The rumors began when Vladimir Socor, a Munich-based analyst, leaked the contents of a purported agreement between Russia and Moldova. The story was picked up by "The Economist," which suggested that the consequences of such an agreement "may be disastrous, but a deal on the worst territorial dispute in Europe's poorest country was still too tempting."
Other participants in the 5+2 settlement talks (Transdniester, OSCE, and Ukraine as direct participants, the United States and European Union as observers) took quick measures to confirm whether a secret deal had been signed.
The EU's special representative to Moldova flew to Moscow and then to Chisinau in search of an answer, while EU top diplomat Javier Solana raised the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. None was able to confirm that an agreement had been reached.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer, meanwhile, announced at an April 26 press conference that Moldovan authorities had denied the existence of any secret deals.
"We have received -- specific reassurances from the Moldovan government that they have received no written plan from the Russians," Kramer said. "These were reassurances that came from President Voronin personally, from [Reintegration] Minister [Vasile] Sova, from [Foreign] Minister [Andrei] Stratan. We asked this question explicitly so that there is no confusion or misunderstanding."
While reports of an actual settlement appear to have been premature, they are likely not without foundation. Two weeks ago, the deputy chairman of Moldova's parliament, Iurie Rosca, gave an interview to "Flux" magazine in which he criticized reported Russian proposals for a quick settlement of the Transdniester conflict.
Shortly thereafter, an anonymous source leaked the contents of the Russian draft proposals to Infotag. The Moldovan news agency reported that Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin had discussed the proposals with leading opposition party officials in a closed-door consultative meeting.
However, Rosca later told RFE/RL that no concrete plans had been presented during the meeting.
"During talks on April 11 , we were not presented any document," Rosca said. "In his speech, President Voronin only mentioned the existence of some intentions -- pertaining to points that you already know from the press -- waiting to see the reaction of the domestic and international participants."
He added that he advised waiting to discuss such a plan, noting that it apparently had strong support in Russia but that it would "not respect Moldovan interests, nor the interests of our international partners." Obstacles To Implementation
The leaked proposals share some basic elements -- the signing of an agreement between Voronin and Trandniester leader Igor Smirnov, the dissolution of the Moldovan and Transdniestrian legislatures, the holding of parliamentary elections as early as November 2007, the guarantee of 18-19 mandates in the Moldovan parliament (out of 101) to Transdniestrian representatives, quota positions for Transdniestrian representatives in the government, firm guarantees of Moldova's neutrality, and a continued Russian troop presence in Moldova for another two-three years.
These proposals are very similar to those in the 2003 Kozak Memorandum, a proposal based on the idea of 'federalized' state that was negotiated through shuttle diplomacy between Moldova and Russia, and which was rejected by Moldovan President Voronin.
Although it appears that the purported settlement is still in its draft stages, the controversy surrounding it has highlighted several obstacles to implementing a quick settlement.
One obstacle lies in Moldova's own parliament. Currently, Voronin's Communist Party holds 56 of the 101 seats, far short of the two-thirds majority necessary to make the constitutional changes for adoption of the proposed legislative structure.
Their coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, have responded negatively to Russia's proposals. In his interview with "Flux," Rosca singled out each point of the Russian proposal for criticism.
For example, it would require extraordinary circumstances to dissolve the current Moldovan parliament, such as failure to elect a president after three attempts, failure to elect a government in three tries or in three months, or failure to pass laws for three months.
While Socor has suggested that Voronin might be tempted to instruct his party to take such actions, it seems unlikely that the politically savvy Voronin would shut down government operations over an issue that, according to a poll by the Institute for Public Policy, only 3.7 percent of Moldovans rate as most important. Unclear Origins
Implementing the purported agreement would also require that Voronin sign a joint agreement with Smirnov, a step that Rosca characterized as "juridical flippancy" that would "blacken the prestige of our president."
"I do not see that people exist in Moscow or Chisinau to whom such thoughts occur, and who would put forward such proposals," he concluded, attributing the draft proposals to the Transdniestrian authorities.
But problems in implementing such an agreement do not stop in Chisinau. Politicians in Transdniester have shown increasing resistance to the idea of reintegration with Moldova. During last year's presidential election, Smirnov made independence a centerpiece of his electoral campaign.
Furthermore, in recent comments to RFE/RL Smirnov denied any knowledge of an agreement based on Russian proposals.
"I do not have such a plan. I haven't received anything officially," Smirnov said. "There is a format for negotiations. I met with [Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Yury] Zubakov about three weeks ago and [he] didn't give [me] anything either. Maybe something is going on in Moldova, but as usual they're doing it without [taking into account] the opinion of the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic."
Transdniester's minister of foreign affairs, Valery Litkai, characterized the settlement rumors as "Voronin's electoral trick."
Meanwhile, a Moldovan expert on Transdniester, Oazu Nantoi, told RFE/RL on April 23 claimed that the proposals were initiated by Moldovan Reintegration Minister Sova and presidential adviser Marc Tcaciuc.
Nantoi, director for conflict management at the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, said the two have been working on the plan since last fall with Zubakov.
"Such a plan is not a big secret because Vasile Sova and Marc Tcaciuc had been in Moscow seven times," Nantoi said. "I've seen a plan they had begun these talks with, and I've heard about the version they'd agreed upon after the seven meetings with Yury Zubakov. But I'd like to underline again that I don't believe such a plan could be acceptable for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to assure the unification of Moldova."
Russia's Prominent Role
Along with the difficulties posed in implementing a settlement, the discussion sparked by the reports of a settlement has highlighted the economic leverage that Russia has on both sides in the negotiations.
Russia's economic influence over Moldova is well-known, and has been emphasized by an ongoing ban on Moldovan wine imports that is devastating the country's economy.
Less well publicized are the economic problems faced by the government in Transdniester. Official reports from the breakaway republic still provide a picture of economic growth, reported at 5.6 percent in 2006, and with a goal of 7 percent GDP growth for this year.
At the same time, some information has come out that puts such ambitious growth projections into doubt. For example, since Moldova and Ukraine began requiring Moldovan customs stamps on products from Transdniester, exports from Transdniester's largest company, steel producer MMZ, have dropped nearly 40 percent. In mid-March, Transdniester's economy minister reported that total exports had dropped 23.2 percent in 2006.
Another indicator of economic trouble came at the beginning of April, when Transdniester's Supreme Soviet passed a resolution asking Russia for increased aid. The resolution described citizens as "deprived of the right to normal social and economic development." It also characterized the shortage of budget revenues as "critical." Yevgeny Shevchuk, the speaker of parliament, said of the lack of Russian aid: "We should be ready for the worst."
Given Russia's leverage in both economies, it is easy to see why news of a Moscow-brokered agreement is being taken so seriously by Western diplomats.
(Ryan Kennedy is a PhD candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)