Moldova looks for a deal
Frozen conflict hits sell-by date
IT IS not quite the land that time forgot, although the division of Moldova into the breakaway self-proclaimed republic of Transdniestria and the rest of the country is certainly anachronistic. It is certainly the land that most of the rest of the world forgets most of the time. Unlike Georgia, which has two similar frozen conflicts dating from the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moldova straddles nothing more strategic than a river, the Dniestr. Georgia, by contrast, is the West’s best (and indeed only) hope of busting the Kremlin’s pipeline monopoly .
For years, talks with the separatist authorities in the mainly slavophone territory of Transdniestria have got nowhere. Too many people benefit from a customs black-hole in a region where most countries have high tariff barriers. Publicly frosty, ties between the ruling elites in Transdniestria, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia are often privately tight.
But outsiders who follow the conflict, including Vladimir Socor, a veteran Munich-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, detect signs of movement. A European Union (EU) monitoring mission on the border with Ukraine has made smugglers’ lives a bit tougher. A new customs regime in Moldova has made it more attractive for Transdniestrian exporters to register themselves with the authorities there. Legal and predictable business may be less profitable than smuggling, but it is easier on the nerves. That undermines the separatist authorities’ grip.
Attitudes on the Moldovan side are changing too. This summer, the president, Vladimir Voronin, privately flirted with a private peace deal that gave the separatists guaranteed representation in a new federal parliament and government. That produced lots of protest—from patriotic Moldovans who thought the terms too soft, and from outsiders who feared that it would end up giving the Kremlin too much sway in the new country.
The hostile reaction to that plan seems to have reassured Mr Voronin that the West’s sometimes fitful support can still be relied on. He seems now to have abandoned any thought of private back-channel negotiations with the Kremlin, and has launched a new diplomatic push, centred on demilitarisation, noting that both the Moldovan and the Transdniestrian armies are—as he bluntly puts it—“entirely useless”. Moldovan troops number only 6,500; the separatists have 10,000, and some heavy weaponry obtained from the Russian arsenal left in Transdniestria when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The demilitarisation of both sides would have to include the withdrawal of the remaining Russian “peacekeepers”. They would be replaced by a force of international monitors. In return, Mr Voronin has offered a series of attractive proposals to the Transdniestrian authorities. They include allowing Transdniestrian firms to use the rights Moldova has gained to export to the EU; modernisation of transport links and sharing of revenue from them; setting up a joint television station to be run by independent journalists; and accrediting Transdniestria’s university so that the degrees it awards have some international recognition.
All this would be nice for the people of Transdniestria. Perhaps more pertinently, when it comes to changing minds in officialdom, Mr Voronin also says he would lobby the EU to lift the travel bans imposed on some of the senior figures in the separatist regime.
In return, the “supreme soviet”, or parliament, in the separatist capital, Tiraspol, has voted to cut taxes on imports from Moldova, and removed the “migration tax” levied on those crossing between the two regions of Moldova.
These are small steps, and plenty can still go wrong. But if the Kremlin is truly tiring of its expensive puppet regime, the way to a settlement is looking clearer than for many years.