Transnistria: The reasons behind Russian-Moldovan rapprochement on the issue and its implications for Moscow’s role in the region

Posted in Russia , Asia | 27-Mar-09 | Author: Giovanni Valvo

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at "A conversation with Russia" session of the Brussels Forum.

On February 24, Russia's foreign minister Sergej Lavrov flew to Chisinau for a two-day visit to Moldova. The aim of his journey to the former Soviet Republic was to open up an opportunity for the solution of the age-old question of Transnistria, laying the foundations of a possible tripartite meeting among Russian president Dmitrij Medvedev and his counterparts of the separatist republic and Moldova, Igor Smirnov and Vladimir Voronin respectively. "We do not exclude that a trilateral meeting is needed, we have this pattern in mind and we are to keep it in the agenda", declared the head of Russian diplomacy in the Moldovan capital. According to Lavrov, a plausible end of the conflict in Transnistria "will be reached on the bases of direct agreements between the parts", although the minister also underlined the importance of current international negotiations held within the 5+2 format (Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, Ukraine and the OECD, with the European Union and the United States as observers).

The Transnistrian issue arose between 1990 and 1991, when the collapsing of the Soviet Union seemed to open the door to Moldova's union with neighbouring Romania. Facing the possibility of such a development, the prevailing Russophone population living on the left bank of the Dniester established the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR). Chisinau responded by sending troops into the secessionist entity, starting an armed conflict lasted many months. Since July 1992, when Russian president Boris Eltsin and his Moldovan counterpart Mircea Snegur signed a ceasefire, the peace in the area is kept by a mixed military contingent made up of Russian, Moldovan and Transnistrian troops. Along these years, the Transnistrian government, installed in the city of Tiraspol, has been seeking in vain for international recognition, facing the strong opposition of Chisinau, which is ready to grant only a wide autonomy to the rebel republic.

On February 20, just four days before Lavrov's arrival in the Moldovan capital, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Transnistria Evgenij Shevchuk announced that Russia has provided Tiraspol a total of 255 million rubles (some $ 7 million) in humanitarian and financial aid. According to many observes, mostly in Moldova and Romania, this kind of assistance proves once and again Russia's intention to keep strong its influence over the area. What is certain is that Lavrov's visit to Chisinau was a landmark move. In fact, it was the first visit to Moldova by any Russian minister of foreign affairs since Voronin's election in 2001. The tension between Chisinau and Moscow arose in 2003, when the Moldovan leadership rejected the Kremlin-backed Kozak Memorandum, a plan which took into account the establishing of a "federalized" Moldova. Such a decision made even worse the already difficult relations between the two capitals, inducing Russia to impose economic embargos against Moldova and finally freeze the negotiations on Transnistria, in March 2006.

Most likely, Lavrov's recent opening to Voronin has been planned by Moscow to reassure its western partners after the august war in the Caucasus and the following recognition of the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In this way, a peaceful agreement on Transnistria could help to placate criticism about Russian presumed ambitions over other regions of the former Soviet empire, first and foremost the Crimean peninsula. Moreover, while a fully-independent Transnistria would be a small, weak and isolated state between hostile Moldova and Ukraine, the preservation of Transnistria within Moldova's formal borders could serve as a guarantee for the Kremlin that Chisinau will not slide out of the Russian influence zone, being even a potential thorn in the Ukrainian flank.

In order to make his proposals as enticing as possible, Lavrov launched his diplomatic offensive before Moldova's general elections, to be held on April 5, aware that a rapprochement with Moscow would help Voronin's party to win by recapturing the votes of the Russophone community, which mainly voted against him in the 2005 election. What arises from such considerations is that Russian diplomacy could strengthen Moscow's position in the Black Sea region even more than artillery did in the Caucasus last summer. Moreover, if it is true that politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck asserted, after decades of ideologically-oriented choices, Russian leadership seems to have finally learned the Chancellor's lesson, making pragmatism into its pole star.