The announcement that official talks are to resume in the so-called 5+2 format aimed at resolving Moldova's long-standing conflict with the breakaway Transdniester region has been hailed as a small but important bit of progress.
The official talks have been suspended since early 2006, although unofficial contacts have been kept alive under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The announcement was made on September 22 during a meeting in Moscow, which came hard on the heels of talks between Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov in Bavaria on September 9. Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Eugen Carpov, who headed Moldova's delegation in Moscow, hailed the agreement to resume talks as "a substantial step forward."
However, the sides did not agree to an agenda for the upcoming talks or even on a date when they would resume. However, the OSCE's ambassador for the protracted conflict, Giedrius Cekuolis, announced that he had been asked to chair the resumed talks in Lithuania. This seems to indicate his intention that they begin before Lithuania's presidency of the OSCE concludes at the end of December.
'A Process Has Begun'
Journalist Grigory Volovoi, who is based in the Transdniestrian capital of Tiraspol and who has covered the dispute for years, notes that the Moscow announcement is only one step in a long process that still lies ahead.
"Tiraspol's position has not changed and neither has the position of Chisinau," Volovoi says. "Therefore, I think it is still too early to talk about the resumption of full-scale, constructive talks. A process has begun, as one witty phrase has it, in which they have agreed that they need to reach an agreement.
"So, in my opinion, the negotiating process still has not reached the phase where it can constructively settle one or another problem. Tiraspol continues to insist on total independence, while Moldova continues to insist on a unitary state. And neither of these facts suggests any concrete solution to the Transdniester problem."
Carpov also noted in comments to RFE/RL's Moldovan Service that the area of agreement between the two sides is small.
"Tirasapol's position corresponds to Chisinau's in that both agree on the necessity of resuming official negotiations," Carpov says. "But no other elements were agreed -- precisely in order to avoid questions that could provoke disagreement. No preconditions were accepted for the resumption of the talks."
Chisinau-based political analyst Igor Botan explains the fundamental conundrum that the renewed talks will eventually have to confront.
"Chisinau believes the 5+2 talks need to be about the status of Transdniester, while for the Transdniester side, the problem is completely different -- that is, there is no common starting point," Botan says. "They think Transdniester can't pronounce its independence while also holding talks about its status. Talks with Moldova can only be about recognizing Transdniester and about normalizing relations between Moldova and Transdniester."
The official 5+2 talks are structured around the two conflicting sides -- the government of Moldova and the representatives of the Transdniester region -- as well as the mediating powers Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, and the observers, the United States and the European Union. They were suspended on March 3, 2006.
Regional players such as Russia, Ukraine, and Romania have, in many ways, the greatest influence on the possible resolution of the Transdniester conflict. Berlin-based political analyst Anneli Ute Gabanyi says she does not believe the situation has changed much since the talks broke down. She tells RFE/RL that Russia continues to base its position on the so-called Kozak Memorandum, a proposal presented in 2003 that envisions a very broad autonomy for Transdniester and the continued presence of Russian troops in the region for at least 20 more years.
"All the signals which have emerged from Moscow in the meantime are clearly pointing in the same direction -- a very large status of autonomy for Transdniester which would allow it to continue as a veto power and, on the other hand, Russia is trying by all means [as we can] see in the example of Sevastopol in Crimea [Ukraine], where Russia succeeded to keep its troops and its port there," Gabanyi says. "The same is Russia's objective in Moldova."
Gabanyi describes Russia as "the main power in the 5+2 game" and says Moscow views the Transdniester situation in the context of its larger strategic goal of restructuring the security architecture of Europe and reducing the influence of NATO. In addition, she notes a paradox in Russia's offer to serve as guarantor for such a broad autonomy for Transdniester, one which under Moscow's proposal would include the region's right to veto the country's foreign policy or to secede from the federated state altogether.
"I read a very interesting comment by a Moldovan analyst who said, 'OK, if Russia and Ukraine are the guarantors of such a federalization project, then obviously it would be impossible to grant Transdniester more rights inside a future greater Moldovan federation, of which Transdniester would be part, than the autonomous entities are granted in Russia or in Ukraine.' And obviously the status of autonomous regions in Russia does not allow for leaving the Russian Federation," Gabanyi says.
"So it would be rather strange for Russia to guarantee a solution which would grant Transdniester greater autonomy rights than Russia itself grants its autonomous entities."
Igor Dodon is a deputy with the Moldovan Communist Party, which remains the single largest political force in the country, although a West-leaning coalition called the Alliance for European Integration (AEI) has controlled the government since July 2009. He tells RFE/RL that the AEI government cannot negotiate a settlement to the Transdniester dispute because some elements within it espouse "unionist ideas," meaning that they advocate the unification of Moldova and Romania.
"I am convinced that in this situation it will be very hard to find a compromise that would lead to a solution of this very important problem," Dodon says. "I think that when a government is achieved in Moldova that advocates sovereignty -- with all the elements of that government -- when a clear statement will be made regarding Moldova's neutrality, then it will be possible to solve the Transdniester problem."
Presence Of Russian Forces
Looking forward, Gabanyi says the best hope for progress in the renewed 5+2 talks will be if the observer participants -- the European Union and the United States -- understand Moscow's goals and insist on a resolution of the question of the presence of Russian forces in Moldova.
"The problem is really to what degree the West is ready to insist on positions that Russia has agreed upon in the past -- and, obviously, this is the agreement that was reached in Istanbul in 1999, where Russia under President [Boris] Yeltsin, then, agreed to withdraw its troops from the territory of Moldova," Gabanyi says. "And obviously we know they are stationed in Transdniester, but everyone agrees that Transdniester is an integral part of Moldova, so -- from Moldova."
As long as that question remains unsettled, Gabanyi adds, Moldova's sovereignty will be compromised and Chisinau will be unable to hammer out any compromise that could form the basis of a permanent settlement.
RFE/RL Moldovan Service correspondents Valentina Ursu and Diana Railean contributed to this story from Chisinau. RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report from Moscow