Representatives of all parties involved in the Transdniester settlement process gathered in Moldova for informal discussions on July 21-23.
First, the 3+2 format -- the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine, as mediators, and the European Union and the United States, as observers -- held separate meetings with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniester "vice president" Aleksandr Korolyov. The region's de facto president, Igor Smirnov, demonstratively chose not to attend.
Then the same group participated in a meeting of the heads of joint expert groups for socioeconomic issues set up between Chisinau and Tiraspol.
Finally, informal consultations were held within the complete 5+2 format, including the Moldovan and Transdniester chief negotiators focusing exclusively on proposals for advancing confidence-building measures between the two sides.
As this was only the second such informal meeting of the 5+2 format since negotiations broke down in February 2006, the mere fact that all involved parties came to the table and exchanged views was assessed by many as a positive development and a step toward the resumption of formal negotiations, which is tentatively scheduled for the second half of September. Before the talks, nobody -- with the exception of the Moldovan leadership -- expressed any hopes that they could yield more substantive results, let alone a breakthrough.
Although no formal agreements were concluded or protocols signed, Chisinau and Tiraspol agreed to meet each other halfway to unblock the work of the expert groups, particularly in the fields of the environment, transportation, and humanitarian assistance. Heikki Talvitie, special representative of the Finnish OSCE chairman-in-office, termed that expressed willingness the most important results of the talks.
The prevalent mood within the 3+2 seems to favor a pragmatic "small-steps" approach, which seeks to advance what is possible on the confidence-building agenda, while leaving highly contentious political and security issues for later discussion.
However, Chisinau suspects Tiraspol of using confidence-building measures selectively to address the existing socioeconomic problems and strengthen its capacity to preserve the status quo and continue dragging its feet on a political solution.
From the point of view of the Moldovan leadership, confidence-building efforts can bring a solution closer only if they are implemented as an integral part of a broader process of conflict resolution, not if they are decoupled from it.
For about a year, Moldova has been vigorously pushing for holding a marathon session of the 5+2 format to discuss, and hopefully approve, the so-called Package proposals. These proposals were drafted in late 2006 by senior Moldovan experts, who tried to find a common denominator that would accommodate both Moldova's and Russia's main interests without undermining the viability of a future reintegrated state or legalizing Russia's military presence in Moldova.
In a nutshell, the Package is rooted in the logic of trade-offs. In exchange for reconfirming its neutral status, demilitarizing the country, and unconditionally recognizing Russia's property rights in Transdniester (which accounts for up to 80 percent of the region's industrial potential), Moldova expects that Moscow would agree to withdraw its armed forces from Moldova and promote a viable settlement.
Other key elements are a broad autonomous status for Transdniester; a clear division of competences between Chisinau and Tiraspol; functional central institutions; and proportional representation of Transdniester in the Moldovan parliament.
The last point is crucial insofar as it envisages holding the March 2009 elections to the Moldovan parliament jointly with Transdniester. As a separate electoral district, the region would be entitled to a quota of deputies proportional to its share of Moldova's total population (estimated at 13 percent), or even higher.
However, for this to happen, Moldova would need to amend its Election Law several months before the ballot, which means the settlement agreement would have to be approved in the 5+2 format no later than mid-fall.
This rapidly approaching deadline, after which it would be impossible, even technically, to hold joint elections with Transdniester, could well explain Voronin's impatience to start negotiations and his growing frustration over the failure to get the entire 3+2 to move ahead.
The European Union and the United States long ago welcomed the Package proposals as a good foundation for a viable settlement. Moscow, however, has never formally reacted, in spite of Chisinau's persistent attempts to elicit a positive response. Voronin has sought to convince Russia of the Package's merits and of Chisinau's trustworthiness, both by soliciting international recognition of Moldova's permanent neutrality, and by affirming his willingness to further accommodate Kremlin concerns even at the expense of Moldova's interests (i.e., accepting a humiliating meeting with Smirnov in April, sabotaging the work of GUAM, reducing cooperation with NATO, escalating the conflict with Romania, and so on).
Voronin has not yet given up hope that Moscow will ultimately reward Chisinau's soft line (thus also indirectly demonstrating the "advantages" of this course over the hard-line approach promoted by Tbilisi). At a minimum, Voronin wants a clear response to the Package proposal, but he would prefer active support from Russia for the rapid launch of negotiations and a fast-track settlement on the basis of the Package.
However, so far there have been no indications that Russia is prepared to renounce its long-standing policy of using the unresolved Transdniester conflict as leverage to circumscribe Moldova's foreign-policy options. On the contrary, evidence is piling up that Moscow still sees legalization of its military presence in Moldova and Transdniester's veto over the main decisions of the Moldovan parliament as the key preconditions of an acceptable settlement.
The Package doesn't offer Moscow comparable leverage, which explains why Russia is not rushing to support it. At the same time, there are few further concessions Chisinau can make without compromising the viability of the state and triggering a major domestic political crisis.
Nonetheless, during his meeting with the 3+2 on July 22, Voronin once again affirmed his belief that the conflict could be resolved by the end of 2008. Moreover, after this meeting, he declared that Russia is well aware of the advantages it can gain from such a settlement and that it will therefore very soon express support for this plan.
Sooner rather than later, however, Voronin will have to face up to the realization that in the current circumstances the Package cannot be accepted by Moscow. Will he continue to stick to his goal of resolving the conflict before the March 2009 elections and agree to additional massive concessions in order to achieve this? Or will he grudgingly give up hopes of a settlement in 2008 and accept an alternative approach that could take several years?
Nor is it clear that Russia will actually offer Chisinau the possibility to make this choice. Moscow seems to be comfortable with the status quo. Either it does not believe it can realistically obtain anything better at this point, or it is not convinced Chisinau will pull its current offer off the table and toughen its stance after the parliamentary elections, as Voronin regularly warns. The Kremlin may not even believe Voronin is genuinely prepared to accept a revamped version of the 2003 Kozak plan or is capable of delivering this settlement in the last six months of his mandate.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that Moscow has fully abandoned hopes of achieving a settlement on its terms. After the summer break, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plans to hold separate meetings with Voronin and Smirnov.
If Russia then decides to play hardball -- which is still possible, but not very likely -- the big question is whether Voronin will be capable of staying his current course and "refusing the offer" to cross the red lines for the sake of a settlement before elections. And if he is not -- which is not very likely, but can't be ruled out -- will the internal and external reactions to such a development be capable of preventing an unviable resolution from happening?
Andrei Popov is executive director of the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova (APE). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL