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Analysis: Transdniester Attempts To Regionalize Conflict

With the deteriorating situation between Moldova and the separatist region of Transdniester, RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service will extend its broadcasts to Moldova to include weekend coverage as well. As of 14 August, Moldovans will be able to benefit from the same excellent coverage as that during the rest of the week.

Last week's developments are cause for concern. It was quite clear from the start of the conflict triggered by Transdniester's 15 July order to close schools on the separatist territory teaching in Moldovan (Romanian) with Latin script that the stakes were higher than provoking just one more affray. The separatists are primarily interested in forcing first neighbors, then the international community, into treating Transdniester like a sovereign state. Then and only then will they be able to force Moldova to give in on the last key issue in the stalled "federalization" parleys -- namely, to agree to a "symmetrical" federation of two equal subjects, rather than the "asymmetrical" version that Moldova insists on.

There are two main ways for Tiraspol to achieve this objective: either provoke a renewed outbreak of military hostilities that would hopefully force Russia to extend de jure recognition to the breakaway region it now supports de facto and involve Ukraine in the conflict; or to trap Moldova's immediate neighbors into isolating Chisinau and entering direct negotiations with Tiraspol

On 10 August, the separatists unfolded a scenario that would do both. According to Infotag, Valerii Litskay, who holds the foreign-affairs portfolio in the Tiraspol administration, told a visiting delegation of EU diplomats headed by Robert Cooper that Moldova should in fact not be a party in the dispute concerning the closed schools. However, he said, Tiraspol would be ready to negotiate the problem of the closed schools directly with Bucharest. He explained that in Transdniester "there is no Romanian ethnic minority, but Romanian schools do exist." Therefore, he said, "we shall ask Romania to assist in licensing those schools in line with Romanian standards of education."

There is more than a single note of perfidy in this statement. First, a plurality (40 percent) of the separatist territory's inhabitants are ethnic Romanians, who are continuously being subjected to a process of enforced Russification. Tiraspol might opt to go along with Chisinau and regard those inhabitants as "Moldovans," but then why should Bucharest become involved in the negotiations over the closed schools? Second, only a tiny minority of students of Moldovan (Romanian) ethnic origin benefit from attending the closed schools. The rest are either being taught "Moldovan" with Cyrillic script or are forced to simply attend Russian schools.

Litskay told the delegation, "The Moldovan language based on Latin script is the Romanian language." Nothing could be more accurate. He went on to explain that this being so, Tiraspol would be ready to "negotiate the conditions of the functioning of six Romanian schools on our territory with the leadership of the state that is the carrier of the language of teaching, i.e. with Romania."

But two pertinent questions arise: first, in a statement released on 10 August, Tiraspol's "Education Ministry" described the six schools as educational establishments where "children are raised on the idea of the superiority of some nations, peoples, or individuals over others." This presumably refers to cultivating patriotism and pride in one's history. But here the separatists are on the same wavelength as Chisinau, which has long intended to replace the teaching of the "History of Romanians" with that of "Universal History" and in general propagate "Moldovianism" as a substitute to a common Romanian heritage. This being so, if negotiations over reopening the schools were to be conducted with Bucharest, what could Romania's role be other than to provide at its own cost textbooks that distort history and culture as approved by the Tiraspol "Education Ministry"? It is absurd to believe that Romania would settle for less than Moldova on this point. But Tiraspol's purpose is quite different.

The exercise is aimed at placing Bucharest in a difficult position. Rejecting the offer would open Romania to accusations at home of displaying insensitivity towards the fate of Romanian minorities abroad -- hardly an attractive option for the ruling Social Democratic Party with parliamentary and presidential elections approaching in November. Accepting the challenge and entering into negotiations with the separatists would be tantamount to a first step on the road leading to Transdniester's recognition as an independent state entity and would demolish the already strained relations between Bucharest and Chisinau.

But Bucharest was not the only regional capital targeted by Tiraspol on 10 August. Addressing Ukrainian journalists the same day, Litskay said that Ukraine should dispatch peacekeepers to Transdniester, Infotag and Flux reported. He said that the March 1998 Odesa accords signed by former Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi, separatist leader Igor Smirnov, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin stipulate that Kyiv has the right to send to Transdniester a contingent of peacekeepers as large as that of the contingent dispatched by Russia, that is, some 1,500 troops. However, Litskay said, until now Ukraine has only dispatched military observers, who are stationed in the demilitarized zone between the two former belligerents.

Litskay said Tiraspol is "bewildered" why Ukrainian peacekeepers could be sent to places as far away as Iraq, but not to neighboring Transdniester, where events might take a turn unfavorable to Kyiv's interests. "Ukraine would suffer more than any other interested side if Chisinau continues its aggressive policy towards Transdniester. A humanitarian catastrophe might be triggered by Chisinau's blockade, and have a considerable impact on Ukraine, which might be flooded by refugees." The consequences for Ukraine, Litskay said, would be even greater if Chisinau launches a military attack on Transdniester.

This part of the scenario is no less transparent that the signals sent in Bucharest's direction. By having Ukrainian peacekeepers on its territory, Tiraspol would force the hand of Ukraine to extend it de jure recognition in case it succeeds in provoking a semblance of military conflict in which Ukrainian troops would be involved; and it would add an additional stumbling block to having the unfulfilled Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's 1999 Istanbul and 2001 Porto resolutions on Russian troops' withdrawal from the region carried out.

Above all, however, both scenarios are aimed at regionalizing the conflict and transforming it into one that the EU (which is horrified at the thought of a military clash in the vicinity of its borders) and the international community as a whole would feel relieved to have "solved" by giving in to the separatists' quest for recognition.

For the latest news on the tensions between Moldova and its separatist province, see RFE/RL's webpage on Transdniester.