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Moscow Counters Moldovan, Georgian Charm Offensives

Soldiers from the breakaway Moldovan territory of Transdniester take part in a military parade during Independence Day celebrations in the de facto capital, Tiraspol, last year.
Moldova announced earlier this month it was on the cusp of concluding a landmark trade deal with the European Union. But the day before the pact was inked, the Russia-backed breakaway region of Transdniester unilaterally and unexpectedly adopted a law transforming the administrative line separating it from the rest of the country into a "state border."

The law enraged Chisinau, as President Nicolae Timofti told reporters on June 17.

"Somebody wants to destabilize Moldova," he said. "We already know that whenever the Republic of Moldova is close to solving problems related to EU accession, some provocative actions are taken – either by the Transdniestrians or by those who support that region."

The heightened tensions in Moldova have been echoed in Georgia, where late last month Russian troops along the administrative line separating the breakaway region of South Ossetia began erecting barbed-wire fences, sometimes several hundred meters further into the territory of Georgia proper.

In both cases, the provocative moves by the breakaway regions and their Russian sponsors appear aimed at countering Chisinau and Tbilisi's respective efforts to mitigate the conflicts by intensifying direct relations with the regions while making reunification more attractive by aggressively pursuing EU integration and domestic reforms.

Vladimir Socor, a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, sees analogies between developments in Transdniester and South Ossetia.

"Now with [Transdniester leader Yevgeny] Shevchuk's decree that attempts or purports to define a 'border,' we have a parallel process [to what happened in South Ossetia] and I'm pretty sure the source of inspiration is a common source in Moscow," he says.

Undermining Confidence

Giorgi Khutsishvili, director of the International Center on Conflicts and Negotiation in Tbilisi, adds that the move in South Ossetia was intended to undermine public confidence -- and the confidence of Georgia’s Western partners -- in the central government’s new approach.

"Russian policy consists of maintaining control levers over their neighbors," he says. "Sometimes the Russians put their opponent countries in situations that shock them. For instance, the barbed-wire fence and moving the administrative line [deeper inside Georgia proper] negatively affected the Georgian people's mood. Why? Everybody thought that relations with the Ossetians were getting better and that Russians wanted this too. But now the situation turned out to be completely different."

Russian troops recently placed barbed wire along the administrative line separating the breakaway region of South Ossetia from Georgia. (file photo)
Russian troops recently placed barbed wire along the administrative line separating the breakaway region of South Ossetia from Georgia. (file photo)
Since 2009, Moldova has followed a policy dubbed "small steps," which seeks more direct engagement with Transdniester's de facto authorities.

Likewise, under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Tbilisi has adopted a "de-isolation" policy toward breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it is implementing in conjunction with an effort to improve relations with Moscow.

Moldova's concerns about possible provocations are intensifying because Chisinau expects to sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the summit of Eastern Partnership countries in Vilnius in November.

Officials there have not forgotten that Russian and Transdniestrian separatist forces launched the 1992 war that gave the region its current de facto independence on the very day the United Nations voted to accept Moldova as a full member.

According to Socor, neither the de facto Transdniestrian authorities in Tiraspol nor their patrons in Moscow want to see Moldova intensify its relations with the European Union. As the Vilnius summit approaches, he sees Moscow ramping up ties with Transdniester.

"Moscow's reaction is not so much to create incidents -- although it might, but this is not a primary tool," he says. "The primary tool is to cement relations between Moscow and Tiraspol in a way that [ensures] Transdniester's separation from Moldova becomes irreversible."

Creeping Recognition

Socor suggests that Moscow is doing this by opening a de facto consular office in Tiraspol, which is issuing Russian passports at an accelerated rate, by pressuring Chisinau to pay its debts to Gazprom while doing nothing to collect the $3.5 billion that Transdniester owes, and by establishing branches of numerous Russian organizations in Tiraspol and thereby "multiplying ties" between the two.

Moreover, Socor adds that Moscow and Tiraspol are simultaneously using Moldova's charm offensive for their own ends.

"If this process is not handled competently or firmly by Chisinau and its Western partners, it risks leading to the de facto recognition of Tiraspol by Chisinau," he says. "Tiraspol is skillfully trying to exploit the two processes of confidence-building and small steps to elicit this sort of de facto recognition."

Socor says Tiraspol is pushing for such creeping recognition by, among other things, trying to get acknowledgment of its vehicle license plates or trying to get its own international telephone dialing code.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, thinks Moldova's and Georgia's outreach to their respective breakaway regions is unlikely to lure them back. And he adds that Moscow is not concerned.

"They have noted those policies but I don't think that they believe those policies will change the situation in any meaningful way," he says.

Moscow and the breakaway regions know that many in the European Union take a dim view of moving too close to countries that host protracted conflicts.

German member of the European Parliament Werner Schulz is the deputy chairman of that assembly's EU-Russia delegation. He maintains that keeping the territorial conflicts frozen is "counterproductive" for Chisinau and Tbilisi's efforts at EU integration.

"[The Russians] keep these countries preoccupied, and in the EU there is the opinion that as long as these conflicts are not solved they cannot be candidate states," he says. "We cannot accept a country into the EU that has such internal tensions, such internal problems."

Luka Kalandarishvili, an intern with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, and RFE/RL's Moldovan Service contributed to this report