraine border. The EU, reluctant to challenge Russia’s proxies in Trans-Dniester, has asked Kyiv since 2001 to allow the introduction of joint customs posts on the Ukrainian side of that border sector. Kyiv refuses, partly to please Moscow, and partly because some Ukrainian authorities receive a cut for facilitating trade.