Future Transdniester in Ukraine?

By Viku Stratan

In spite of the fact that any worsening of situation neither in Moldova proper nor in its mutinous province Transdniester did occur recently, the region again has attracted heightened attention. It happened due to changing authorities in Kiev.

The outlined Ukrainian-Russian cooperation until now manifested itself in economic relations mainly. And the statement on Transdniester that on 17 May was made by the presidents of two countries became for the moment its only foreign-policy consequence.

Dmitri Medvedev and Viktor Yanukovich have emphasized that problem must be solved using peace political means, by equal dialogue in order to determine a special reliably guaranteed status of Transdniester on the basis of observing sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova, constitutional neutrality and shaping united legal, economic and defense space.

They have called to renew negotiations and highly valued the activity of Russian peacekeepers in the region, who for several years already are guaranteeing peace there.

It is noteworthy that on the same day a similar statement on Transdniester was made by Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. She has confirmed the EU adherence to solving a problem within the framework of negotiation format ‘5+2’ (where Moldova and Transdniester are Parties, Russia, Ukraine, OSCE – negotiators, and the EU and US – observers) while observing territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova.

Currently in the zone of conflict there are so called Joint Peacekeeping Forces composed of Russian, Moldavian and Transdniester contingents (335 Russian military personnel, 490 Transdniester’s, 453 Moldavian, and 10 military observers from Ukraine).

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Besides, in Transdniester a task force group of Russian troops is deployed, counting 15 hundred servicemen, which is a heiress of 14th army of the Russian Federation. Its primary tasks are to guard depots with 20 000 tons of the old Soviet arms and ammunition at the base in the settlement Kolbasna as well as to assist the peacekeeping operation.

Russian and Ukrainian leaders did not express any objections against future possible conversion of peacekeeping operation into operation on peace guaranteeing under the aegis of the OSCE. It will be recalled that in March 2009 leaders of Moldova and Transdniester – Vladimir Voronin and Igor Smirnov – through intermediary of Dmitri Medvedev have signed the first for many years joint document.

Its key position was just a point, dedicated to peacekeeping operation. Pointing out its stabilizing role, the Parties have declared that they had confirmed “the expedience of its transformation into guaranteeing peace operation under the aegis of the OSCE in the result of total Transdniester settling.” Simultaneously the international guarantees of the permanent neutrality of Moldova were provided, on which Russian Federation specifically insisted in order to exclude forever Kishinev’s drift to NATO.

voronin However only month later Voronin has left Moldovan political scene, and pro-Western Alliance for European integration that came to power gave to understand that it is not intending to follow these agreements. The requirement was put forth that Russian peacekeepers had to leave Transdniester immediately, not waiting for political settling between Chisinau and Tiraspol. It was motivated by giving Russia guarantees that in the result of supposed constitutional reform Moldova would keep its neutrality.

In answer to that Tiraspol has appealed to Russia to enlarge a number of its peacekeeping contingent in the region up to 24 hundred servicemen, as well as bring back into Transdniester a helicopter squadron. Exactly this amount was provided by the document, signed after armed conflict of 1992.

From the formal standpoint the statements made in Kiev did not contain any contradictions with the former agreements. However, they were perceived rather watchfully by Moldavian authorities. On the next day the prime-minister of Moldova Vladimir Filat has reported that the country begins the process of changing peacekeeping mission on Dniester by the mission of civil observers.

And several days later a sensational information appeared that Medvedev and Yanukovich allegedly considered the Ukrainian proposals, according to which by the end of this year a referendum has to be held in Transdniester, questioning its conversion into autonomous republic in Ukraine with approximately the same rights as Crimean autonomy. Ad interim Russia will realize in Moldova an “orange counterrevolution” in order next spring the power there to be in the hands of some pro-Moscow politician.

Yanukovych Naturally, Yanukovich’s team denies the very fact of such a discussion. Representative of his administration Anna German have named these statements a ‘provocation’ organized by adherents of Yulia Timoshenko. Nevertheless certain Ukrainian political analysts persist that members of Verkhovnaya Rada are discussing already the procedure of possible joining. Besides that, a little bit earlier new Ukrainian minister for foreign affairs Konstantin Grishchenko expressed the opinion that should Moldova becomes a part of Romania, Transdniester will become a part of Ukraine.

It is difficult to say, to what extent these rumors correspond to reality. But if so, then ‘Medvedev-Yanukovich agreement’ represents an attempt to start new military-political expansion in the post-Soviet space.

However in any case it is clear that there is no talk about any kind of Moldova’s Anschluss by Russian Federation. Another technology is to be used: early elections to the parliament, where new people will come, who’s principal interest will be oriented to expanding business relationships with Russia rather then to developing Moldavian language or integrating with Romania.

