Moldova - the Switzerland solution?

At the OSCE summit 10 years ago this week, Russia and NATO agreed a deal on troop and armament withdrawals from Moldova. It remains unratified, as Russia still has a military presence there. But if it follows through with reform, things may start looking up for this tiny country caught in a frozen conflict, considers Louis O’Neill
4 December 2009

“The Istanbul Commitments.”  It’s not Turks getting married.  Or an Irish soul band that’s lost its way.  Or even the title of a spy movie in which Matt Damon chases foreign troops and weapons out of occupied former Soviet territories, although that’s a bit closer. 

With the conclusion of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s XVIIth Council of Ministers in Athens this week, it’s now been exactly ten years since those “commitments” were made (or not made, or made and then unmade) at the OSCE’s Summit when Turkey held the organization’s rotating Chairmanship-in-Office.  At bottom, the Istanbul Commitments represent a linkage between Russia’s withdrawal of its troops and massive stockpiles of armaments from Moldova and Georgia (its ostensible “commitments”) and the ratification by NATO countries of the Adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (A/CFE), which would, among other things, regulate weapons located on Russia’s “flanks,” in countries that didn’t exist when the original CFE was ratified.

The Athens agora has ended, once again, without a final political declaration or any consensus statement on Moldova among the 56 OSCE participating States.  This is in part because the Russian Federation insists that it has long ago completely fulfilled any commitments it may have undertaken by withdrawing all CFE-limited weapons from the former Soviet republics.  Moscow was also given an escape hatch at the 2002 OSCE Ministerial in Porto – the group’s last annual meeting to achieve consensus – where Russia’s withdrawal was welcomed “provided necessary conditions are in place.”  Apparently, those elusive conditions have been missing for the last seven years and consequently so has NATO’s will to ratify the A/CFE.  

And so some 20,000 tons of Soviet-era ammunition languish at the Colbasna depot in Transnistria, guarded by Russian troops, while the status-quo in Transnistria itself is guarded by tripartite “peacekeeping” contingents from Russia, Transnistria and Moldova.  Chisinau has once again made its annual request – this time by new Foreign Minister Iurie Leanca – that Russia withdraw its military presence from constitutionally neutral Moldova and that the “peacekeepers” be replaced by an internationalized observer force.  This frustrating, but unavoidable, kabuki will continue at every OSCE Ministerial for the foreseeable future, as will the political “Groundhog Day” that is the 5+2 settlement process.  As exasperating as these modalities may be, they are the only show in town.

That is, unless the situation on the ground somehow changes. 

Moldova has advanced the rhetoric of European integration for years, but without rolling up its sleeves to do the hard and systematic work of reform that is a prerequisite for even being considered by an expansion-weary Brussels for the membership track.  In vain, experts have long argued that Moldova could speed things up and simultaneously chip away at the Transnistrian impasse by making itself a successful and attractive country – both to its people living across the Nistru and to fastidious European bureaucrats – and thus gain a shot at accession in our lifetime.

Now, Moldova’s Alliance for European Integration is trying to live up to its name with real steps towards Europe.  This movement will only intensify should Marian Lupu be elected president on December 7, despite his careful cultivation of Kremlin contacts and overtures to the party of power, United Russia.  The new Moldovan government has recognized the need to do what Leanca called “its homework” by creating a modern country with a favorable investment climate, rule of law, independent judiciary, respect for human rights and freer media landscape. 

Refreshingly, Prime Minister Vlad Filat has stated unequivocally that the solution to the Transnistrian conflict lies “in Chisinau and it depends directly on the living conditions, rights and freedoms that citizens from the right bank of the Nistru River will have…it is very hard when one cannot provide a clear and attractive alternative for those from Transnistria.”  Even russophobic Acting President Mihai Ghimpu is talking the talk:  “The democratization of Moldova will constitute an attractive model for the residents of the [Transnistrian] region and this will strengthen trust between the two banks of the Nistru.”  These are encouraging sentiments, and time will tell whether the new crew will be able to couple words with actions more convincingly than its predecessors.

Presently, portentous advances are being made toward a new corner of the European Union lying just across the Prut, with unpredictable consequences for Transnistrian settlement.   After years of Romania-bashing by the Moldovan Communists, the fitful Bucharest-Chisinau love affair has once again blossomed.  Of greatest moment, perhaps, is the signing in November of a Convention on Small-Scale Border Traffic, which will be coming into force shortly.  By most estimates it will allow more than a million Moldovans – easily a quarter of the population – who live within 50 kilometers of the common border to travel visa-free an equal distance into Romania.  Visa-free travel is, of course, the holy grail of EU accession goodies, and this deal represents a major step for Moldova, particularly as the travel band could easily be widened to include all of Romania if things go smoothly.

