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Progress Stalls on Moldova-Transnistria Conflict

Progress Stalls on Moldova-Transnistria Conflict

On March 5, 2013, the pro-Western government coalition in Moldova collapsed, compounding the significant difficulties already facing the settlement of the conflict over the separatist region of Transnistria, one of the so-called frozen conflicts dating back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moldova’s current political crisis further diminishes the opportunities to revive the positive momentum that clearly existed after fall 2011, when official talks between the conflicting parties resumed through a multilateral settlement process.

This momentum had been triggered by the so-called Meseberg memorandum (.pdf) of June 2010, in which Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev pledged in principle to work toward a joint European Union-Russian resolution of the Transnistria conflict; political changes within Moldova and Transnistria had also pushed the process forward. The momentum continued, albeit at a slower pace, through late last year amid a degree of high-level interest in the conflict not seen over the past decade. On Nov. 29, 2012, the European Parliament published a report on the conflict on the same day that the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, began a two-day visit to Moldova, during which he praised the country’s commitment to EU integration.

That day also saw a meeting in Dublin of the participants of the so-called 5+2 talks on the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict -- Moldova and Transnistria, as the parties to the conflict; Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as mediators and guarantors; and the EU and U.S. as observers. The event marked the first anniversary of the formal resumption of negotiations as well as the conclusion of the Irish OSCE chairmanship’s engagement in the negotiations. 

A week later, at the Dublin Ministerial Council of the OSCE, all OSCE member states were able, for the first time in years, to issue a joint statement on the Transnistrian settlement process expressing their satisfaction with the progress achieved in 2012 and their expectation that 2013 would see “advancement of the negotiations on all three baskets of the agreed agenda: socio-economic issues, general legal and humanitarian issues and human rights, and a comprehensive settlement, including institutional, political and security issues.”

Yet, just two months later, in February 2013, after the first round of 5+2 negotiations under the Ukrainian OSCE chairmanship, this optimism seemed to have all but evaporated. After the conclusion of the talks in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, the chairmanship’s special representative for conflicts, Ambassador Andrii Deshchytsia, issued a statement noting that the participants had taken “steps forward in discussing issues important to Chisinau [Moldova] and Tiraspol [Transnistria] and the ways to solve them.” In other words, the only tangible result from more than 15 months of official talks remains an April 2012 agreement on the “Principles and Procedures for the Conduct of Negotiations” and a comprehensive agenda, with little if any progress on implementing that agenda.

All partners in the 5+2 process have an undeniable long-term interest in, and commitment to, the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. In the short and medium term, however, this often amounts to preventing the deterioration of the status quo. It is crucial in this context to manage the very real risks of political instability in Chisinau and increasing fragility in Tiraspol. At the same time, achieving a settlement of the Transnistrian conflict also requires stabilizing relations among the OSCE, Russia and the Ukraine on the one hand and the U.S. and EU on the other. Put differently, the mediators, guarantors and observers have a keen interest in the long-term viability of state institutions in Moldova and Transnistria, and thus need to work in the short and medium term to make such an outcome feasible.

Concretely, this means increased efforts to manage the ongoing government crisis in Chisinau and to prevent it from having direct and lasting negative consequences for the settlement process. Beyond managing the immediate crisis, and possibly other future crises, establishing sustainable state institutions through a future settlement requires a careful balancing act among all the parties involved, and a genuine effort to find a settlement that respects vital red lines on all sides. Privately, and for the most part also in public, all parties accept the need to for a solution that respects Moldovan sovereignty and territorial integrity and offers Transnistria a “special status” within Moldova. Yet beyond these general commitments, details are at best sketchy, and it is not even clear that Transnistria and Moldova themselves, or their international partners, have fully worked out what exactly any of this may mean concretely.

Nonetheless, a number of parameters for a settlement are apparent. Russia will not accept Moldovan membership in NATO at any point in the future; will require concrete assurances regarding the impact of Moldova’s participation in EU initiatives such as the third energy package; and will seek substantial measures for the protection of Russians and the Russian language in a future reintegrated Moldova. For its part, Moldova cannot agree to having its prospects for closer integration with and future membership in the EU curtailed. Finally, Transnistrian independence or its status as a Kaliningrad-style Russian exclave is all but anathema in policy circles in Washington, Brussels, Kiev, Chisinau and Vienna.

The absence of immediate progress in actual status negotiations thus should also be seen as an opportunity for all sides to build their capacity to engage constructively in the 5+2 talks, and for the mediators, guarantors and observers to clarify their own positions. Ukraine’s OSCE chairmanship in 2013 provides a unique window of opportunity to build and enhance communication among the U.S. and EU, Ukraine, and Russia, especially in order to secure a commitment from Moscow to a constructive 5+2 process. This means recognizing that Russia has a stake in the conflict without prioritizing Russian interests over those of the parties to the conflict or other partners in the settlement process.

The task is not without challenges, but these challenges can, and must, be confronted in order to prevent the continuation, and possible deterioration, of what has remained an unresolved conflict for more than two decades. /World Politics Review/


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