The fall of the Soviet Union led to a series of armed conflicts in the periphery, which later became frozen, only to perpetuate instability in the regions concerned. Moldova’s region of Transnistria is a case in point. Following a brief war and a number of settlement proposals from Russian and Ukrainian representatives, the separatist entity continues to undermine Moldova’s territorial integrity. Economic developments in Moldova, and especially in Transnistria, show that neither side is better off as a result of the secession. The Gagauz experience, albeit imperfect, is nonetheless a successful example of peaceful conflict settlement. Moldova’s European integration ambitions offer increased incentives for cooperation. Thus, a pathway towards a political settlement becomes imperative, since for the past quarter century the status quo has been detrimental to both parties. Economic and geopolitical developments in the region present a window of opportunity. The Moldovan Government and Parliament need to be ready to capitalize on this rare chance.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought fifteen new sovereign entities to the international stage. This process, however, led to several ethnic, political and territorial conflicts across the former USSR. Moldova is a case in point, as pro-Romanian nationalist sentiment was growing following the return to Latin script in August 1989; Russian speaking minorities felt threatened. The heavily industrialized and mainly Russian speaking eastern region of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic – Transnistria – feared a potential union between Moldova and its kin-state Romania. Thus, on September 2, 1990 it seceded from Moldova and pledged direct allegiance to the crumbling USSR. The turmoil surrounding the USSR’s collapse allowed local Transnistrian elites to channel the anti-nationalist sentiment towards building a platform of resistance that would become a de facto state – the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), alternatively named the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic. As the newly formed ‘PMR’ was asserting its ‘sovereignty’ over Moldovan law enforcement, an armed conflict erupted in March 1992, which ended in a Russian mediated ceasefire in July of the same year. The five month military standoff claimed around 1000 lives and left 3000 wounded on both sides. The war has since become a symbol of Moldovan aggression, a sentiment adamantly cultivated by the Transnistrian authorities. Conversely, the Moldovan leadership and media blame Russia and its 14th Army for backing the separatists, a fact confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. However, facts are of little help when debate on the issue is highly politicized by all parties to the conflict.
Moldova declared its independence on August 27, 1991 and became a member of the United Nations on March 2, 1992, with only nominal control over the separatist region – a situation that still lingers to this day. Despite having proclaimed its own statehood, Transnistria remains unrecognized. Unlike in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not even Russia dared to recognize Transnistria. Thus, if only for this reason, the Transnistrian conflict offers more hope for a sustainable solution based on reintegration than any other major ethno-political conflict in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But the local situation is even more favorably distinct from the conflicts in the Southern Caucuses given the absence of deeply entrenched animosity among the major ethnic groups, the positive effects of geographic proximity to the European Union, and, most importantly, the powerful incentives for economic cooperation despite the current political divide. Yet for over two decades, economic cooperation has been hindered by the lack of a political framework that would allow businesses to capitalize on those incentives. Transnistria is exporting the majority of its products to the European Union, thanks to the autonomous trade preferences that Moldova has benefited from. The new Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between the European Union and Moldova offers increased opportunities for Transnistria, should it choose to follow its economic interest instead of engaging in political brinksmanship. Hence, if economic cooperation is to bear fruit, a pathway towards a political settlement needs to be agreed upon.
