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Moldova: OSCE Envoy Says Delays Threaten Timetable For Draft Constitution

  • Roland Eggleston

The head of the OSCE Mission in Moldova, William Hill, says negotiations on a political settlement between Moldova and the breakaway region of Transdniester have stalled, threatening the timetable for drawing up a draft constitution.

Vienna, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says continuing differences between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniester threaten hopes that a draft constitution can be agreed by early next year and submitted to the country in a referendum.

William Hill, the head of the OSCE Mission in Moldova, says in a report to the organization this week that negotiations on a political settlement "have moved this year from a promise of success to worrisome stagnation." He said there is still a chance of reaching agreement within the next few months on a draft constitution uniting the two regions, but that it will require a stronger effort by both sides.

Moldova and Transdniester agreed in March on a six-month timetable for drafting a constitution for a united federal state. A few negotiators believed it was possible that a referendum on the draft constitution could be held no later than February 2004. However, Hill says virtually no work was done in May and June because of wrangling over basic procedures. Weekly meetings on drafting a constitution did not begin until mid-July -- meaning the original timetable is no longer realistic.

In an effort to speed up the negotiations, Hill will meet Russian and Ukrainian negotiators next week to work out compromises on the main areas of dispute. Russia and Ukraine are co-mediators with the OSCE in trying to settle the long-running dispute.

In an interview this week in Vienna with RFE/RL, Hill said he is disappointed with the pace of negotiations and that they are now entering the most difficult stage. "One of the reasons it has slowed down is that the sides have really started to grapple with the fundamental issues -- which for a long time they weren't doing in the negotiating process," he said. "It's a good sign that they are doing this, but it's not a guarantee that they will come to a solution that they both agree to."

He said it is better to get a good agreement by going slower than to rush and agree to something that would provoke such opposition that it would fail in a referendum.

Transdniester is not recognized by any country as a legal state. It is a predominantly Russian-speaking region that broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Moldova might seek reunification with Romania. In 1992, Moldova and Transdniester fought a brief war, which ended with a truce enforced by Russian troops still stationed in the region.

The OSCE began its search for peaceful reunification in 1993. It proposes that Transdniester rejoin Moldova in a federal structure. Under the OSCE plan, power would be centered in Moldova. Transdniester, with its capital in Tiraspol, would be allowed a large degree of autonomy, including language rights. However, details of the proposed autonomy remain to be resolved in negotiations.

Opinions about the OSCE plan are mixed. While it enjoys broad international support, the plan's acceptance within the region itself is less enthusiastic. Several Moldovan nongovernmental organizations say the plan is meant to bring Moldova back under Moscow's control with the blessing of the OSCE, while "The Wall Street Journal Europe" recently called it a "recipe for instability."

Aleksandr Deligur, a soldier in the Transdniestrian Army, said he has doubts about the concept of a federation. "Not that I am completely against it," he said. "I don't know, but I think the quality of our life will get worse."

Yelena, a resident of Tiraspol, said she supports the idea. "Perhaps we really need a federation. We are all living together here anyway -- Russians, Moldovans, Ukrainians. And I think everything must be done to prevent people of different nationalities from suffering."

In the meantime, Transdniester's leader, Igor Smirnov, continues to talk about full statehood. He speaks of a "federation of equals" -- a grouping made up of two separate but equal entities. The OSCE rejects this model.

In this week's report to the OSCE, Hill says, "there are still deep differences between the sides on the fundamental questions of the structure of the federation and the relative powers of the entities. Transdniester consistently pushes for a loose federation between two equal, independent states -- in reality, almost a confederation."

He says Moldovan leaders have called for an asymmetric federation, but notes they have yet to specify in detail how it might be structured.

Hill says a settlement is politically and economically important for both Moldova and Transdniester because it would open the way for investment and other benefits. Both are poor regions with high unemployment. Thousands of young people have fled abroad in search of work.

Hill quoted the Moldovan Security and Information Service as saying that about 600,000 Moldovans are working in other parts of Europe, in the Middle East, and in the CIS. The money they send to their families in Moldova is vital for its struggling economy. Other authorities estimate that at least 100,000 people from Transdniester are working abroad.

