EUOBSERVER / COMMENT - Recently, the EU has learned that a war over an obscure place such as South Ossetia can shatter the arrangements of post-Cold War Europe. The armed conflict between Russia and Georgia has reverberated even more shockingly across the post-Soviet space. Without stronger engagement with its neighbours, the EU might end up with a bi-polar Europe, not a "ring of friends" in its neighbourhood.
In addition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia [in Georgia], Transnistria is a third "frozen conflict" zone supported politically, economically and militarily by the Russian Federation and used to exert influence on Moldova. The war in Georgia is beginning to have an impact in Moldova. The danger is not that of another war, but of unsustainable peace and the transformation of Moldova into a second Belarus.
At just 100 kilometers from the EU border, Transnistria is the closest unsolved secessionist conflict to the European Union. This conflict undermines Moldovan statehood, threatens Romania and Ukraine's security and complicates EU-Russia relations. In the last years the EU has significantly stepped up its engagement in Moldova. The EU offered Moldova a visa-facilitation agreement and trade liberalization as well as making Moldova the second biggest recipient of EU assistance in the European neighbourhood (after Palestine). The EU also appointed an EU Special Representative, introduced a travel ban against Transnistrian leaders and launched an 120 people-strong EU Border Assistance Mission to reduce the smuggling on which Transnistria thrived. The EU efforts are partly effective, but they need time, which might be in short supply.
On the wings of a military victory in Georgia, Russia's president Dmitri Medvedev convoked his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin, to a summit in Sochi. Russia offered Moldova a settlement in Transnistria on Russian terms, or to face gradual recognition of Transnistrian independence. Russia wants a return to the "Kozak Memorandum" - a 2003 deal on Transnistria that the EU and Moldova refused for fear of entrenching Russian military presence in Moldova. Russia also wants Moldova to interrupt virtually all its cooperation with NATO, condemn Georgia, possibly end the presence of the EU Border Assistance Mission in the region and accept a dysfunctional federalisation agreement.
The Moldovan government has been ready to accept some Russian conditions, but not a Russian military presence in the reunified Moldova. It also wants Russian peacekeepers to be replaced with international civilian monitors, but has little EU support on that. On this really tough issue Moldova is left pretty much on its own with Russia.
The EU has an enormous, but untapped potential in Moldova. This country is on the EU's fringe, but 1,000 km away from Russia. Moldova wants to join the EU. The EU accounts for over half of Moldovan external trade, while Russia has roughly 15 percent. Still, many EU member states have been too hesitant to support stronger EU involvement in Moldova. The EU's biggest failure is to push for the transformation of the Russia-dominated and biased peacekeeping operation in Moldova. The EU discussed this twice. In 2003, the idea was refused by Russia. But in 2006 a few EU member states killed the scheme for fear of irritating Russia. This approach now has to be revisited in the light of the Georgian crisis.
There are four things the EU should do to send a symbolically powerful signal of engagement. The first, is for EU High Representative Javier Solana to visit Moldova, a country he has not been to since 2001. In the aftermath of the war in Georgia, European heads of state and foreign ministers have visited Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to show solidarity, but not Moldova (except for the Romanian president).
The second, is for EU member states to urgently agree on a mandate to launch negotiations on a new enhanced EU-Moldova agreement, a process that is already underway with Ukraine and even Russia. The negotiations themselves on this agreement could start after the Moldovan elections in March 2009. Despite some problems with democracy, Moldova along with Ukraine still remains one of the most pluralistic post-Soviet states.
Thirdly, the EU should agree internally that the current peacekeeping format in Transnistria is biased and should launch an initiative to internationalize the force, while offering a comprehensive EU civilian presence upon Moldovan invitation.
Fourth, the EU should offer to discuss a road-map for a visa-free regime between the EU and Moldova. This would be the strongest signal for both Moldova and Transnistria that they have a future in a Europeanised and reunified country. And it would also be a good demonstration of the EU's ability to prevent future instability and conflict in its neighbourhood through soft, not hard, power.
Nicu Popescu is research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, London office