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Home / Analyses / Reflections on Negotiation and Mediation: Lessons from Chisinau and Tiraspol. William H. Hill. February 2009
Reflections on Negotiation and Mediation: Lessons from Chisinau and Tiraspol. William H. Hill. February 2009
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12.02.2009

Negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the Transdniestrian question have now gone on for more than sixteen years.  The OSCE has been involved in the political settlement process for almost all of that period, beginning with Special Representative Adam Rotfeld’s visit to Moldova in late 1992.

The OSCE Mission joined the political settlement negotiations shortly after its establishment in Moldova in the spring of 1993. In the course of my two terms as Head of the OSCE Mission in Chisinau I witnessed almost seven years of talks, contacts, walkouts, crises, recriminations, and renewals of the political settlement negotiations.  Looking back and ruminating on my rather lengthy involvement in the process, I come to the following observations about both the Moldova-Transdniestria political settlement process, and negotiation and mediation in general.

1.  Understanding the causes of a conflict is not the same thing as determining who is to blame for the events.  My interlocutors from Chisinau and Tiraspol were all eager to explain to me who started the conflict, for what reasons, and who was responsible.  The general thread running through all their narratives was that, since the other side was responsible for the conflict, the dispute should be settled on a basis favorable to their own side.  Reaching an agreement in real life more often than not requires that both (or all) sides objectively evaluate their behavior, determine where it might be misunderstood, and decide where it might be changed in the future to facilitate agreement.  This does not mean that the other party may not have committed grievous crimes; rather, unwavering certainty of one’s own rectitude rarely elicits a positive reaction from other parties.

2.  Demonizing the other side may be an effective tactic for ensuring political support on one’s own side, but it is unlikely to make progress toward a settlement.  For years Chisinau political leaders have labeled the Transdniestria entity a “black hole” run by criminals, terrorists, arms traffickers, and the like, and have enumerated at length the real and imagined abuses of the Tiraspol leaders.  Likewise the Transdniestrian political elite has consistently accused Moldovan leaders of genocide, loudly claiming Chisinau’s intent to drag unwilling Russian speakers on the left bank into a Romanian-dominated state.  These tactics have garnered votes and political backing for the political figures who employ them.  They have also guaranteed that dialogue and possible agreement between representatives of the two banks will be much harder to achieve.

3.  Keep focus on the ultimate aim of the political settlement process, even while engaging in specific tactical zigzags in the negotiations.  In 1993 the OSCE Mission made a policy determination that Moldova was one country within the borders of the former Moldavian SSR, that Transdniestria was a part of Moldova, not entitled to independence, and that Transdniestria should have a special status within a united Republic of Moldova.  These basic postulates have remained the essence of OSCE policy on Moldova and Transdniestria since that time.  During my tenure as Head of the OSCE Mission, I tried to ensure that any specific measure or initiative the OSCE supported within the political settlement negotiations was consistent with those basic principles.

In my observation, leaders from both Chisinau and Tiraspol from time to time changed their basic aims within the settlement process, or emphasized particular aspects of their proposals to the exclusion or detriment of others.  These fundamental changes in the basic aims or general features of their settlement proposals more often than not elicited confusion and mistrust from the other party.  Tactical flexibility and willingness to compromise on important issues are both good things.  However, one needs a certain consistency in approach and iteration of clear goals in order to achieve success in a negotiation.  Both of these, in my estimation, have largely been missing from the Transdniestrian settlement process.

4.  Talking to the other side does not mean recognition or capitulation; it is a necessary part of reaching a lasting, peaceful settlement.  My predecessors, I, and my successors were periodically denounced (especially on the right bank) for urging dialogue with the other side, usually with the explanation that this amounted to recognition of criminals, renegades, or the like.  The best way to ensure that a settlement will not be reached is not to talk with the other side.  Agreement to enter into dialogue does not mean accepting the position or actions of the other side; it indicates a willingness to seek a resolution of differences.  If your side has a clear idea of what you want and what you can accept, there should be little fear of entering into discussion with your adversaries.  I personally tend to interpret a refusal to enter into discussions as a sign that a party either does not wish a settlement or fears that its position is weak, unjustifiable, or both.

5.  Progress on small issues can lead to big gains in a political negotiation.  The process of achieving a political settlement to any conflict is based on establishing and maintaining trust between the parties involved, irrespective of the gravity or simplicity of the specific issues involved.  To outside, impartial observers, most conflicts in the contemporary world have logical, often obvious compromise solutions.  One often asks why the parties in a particular dispute (like Moldova-Transdniestria) have not long since reached agreement.  The answer is usually that the two sides do not trust each other, and interpret proposals and actions of the other side in light of their own suspicions.