Hill notes that Transdniester's failure to win recognition as a legal state means that few international businesses will take the risk of investing there. He says this will change if it enters into a federation with Moldova -- a recognized state that is hoping to enter the European Union someday. The OSCE believes federation will not only bring investment into Transdniester but will also provide markets for its agriculture and industrial products.

"One of the greatest things, for example, one can offer the Transdniestrans in a settlement is the ability to join the wider world," Hill said.

Hill said Russia and the OSCE desperately want to see a successful resolution of the dispute, for Russians because "they continue to have this arc of unresolved conflicts on their southern and southeastern flanks. It would also be a significant success for the OSCE. The OSCE has had successes in the Baltics. It has had successes of different kinds in the Balkans. But in the former Soviet Union -- the conflicts in which we are involved in the former Soviet Union -- this is the closest we have got to a resolution [of the crisis]."

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin held talks yesterday in Yalta with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Voronin said the talks over Transdniester are entering what he calls a "decisive phase."

"As you know, we are now entering a decisive phase of the Transdniester settlement -- the drafting of a new constitution of the country [Moldova] is now under way. In fact, the first part of the common constitution, which deals with human rights, has already been written jointly [by Moldova and Transdniester]. And I think that after the preparation and adoption of the document on separation of powers, the process will assume a more active pace," Voronin said.

Hill believes a success in Moldova might provide a model for settlements in trouble spots in Abkhazia, Ossetia, and possibly Nagorno-Karabakh.

The plan in Moldova sought by the OSCE also provides for a peacekeeping force chosen from the organization's 55 members. Hill told RFE/RL that the OSCE is still discussing details of the force. Hill said he believes a force of about 600 to 800 soldiers should be enough to do the job. In his view, the soldiers should be supplemented by 50 to 100 unarmed military observers. Their job would be to investigate incidents and ensure compliance with agreements. Hill believes that if all goes well, the troops should be able to leave Moldova within six months to a year, while the observers would remain a little longer.

The OSCE plan also calls for the creation of a small Moldovan army drawn from both entities. But he emphasizes that the current armed forces could not be dissolved all at once. "Some 40,000 men are currently under arms in this country of about 5 million people," he said. "Unemployment is incredibly high. Demobilizing all those men immediately would have very undesirable social and economic consequences."

Apart from the difficult constitutional negotiations, the OSCE has a number of other problems to resolve in Moldova and Transdniester. One of them is the disposal of the remaining stores of Russian weaponry and ammunition.

In his report to the OSCE, Hill says Russia made real progress last spring toward meeting its commitment of a complete military withdrawal from Moldova by the end of the year. In the space of three months, the OSCE monitored the withdrawal of 16,500 tons of munitions from the depot at Colbasna -- the last major military asset of Russian forces in Moldova. About 25,500 tons of munitions remain, and Hill estimates they could be removed in about four months.

However, in mid-June, authorities in Transdniester halted further loading or removal of ammunition. They told the OSCE mission they were blocking operations until Russian authorities paid $100 million to reduce Transdniester's debt to the Russian natural-gas company Gazprom. Hill says removal of the munitions is still blocked.

The authorities in Transdniester have also blocked the use in Colbasna of a German machine designed to destroy some types of ammunition on site. Hill said he has not been given an explanation for this move. He said he has no choice but to interpret Transdniester's actions as a sign of bad faith.

Hill told RFE/RL that tensions between Moldova and Transdniester manifest themselves in many ways. As an example, he cited repairs to a bridge over the river on a major highway from Odesa to northern Europe. The European Union provided 2 million euros ($2.2 million) to rebuild the bridge, which had been destroyed in the 1992 war.

Hill said the work was completed on the bridge in 2001. Since then, however, virtually no traffic has used it. Hostility between the two sides blocks its use. Hill believes it could have been a money-spinner for the poverty-stricken region.

"Imagine if they charged just five cents for every truck which crossed the bridge and split it between them," he said. "Imagine how much each side could have earned if they had been doing this every day in the two years since the bridge was repaired. But no -- for political reasons it did not happen."

He sees the incident as symbolic of the frustrations felt by international institutions about the situation in Moldova and Transdniester.

"This is what I mean about the political circumstances making assistance really ineffective. You could do a lot of infrastructure reform and reconstruction. But if they insist on blocking movement of traffic and cooperation for political reasons, then even with the best of intentions and lots of resources, the European Union, the United States, the OSCE and others are going to be stymied. It's very frustrating," he said.