But how much of this is really news? Certainly not the introduction of Transdniestrian troops or so-called border guards, as well as military equipment in what, in fact, is supposed to be a demilitarized security zone. That has been going on for years and has been the subject of repeated disputes. Neither is tension around the Moldovan villages located on the eastern side of the Dniester real news.
Take, for instance, the village of Dortocaia. As recently as 26 January, Smirnov boasted that his "country" would never agree to give up control over the land farmed by Moldovan villagers on the other side of the Tiraspol-Dubasari road, which is in Transdniester. The separatist authorities are claiming taxes from the villagers for the crops "smuggled" out of Transdniester and in 2004 they set up a customs checkpoint near the village. The Joint Control Commission has repeatedly and unsuccessfully addressed the conflict, just as it has done in the case of the illegally stationed Transdniester border guards and military equipment in the security zone. Such skirmishes are a mirror of relations between the two conflicting sides, but hardly warranting the alarm raised by the Moldovan government's statement.
If Transdniestrian troops have been indeed mobilized and redeployed along the bank of the Dniester, as the Moldovan government claims they have, this would indeed be a serious escalation. It is a step that was certainly not undertaken without a green light having been received from Moscow. But rather than reflecting an intention to resort back to arms, it reflects both Moscow's and Tiraspol's alarm in the face of signals that they are gradually losing ground in a game in which more players are becoming involved than they like. Ever since Chisinau's refusal in November 2003 to sign the so-called Kozak memorandum that would have left Russia sole "arbiter" in the region, Moscow has been issuing repeated warning signals. It may not have been just fortuitous that at roughly the same time as Smirnov was announcing the possibility of troop redeployment in Moscow, Russian Defense Ministry official Lieutenant General Georgii Sokolov said on 27 January that the evacuation of the military arsenal stationed in the separatist region has again been "stopped until further notice." The halt of the evacuation, Sokolov said in what has become the standard refrain every time Moscow refers to the failed Kozak memorandum, was "not the fault of Russia."
What is behind these moves, of course, is the determination by Russia and its Transdniestrian client to prevent the possible involvement of the United States, the EU, and Romania in the conflict-settlement process. The current "five-sided" format of negotiations until recently was one in which Moscow had all cards in its hands. Enjoying veto power in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and being sure of support by President Leonid Kuchma's Ukraine, the five-sided format became in fact one in which Moldova was facing a formidable four-sided adversary. President Vladimir Voronin's proposal last year to sign a Declaration on Stability and Security for the Republic of Moldova (DSSM) would have introduced the above-mentioned new players via the back door in the conflict-resolution process. This is a change Moscow would never agree to; witness its position when the proposals were discussed in Varna, Bulgaria, on 8-9 October, and more recently, in Odesa, Ukraine, on 25 January. The talks, expectedly, ended in stalemate.
Furthermore, since October Moscow (and therefore Tiraspol) have more grounds to worry: the outcome of the almost concurrent Ukrainian presidential election and the Romanian presidential and parliamentary elections. There are already indications that under President Viktor Yushchenko Ukraine's Moldovan policies will be less amenable to Moscow than under his predecessor. First, on 21 January Ukrainian authorities began demanding for the first time that Transdniester's imports transiting Ukraine carry Moldovan-issued import certificates. While apparently not yet extended to Transdniestrian exports, the measure is in line with a 2004 decision by the Moldovan authorities aimed at isolating Transdniester economically and at curbing arms trafficking by the Tiraspol authorities. The Tiraspol Supreme Soviet naturally protested. Second, and perhaps more important, the Ukrainian representative at a meeting of GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) representatives in Chisinau, Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Motsyk, for the first time said that his country might not object to having the EU and the United States included in the Transdniester negotiations framework.
Moreover, the Transdniester issue was briefly raised in talks between Ukraine's new president and Traian Basescu, his almost as new Romanian counterpart, who attended Yushchenko's swearing-in ceremony in Kyiv on 23 January. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin was also present. Just two days earlier, Voronin and Basescu met in Chisinau in Basescu's first visit abroad as Romania's new head of state. During the visit Basescu -- who at the start of his presidency said Moldova would be a high priority in his country's foreign policy -- vowed to never allow Moldova to become a victim of "blackmail" by Tiraspol and said that "whenever Moldova needs anything, it should keep in mind that it has a friend" at its borders. Soon after, electricity deliveries to Moldova cut by the Tiraspol-based Moldavskaya power plant on alleged price disagreements, were replaced by Romanian deliveries at practically subsidized costs.
The "frozen" or "semi-frozen" atmosphere in relations between the two countries, as Voronin remarked, seemed to have been overcome -- notwithstanding Basescu's 13 December inaugural address that Romania "must treat Moldovans like good Romanians" and that the two states are "countries whose territories are inhabited by one and the same people." Just a few months earlier, Voronin would have protested this affront at the essence of "Moldavianism." Last but not least, Basescu expressed in Chisinau his country's readiness to sign the Voronin-proposed DSSM.
One more aspect should be kept in mind. Following in the footsteps of former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, but considerably more aggressively than Geoana ever did, Basescu has been promoting Romania's strategic position by placing the issue of the "Greater Black Sea region" on the agenda of NATO and the EU. The Transdniester conflict, of course, cannot be absent from that agenda, as witnessed by Basescu's 31 January talks in London with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, at which Moldova figured relatively prominently.
Yet it is doubtful that Moscow -- and hence Transdniester -- is prepared to make more than noise and to risk a military confrontation, as the Moldovan government's declaration suggests. It should be borne in mind that the ruling PCM is eager to prove to the ethnic "Moldovan" electorate that it, and not the opposition, is best capable of defending Moldova's national interest. Although the PCM is likely to emerge victorious in the parliamentary election, the dimensions of the victory are likely to be more modest than in 2001.
Above all, Voronin knows that he has lost the support of the country's Russian-speaking population, having failed to deliver on his 2001 promises of joining the Russia-Belarus Union and making the Russian language the country's second official language. He thus needs to draw support from among supporters of the opposition parties. Among these, supporters of the Democratic Bloc of Moldova (BMD), rather than of the pro-Romanian Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) are more likely to switch sides.
This explains why in its 1 February statement, the government claimed that the Transdniestrian leadership is attempting to influence the electoral process in Moldova by "paving the way for the coming to power of their political and economic partners." Moldovans who know how to read between the lines understand that the allegation is directed at BMD leaders Serafim Urechean (the alleged political partner) and at former Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis (the alleged economic partner).