And, Lest We Forget Moldova…

by Chris Borgen

Even though my recent posts on the “frozen conflicts” have actually been on the not-so-frozen conflict in South Ossetia, we should not forget the ongoing situation in Moldova. In fact, the new issue of The Economist has a short piece reminding its readers of the ongoing Transnistrian separatist dispute. The quick update is this: while not as heated as the South Ossetian crisis, the conflict over Transnistria is mired in irresolution. However, the situation in Moldova may play an important part in stability in the region spanning from the Western shores of the Black Sea to the shores of the Caspian.

Regarding the current situation in Moldova, the Economist article begins:

“Let us live in poverty, but in a country at peace,” says Vasily Sova, Moldova’s negotiator with its breakaway territory of Transdniestria, when asked about the billions lavished on Georgia after its August war with Russia. Unlike the belligerent Georgia, Moldova has taken a gentle approach to its Russian-backed separatists, and it is not trying to join NATO. Yet it is barely nearer than Georgia to a deal over lost territory.

Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, went to Moldova this week to push a new initiative. Russia does not recognise Transdniestria’s independence, but it wants to keep troops there, a condition all other parties reject.

On the “plus side,” the parties seem to be trying to hash out some sort of day-to-day modus vivendi:

…the dispute has none of the deep hostilities of the Caucasus. Trade across the Dniester is flourishing. The Transdniestrian football team, Sheriff, tops the Moldovan league. Tiraspol is something of a museum of Soviet nostalgia, with its Lenin statue and Karl Marx street. But Sergei Cheban, head of the foreign-affairs committee in the Transdniestrian parliament, tries to be reasonable. Of Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he says “we do not need that kind of recognition,” holding out the chance of a sovereignty deal with Moldova.

Moreover, the Transnistrian dispute is that it is not at its core an ethnic conflict. The populations on both sides of the Dniester River include ethnic Moldovans/Romanians, Russians, and Ukrainians. Whereas as the Transnistrian leadership has been essentially a cabal of Russian managers who were a holdover from the Soviet era, the population is more mixed and there are family ties across the Dniester River. (I should note, however, that the separatist leadership has in the past unwisely stoked the fires of ethnic difference with heated rhetoric about Transnistrian ethnicity. I will be posting a piece to SSRN about this shortly, called “What Makes a Conflict ‘Frozen'” and I’ll note here when the essay is available online.)

Consequently, it is all the more frustrating that this conflict drags on. The Economist contends that:

A settlement of the Transdniestrian dispute would nudge both Moldova and Ukraine closer to Europe. It could also win Russia a friendly outpost on the edge of the EU. Yet Russian stubbornness has been matched only by European indifference. If both sides want a more constructive relationship, as the EU’s decision this week to restart partnership talks with Russia suggests, Transdniestria might be a good place to begin.

And, as I’ve argued before, the EU and the United States should argue that international law be used to frame renewed negotiations rather than deferring to the implicit Russian argument that Moldova is in their sphere of influence and the resolution of the conflict must be based solely on Russia’s views.

The dispute over Transnistria is the least intransigent of the Eurasian secessionist conflicts. Settling it could help resolving the other conflicts. Not settling it supports those who say that separatist disputes cannot be resolved short of military conflict or coercion.  It is important to keep in mind the important stakes in the resolution of this nearly-forgotten dispute.

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