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Moldova: Regional Tensions over Transdniestria
Moldova: Regional Tensions over Transdniestria
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
In Search Of A Solution
In Search Of A Solution
Report 157 / Europe & Central Asia

Moldova: Regional Tensions over Transdniestria

Resolving the Trandniestrian secessionist dispute in Moldova is vital to remove a potential source of chaos on the periphery of the expanding European Union, to implement an important part of the post-Cold War settlement, and to make Moldova itself a more viable state.

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Executive Summary

Resolving the Trandniestrian secessionist dispute in Moldova is vital to remove a potential source of chaos on the periphery of the expanding European Union, to implement an important part of the post-Cold War settlement, and to make Moldova itself a more viable state. Greater U.S. and EU engagement with the stalled peace process is essential to bring a settlement to this impoverished and unstable part of Europe.

Russia's support for the self-proclaimed and unrecognised Dniestrian Moldovan Republic (DMR) has prevented resolution of the conflict and inhibited Moldova's progress towards broader integration into European political and economic structures. In its recent and largely unilateral attempts to resolve the Transdniestrian conflict, Russia has demonstrated almost a Cold War mindset. Despite comforting rhetoric regarding Russian-European Union (EU) relations and Russian-U.S. cooperation on conflict resolution and peacekeeping within the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union (NIS), old habits appear to die hard. Russia remains reluctant to see the EU, U.S. or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) play an active role in resolving the conflict because Moldova is still viewed by many in Moscow as a sphere of exclusively Russian geopolitical interest.

It has not been difficult for Russia to exploit Moldova's political and economic instability for its own interests. Despite having accepted concrete deadlines for withdrawing its troops, Russia has repeatedly back-pedalled while trying to force through a political settlement that would have ensured, through unbalanced constitutional arrangements, continued Russian influence on Moldovan policymaking and prolongation of its military presence in a peacekeeping guise. It has so far been unwilling to use its influence on the DMR leadership to promote an approach to conflict resolution that balances the legitimate interests of all parties.

Ukrainian and Moldovan business circles have become adept at using the parallel DMR economy to their own ends, regularly participating in re-export and other illegal practices. Some have used political influence to prevent, delay, and obstruct decisions which could have put pressure on the DMR leadership to compromise. These include abolition of tax and customs regulations favourable to the illegal re-export business, enforcement of effective border and customs control, and collection of customs and taxes at internal "borders". 

With backing from Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan economic elites, the DMR leadership has become more assertive. Recognising that international recognition is unlikely, it has focused on preserving de facto independence through a loose confederation with Moldova. Unfortunately, DMR leaders -- taking advantage of contradictions in the tax and customs systems of Moldova and the DMR -- continue to draw substantial profits from legal and illegal economic activities including re-exports, smuggling and arms production.

The DMR has become a self-aware actor with its own interests and strategies, possessing a limited scope for independent political manoeuvre but an extensive web of economic and other links across Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, it remains heavily dependent on Russian political and economic support and does not like to put itself in a position where it must act counter to Russian policy. Russian and DMR interests often overlap but in some instances DMR leaders have been able to design and implement strategies to avoid Russian pressure, delay negotiations, obstruct Russian initiatives, and undermine Russian policies by playing up disagreements between the co-mediators and capitalising on alternative sources of external support.

Russia's most recent attempt to enforce a settlement -- the Kozak Memorandum in October and November 2003 -- has shown that its influence, while pervasive, has clear limits. Russia is unable to push through a settlement without the support of Moldova and the international community, especially key players such as the OSCE, EU, and the U.S. A comprehensive political settlement requires an approach that can bridge the differences between Russia and other key international actors while fairly considering the interests of both the Moldovan government and the DMR.

Despite an understanding that Russia should not be antagonised, the gravitational pull of European integration is strong in Moldova. Recently, even its communist leadership has stressed the need to do more to achieve that goal. The country has rarely been on Western radar screens during the last decade, however, and it will need more demonstrable EU and U.S. backing if it is to resist Russian political and material support for the DMR and Transdniestrian obstruction of the negotiation process. International actors must also help Moldova to secure its own borders against the illicit economic activities which keep Transdniestria afloat and affect its European neighbours as well.

