CHISINAU -- When Ukraine took on the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this year, it pledged to make progress on one of the region’s most intractable issues -- Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniester.
But as negotiators conclude a second day of talks in the Ukrainian city of Odesa, hopes of a breakthrough appear increasingly distant.
The so-called 5+2 group – bringing together officials from Russia, Ukraine, the United States, the European Union, and the OSCE, as well as Moldovan and Transdniestrian authorities – has been barely able to agree on an agenda for the talks, let alone negotiate a final settlement to the 21-year-old frozen conflict.
The talks come just days after Transdniester’s pro-Moscow leader, Yevgeny Shevchuk, made a startling proposal to move the region’s legislature, the Supreme Council, from Tiraspol to the territory’s second-largest city, Bender.
The choice of Bender was clearly symbolic: the city is the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the 1990s war that ended with Transdniester declaring independence from the Republic of Moldova.
Transdniestrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk
The proposed move would also take the significant step of carrying Transdniester’s political center of gravity across the Dniester River, which geographically separates the bulk of the breakaway region from Moldova proper. Bender is one of the few regions on the Dniester’s western bank that is under Transdniester's de facto jurisdiction.
Bender also lies within the security zone established after the war, a narrow strip that includes Transdniestrian and Moldovan exclave territories on both banks of the river.
The terms of the 1992 cease-fire agreement prohibit either party from taking actions that would deliberately aggravate tensions between the two sides.
In this light, the Bender proposal has been interpreted by some as the kind of land grab that has been seen in other territorial conflicts in the former Soviet Union and the post-war Balkans.
Shevchuk and his supporters say the move is meant to stop "aggressive moves" by Chisinau to build up its presence in Bender, where Moldova has managed to maintain a police headquarters and several institutions since the war.
The Transdniestrian administration has already put the squeeze on Moldovan law-enforcement structures in Bender, most recently by limiting their use of uniforms.
Chisinau has reacted angrily to the Transdniestrian moves, calling the proposal to relocate the Supreme Council an attempt by Tiraspol to unilaterally shift "local realities."
Moscow Maneuvers Or An Internal Squabble?
The Bender issue comes as Moldova is grappling with its own political crisis following the collapse of its pro-European governing coalition earlier this year.
Oazu Nantoi, a political analyst based in Chisinau, sees two possible explanations for the proposal.
"The first possibility is that these initiatives arose in Tiraspol," he says. "The second is that Moscow isn’t happy about the partnership between Moldova and the EU, in spite of the political turbulence right now in Chisinau, and they’re looking to destabilize the situation by unleashing some kind of provocation in Bender."
Ukraine’s ambassador to Chisinau, Serhiy Pirozhkov, has argued that Shevchuk’s move puts the current stability in the security zone at risk.
Observers inside Transdniester, however, suggest that the proposal has more to do with internal politics than a strategic move against Chisinau.
Andrei Safonov, a Tiraspol-based political analyst, suggests that Shevchuk, in power since the end of 2011, is looking to build his own power base by isolating the Supreme Council, which is dominated by opposition lawmakers.
"The bottom line is simple: He’s saying, 'Although you’re all elected, your actual weight is zero and I can drive you away whenever I want, to wherever I want,'" Safanov says. "That’s the first thing. And the second, of course, is the desire to disrupt the work of the Supreme Council and thereby remove it from the political arena.”
Supreme Council lawmakers rejected the proposal on May 23, voting to pass a resolution stating that the Transdniestrian parliament should remain in the territory’s de facto capital, Tiraspol.
In neighboring Ukraine, however, not everyone is buying the notion that an internal political squabble is at the root of the Bender proposal.
Noting the timing of Shevchuk’s proposition just days before the Odesa talks, Oleksandr Sushko of the Kyiv-based Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation maintains that Tiraspol frequently manufactures unforeseen political tempests to blow diplomatic sessions off course.
Shevchuk notoriously pulled out of Lviv talks in February, setting back Ukrainian hopes for a 2013 Transdniester resolution.
Sushko believes such moves suggest that Moscow, which is determined to maintain a dominant presence in its near abroad, is colluding with Transdniester to undermine Ukraine’s tenure at the helm of the OSCE.
"It’s no secret to anyone that right at the start of this year, the Russian side took steps with the Tiraspol leadership that pushed them into a tougher stance," he says. "One of the indirect goals of this was to torpedo the Ukrainian chairmanship of the OSCE in order to make any progress on this issue impossible."