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Moldova: Dispute With Transdniestr Offers Many Plans But Few Solutions

A number of proposals have been made to resolve the dispute between Moldova and its breakaway Transdniester region, including an OSCE-backed proposal to turn Moldova into a federation. But so far, such plans have only stirred the simmering debate, which involves not only Moldovan political and civil groups, but also a number of international organizations.

Prague, 25 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Negotiations between Moldova's communist government and pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway region of Transdniester have been under way for several months, despite interruptions and occasional disputes between negotiators.

The talks are taking place within the framework of a proposal presented by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE put forward its proposal last year during a meeting in Kyiv between the two sides and international mediators from the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine.

But the OSCE proposal, which envisages turning Moldova into a federation where Transdniester would have special status, has triggered a wave of opposition from several Moldovan NGOs. They say the plan is meant to bring Moldova back under Moscow's control with the blessing of the OSCE.

That position was recently echoed in a series of articles and editorials in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," which argued that the OSCE plan is "a recipe for instability which gives international imprimatur to Russian military meddling there [in Moldova]."

But the OSCE disagrees. William Hill, the head of the OSCE mission to Moldova, told RFE/RL that the proposal, which enjoys the support of other international bodies, is meant to support Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity. "The OSCE mission, along with the other mediators and OSCE participating states and a number of major international actors -- international organizations such as the European Union and the Council of Europe -- have assisted in this process and have expressed support for the basic lines of the Kyiv proposal," Hill said. "That is, a federal-type resolution to the conflict that involves a special status for the Transdniestrian region, but which respects Moldova's unity, independence, and territorial integrity."

Details about the plan are sketchy. But according to a draft released to the media earlier this year (February), Transdniester would become a subject in the new Moldovan federation but retain its own governing and legislative bodies, as well as its own budget and fiscal authorities.

Transdniester would be entitled to its own language policy on its territory, while Moldovan would remain the state language.

Hill said a constitutional commission was formed in April and began working on a new constitution last month. A referendum to approve the new constitution is eventually due to be held in both Moldova proper and Transdniester. But Hill told RFE/RL basic disagreements remain over the exact form the federation would take.

The plan also has its critics. Last week, a group of some 15 Moldovan NGOs issued a public statement warning that any referendum held in Transdniester would make "a mockery of democracy." The statement blames the OSCE's Moldova mission for failing to adequately address the crisis during the past decade and for kowtowing to what it calls Russia's "neo-imperial games."

Igor Munteanu heads "Viitorul" (The Future), one of the 15 groups to sign the statement criticizing the OSCE plan. He told RFE/RL that no lasting federation can be established until democracy takes root in Transdniester and crime and armed gangs are eradicated. "The reaction and the motive for this [opposition] statement are questioning not the federalization principle itself, but the subject with which Moldova is supposed to federalize itself," he said. "Three elements were very clearly highlighted in the statement as being the conditions for a successful negotiation process: demilitarization, ensuring the conditions for the democratization of the [Transdniester] region, and the disarming of the troops in this region. One should not forget that even if Russia fulfills its obligation [to withdraw arms and troops from Transdniester] according to the 1999 Istanbul summit, a considerable amount of military equipment will be left in the hands of the unconstitutional Transdniestrian forces."

Others are also skeptical about the validity of a referendum in Transdniester, where there is no democratically elected government. Reuters correspondent Dmitrii Chubashenko is a Russian-speaking Moldovan. He told RFE/RL that Transdniester remains under the control of an oppressive, Soviet-style regime, in which people are afraid to express their opinions.

"Transdniester is a kind of Soviet-style oppressive regime. And many refugees from the left bank [of the Dniester River -- i.e., from Transndniester] -- Moldovans who supported Moldovan independence -- they came to the right bank [that is, the part of Moldova controlled by the legitimate Moldovan government]. And those who remained don't have the possibility of expressing their political opinions there [in Transdniester], because the political police are following all the dissidents. They are afraid to express their opinions," Chubashenko said.

Responding to the statement of opposition issued by the 15 NGOs, OSCE mission head William Hall strongly denied that his organization is biased in favor of Russia or Transdniester. "I totally reject the charge, or such allegations, that the OSCE has been working to support some sort of neo-imperialism or Russian national aims in Moldova," he said. "This is sheer demagoguery that's used by political figures in Moldova for their own private political aims. The basic policy of the OSCE and the OSCE mission in Moldova is to support Moldova's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and to achieve a peaceful political settlement to the Transdniestrian conflict."

Hill said the NGOs speak for only a part of Moldovan society, and that there are other civil organizations and political leaders who support the OSCE's efforts.

"The Wall Street Journal Europe" also reported that the European Union may soon decide to deploy a peace-consolidation force to Moldova. But Christina Gallach, the spokeswoman for the EU's foreign and security affairs chief, Javier Solana, told RFE/RL that the 15-member bloc has no immediate plans to deploy peacekeepers to the region. Gallach also expressed the EU's support for the OSCE-backed federalization plan.

"At this moment, there is no specific plan on a EU military deployment in Moldova. The European Union is supporting the efforts of the OSCE in order to help the political process overcome the crisis in the country. And the European Union is ready to help it in the process of the constitutional reform, the process of federalization and in whatever means are needed. And the eventual deployment of a EU peacekeeping force at this moment is just an eventuality, it is not a plan. And we have to look at this process later on, depending on the political evolution and the circumstances," Gallach said.

But some analysts are urging the EU to take a more active role in resolving the Moldova crisis. German political scientist Claus Neukirch works with the International Crisis Group (ICG), an international NGO dedicated to resolving conflicts worldwide. He told RFE/RL that the EU stands to benefit from a democratic and prosperous Moldovan state.

"Moldova is outside the EU border, but it is going to be a new EU neighbor, and in 2007, when Romania will become a EU member, there will be a direct border between Moldova and the EU. And then, if Moldova will be a volatile region, Transdniester will still have the problems it has today -- contraband, criminality, and so on. I don't think Brussels wants to have something like that so close to the EU. And if we judge by all the signals that the EU has given lately, Brussels is interested in having a stable and prosperous neighbor. But Moldova will not be stable and prosperous unless the Transdniester conflict is solved," Neukirch said.

Neukirch recently authored an ICG report on the issued titled "Moldova: No Quick Fix." In it, Neukirch reports that the "quick fix" envisioned by the OSCE's Dutch chairmanship is undesirable and unlikely to be realized this year.

While he, too, favors a federalization of Moldova rather than a large degree of autonomy for Transdniester, Neukirch calls for comprehensive, step-by step approach to the adaptation. Only in this way, he says, will the settlement be sustainable.

Neukirch, who is due to become the OSCE's new spokesman in Moldova next month, makes a series of recommendations to the OSCE, the EU, and the United States on how to graduallu resolve the crisis. They include a systematic and synchronized democratization of both Moldova proper and Transdniester, a reconstruction program for a unified Moldova, the presence of an EU-led peacekeeping force under an OSCE mandate, and a sanctions regime to be imposed on the Transdniestrian leadership if it continues to block the negotiation process.