Moldova’s “frozen conflict”: Overcoming the deadlock
The wind of change must be blowing somewhere near Moldova. There have been changes in the leadership of the self-proclaimed Trans-Dniester Republic, which retains its sovereignty thanks largely to Russia’s support. And those changes have come as a complete surprise to Moscow.
The latest presidential election was won not by the incumbent Kremlin-supported Igor Smirnov, whose presidency seemed to last an eternity, but by Yevgeny Shevchuk, whose landslide victory provided him with a mandate for reform.
In addition, following its three-year agony, Moldova – the West’s darling in the former Soviet Union – has finally succeeded in electing Nicolae Timofti. This, observers say, will likely speed up the republic’s integration with the European Union – a goal that is impossible to achieve unless the republic restores its territorial integrity.
All these developments come amid an outburst of foreign political activity from neighboring Romania. Bucharest tries to support its Moldovan “brethren” in every possible way, including by granting dual citizenship and sending in advisors and financial aid. The chorus of calls for Moldova’s reunification with Romania is growing ever louder. But is Russia, a regional superpower involved in the Trans-Dniester conflict, ready to accept such a turn of events?
Despite its stated interest in cooperation with Moscow, Moldova’s pro-Western leadership clearly wishes to escape Russia’s influence. International support, primarily from Romania and Poland, gives them some added confidence. It tries to dilute the Russian peacekeeping force with personnel from other countries, and it makes efforts to minimize the use of the Russian language, specifically by introducing penalties for failure to translate Russian-language advertisements and other visual information into the Moldovan language. The “Moldovan language” is, actually, a euphemism still used for the local dialect of the Romanian language, but efforts to change the official name of the language in the country’s constitution would surely provoke Moscow.
Concerted efforts to promote the Romanian language do not mean, though, that the Russian language will soon have to take a backseat. So far, there are no grounds to fear that Moldova’s Russian-speaking population will see their status downgraded. But still, Moscow will have to work hard to retain its influence.
In the Trans-Dniester Republic, the issue isn’t as acute. Still, Moscow cannot ignore the dramatic transformations happening there. Local inhabitants still see Russia as a friend. But Shevchuk’s electoral victory is a sign that times are changing and that the population is now ready to abandon its aspirations for independence in exchange for a decent living. Shevchuk’s “step-by-step” approach could help achieve just that. He aims to simplify border-crossing rules, reduce customs duties, and restore railway links with Moldova.
Moscow should understand that gaining access to the European market through Moldova is not a chance that local businesspeople or oligarchs interested in the Trans-Dniester market would be willing to let slip by.
Shevchuk maintains good relations with Russia’s current government, but he is aware that without a more effective economic model and greater confidence in relations with its neighbors, the Trans-Dniester Republic’s sovereignty will remain at risk.
Moscow, for its part, realizes perfectly well that the Trans-Dniester conflict will be impossible to resolve without Russian involvement. And as long as it remains “frozen,” Moldova will be unable to go ahead with its EU integration plans, even if all the necessary reforms have been implemented.
There is clearly significance in diplomacy hawk Dmitry Rogozin’s appointment as the Russian President’s special envoy to the Trans-Dniester region. His authority may speed up the search of workable solutions.
On the other hand, the Kremlin should feel for itself how rapidly the region is moving toward Romanization, so that it does not put itself in a deadlock by overreacting.
The Kozak Memorandum seems unrealistic to implement; even if Moldova sacrifices the Trans-Dniester region, it will not become more interested in reintegration with other former Soviet states. Obviously, the West has nothing to offer in exchange. This means that Moldova will continue to be used as a tool of geopolitical pressure. The Trans-Dniester conflict is the reason why Romanians are not in a hurry to start the reunification process with Moldova. Also, most Romanians are only theoretically ready to take their poorer relative under their wing. Nor do the Moldovans appear prepared to join Romania just now, however attractive the prospect of getting an EU passport may seem to them.
Keeping the Trans-Dniester conflict “frozen” for the time being may seem like the best possible option for Moscow. But it should keep in mind that all ice melts sooner or later.
Gabor Stier is foreign policy commentator, foreign policy editor in the Hungarian conservative daily newspaper“Magyar Nemzet”(since 2000), member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.