What are the arguments in favor of the sensational Ukrainian project? First of all, Transdniester economy is strongly tied with Odessa region. Furthermore, security: border between Ukraine and Transdniester is 405 kilometers long but not demarked; there are areas that not controlled by Ukrainian and the more so Transdniester border guards. It favors large-scale smuggling, not only traditional cigarettes and food, but often drugs and weapons. Besides, rather often it happens that Ukrainian criminals escape to Transdniester. Spreading on the region of the jurisdiction of Ukraine would allow to fight with these crimes more efficiently.

There is also significant Ukrainian diaspora in Transdniester. According to population census of 2004, more than 160 thousand Ukrainian are living there (44 thousand of them having Ukrainian passport), and Ukrainian language is among official ones. Finally, it is stated that Transdniester Moldavian Republic (TMR) is an actual ally of Ukraine in resisting Romania’s expansionist intentions.

However, despite seeming persuasiveness, such development of events seems to be extremely low-probable. Say, it is very doubtful that Kiev will cancel its former agreements with the European Union on the issues of border control and customs regulation and will put under threat its own European aspirations as well as prospects of visa free regime for Ukrainian citizens. Situation with Crimea also by no means encourage Ukraine to load upon itself one more burden.

Similarly it is hard to believe that Russia is earnestly ready to waive its claims to this region. I guess, the same Crimea’s experience has forever indisposed Moscow to throw away territories, let even potential ones.

Additionally, under such circumstances Romania also will not stand aside. Bucharest has already threatened to enter the troops into settlements situated close to Moldova border. President of the country Traian Băsescu has reminded that after the World War II the Ukrainian SSR has got South Bessarabia together with North Bukovina, and promised to use any possibility to withstand ‘Russian-Ukrainian plan to amputate Bessarabia’. Аnd the European Union will inevitably stick up for its member state in spite of the fact that now it has too few desire to be involved in Eastern European affairs in general and Moldova’s in particular.

As is well known, TMR itself dreams to become a part of Russian Federation and even discusses with it legislative aspects of such prospect. Hypothetically this can happen too, but in this case Moscow will get huge problems not only in political sphere, but also in logistics. It hardly needs one more exclave in addition to Kaliningrad.

Certainly, the best way out would be a reunification of both Dniester banks while conserving territorial integrity and sovereignty of Moldova together with special status of Transdniester, as it is fixed in Memorandum, signed in Moscow in 1997. This document seemed to be definitively buried, however literally on the eve of the Ukrainian-Russian summit the foreign secretary of Transdniester Vladimir Yastrebchak has unexpectedly declared on local TV that it still keeps urgency.

But even if this statement was not a bluff, then in order to begin the process Moldova must definitely start moving to a modernized state with high standard of living, observance of law and order, independent judicial system, respect to human rights and free media.

Obviously in the foreseeable future it is hardly possible, as well as Transdniester’s acquisition of long-expected independence along with international recognition. Even in last case case it will not be viable and self-sufficient as state. For example, only its today’s indebtedness to ‘Gazprom’ approaches to 2 billion dollars; besides, the region constantly reckons upon political, military and financial support of the Moscow.

Recently radicals become stronger in Moldova. They consider the process of country’s reintegration to be incompatible with European integration, so Moldova has to choose: either it follows the way of reintegration and acts in favor of Russia, or abandons Transdniester and asks international community to establish a protectorate over this zone.

Here an expectation of active Romania’s assistance is evident. Apropos, the last hitherto has not acknowledged Moldova as sovereign state and evades from signing an agreement on border between them. The other day Băsescu has confirmed once again that does not see need in such agreement. It means that Bucharest has not left the intentions to attach the neighbors to itself.

However the national consciousness has formed in Moldova already, at least among elite, larger part of which does not want to Romania. It is much less interesting to be a district ruler in Bessarabia than guide let small, but sovereign state.

Note that in all afore-cited variants a need in peacekeepers falls away in general. It remains only in the last one, which, however, is much more likely, than all the rest taken together. I mean the conservation of status quo.

The odds are that problem will continue to be discussed sluggishly within the framework of format ‘5+2’, and that’s all. For instance at  recent meeting in Astana a decision was taken to carry out the inventory of all more then 140 documents, signed for long years of negotiation process. Such kind of action will hardly start a process of settling, and it will remain in the same state for indefinitely long period.

Accordingly, during that time no changes will occur in today’s position of peacekeeping forces as well, even if situation in the region will remain more or less conflict-free. On the one hand, the only question, on which in Moldova today exists an internal political consensus, it is a necessity to withdraw Russian troops, and nobody dares even to hint at possibility to negotiate any contractual formalization of their further stay. On the other one – there are no reasons, why Tiraspol and Moscow have to refuse their present approach.

Thus, aforementioned message by Moldavian prime-minister about impending change of Russian peacekeepers for civil observers remains only a good intention.