Apathy And Silence Over Trandsniester

By Jeremy Druker in Chisinau for ISN Security Watch

ISN, Switzerland
Aug 9 2007

While a series of rumors about secret plans to end Moldova’s frozen
conflict hint at progress, local apathy, misunderstanding and
international silence block the way forward.

After a flurry of talk this spring of secret plans and backroom deals
to end the "frozen conflict" over Moldova’s breakaway Transdniester
republic, past weeks have offered few hints that any real progress
is imminent. And despite attention in the international media,
the population at home remains in the dark over developments and
relatively apathetic about the notion of a settlement.

On 21 July, Moldova marked the 15th anniversary of the end of
the fighting over Transdniester (also Transnistria), a mostly
Russian-speaking region along the country’s border with Ukraine that
broke away in 1992, shortly after Moldova’s independence from the
Soviet Union. More than 1,000 people died in the resulting conflict,
which left the authorities in Tiraspol, the region’s capital, in
control of a sliver of territory along the left bank of the river
but without any international recognition.

Russia has kept 1,500 troops in Transdniester, ostensibly as
peacekeepers, but many believe – including the Moldovan government –
that the Russian presence is really intended to preserve the status
quo and protect a puppet regime willing to do Moscow’s bidding.

Talks have been at a standstill since spring 2006, with officials
in Tiraspol saying they will not participate until the interested
parties first sign a deal forbidding any pressure on Transdniester.

That demand came after Moldova had urged Ukraine to impose a new
customs regime for the separatist republic and Kiev had complied in
March 2006.

Wider ramifications The unresolved conflict has wider ramifications
for security in Europe. As long as Russia maintains troops in
Transdniester, against the wishes of Moldova, the US and NATO have
refused to ratify a 1999 version of the Conventional Forces in Europe
Treaty (CFE), which governs the deployment of non-nuclear arms on
the continent.

Saying Moscow would wait no longer, Russian President Vladimir Putin
announced earlier this month that Moscow would withdraw from the
treaty – a move many tied to US plans to station parts of a missile
defense system in Central Europe.

But in recent weeks, change has seemed in the offing, though not
necessarily change that would please governments in Western Europe or
the US. In June, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin met three times
with Putin, including a meeting on 22 June at the Russian president’s
residence in Novo-Ogarevo outside Moscow.

Few details emerged, but relations seemed improved from the coolness
prevalent since the two countries fell into disharmony over the 2003
Kozak Memorandum. That plan offered up a federalized state to end the
conflict, but Voronin rebuffed such intentions and then dramatically
reoriented Moldova toward EU integration.

After the meeting with Putin in Novo-Ogarevo, Voronin announced that
Chisinau would push for the resumption of talks as soon as possible in
the "Five Plus Two" format (Moldova, Transdniester, Russia, Ukraine,
and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, along
with observers from the US and EU).

A matter of "orientation," not ethnicity On the ground in Moldova,
most locals express frustration over the lack of a settlement, but
for a variety of reasons, they are not fixated with the issue to
the degree seen in other former Soviet states where conflicts also
remain frozen (Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, for example,
or Nagorno Karabakh in Armenia/Azerbaijan).

Most Moldovans will tell visitors that so much intermarriage over the
years and the mixing of the two populations have removed any "ethnic"
differences, and that even language presents no obstacles since
locals switch back and forth between Russian and Romanian/Moldovan
with few problems.

"There’s no ethnic animosity," says Dumitru Minzarari, a foreign and
security policy analyst at the Institute for Development and Social
Initiatives in Chisinau. "Even the authorities in Tiraspol don’t use
this argument anymore. They now stress the ‘different orientations’
of the two territories."

While Moldova aspires toward the EU and the West, people in
Transdniester, the argument goes, feel their future lies with Russia.

The Tiraspol Times, a publication that the authorities allegedly
support, recently published comments by Bogdan Diordiev, identified
as "a political organizer with good contacts in both communities"
that get to the heart of that viewpoint:

"Like it or not, Transnistria has an undeniable element of Russian
culture. You can’t change that, so it is best to just deal with it
and accept it. This dates back to its peculiar history, which is very
different from Moldova’s history, of course: For hundreds of years,
it has been Russian land," Diordiev told ISN Security Watch.

"Compare that with the almost non-existent ties to Moldova and
Romania. Has Transnistria ever been part of Moldova? Never. Has it
ever been part of Romania? Well, it was occupied for three or four
years in World War II, but that was against their will. It isn’t
right to occupy them again, and force them to be part of a country
that they don’t want to live in, against their will."