One way to alleviate such suspicions is to successfully reach and carry out agreements on less important, less controversial, and less threatening issues.  This process both establishes an effective dialogue between representatives of the parties, and also gives each party confidence in the intentions and ability of other parties to carry out agreements reached.  The converse to this is – don’t sign agreements that you do not intend to or will not be able to carry out.  Confidence is an especially precious commodity in any negotiation.  Once it is lost, it will often take years to restore it, if ever.  The example of Georgia and South Ossetia is the most recent sad example of this adage.

6.  Big outside powers can pose obstacles to reaching agreement, but they can rarely prevent entirely determined local efforts at reaching understanding and agreement.  It is always tempting to point to the actions or involvement of a large external power as the reason why a settlement cannot be reached in an internal dispute, such as after a civil war.  Sometimes this might actually be true, but just as often it may be an excuse for one’s own failures or lack of desire to make the effort at reconciliation with the other side.  In the Moldovan case, the parties usually blame either Russia or the West (usually the U.S.) for supporting the other side and making it difficult or impossible to reach a sensible, just settlement.  It is true that all of the mediators at one time or another – some more often than others – have pursued their own interests in the Transdniestrian settlement process.  Sometimes that pursuit of interest may even contribute to progress, but there is no guarantee that this will be the case.

The fact remains that in Moldova both Chisinau and Tiraspol have legislative organs that are capable of making and implementing independent decisions and actions that could lead to cooperation and reconciliation with the other side.  Especially in the economic sphere both parties have assets and advantages that would be useful to the other side.  External powers such as Russia have great influence but cannot completely prevent local actors taking actions that might lead to cooperation and agreement, if those local actors actually wish to do so.  The problem is that for many local actors preservation of the status quo has become preferable to making such independent efforts.

7.  Pressure tactics sometimes work, but more often they make the other party angry.  When one or more parties to a settlement process or negotiation are satisfied with the status quo or simply fearful of the proposed changes necessary to achieve a settlement, at times coercive measures may be effective in convincing the reluctant party or parties to move toward a solution.  However, a number of conditions must be present.  First, there must be a realistic, fair settlement proposal on the table; otherwise the pressured party may simply resist, no matter what the cost.  Second, the pressure measures must be effective and sustainable; if they do not hurt enough, or if they can be circumvented (for example, by soliciting outside assistance), they will not be effective.  Third, coercive measures must be timely.  If they are applied too soon – before a proposal is ready – or too late – after effective resistance has been prepared – again they will not work.

A good example in the Moldova-Transdniestria case was the February 2003 imposition of the EU-US visa ban.  From personal observation I can attest that the measure worried the leaders in Tiraspol.  However, Transdniestrian representatives were already taking part in the settlement negotiations, the ostensible goal of the measure.  At the same time, President Voronin’s constitutional initiative had just been put on the table, and nothing was ready for Transdniestrian acceptance.  Had the pressure been applied once the mediators’ document was near completion, the pressure might have had a greater effect.

8.  More negotiators do not necessarily produce a better result.  Obtaining a result in a political negotiation process depends most of all on the intentions, desires, and flexibility of the parties involved.  Third party participants – whether mediators, observers or others – can provide expertise, material, and political support.  However, more often than not they can also complicate a negotiation by bringing their own political animosities, ambitions, and rivalries into the negotiation process.  Simply adding an additional participant to a negotiation in the hope of gaining enough extra support to make the other party give up is usually a tactic for failure.  The path to success in a negotiation is to seek points of agreement with one’s main adversary, rather than expressions of solidarity from an ever greater number of outside parties.

In the case of Moldova, I believe that Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, the EU, and the U.S. all have substantial resources, expertise, and political authority to contribute to seeking a solution of the Transdniestrian question.  However, the addition of each of these impressive parties to the political settlement process and negotiations has not led to a quick solution, and not even necessarily to immediate or rapid progress.  This lamentable situation may be explained by the fact that there remains fundamental disagreement between Chisinau and Tiraspol that no outside power has been able or willing to overcome.  In addition, the dynamics of relations between the external participants and their geopolitical situation and rivalries have accompanied them into the negotiations and at times have complicated rather than facilitated the process.

* * * * *

These are some, but not all of my observations and conclusions drawn from a career in diplomacy and almost seven years on the ground in Moldova.  They are my conclusions, and not necessarily hard and fast rules.  I do not expect full agreement with some, perhaps many of them.  I will judge their value rather by the extent that they may foster discussion and help improve the effectiveness of the current political settlement process in Moldova. 

 
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