Since Transnistria broke away, Moldovan governments have tried to reach a settlement, first with Tiraspol and then directly with Moscow, to find a possible path towards conflict resolution. The problem is that neither path proved to be possible.
After the war in Georgia some Western observers wondered whether Russia shouldn’t now be willing to send a signal of goodwill and cooperation by resolving the Transnistrian conflict. In fact, the reaction of foreign investors alone showed how economically dependent Russia still is, and that confrontation and isolation damages the trust Russia needs to foster its own development. How isolated Russia has become was demonstrated by the fact that even its closest allies refused to follow its lead in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In February President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel hinted to Russia that Transnistria would be a good starting point in order to revive the CFE-Treaty and thereby implicitly to strengthen the security architecture in Europe as President Medvedev himself had proposed. But whether and how Moscow will respond to this advice is ultimately up to Russia itself.
Even after the war in Georgia, however, Russian leaders indicated that Moscow still isn’t prepared to agree to any kind of conflict resolution which differs much from the conditions outlined in the Kozak Memorandum. On the other hand, a settlement based on anything similar would be worse than no settlement at all. For the moment, the possibilities for a viable solution seem to be exhausted, and the situation will remain so until either the Russian or the Transnistrian position undergoes some significant changes. What are the prospects for change?
Russia’s position appears to be defined by three considerations: Firstly, a separatist Transnistria allows Russia to maintain a presence on the periphery of the former Soviet Union. For Moscow, the geostrategical importance of Transnistria lies in its potential to influence and impede the Westernization of Moldova and Ukraine. Taken on its own, Transnistria would only be of limited value to Moscow, even if it could be incorporated into the Russian Federation; and although this option was mentioned in the so-called referendum held in 2006 on possible independence, the Transnistrians themselves doesn’t seem eager to be ruled by Moscow.
Secondly, within Russia support for Transnistria had been justified both by its strategic importance and by the need to help fellow Russians abroad. Therefore, any Russian government would have difficulty selling an agreement to parts of the Russian public or its political and military elites if they would view such a deal as abandoning Transnistria.
Thirdly, the aim of reaching a settlement does not appear to have a high priority for the Kremlin. Compared with the West, Russia is generally more aware of the situation in the region and takes greater interest in it. But for the time being and from Moscow’s point of view the developments there also have only led down a blind alley, and any settlement that can now be reached is not likely to serve Russian interests. One should thus not expect too much strategy behind the Russian position. For the Kremlin there is little to win, a bit more to loose, and other things to be occupied with.
But this assessment of Russian interests does not mean there can be no change at all or that change cannot come soon. However, the possibilities for change will largely depend on developments within Moldova and Transnistria.
…and Transnistrian Interests.
As for Transnistria, the situation there need not remain stable. In this respect I would also like to list three arguments: The first is that for economic reasons Russian and Transnistrian interests are drifting apart. Transnistria’s industry is deteriorating and has been hit heavily by the financial crisis. What Transnistria desperately needs is direct access to European markets and capital.
In fact for many Transnistrians the attraction of Moldova remains limited. In 2003, Transnistrian leaders showed little enthusiasm even for the Kozak Plan. Alone for economic reasons the attraction of the European Union is far greater. In comparison with the EU, Russia does not have much to offer. On his last trip to Moscow Smirnov may have gained additional support of a few tens of millions € from Russia, but what Transnistrian industry needs in investment runs rather into the billions than the millions. This opens up a potential for political developments within Transnistria.
Politically however, there seems to be an interdependency between Russian influence in Transnistria and the Smirnov government. The Smirnov government can hardly survive without Russian support, but it is also doubtful whether Russia could maintain its influence in Transnistria without Smirnov. For the moment is appears that no Transnistrian leader could afford to distance themselves openly from Russia, but this may rather be the effect of their respective weaknesses caused by rivalries between them than by a complete dependence of Transnistrian politics on Moscow. This poses the question of what control Russia could exercise over Transnistria if it actually had to enforce it.
My second argument is that Russian control over Transnistria is, in fact, limited. The Russian military presence in Transnistria is more symbolic than substantial. Reinforcements could only be drafted in through foreign territory, which means that Russia’s ability to intervene militarily depends either on the approval of Ukraine or on Moscow’s readiness for simultaneous escalation of a conflict with Kiev.
For that reason alone, Russia, thirdly, cannot be interested in the use of force in any conflict escalation within or over Transnistria as things stand. Furthermore, any kind of Russian military intervention or even a preventive reinforcement of its presence in Transnistria would run the risk of resulting in a recurrence of the negative experience Moscow had with the war in Georgia. But in this case western reactions could be expected to be harsher, because Moldova is closer to the EU and concerns would be reinforced that Russia is pursuing a neo-imperialist strategy and should not be appeased but contained or even repelled.
