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Will the Kremlin sacrifice its long-standing ally to get more weight in Europe? (Source: Copyright www.kremlin.ru This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence.)

The deadlock in conflict resolution in Transnistria – as ‘frozen’ as it was – seems to start ‘melting’. It was about a year ago that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tabled an exchange proposal to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Russia would facilitate the resumption of the 5+2 negotiations on Transnistria (Transnistria, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and OSCE, plus US and EU as observers) in exchange for setting up a joint EU-Russia council where Moscow would have a say in some EU decision-making procedures. Both sides stressed that their conditions should be satisfied first and rejected any speculations about preconditions.

It is not surprising that after 20 years of Russian support to Transnistria, there is a lot of scepticism about whether Russia’s willingness to restart 5+2 talks is genuine. But after a year of gentle manoeuvring, the Russian side demonstrated its readiness to resume negotiations. A couple of informal meetings in 5+2 format have been held in April and May. The first round of consultations was held in Moscow in June, the next second one took place on 22 September. So it seems that Moscow is in fact trying to relaunch the negotiation process. If several years ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov implicitly supported the Transnistrian bid for independence, this time Medvedev’s close associate Sergey Naryshkin called the long-standing leader of Transnistria Igor Smirnov to the Kremlin, and hinted that it is time for him to consider cadre changes. In fact, Naryshkin threatened to sack Smirnov himself, who set as precondition for a restart of 5+2 that Moldova recognize the independence of Transnistria.

Some analysts still believe the new Russian approach is far from being collaborative. In particular, Moscow allegedly tries to circumvent the 5+2 format by working closely with Germany and tabling joint proposals, which envisage an equal status for the two parties and omit the provision for territorial integrity of Moldova. This point deviates from the commonly agreed EU position. Some others claim that Germany managed to induce Russia into a commitment to relaunch these negotiations in order to prove its sincerity. But nevertheless there is an obvious ‘thaw’ in the negotiation process. The question then would be: why did Moscow start showing that it has real commitment to restart the negotiations, and that it is even ready to discard its own proxy in Transnistria? Certainly, it is not the EU that made Russia reconsider its position. What then convinced Russia to adopt a more collaborative stance in this format?

We will find it hard to explain the unexpected turn of Russian diplomacy in the Transnistrian conflict resolution process if we still perceive Russia as a typical 19th century Great Power, striving to maintain its special status in international relations by establishing physical control over territories in the post-Soviet space. One might argue that Russia did not hesitate to employ such a hard Realpolitik when it interfered in the ethnic conflicts in Moldova and Georgia in the early 1990s and when it recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the Russian-Georgian War in 2008. But the Kremlin had to acknowledge the fact that this type of policy came with serious costs. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia incurred serious losses for Russia’s reputation as a legally-oriented actor in the international arena, and it turned out to be counterproductive for Russia’s quest for leadership in the post-Soviet Space. This conclusion was articulated both in the Russian expert community and political elite and in Georgia: as a result of the August war in 2008 Georgia lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but it is also obvious that Russia lost Georgia.

Russia had to come up with a new policy, which would allow it to claim special legitimate status in the European security architecture and to maintain its control over the post-Soviet space, while at the same time avoiding its depiction as an expansionist power or energy manipulator. In its policy Russia did not change the goals, but amended the means. It stopped fighting for physical control over specific territories, but instead engaged in the fight for people’s minds. Some analysts hastily baptized this policy as ‘soft power ambition’. Russia has used this approach in Ukraine and is currently using it in Georgia and even Latvia. In addition to using economic, gas and trade leverage, the Russian parliament has established cordial relations with and continues to provide generous support to philo-Russian parties in Ukraine and Georgia, established branches of philo-Russian patriotic youth movements in these countries and self-proclaimed territories, and launched numerous joint cultural and education projects. The success of the philo-Russian opposition in Ukraine prevented this country from gaining membership in NATO, and cast serious doubts about the prospects of its integration into Europe. In Georgia, Russia is actively collaborating with philo-Russian players, like opposition, church and intellectuals, in order to undermine the Euro-Atlantic trajectory of the country and the authority of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The situation in Moldova in fact demanded the realization of the same scenario. The failure of the philo-Russian president Voronin to secure Moldova’s firm anchoring to a Russia-led project and further success of pro-European forces pushed Russia to become more active in implementing a similar policy for Moldova. With the problematic record of pro-European political forces and with Moldovan society balancing between an independentist paradigm and a philo-Russian path, it should be sufficient for Russia to reintroduce a philo-Russian element into Moldovan life so as to succeed in fighting for the mind of the Moldovans. As paradoxical as it may be, Moscow is now more interested in bringing Transnistria back to Moldova. It needs the philo-Russian parties in Transnistria to be full and legitimate members of the political debate in Moldova, and it needs them to participate more actively in setting the agenda for the future of Moldova. It needs to resolve the Transnistria issue in order to decriminalize philo-Russian sentiment in Moldova and to divert the country from a Euro-Atlantic path and from a nationalist-oriented agenda. So it is quite likely that within the next couple of years one might witness a more cooperative Russian behaviour in 5+2 talks, and a genuine strive for the reintegration of Moldova.

