Transnistria: The Case for "Soft" Unilateral Diplomacy

By
Achilles Skordas

December 17, 2004 - In the shadow of the Ukraine crisis, the Moldovan province of Transnistria, part of a wider pattern of structural instability in the region at the heart of the Eurasia bridge between NATO and Russia, is the looming flashpoint of the Black Sea region. On the east bank of the Dniester River, Transnistria is legally part of the Republic of Moldova but seceded from it in 1992 with the open support of Russia.
The security concerns of Western policy-makers regarding the spill-over consequences of the Transnistrian conflict are justified due to the proximity of the conflict to Romania, a NATO member state that will enter the EU by 2007, and to the explosive Caucasus region, as well as the existence of porous borders between Ukraine, Transnistria, and Moldova. The crisis in Ukraine is a perfect example of the potential for an explosive situation behind the facade of normality in Russia's impoverished, post-Soviet "near abroad."

Transnistria's self-declared independence 12 years ago has not been recognized by any state, and no solution is in sight. Unilateral, but concerted, diplomacy and action by the United States and the European Union could advance resolution of this marginalized conflict.

In the last 12 months, important developments have taken place. First, the Russian effort to definitively incorporate Moldova into its sphere of influence has failed. On November 25, 2003, under pressure of the United States and the OSCE, the president of Moldova refused to sign a plan drafted by Russian envoy Dmitry Kozak, called the Kozak Memorandum, which would have put an end to the Transnistrian conflict at the price of a contemporary version of the "Finlandization" of Moldova.

The second major development has been the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of July 8, 2004, in the case of Ilascu v. Moldova and Russia. The Court determined that political opponents of the Transnistrian regime had been submitted to torture, including mock executions and other extreme forms of physical and psychological abuse. The judgment stressed that the Transnistrian regime "set up in 1991-1992 with the support of the Russian Federation . . . remains under the effective authority, or at the very least under the decisive influence, of the Russian Federation, and in any event that it survives by virtue of the military, economic, financial, and political support given to it by the Russian Federation."
Third, the so-called "pentalateral process," involving negotiations among Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE that began in 1997, seems to have lost its momentum. Finally, on November 4, 2004, the Supreme Soviet in Tiraspol, the Transnistrian capital, called for a referendum leading to formal, legal independence for Transnistria.

Moldova is a very poor society, by any standard. The 2004 Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) ranks Moldova 113th among 177 countries. In comparison, Albania ranks 65th. Moldova's annual per capita GDP for 2003 is estimated to be $460. Rampant corruption is the other side of the coin. The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index for 2004 ranks Moldova in position 114 among 146 countries, with corruption being one of the fundamental features of Moldova's social and economic strata.

The volume of the annual narcotics business in Moldova is estimated to be about $200 million to $250 million, a figure that is nearly four times the country's annual direct foreign investment. One of the main factors generating corruption and fueling the actions of criminal networks in the country is customs activity. Trafficking, contraband, and tax evasion are flourishing across Transnistria's borders with Ukraine and Moldova.
What will happen next? There are three possible strategies: First, the continuation of the pentalateral process, with the eventual cosmetic addition of the EU as an observer; second, recognition of the independence of Transnistria; third, unilateral policies of the United States and the EU in the form of economic diplomacy, which would have as their ultimate goal the re-incorporation of Transnistria into Moldova and the integration of the whole country into the European architecture.