Located at the crossroads of several major empires (Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian), Moldova has for centuries had a challenging history, which has left the country not only economically crippled but also cruelly divided along ethnic and linguistic fault lines. Those very divisions are coming into play yet again, now that Moldova is torn apart between the European Union and the Russian driven Eurasian Union. It is not at all surprising that many Moldovan citizens would naturally gravitate towards Russia in pursuing their ethnic, linguistic, historic, cultural, and even economic interests. That is why, in a democratic society where there are a plurality of viewpoints, it’s important to engage and to have an informed public discussion on the country’s future, so that even those who disagree with a certain policy vector may feel at least included, if not quite fully persuaded, by their fellow citizens. Inclusive public discourse is paramount if the country is ever to bridge the gap that has been holding it back for so long. Jurgen Habermas’s influential theory of ‘communicative action’ describes well the benefits of sincere collective public engagement in a deliberative democracy, which, normatively speaking, Moldova certainly should strive to become one day. However, for effective communication to take place, a number of conditions need to be met. First and foremost, participants in a genuinely inclusive deliberation need to demonstrate an ability to empathize. Secondly, public actors need to a share a ‘common lifeworld.’ And finally, discourse must be undertaken openly with all actors having equal access to the discourse. Certainly Moldova, and even more so Transnistria, has a long way to go before they are even close to these, admittedly, ideal conditions. Unfortunately, political parties tend to do little to project this sort of inclusion and openness. Quite the opposite, they tend to exploit existing societal differences for political gain, instead of engaging in what Habermas calls ‘communicative action.’
Such short-sighted and reckless behavior by political parties and elites in general has made a successful reintegration policy less likely to be implemented in the near future, or even to have a chance to be put forward. In the last decade or so, too many politicians have grown accustomed to the existing status quo and have become unwilling to spend their political capital on making reintegration a national priority. Without political activism, a Transnistrian settlement will sink further down on the long list of issues that voters care increasingly less about. Unfortunately, politicians seem to be doing very little to reverse that trend. The wishful hope that conflict settlement will come along with European Integration, almost by default, is certainly more of a self-reassuring excuse than a sound government policy. Ironically, politicians bound by electoral cycles fail to realize that time is of the essence, in more ways than just one.
For almost a quarter of a century now, the Republic of Moldova, including Transnistria, has failed to realize its development potential, largely because of separatism. Yet the current economic difficulties, augmented by regional political turbulence, present a focusing event that may make Russia a more lenient partner and Ukraine a more understanding one. These developments are also boosting the position of moderate forces in Transnistria, eager to engage in a constructive dialog in order to benefit from the new economic opportunities presented by Moldova’s closer ties with the European Union. As we have seen time and again, overtly relying on policy entrepreneurs coming from abroad is a defeatist’s strategy – one that is prone to so many shortcomings that it can only lead to failure. Therefore, the Moldovan Government and Parliament, as well as the broader political elite, need to become more pro-active in challenging the status quo rather than surrendering to it. To that end, we recommend the following measures:
- Central Government should appoint more representatives of ethnic/linguistic minorities (Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz, Bulgarian, Jewish, Roma, etc.) to national offices.
- It should work with Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, the United States and the OSCE towards boosting confidence-building measures and increasing economic opportunities for reintegration.
- A portion of Moldova’s international donor assistance should be channeled to jointly agreed upon social, educational and infrastructure projects in Transnistria.
- Parliament should review/repeal the 2005 Law on Special Status of Transnistria.
- Political parties in Parliament should draft and implement a comprehensive national reconciliation strategy. Constructive input from non-parliamentary parties should also be taken into account to ensure a broad national consensus.
- A bilateral committee should be set up together with Transnistrian lawmakers to draft a framework towards a political settlement that would grant the left bank broad autonomy in a reintegrated, but decentralized or even federalized Moldova. Civil society experts from both banks of the Nistru should also be included in the process.
- Civil society experts, from both banks of the river, should provide input into the process of drafting a national reconciliation strategy. Civil society groups should hold state institutions accountable with respect to the strategy implementation.
Disclaimer: This is just the introduction and conclusion of a book chapter I have written in NATO Science for Peace and Security Series by IOS Press in the Netherlands, which is pending publication. The book is a follow up to an advanced research workshop on”Best Practices and Lessons Learned in Conflict Management: NATO, OSCE, EU and Civil Society” funded by NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme and organised by the Slovak Foreign Policy Association along with partners in Ukraine and Germany in June 2015 in Bratislava, which I attended on behalf of the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova. The views expressed are mine alone.