Accessibility links

Breaking News

Analysis: Transdniester, Russia, And The Schools Dispute

The dispute surrounding the recent closure of the six schools in the breakaway region of Transdniester that teach Moldovan (Romanian) in the Latin script has led to a situation in which a resumption of military clashes cannot be ruled out, some international news agencies have reported. Indeed the 15 July takeover of a school in Tiraspol has been followed by Moldovan economic retaliatory measures put into place on 1 August and the subsequent blocking of rail links from Moldova to Commonwealth of Independent States countries by separatist authorities on 3 August. As Infotag pointed out on 3 August, the last time Tiraspol resorted to blocking rail lines was during the armed conflict of the early 1990s. But who would be served by such a course?

The qualified answer must be Russia. It has become apparent that ever since Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin reneged on his agreement to sign the so-called Kozak Memorandum on Moldova's federalization in November 2003, Moscow has been less than happy with its erstwhile favorite son, Voronin. Russian President Vladimir Putin (who was forced to cancel a flight to Chisinau for the signing of the Kozak Memorandum by the Moldovan president and separatist leader Igor Smirnov) is even reportedly "personally offended" and ready to quietly back the opposition Our Moldova Alliance in the 2005 parliamentary elections, according to some Moldovan reports.

Does this mean the Kremlin is behind the schools conflict? Not necessarily. It would certainly be neither the first nor the last time that a "client" has overdone it and put a "patron" in an unacceptable position. But in this case, it is incorrect to speak of a "client state," for Transdniester is neither a state nor a province. One should rather speak of a "client clique" whose ties to Moscow are manifold. While Tiraspol might not have consulted the Kremlin on the school closures, it might well have done so with elements in Moscow other than the president: the Federal Security Service (FBS) or the military intelligence (GRU), for example.
Tiraspol is after international recognition; to that end, it might seek to provoke the specter of a renewal of armed conflict to prompt Romania (now a NATO member) to come to Moldova's aid and thus force Russia and Ukraine into granting it de jure the recognition that it now de facto enjoys.

What is the basis for such an interpretation? The school closures by no means represent the first time since November that Transdniestrian authorities have resorted to provocation. They have introduced border guards in the security zone in breach of the armistice agreement; imposed "visa" requirements on Moldovan citizens transiting Transdniestrian "territory"; and, last but not least, blocked for the "nth time" the evacuation of Russian ammunition from the Kolbasna depots near Tiraspol -- all part of the same script, one that Moscow in each case professed regret and explained the actions by the failure to sign the Kozak Memorandum. Various official Russian spokesmen have suggested that the agreement would have preempted such regrettable developments.

It might indeed have done so. For the Kozak Memorandum effectively would have amounted to a complete surrender of Moldovan sovereignty in exchange for nothing (see End-Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2003). It would have removed the issue of Russian withdrawal from Transdniester from the international agenda or enabled the return of Russian forces under a different name: as alleged peacekeepers. It would have granted Moscow a unique say in Moldovan affairs and at the same time eliminated any role for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, or the European Union as peacekeepers in a post-federalization situation. And it would in fact have granted Russian client Transdniester veto power over "federal" Moldovan decision-making.

Chisinau's last-minute withdrawal from the agreement to sign the Kozak Memorandum was in large part due to Western, particularly U.S., pressure. What the West objected to primarily was the memorandum's "overshoot": There had been several plans for "federalization," including that of the OSCE and a Moldovan plan in which Ukraine and the OSCE were mentioned as guarantors as well. But it is more than questionable whether those plans would have left Moldova much better off, given the fact that OSCE mechanisms stipulate that decisions must be adopted by consensus -- thus granting Russia veto power -- and given that Ukraine is for all intents and purposes towing Moscow's line. In historical terms, the Kozak plan would arguably have granted Russia 100 percent influence, while the other federalization plans would have granted Moscow 80 percent influence; at least this is how Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin might perhaps have phrased it in their October 1944 "percentage agreement" in Moscow.

Russian interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Tiraspol, however. Tiraspol is after international recognition; to that end, it might seek to provoke the specter of a renewal of armed conflict to prompt Romania (now a NATO member) to come to Moldova's aid and thus force Russia and Ukraine into granting it de jure the recognition that it now de facto enjoys. Hence the school closures as provocation.

But Russia, or at least the Kremlin, is clearly reluctant to go that far. And the West, which in practical terms is ready to allow for Russian influence in "federal" Moldova, likely has no intention of letting itself be provoked into involvement beyond expressions of "concern."

The OSCE has reportedly worked out a new plan to settle the long-running dispute -- including the schools issue -- and Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova has already announced that Chisinau accepts the plan and it is up to Tiraspol to do the same. While no details have emerged, it is more than likely that Tiraspol would acquiesce to some sort of concession on the schools issue (for example, allowing them to reopen, provided they register with the separatist authorities) and in turn demand major concessions, such as Moldovan acceptance of a "symmetric" instead of an "asymmetric" federation. This would represent a classic use of so-called salami tactics, at which Smirnov is a master. Meanwhile, major aspects of the envisaged federalization and Transdniestrian nationalities policy would be pushed into oblivion, with a certain measure of relief on both the Western and Russian sides. While the schools might reopen, few people are willing to spend even a moment thinking about the fact that the rest of Transdniester's Moldovan (Romanian) population (which is the largest in the separatist territory, composing 40 percent) would continue to learn its mother tongue in the Cyrillic script or even study in Russian schools. Ethnic Russians, many of whom have come to the region since the 1960s, do not make up more than 24 percent of Transdniester's population (the second-largest minority is Ukrainian, at 28 percent), but appear to be seeking Soviet-style Russification.

Furthermore, the entire federalization "solution" that the West is prepared to embrace involves the transformation of an imported, non-democratic political elite into a legitimate partner. Transdniestrians (as Moldovans) would be asked to approve a new federal constitution in a referendum, a vote that would likely spawn questions regarding its democratic nature.

In the absence of a truly dramatic and unforeseeable new factor, the specter of renewed military clashes might safely be viewed with skepticism even as it appears to serve Tiraspol's aims.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a perceived crisis, President Voronin left on 3 August for a holiday in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary. Voronin is not generally regarded as a man of even temper, and his ability to bluff the international community is unlikely to extend so far as to allow for such a move if he truly expects full-scale confrontation.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.