This does not mean that Moscow would shrink back from escalation in all circumstances, but that Russia would probably only escalate the conflict itself if it considers itself to be provoked outright. With the possibility of change in Transnistria at hand and a lack of means and interest to prevent it by force, Russia may even look for a face-saving exit-strategy over time.
A Strategy based on Europeanization
What consequences for a Moldovan strategy can be drawn from this analysis? My conclusion is that Moldova and its partners should not expect a fast solution, and nor should they push for one. Pushing for a settlement under the given circumstances would only cause the other side to raise the stakes. The alternative is to prepare the ground by pursuing a long-term-strategy. This is not to say that a settlement can only be reached in the long term. Quite the opposite: A long term strategy could even foster a solution because it would change the rationale of all the actors involved.
Ideally, such a long-term strategy must be based first and foremost on one principle: Europeanization comes first. This must include the provision that there will be no reunification whose terms could interfere with the transformation of Moldova. On the contrary, regime transformation in Transnistria must be either a precondition or part of a settlement. As long as a possible revitalization of the Kozak Plan seems to be looming on the horizon, Western partners will harbour reservations about Moldova. To put it bluntly: what they want to see is a reunited Moldova, not an enlarged Transnistria.
This strategy would aim to achieve three effects: Firstly, by concentrating on its political and economic modernization as well as through European integration itself, Moldova would increase its attraction to Transnistria. This requires a two-track approach. On the one hand, Transnistrians have to realize that for them the only path towards European integration leads through Moldova. This means continuing a policy of restricting access to European markets in particular for those companies which do not register in Moldova and thereby accept Moldovan sovereignty.
On the other hand, however, Chisinau should not count on the impact of economic problems alone but seek to build trust and support an intensification of contacts between Transnistrians, Moldova and the West in general, especially between the civil societies. Instead of isolating or cornering Transnistria, Chisinau should concentrate on reducing the reservations in Transnistria about a reunification. Transnistrian elites – as well as Russian businesses – could be given assurances that their property rights and related economic interests will be protected if they are willing to sacrifice political control. The Transnistrians in general must learn that what they have to expect from Moldova is not political oppression. The best way to achieve that is for the Moldovan authorities to show Transnistrians that they care for them. And Transnistrians should understand that if Tiraspol fulfils the political conditions and is willing to agree to a viable settlement they will find in the EU an ally which will support their legitimate interests.
Secondly, Moldova’s European partners would be assured that the integration of Moldova would not in any way mean importing the current Transnistrian Regime or its characteristics into the EU. And there should be no doubt that how far the EU is willing to go with the integration of Moldova will depend not only but also on this provision.
Thirdly, if Russia cannot expect to influence Moldova through Tiraspol, the strategic value of Transnistria would decrease significantly. Over time, it could be reduced from a strategic asset to an expensive outpost. In the end, Russia would be of little value to Tiraspol and Transnistria alone would be of little value to Moscow, while Russia's continued military presence there will remain an obstacle to developing its relationship with the West and resolving contentious issues such as the CFE-Treaty. Then with respect to Moscow the impediments for a settlement would come down to the question of how much domestic resistance a Russian government would have to face. In other words: the aim of the strategy would not be to cope with Russian interests directly but to change them.
What does this imply for the negotiation process? Obviously Moldova should reject any attempt to establish a new framework of negotiations apart from the OSCE´s 5+2 format or to reduce its task to mere consultations. For even though the 5+2 negotiations are not likely to produce a settlement by themselves, Chisinau should refrain from any move which could separate it from its Western partners or provoke scepticism among them. This doesn’t mean that Moldova should cease all bilateral talks with Tiraspol or Moscow. In general, however, it might be expedient to concentrate on practical improvements concerning the relationship between the people on both banks, to make clear what would be a non-starter for Moldova, and to leave it for the time being to the other side to come up with some more fundamental proposals for a solution.
Is NATO an alternative?
To implement such a strategy successfully Moldova must keep the balance between two opposing requirements. Since it poses the risk of alienating Russia on the one hand, Moldova can in truth adopt the strategy only insofar as it gets backing from Western partners. On the other hand, Moldova must avoid provoking Russia too much, in order not to strengthen anti-Moldovan and pro-Transnistrian sentiment there.
In any case it is an impediment for Moldovan foreign policy in general and for conflict resolution in particular that Chisinau couldn’t obtain an accession perspective from the EU and isn’t likely to get one in the near future - contrary to the efforts of its government and the trends of public opinion. It may be for that reason in particular that a number of Moldovan politicians and experts have advocated turning away from neutrality as guaranteed in the constitution and seeking NATO membership. What could Moldova really gain from such a move?
At first glance, access to NATO membership seems to be easier than to that of the EU. Pursuant to the development of every other eastern or central-eastern European country which joined the EU after 1995, NATO membership could be interpreted as a pre-stage for EU accession. But each of these countries wanted it for itself; it never became a requirement for EU accession. In fact, because of its conditionality even NATO membership can contribute to the transformation of a country resulting in improved stability, development and the attraction of investment. However, this would only be the case if Moldova were actually to become a NATO member. The problem is that it is more likely that striving for NATO membership would mean overreaching, resulting not in progress but a setback for Moldova. I will make three points to support this claim.
