The Enemy Within: Moscow’s Hand Seen in Transdniester Moves

Talks on the long-running dispute between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniester – talks that carried great momentum and bore the promise of a long-awaited solution to the conflict – broke off in late May without much progress toward a settlement.  In fact, the two sides appear further from a resolution now than at any point in the past few years.  The cold war within Moldova continues to put a damper on Chisinau’s hopes for greater integration with Europe and the economic benefits that would come with closer ties between the West and Europe’s poorest country.

The talks were scuttled by two seemingly unrelated developments: a political crisis in Chisinau that resulted in the fall of Prime Minister Vlad Filat’s government in the run up to the talks; and untenable demands made by the breakaway government in Tiraspol.  But a closer look suggests an all too familiar hidden hand pulling the strings that keep Moldova mired in instability.

Filat was forced to resign after losing a no confidence vote in the Moldovan parliament surrounding the resignation of Moldova’s chief prosecutor, Valeriu Zubco.  Filat demanded Zubco’s ouster after the prosecutor refused to investigate a hunting trip that resulted in the death of one of the participants.  Zubco was a party to the trip, and hid his own weapon from authorities in an attempt to conceal his involvement.  Zubco resigned, but his Democratic Party took its revenge by first calling for the no confidence vote, then through the Constitutional Court blocking Filat’s attempt to serve as interim Prime Minister and to run for reelection in the subsequent vote.  The Democratic Party did not have enough votes to win the no confidence vote on its own, however, joining with Moldova’s Communists to form the winning coalition.

Taking advantage of the chaos in the Moldovan camp, Transdniestran authorities used the so-called 5+2 talks – consisting of Moldova, Transdniester, the European Union, OSCE, Ukraine, the US, and Russia – to air for the first time its demand to locate its parliament in the city of Bender, situated on the western (Moldovan) bank of the Dniester River.  Besides being a blatant land grab by Transdniestran authorities, the choice of Bender is symbolic, being the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1992 war between the sides.  The proposal effectively ended the talks before they began.

Looking back at the experience of other former Soviet republics, it is not hard to see the Kremlin’s playbook being executed in the Transdniester conflict.  Take Georgia, for example.  A civil war soon after independence did not settle the status of the disputed provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Russia moved to fill the void, opening consulates in the provinces and issuing Russian passports by the bushel.  This created a demographic pretext for Russian troops to move ostensibly to protect a troubled “Russian” minority in the regions.  Russia then upped the ante by sending combat troops to replace peacekeepers, fomenting a rash reaction from Georgia.  A short summer war later, and Moscow was in de facto control of two newly minted “nations” in the provinces, recognized by the Kremlin and practically no other country.

Moldova appears to be careening toward a very similar fate.

Earlier this year, Russia offered to establish a consulate in the Russian-speaking Transdniester.  Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti wisely said no, saying that Russian peacekeeping troops stationed in the region since the 1990s must be removed first.  But the Kremlin doesn’t take “no” easily, and opened an unofficial consulate which – surprise – has started handing out Russian passports.  The paratroopers can’t be far behind.

Moldova’s political leaders have recently moved to put political turmoil on the back burner, joining forces to give the office of Prime Minister to Iurie Leanca – a Filat ally who had been filing the post temporarily.  Leanca inherits a somewhat diminished hand than Filat had in dealing with Moscow and Tiraspol, and badly needs to assure a wary Europe that Moldova’s political strife is behind it.  He must act fast before the Transdniester question gets a permanent solution imposed on Chisinau by Moldova’s old Soviet masters.

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