The EU and the US have long sought more cooperative behaviour from Russia. But they do not seem to have considered the question of what will happen the day when the fragile national democracy of Moldova will be re-married with the well-structured and mobilized semi-authoritarian philo-Russian political culture of Transnistria. The example of Ukraine has proved that in such a symbiosis it will be the semi-authoritarian elements that will prevail. In Moldova the situation is even more complicated. Recent local elections have demonstrated that the Communist Party remains the leading single political force in the republic picking up 23.78 percent of the vote in mayoral elections and 30.25 percent in local council elections. Taken together, the three parties of the Alliance for European Integration took 59.22 percent of the vote in the mayoral elections and 56.12 percent in the council elections. But the AEI is far from being a solid and coherent political actor which is not in the position to elect president of the republic. The Communist Party takes advantage of this situation and tries to play one party against the other and ‘capitalize’ on the weaknesses of coalition politics.

Such a trend will result in growing polarization between independentists and philo-Russian forces in the country and further destabilization of political life. Similar to Ukraine, Russia could benefit from such a trend. In Moldova the situation can be aggravated given the fact that a noticeable part of the population finds it hard to buy a new à la Romania nation-building programme. The irritation of the Russian-speaking citizens of Moldova is not the only source of instability. It is not only the Romanian-speaking people of Transnistria, but also many Moldovans loyal to Chisinau who insist that they speak the Moldovan language, and oppose any attempt to discard the unique experience which Moldova gained in the last two centuries of living under Russian/Soviet rule.

In this context, active policies on the part of Romania aimed at building the Romanian language, history and culture into the identity of the Moldovan state provoked further irritation of the philo-Russian part of the Moldovan-speaking population. Last but not least, one should not forget the unstable equilibrium which has been formed in relations between Chisinau and the strongly philo-Russian Gagauz minority in the south of Moldova. Fortunately, the tense relations between the Gagauz leadership and Chisinau, dating as far back as the early 1990s, did not lead to a military conflict. The tensions were diffused through wider cultural and administrative autonomy granted to the Gagauz minority. Nevertheless different approaches to education and culture between central authorities and the Gagauz autonomous region slide from time to time into rhetorical stands-off. Only within the last two months two conflicts broke out between Gagauzia and Chisinau. The first one erupted about the exams in the Romanian language which have become obligatory for high-school certificate and entry to universities. The second one was about the right of the leader of the autonomous republic to fire local governors.

Given the fact that any cultural issue is easily politicized in the republic, such a complex situation creates many opportunities for Russia to exert pressures against Chisinau and effectively prevent Moldova from joining the Euro-Atlantic system. It will also create a favourable context for positioning Russia as the only stable security producer in the shared neighbourhood: gaining control over the Southern rim of the post-Soviet Space and positioning itself as a solid security producer to the West. In the worst-case scenario, it will always be possible to replay a peacekeeping role in the region and bring the situation back to the pre-2010 status quo. In any case, Russia retains the context in which it remains the West’s only security partner in Eurasia. On this path Russia is ready to sacrifice Smirnov, as a person who undermines Russia’s quest for leadership with his intransigence.

Recommendations

Keep talking

Even given the possible problems accompanying the eventual Moldova-Transnistrian reconciliation, the EU should continue the negotiation process in the Transnistrian conflict. It is obvious that currently the sides are far away from a compromise on any power-sharing agreement. The negotiations are on a long road, but this does not mean that Russia and the EU discard any other opportunities for negotiations. For example, since Moscow has been an effective security producer in the region then it could demonstrate the same effectiveness engaging in joint action on establishing border management control in cooperation with the EUBAM. Within the same logic, the EU should look for convincing arguments that if Russia and Europe are to build a new European system of security then probably Transnistria might be an ideal place to try their hand in a joint peace-keeping exercise. The Russian peace-keeping forces should be replaced with genuinely international forces, with the participation of other European and post-Soviet states. Probably the main contending issue in a political settlement would be a power-sharing agreement. Obviously, the EU should also demonstrate a certain commitment and attention to this issue. Brussels should restore the post of the EU Special Representative for Moldova with a broad mandate. Lessons should be drawn from previous failures and the post should be filled by a heavy-weight and committed European diplomat.