The first strategy would probably prove ineffective. Moreover, the post-September 11 world is more actively engaged in preventing crises and markedly less tolerant of potential threats to peace. There are three main concerns with respect to regional stability that argue against the continuation of the present situation regarding Transnistria: the proliferation of weapons from Transnistria, the illegal migration and trafficking of human beings, and the smuggling of goods, including drugs. Arms production, in particular, is one of the most important economic activities in Transnistria. Although some observers believe that the risk that Transnistrian weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists should not be overestimated, the key question is how effectively arms trade routes can be monitored under conditions of complete lack of transparency.
The recognition of Transnistria's independence would be unacceptable for good reasons. It would amount to the surrender of a population of about 600,000 to an authoritarian regime. This recognition would not be in Moscow's best interests, either, considering the example it would set for Chechnyan and other secessionist movements within Russia. In addition, it is questionable whether Moldova could remain a viable state if it were deprived of its industrial base in Transnistria. The impoverished population on the west bank of the Dniester River could then seek to resolve its problems through a chaotic union with Romania, which would be the worst possible scenario because it would create a single regional zone of instability from Albania to the Ukrainian border and beyond.

Can unilateral diplomacy by the U.S. and the EU acting in concert succeed in the case of Transnistria? It is clear that no military solution or any other solution that would directly challenge Moscow's geopolitical interests in the region would be viable. The moderate version of unilateralism is economic diplomacy. Only strong external economic pressure can break the cycle of poverty, corruption, and separatism, while also destabilizing dominant interests by creating a "gravitation center" that will initiate a socio-economic process that pulls the country toward the West.

Washington can take the first major step by offering Moldova a generous free-trade agreement on a provisional basis, with the aim of triggering a follow-up move by the European Union. Such a proposal by the U.S. would open a new window of opportunity for the Moldovan economy and would provide an alternative to the obscure environment of the black market, shadow economy, and inefficient bureaucracy.

The U.S. proposal should be followed by a fundamental reversal of the EU's policy toward Moldova. The main point of the EU's current policy is that a negotiated solution of the Transnistrian conflict is seen as a precondition for the further development of the bloc's relations with Moldova. This position is fundamentally flawed because it perpetuates and cements the status quo, while also giving free rein to dominant interests at the expense of the reformers in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau and in Tiraspol.

Brussels should radically change its position toward Moldova by proposing that consultations begin with Chisinau with the goal of initiating a three-step process: conclusion of an association agreement as soon as possible, assistance with reforms in preparation for accession negotiations, and the launching of negotiations within the next two or three years. The effect of such a process would be enormous on both banks of the Dniester River, and reformers would acquire an agenda overnight. Russia would be warned to avoid any temptation to impose a solution based on electoral fraud, as in Ukraine, and, instead, would be called upon to cooperate with the reformers in Chisinau and Tiraspol and support them. Europe and the United States should advise Moscow that any effort to keep its grip on the region through the use of force would only prolong the crisis without solving its root causes.

To make its proposal more attractive to Moldovans and Transnistrians, the EU should lift its visa ban against the Transnistrian leadership, if they participate constructively in the negotiations following the conclusion of an association agreement with Moldova. This process would focus on the full implementation of the Copenhagen criteria, which include democratic reforms and the establishment of the rule of law, and would lay the institutional framework for accession negotiations. In a parallel step, the EU could establish relations with the Transnistrian regime and request that its representatives be included in the Moldovan delegation in Brussels. Even if the hardliners in Tiraspol refused to cooperate, the integration process would exercise enormous pressure for reform. Moreover, the option would remain open for the Transnistrians to join the negotiation process at any stage, under the condition that they recognize the previous steps and agreements.

As an intermediate step, Moldova, which cooperates with NATO in the Partnership for Peace, could be admitted to the alliance as a full member. Such a development could constitute a guarantee for the stability of the country's democratic institutions and for its orderly integration into the EU.
The European Union and the United States can cooperate effectively to promote settlement of the Transnistrian question. As successfully demonstrated in the Ukraine crisis, unilateral diplomacy of this kind, as an expression of the West's "soft power," can be effective and can contribute to the normalization of the situation in an area suffering from chronic instability and ethnic conflict.

* I am indebted to Dr. Ala Rosca, Associate Professor of International Relations at the State University of Moldova, and Dr. Igor Botan, Analyst, for the insights they offered me on the Transnistrian question. Responsibility for the text rests exclusively with the author.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant