Moldova and Russia
A thaw in the river
From The Economist print edition
A settlement in Transdniestria is bad news for Moldova—and the West
ITS consequences may be disastrous, but a deal on the worst territorial dispute in Europe's poorest country was still too tempting. Moldova, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, has been split ever since a brief civil war in 1992. Its industrialised part—a strip of land to the east of the Dniester river—maintains an unrecognised independence, propped up by Russia's cheap gas and its contingent of “peacekeepers”.
Transdniestria, as it is called, is a black hole. It makes weapons, ranging from cheap submachineguns to high-tech missile parts. The customers are unknown. It also has lucratively porous borders: one common scam is to smuggle American chicken-meat in and out of Ukraine's protected home market, at a profit of some €700 ($950) per tonne.
Previous attempts to broker a peace deal have got nowhere. Transdniestria's rulers have close ties with business-minded counterparts in Ukraine, Russia and even in Moldova proper. And Russia is unwilling to give up a sliver of its former empire. Last year it imposed a punishing embargo on Moldovan wine. But now Moldova is shifting its position. Last week President Vladimir Voronin set out a new approach that suits the Kremlin—but will dismay Moldova's friends in the West.
In a declaration to be signed jointly with the Transdniestrian leader, Igor Smirnov, Moldova will for the first time recognise Transdniestria's government and leadership as legitimate entities. Voters on both sides will elect a new Moldovan parliament. Transdniestria will keep its Supreme Soviet and have top deputy ministers in the national government. By 2009 Russia's troops will be replaced by unarmed international monitors.
American and European Union diplomats found out about all this only when Vladimir Socor, a Munich-based analyst, published a leaked version last week. Now officials in Washington, DC, and Brussels are urgently seeking clarification. They hope it is an idea, not a real plan, but they fear the worst. Even unencumbered by Transdniestria, Moldova's economy has been lacklustre. Of its 4.4m people, at least 400,000 have emigrated; the country survives on their remittances. A dose of Transdniestrian politics is likely only to strengthen all the darkest forces in Moldovan public life.
And what guarantee is there that the deal will stick? “Russia tends to take agreements as the basis not for implementation, but for further negotiation,” says one cross official. The Kremlin has twice ignored previous deadlines for withdrawing troops. Suppose that, in a year's time, it finds pressing reasons for staying on?
A third question concerns the Transdniestrian KGB. Closely linked to Moscow, it is run by Vladimir Antufeyev, who was involved in a failed Soviet crackdown in the Baltic states in 1990. Many think it is he, not Mr Smirnov, who runs the show. The Moldovan minister for Transdniestria, Vasile Sova, insists Mr Antufeyev and his pals must leave. Will they?
But the biggest puzzle is the timing. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, may have convinced Mr Voronin, a naïve ex-baker, that the moment was ripe for a deal. Russia may have wanted a quick fix to contrast with the wrangles at the United Nations over the future of Kosovo, Serbia's breakaway province. Yet if the Kremlin was in such a rush, why was it Moldova that had to make concessions?
Crony capitalism could be triumphing over other differences. A top Moldovan politician's scrap-metal business sells mainly to a steel mill in Transdniestria. The son of another has a chain of fast-food restaurants that operates in the separatists' capital, Tiraspol. In theory, cash from the West should counteract any pull from the east: foreign donors have pledged more than $1.2 billion to Moldova in the next three years. But much of this depends on reforms that the country's lethargic and corrupt administration is loth to embrace.
It will be hard for outsiders to block the deal; they may not even bother to try. If they did, they might be called wreckers, given that both sides want it. Yet Mr Voronin's plan means that Russia has, for once, trumped the West. Who might be next?