Transnistria: a solution?

A recent article over at Radio Free Europe suggests that Moldova and Russia may be getting close to a solution of the Transnistria conflict. (For some background on Transnistria, here are some articles I wrote last year.)

Now, RFE tends to be pretty Russophobe, so there’s a certain amount of mouth-breathing: Moldova has turned back to Moscow and away from the West! It’s going to become a satellite of Russia once more!

Well… perhaps. But in terms of settling the Transnistrian conflict, the deal described in the article makes a lot of sense.

Briefly, it says that Russia would be willing to withdraw support from Transnistria (and, presumably, lean on its leadership to settle with Moldova) in return for Moldova declaring permanent neutrality, withdrawing from GUAM (Georgia – Ukraine – Azerbaijan – Moldova, or the Union of Former Soviet States Who Have Difficult Relations With Russia And Aren’t Joining The EU Any Time Soon), and committing to never joining NATO. Moldova would still be allowed to get closer to the EU if it wanted, and even to join if it can ever make the grade.

Now, this will be mildly annoying to NATO. But not more than mildly. Moldova has zero strategic value, and it would take years of work to make it a plausible NATO candidate member. (Moldova’s army consistes of a few thousand poorly trained troops, using antiquated third-string Soviet equipment.) So this is not a big deal one way or the other.

GUAM — or rather, GUA — will be more upset. And with reason. GUAM hasn’t accomplished much, but it’s been a useful talking shop. Losing Moldova will knock away much of what little prestige and effectiveness it has.

Which is too bad, but, you know, it shouldn’t much affect how Moldova views things. And from Moldova’s POV, giving up GUAM and NATO in return for Transnistria could be a pretty good deal.

The devil, of course, lives in the details. Transnistria’s current leadership is vehemently opposed to a deal. There’s a joke about Transnistria’s name in Russian. Officially, it’s PMR, for “Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublika”. But ask any Transnistrian, and he’ll tell you it’s for “Papina i moia Respublika” — Daddy’s and My Republic. This refers to President-since-1991 Smirnov and his loathsome offspring, and the fact that they’ve installed themselves in ministries, made multimillion dollar fortunes, and basically set up as feudal lords. These guys and their allies are scum — the head of State Security is wanted by Interpol for murder, and almost the whole Cabinet is banned from travelling to the EU — and they have every reason to fight a deal tooth and nail. Moscow can pull the plug on them easily enough, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go easily.

And integrating the two countries, separated since birth, won’t be easy. Presumably there will be some sort of federal structure, but there will be a lot of niggling little details to be worked out. And not everyone in Moldova will be delighted to welcome the Transnistrians back.

Still, this could be a good deal for Moldova. Moldova’s President Voronin is a bit of a dolt — he’s an old-fashioned provincial Communist, and not in a good way — but blind pigs, stopped clocks and such.

And Russia? There are a lot of reasons this could look good to Russia. Transnistria is heavily subsidized by Moscow, and that’s expensive — more and more as gas and oil prices keep rising. Sabotaging GUAM weakens and divides the remaining members. Taking Moldova out of play for NATO is gravy. Selling the Transnistrian leadership down the river might be a little embarrassing after years of declaring support for them, but on the other hand they’re a bunch of petty gangsters, and it’ll make the leaders of Abkhazia (who are occasionally inclined to see themselves as independent decision makers) understand their position more clearly. And resolving the conflict will make Russia look like the good guy in Abkhazia and South Ossetia: see, we can settle these things, it’s those crazy Georgians who are causing the problems.

Again, there are lots of niggling details — what about all the Russian investment in Transnistria, including that big steel plant owned by Alisher Usmanov? What about the large community of Soviet-era retirees, or the fact that half the country now has “double” citizenship with Russia? But these are potentially resolvable.

I doubt very much that a deal will happen this year. But it does look like one is closer than it’s been in a while. The frozen conflicts all move very slowly, but at least there are some creaking and popping noises from deep inside the ice.

10 thoughts on “Transnistria: a solution?

  1. Hi Doug,

    Just wanted to ask about the official name of the territory in question, I thought it was Trans-Dniester. In other words, a “D” is missing — is this lost in translation or what?

    The deal seems to be OK for the Moldovans. I don’t think that Moldova any time soon wants to join NATO and after 25 years or more the circumstances might change, meaning that Russia might not be able to prevent them joining if the Moldovan leadership decided then that it wanted to join.

    For the Russians the only real problem is Ukraine, and if Ukraine were to join NATO then Moldova would have been completely isolated and rendered unimportant.

    Interesting…

  2. I’d add that the NATO thing is even less of a concession from Moldova’s side than may first appear. Moldovan governments have long accepted that commitment to continue their existing neutrality policy is going to be part of the eventual deal, and only the Christian Democrats, whose support is less than 10%, are inclined to make a big deal of NATO membership.

  3. “But ask any Transnistrian, and he’ll tell you it’s for “Papina i moia Respublika” — Daddy’s and My Republic. This refers to President-since-1991 Smirnov and his loathsome offspring, and the fact that they’ve installed themselves in ministries, made multimillion dollar fortunes, and basically set up as feudal lords.”

    A Transnistrian housemate of mine told me that the place is run by thieves, citing several specific examples. If people are leaving Moldova proper at a high rate, I can only imagine how quickly Transnistria is shrinking.

  4. Nicholas, you’re right — but that doesn’t mean Russia isn’t worried about it. After all, few Georgians were interested in NATO membership when Shevardnadze was running the place. And Voronin is just the sort of leader who’d be a target for a “Rose Revolution”. (Not that I think that’s going to happen — Moldovans are pretty apathetic, and also Voronin is seen as a legitimately elected leader even by people who don’t like him.) And getting a former Soviet Republic to publicly declare neutrality would be a nice publicity coup anyhow.

    Randy, Transnistria has some of the fastest population loss of any post-Soviet state. By its own figures, Transnistria has lost more than 20% of its population since the breakup.

    They had 679,000 people in 1989. In 2004 their census found 555,000. The 2007 estimate is 537,000. (Again, those are Transnistria’s own figures.)

    Transnistria seems to be another of those countries where people have stopped having children. However, most of the decline has been from emigration — and most of the emigration has been Russian. Most Russian families have only been there for one or two generations, and it’s very easy for them to get on the bus to Moscow.

    Note that this affects the prospects for a settlement. As the number of Russians in the province shrinks, so does Russia’s interest in it. To be sure, there are other reasons — prestige, investment, face; there are very few Russians in South Ossetia, but that’s not stopping Russia from backing it against Georgia. But it’s a factor.

    Doug M.

  5. Doug, any thoughts on why now? Is it just something low-level churning along that has finally borne fruit?

  6. I have no information, just guesses. New President in Russia; maybe Medvedev would like to put a foreign policy feather in his cap. Meanwhile, Voronin is facing elections next March, and he’s not terribly popular. (Nobody else is, either, but still.)

    As I said, just guesses.

    Doug M.

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