Momentum Building for Transdniester Settlement

Representatives from Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniester met last month in Lviv, Ukraine, with mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the EU, the United States, Russia, and Ukraine in renewed talks seeking a settlement in the 20-year old conflict.  Transdniester, a Russian-speaking region on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine, split from Moldova in 1992 in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Roughly 2,500 troops evenly divided between Russia and the international community have kept the peace between the two sides since the break.

Late last year, Moldova rejected an offer from Russia to build a consulate in Transdniester.  Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti said flatly that Russian troops must first be withdrawn before the government in Chisinau would consider a greater official Russian presence in the region.  “Moldova will not give its agreement to Russia to open its general consulate in Tiraspol [the regional capital] until the Russian army has been withdrawn and the Transdniestrian problem has been resolved,” he said.  Timofti no doubt fears increased Russian involvement would be the first step toward Moscow’s eventual recognition of the province as an independent state – a fear that is well founded given Russia’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ukraine holds the chairmanship of the OSCE, and has declared finding a solution to the long-running dispute a top priority for its tenure.  Ukraine itself is divided along linguistic and cultural divides, so it knows well the issues involved in the dispute.  The EU’s and the United States’ geopolitical interests in the talks seem aimed at checking Russia’s influence in the former Soviet bloc, while the Kremlin seeks to maintain its military outpost in the Balkans and demonstrate its strength to other former satellites such as Ukraine and Georgia.

No breakthroughs occurred in Lviv.  Ukraine offered to host a bilateral meeting between leaders from both sides, and the parties agreed to meet with mediators again in May of this year.  In a statement following the talks, Andrii Deshchytsia, the OSCE Chair’s Special Representative for Conflicts, urged both sides to continue pushing for a settlement.

“Today we have taken steps forward in discussing issues important to Chisinau and Tiraspol and the ways to solve them. It is now up to all of us involved – mediators and observers, but most of all the two sides – to help accelerate the pace of progress,” Deshchytsia said.  “We can only approach a lasting political settlement by moving forward in areas where agreement is within reach, such as on freedom of movement, which has been intensively discussed in recent weeks. I urge both sides to refrain from taking any measures that could degrade the atmosphere as we work out the complex details of the issues before us.”

Deshchytsia was referring to a bilateral agreement in April of last year to reestablish train and car traffic between Moldova and Transdniester.  The sides also agreed to cooperate on health care issues and reopen telephone communications.  These are hugely positive steps that will only lead to a strengthening of cultural and economic ties between Moldovans on both sides of the Dniester River.

Moldova should continue to engage in bilateral and multilateral negotiations but should remain wary of efforts from any of the outside parties to pressure it into an agreement.  Chisinau has a powerful ally in German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on a visit earlier this year expressed Germany’s and by extension the West’s desire for increased ties to Moldova.  The public display of support from arguably Europe’s most influential government no doubt raised eyebrows in Moscow, increasing the urgency within the Kremlin to broker a deal in which Russia maintains its military, economic, and political influence in the region.

President Timofti’s forceful rejection of just such an effort last year shows that he has the political instincts and courage to stand up to Russia.  That is the easy part.  He must now show that he can manage a more subtle form of coercion – diplomatic pressure to make a deal.  No country recognizes Transdniester, so it is doubtful that full independence will be on the table in the discussions.  Like the travel and communications agreement, Chisinau must continue to base any future accord on the likelihood that it will increase ties, not cement divisions between the two sides.  Moldova’s ultimate goal of reunification must not be sacrificed in a shortsighted pursuit of international praise.  We are increasingly confident Timofti is on the right track.