At the same time, Romanian President Traian Basescu has fired another salvo in the on-going passport war among Russia, Ukraine and Romania over who can absorb the most Moldovans.  The blunt Basescu modified the Romanian Citizenship Law to simplify and speed up the naturalization procedures for a broad category of people in Moldova.  The new maximum five-month waiting period to receive a passport will, in Basescu’s words, “make them feel that the mother country has not abandoned them.”  There are currently nearly a million Moldovan applications for Romanian citizenship pending, which dwarfs the estimated 150,000 Russian passports issued to residents of Transnistria, although as a proportion of the population the percentages are quite similar.  Ukraine is a distant third in this contest, with perhaps at most 100,000 passports granted to people on both sides of Nistru.

A series of smaller actions of rapprochement have taken place in rapid-fire succession as well.  Romania is advocating the inclusion of Moldova in the Western Balkans group of countries, whose pre-accession preparations are far ahead of the undeniably post-Soviet Moldova.  It also offered the new government in Chisinau $35 million to help weather the economic crisis and reduce its budget deficit.  One of the first official acts of Moldova’s governing Alliance was to reverse a two-year-old law which forbade certain classes of public servants, including politicians, from having dual citizenship (about one-fifth of Moldova’s 101 parliamentarians carry Romanian passports).  And not even the tiniest details are escaping the newfound friendship across the Prut:  the present leadership in Chisinau just changed the language signs on all government websites from “Moldovan” (a Soviet construct cultivated for years to create a new identity in its Bassarabian vassals) to “Romanian.”  This despite the fact that the country’s constitution still calls the language “Moldovan.”  In the same spirit, the hefty 120 euro fee for Romanian residence permits has been annulled and Bucharest has pledged to open a pair of new consulates in Moldova.

In light of all this, progress now seems possible on the long-stalled Political and Border Treaties between Moldova and Romania.  Ratification of the latter document, in particular, would go a long way towards easing Russian concerns over Romanian revanchism by providing an updated legal undergirding for Moldova’s western border.  It would also remove one of the (many) stumbling blocks to real Transnistrian talks, given how left-bank suspicions of Romania were further inflamed following accusations of Bucharest’s involvement in the violence around Moldova’s April elections.

All of these steps hardly ensure Moldova a place at the European table, but they might pique Russia’s interest in unfreezing talks on Transnistrian settlement before the situation gets “worse” – possibly at some intermediate position between the 2003 Kozak Plan and the Moldovan “package” proposal of 2007.  Moscow well understands that the demographic realities of right-bank Moldova reveal the younger generation heading west, not east, while the older cohort, nostalgic for Soviet days, is inexorably leaving the stage each year.  The Kremlin is adept at shaping and co-opting to its advantage processes that it cannot halt or block.  The timing is particularly important, because radical elements in Moldova are with increasing volume advocating for cutting Transnistria loose, and then freed from the burden of its historical baggage, accelerating towards Europe.  While this extreme position is too simple by half and would not find support today in any capital, including Chisinau, it underscores that Moscow’s ability to use Transnistria as leverage over the whole of Moldova may reach, or have reached, its high-water mark.

At the end of the day there are but five possible outcomes of the nearly twenty-year Transnistrian stalemate, all centering on where, geopolitically, to put this confounding sliver of territory.

First, the two banks can be reunited with respect for Moldova’s territorial integrity and sovereignty but with a special status for Transnistria.  This is the official position of all the recognized actors, and rightly so, both legally and practically. 

Second, the region could somehow achieve its long-sought and oft-proclaimed independence.  But even putting aside the barriers to international recognition, it is unlikely that Transnistria could be viable as a self-sustaining state; its debt to Gazprom alone is already approaching the $2 billion mark and it looks constantly to Moscow for political, military and financial support. 

Third, Transnistria could in some future scenario be recognized as a part of the Russian Federation.  Tiraspol may claim to wish for this outcome and is already well along with harmonizing its legislation with Russia’s, but this path would create enormous logistical and political hassles for Moscow, which scarcely needs another Kaliningrad across Ukraine in the distant south.

Fourth, that same neighbouring Ukraine could absorb the territory, but this is equally unhelpful, untoward and unlikely given Kiev’s issues in Crimea, Ruthenia and all around. 

And lastly, the current, relatively pain-free, non-violent status quo can continue, punctuated by the occasional staged provocation, righteous indignation and foot-stamping, but without the need for the actors – large and small – to figure out exactly what to do with Transnistria.

The former “foreign minister” of Transnistria once told me, “if Moldova were like Switzerland, we’d all sign up to join tomorrow.”  The best way to fulfill the promise of the Istanbul Commitments and to resolve the conflict peacefully is for Moldova to persuade its left-bank population, gradually and carefully, through actions and not empty rhetoric, that it offers the best hope for their children’s future.  A start has been made.  Now comes the need for follow-through on real reform before next year’s proposed OSCE Summit in Astana.


Louis O’Neill was Ambassador and Head of Mission of the OSCE Mission to Moldova 2006-2008

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