The way forward The new mayor of Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca of the
Liberal Party, tells ISN Security Watch that the key is to make Moldova
more attractive for citizens of Transdniester. "Then Transdniester
citizens would be willing to become citizens of Moldova. We need direct
dialogue with the citizens of Transdniester – they’ve been isolated."

Chirtoaca knows the situation well; as deputy director of the local
Helsinki Committee, he helped monitor the human rights situation in
Transdniester and met with those Moldova considers political prisoners.

"When Moldova has new leadership and the country begins to transform,
then I suspect the Transdniester youth (or what’s left of it) can
start to be drawn to reunification under Moldova’s terms," Fredo
Arias-King, an expert on Moldova and the founder of the academic
quarterly Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization,
tells ISN Security Watch.

Others say the right bank is already more attractive than the left,
and that more workers commute to Chisinau than vice versa. And that
anyway, talk of raising living standards is a long-term solution,
while action is necessary now.

"There is a danger if you wait too long, then the new generation will
be educated in this anti-Moldovan spirit, and it will be difficult
to reunite the two banks," says Minzarari.

There have already been reports that the new authorities have placed
a new emphasis on encouraging, perhaps financially, the formation
of pro-government youth groups in the same vein as those backed by
Putin in Russia.

Some also worry that further delay will solidify attachment to
the status quo among youth in Moldova, as well. "For the younger
generations, it was already so long ago that they don’t think about
it," says Yanina Cozari-Rozhkova, a professor at the Chisinau School
of Advanced Journalism.

"They don’t remember how we once lived together. If this conflict
isn’t solved in a few years and no one really cares, it won’t be a
problem to keep us divided," she told ISN Security Watch.

For commuters between the two regions or for those with family
or friends on one side or another, the payment of a fee to enter
Transdniester is an annoyance, rather than a cause to take up arms.

"People just care about customs problems when they want to visit
resort areas in Transdniester or to get through Transdniester to
Ukraine – otherwise, the conflict doesn’t affect their lives,"
said Cozari-Rozhkova.

RFE/RL recently cited a poll by the Institute for Public Policy in
which only 3.7 percent of Moldovans rated solving the Transdniester
conflict as most important among a list of priorities. And most people
haven’t heard anything about the various settlement options debated
now behind closed doors and in foreign media.

Some of those scenarios apparently being bandied about, however, could
radically change the political landscape in Moldova and affect people’s
daily lives. At face value, a deal that incorporates Transdniester
into the central government in the supposed name of peace might seem
like a good thing.

Ending the silence Yet critics see Voronin and his allies more
interested in creating a back-handed way for them to hold onto power
for generations to come.

Under one scenario that has been floated, both parliaments would
be dissolved and parallel elections held, with Transdniester
guaranteed around 20 seats in the new joint parliament and positions
in the government. Add the votes of the Communists to those of the
authorities in Tiraspol, and a pro-Russian majority could dominate
a joint parliament.

Some say that Voronin has already been laying the groundwork to sell
off a large stake in Moldova’s economy in return for such an agreement.

"…a frustrated Voronin is continually raising the price he would
pay for Putin’s consent to a deal that Moldova could tolerate,"
wrote analyst Vladimir Socor in The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia
Daily Monitor on 29 June. "… that price may now involve a takeover,
perhaps wholesale, of Moldova’s economy by Russian interests."

According to Socor, who obtained a leaked version of a possible
agreement, Chisinau had earlier offered a set number of posts in
federal institutions to Tiraspol officials but no to avail.

Worries over the non-transparent way that negotiations appear to be
taking place have many saying that the EU and US should lean harder
on Moscow to work with all the involved parties on a peace deal and
not pressure Moldova into giving away too much for a solution.

The EU is paying more attention these days. On 12 July, the European
Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the EU to
become a full participant in the negotiations over a settlement. The
resolution also slammed the "the repression, harassment and persecution
of citizens and NGOs currently taking place in Transdniester, which
is the work of the totalitarian Transdniestrian regime."

But it is still not enough, says Minzarari. "The international
community must be tougher on Russia," he says, arguing that keeping
silent is encouraging Moscow to go even further.

"The Russians say, ‘look, we’ve been here 15 years and there hasn’t
been any major incident,’ while the Moldovans say, ‘there hasn’t been
any major incident for 15 years, so why are you here?’"

Jeremy Druker is executive director, editor in chief and one of the
founders of Transitions Online.

And for their part, officials at the US State Department said they
had been discussing the idea of a multinational peacekeeping force
for Transdniester with European allies.