The conflict can only be resolved if the international community uses its influence on Russia bilaterally and within the OSCE. Only then, and with a substantially more determined commitment to political, economic and administrative reform on its own part, will Moldova be able to realise its European aspirations. A comprehensive strategy towards Moldova, Ukraine and Russia within the EU's.

Chisinau/Brussels, 17 June 2004

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

In Search Of A Solution

Originally published in IWPR

Moldova is soon to become one of the European Union's newest neighbours. With the expected entry of Romania in 2007, the EU will share a long frontier with the poorest country in Europe, which suffers from an uneasy sense of identity and uncertain borders.

The unrecognised separatist region of Transdniester has been out of the control of Moldova's capital, Chisinau, since 1992 and is essentially a mafia-run fiefdom which survives thanks only to criminal profits and support from certain circles in Russia and Ukraine - and the security presence of the 14th Russian Army.

The region is a prime location for money laundering and the production and illegal export of weapons. Firearms produced in and trafficked from Transdniester are said to lack serial numbers, making them untraceable and therefore ideal for organised crime.

In the current situation, such activities can be conducted in and from Transdniester very easily and with impunity, as international law enforcement bodies are not allowed there, and international governmental and non-governmental organisations are unable to operate normally within its borders.

As a result, it is difficult to provide training for officials or provide expertise on legislation, awareness-raising campaigns and witness protection programmes relating to trafficking issues when the authorities are not recognised internationally and are resistant to international pressure and intervention.

The civil war in Moldova was relatively mild by post-Soviet standards when you consider the Georgian civil war, the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorny Karabakh, or the decade of implosion in Chechnya. But this does not make a long-term solution any easier to find.

A Russian attempt to break the deadlock, the so-called Kozak Memorandum of November 2003, foundered on two issues: the constitutional set-up of a reunited Moldovan state, and Russia's continued military presence in Transdniester.

Russian officials admitted afterwards that their negotiator Dmitry Kozak - an adviser to President Vladimir Putin - failed to get the necessary buy-in to the plan from Washington and the EU via the existing OSCE negotiating mechanism.

However, the EU's new European Neighbourhood Policy - which is designed to improve stability and security in areas soon to border on the EU following its expansion - has raised expectations in Moldova.

The European Commission will shortly be publishing an Action Plan for the country, which should contain clear benchmarks for the country for development of democracy, rule of law and human rights. After an initial period when Chisinau got a relatively good bill of health on this score, the 2003 local elections and continuing state harassment of journalists and media indicate a worrying trend.

A regime of visa sanctions against the Transdniestrian leadership, imposed in early 2003 in frustration with their failure to move the peace process forward, was intensified in July 2004 in reaction to Tiraspol's harassment of Moldovan-language schools.

Tensions also rose in the divided town of Tighina/Bendery in autumn 2004, when Transdniestrian militia seized control of a vital railway station.

The EU has a clear interest in helping to clean up the serious problems caused by poverty and endemic crime in Moldova, as both threaten to bring even greater problems with Romania's succession in perhaps fewer than three years' time.

And whether or not one believes Chisinau's claims that Transdniestrian arms are flowing to Caucasian rebels, it surely cannot be in Russia's long-term interests to allow the dispute to continue to fester.

At present, international actors are unwilling to invest resources in Moldova; the painful memory of last year's botched Kozak plan lingers.

What is needed is a joint EU-Russia effort to find a solution, in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy and also of Russian's 1999 commitment to withdraw its troops and equipment from Moldova, and specifically from Transdniestria.

The EU's designated new external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, has had some experience of the issue from her time as Chair-in-office of the OSCE in 2000.

Perhaps Brussels and Moscow will find the necessary time and energy to resolve this comparatively minor problem soon.