Remember the mission

The main goal of the EU towards its neighbours is to secure the stable statehood and the economic development of these countries. Stable statehood, democracy, human rights, civil liberties and an economic development model based on fair competition were considered to be the key elements for this. They might have been good as goals, but proved to be quite vague and inconsistent as means. The nice saying of one of the founders of Europe – nothing can happen without the people, nothing can last without institutions – has been misused by many European experts who gave preference to the latter at the expense of the former. As a result, the institutionalist approach to transition failed in Ukraine and Belarus. Technical assistance and legal advice deployed in the 1990s did not make these societies irreversibly European. Even democratic elections, thoroughly written democratic constitutions and strong democratic revolutions do not save a country from the possible return of authoritarianism and militant nationalism.

These are two trends which become fertile environment for various sorts of crises in which its stabilizing role will be called to play for the sake of saving Russians abroad or philo-Russian citizens in these countries, or for gaining a foothold in a situation to which the EU attaches much significance. Finally, this sort of practice allows Russia to establish a special role in relations with Europe. Acknowledging this fact, the EU must come up with a more realistic strategy focusing on the societies and people of these countries, including Moldova and Transnistria. There is no need to rush formal reunification now, because a speedy reunification will expose a fragile Moldovan democracy to the mature Transnistrian autocracy, with obvious likely outcomes. So the EU should not be too compromise-seeking in these talks. It should also demand for Tiraspol to demonstrate the democratic nature of its regime, and this will take a long time. It should be remembered that Russia remains genuinely interested not to look like a spoilsport and a secessionist appeaser this time.

Go to the grass roots

Instead of this the EU should start working intensively on helping to bringing these societies up to the European level. The presence of Europe and European values in the life of Moldova and Transnistria should be effectively publicized. It is noticeable that it is only recently that the EU Delegation to Ukraine developed practices of regular circulation of news about Europe in Ukrainian. This should become a good example to follow. Any assistance projects should not be accessible only to well-established major NGOs, but should instead encourage grass roots public civil participation. If not through conditionality of membership prospects, the EU should be involved at least in a number of politically-related and politically-neutral questions, from education reform to public control for tender procedures and anti-corruption measures with detailed benchmarks. The people of Moldova and Transnistria should see what Europe means for their lives and how they must be part of Europe in Moldova. Every measure should be aimed at re-educating the people of the region and at making the idea of war, intolerance and violence unimaginable and unthinkable as policy choices.

As attractive as it might be, the NATO umbrella should not be used for Moldova because this would mean an explicit challenge to Russia. The August war in Caucasus and ethnic tensions in Ukraine have demonstrated that any security competition between Euro-Atlantic structures and Russia in the post-Soviet space is likely to  sooner or later usher in political stand-off and military conflict. A similar scenario may take place in Transnistria if Moldova explicitly opted for deeper integration with NATO. So the question of NATO should be shelved until the Moldovan society displays sufficient immunity to various radical irritators.

The EU should also be particularly careful about the future repercussions of further integration between Moldova and the EU, especially those of a deep free trade area. The idea of Europe has been seriously compromised because of the gap between the inflated expectations of local populations and the real results of the implementation of the European free market and neo-liberal policies.  As everywhere in the post-Soviet space, the painful repercussions were considered to be part of a well thought-through policy of European capitalists, or were treated as conspiracy theory.

Last, but not the least, for Europe it should matter that these states remain free and stable democracies. Therefore, the primary focus of the EU policies should be the people and the societies of the region. This effort should not be limited to a superficial stratum of local intellectuals and elites. The visibility of the EU should be increased through wider participation of various EU bodies in the everyday life of Moldovans, and through help with the resolution of their problems. It is also worth considering synchronisation of efforts made by EU Member States and other European NGOs so as to increase efficiency of action in the region.

The education assistance should include, but not be limited to, expansion of the EU education programmes and internships for young Moldovans in Europe. Most importantly, the transfer of values should not follow only the route Moldova-Europe-back to Moldova. The transfer of values should also be a direct one between Europe and Moldova. Put bluntly, Europeans should come and live together with Moldovans, helping them to implement and internalize European values. New European education programmes, joint masters in public administration, etc should be founded and based in Moldova. The EU has considerable potential to mobilize European youth to participate in the life of Moldova, and help facilitate the transfer of European values to its neighbours. The example of the American Peace Corps can be used to mobilize more young bright Europeans to come and share their experience with Moldovans.

As one remembers, 20 years of independent democratic statehood of the Baltic States allowed them to resist the subsequent 45 years of totalitarian suppression under the Soviet regime. There is some reasonable potential for democratic statehood in Moldova, and it can succeed if the EU shows real commitment and presence in that country.

Vsevolod Samokhvalov is a doctoral candidate in International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

(Photography courtesy of the Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation)

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  1. […] 2011 de repente parecía que una resolución del conflicto estaba en el horizonte. La canciller alemana Angela Merkel, representando la UE, decidió […]

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