Any move towards NATO will, firstly, upset the balance mentioned above. It would inevitably provoke Russia; and Russia will likely respond by hardening its position und by tightening its grip on Transnistria. Alone because of the impact any settlement would have on sentiment within Russia, even a Russian government that would otherwise be willing to agree to a viable settlement could thereby be prevented from doing so.
My second argument is that such a policy would face impediments both in international and in domestic politics. Russia could respond by taking a more confrontational stance; and since this would be considered by many in the West as a somehow natural reaction it would meet at least some understanding, even in a number of NATO countries. In fact, a confrontation with Russia could make several NATO member states shirk away from allowing Moldova to join the alliance. By moving towards NATO Chisinau could even provide Moscow with a justification for strengthening its military presence in Transnistria. The more prone the conflict seems to be to escalation, the less likely is it that Moldova could accede even to the EU. Moscow knows that.
In any case, a policy probably leading to open confrontation requires a certain amount of determination and unity within Moldova. Is the country united enough for such a move? If it isn’t, Moldova might in the end simply be plunged into internal and external turmoil. For that reason it is questionable that a possible NATO membership could even serve as a bargaining tool. Don’t bluff if the other side can see your cards.
Thirdly, an application for NATO membership would not necessarily contribute to the security of Moldova. In fact, the opposite may even be true. For in the best case it would be several years before Moldova could actually join NATO, and in the meantime it would face a possible confrontation with Russia without being protected by NATO security guarantees. Would this change even with full membership? During the Cold War NATO possessed such a level of military integration that every actor could be quite sure that any use of force in a conflict against NATO territory would result in an almost automatic military response. But this has since changed.
How NATO would react in such a scenario today would probably first be subject to political deliberations. This can mean that the NATO security guarantees depend on the extent to which other actors actually believe in them, or, the other way around, that they may already have failed if the alliance's deterrence capabilities have proved to be ineffective. To demonstrate a potential weakness of NATO´s security guarantees might even become an incentive to escalate a conflict for any opponent who really wants to hurt the alliance As far as existing NATO members are concerned, the alliance's guarantees appear to be largely (although not entirely) credible. But this doesn’t mean that this credibility would simply extend with further enlargements. Actually it could even be weakened.
Implications and requirements of European integration
In any case, a policy aimed at NATO membership would rather add to the impediments than the opportunities for a settlement of the Transnistria conflict. Such a strategy would rather prolong than resolve the conflict. In fact, the future security of Moldova depends more on the developments in Ukraine than on its own choice of alliances. The most likely way that NATO membership could contribute to a settlement would be for Moldova to refrain from it. But a confirmation of the country's neutrality would not be sufficient as a groundbreaker for a settlement. It is questionable whether NATO or anyone else could or should guarantee Moldova independently of any future political will in the country.
There is no alternative to a strategy that focuses on Europeanization. It is a policy of EU integration on which the future of Moldova depends. In this respect domestic politics and conflict resolution are closely interconnected. On the one hand European integration is the best means of overcoming the conflict. On the other hand an unsolved conflict over Transnistria causes reluctance among Moldova’s European partners to enhance its integration.
From a Moldovan point of view the progress of European integration must appear a bit disappointing. For the time being many member states are not prepared to extend the enlargement process any further. And many European politicians still need to be convinced that the situation in Moldova is different from that in Cyprus, meaning that in the former case an accession perspective would not turn out to be an impediment for conflict resolution but would actually foster it. But progress with the transformation process in Moldova itself and an increasing willingness of its European partners to proceed with its integration will interlock step by step.
The only way to overcome the reluctance of its European partners will be to proceed with the transformation in Moldova. There will be no compensation for reforms. To what extent the upcoming elections will be consistent with European standards will be of particular importance in this respect. But even more important will be what happens after the elections. Any Moldovan government will soon reach a point where it will have to decide whether to proceed with reforms even if they restrict its own power. This would mean strengthening the rule of law by giving up control of the judiciary, prosecutors, and security services; it would mean increasing the freedom of the media significantly, or visibly improving the fight against corruption. In this respect Moldova has started many legislative reforms, but their implementation is lagging behind.
To be sure, an accession perspective would make it much easier for any government to justify reform, since this would lend it credibility and the prospect of European interaction. Without a perspective, progress may be slower then one hopes for. But it depends not least on Moldova itself what efforts it will achieve. For even without the prospect of accession it is up to Moldova itself how far it will go with its reforms and the implementation of the acquis. By intensifying its efforts in that direction Molodova will both accelerate the development of the country and shorten its path towards European integration. The support of the EU will follow; and Transnistria will follow, too, as soon as Moldova proceeds significantly. The best way for Moldova to act now would be precisely as if it already gained an accession perspective.