Guest post by Rebecca Chamberlain-Creangă and John Beyer—Vienna hosted conflict negotiations in July 2012 to resolve Europe’s problem of Transnistria, a secessionist region carved out of the Republic of Moldova by communist apparatchiks in the last days of the Soviet Union. New changes in Transnistria, Moldova and the international community have created the possibility of movement on this stalemated conflict, since formal negotiations restarted eight months ago after a five-year hiatus. Officials and experts share our optimism,but few share our concern for the populaces detached from the developments.(1) Without popular support, we fear the hard work of negotiators, and any settlements they propose, may fail.
Transnistria is one of four so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Its lack of hostilities since armed conflict in 1992 has meant that Transnistria is less reported on than the two recently explosive conflicts in Georgia – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and the boiling scrimmages over Nagorno-Karabakh in oil-rich Azerbaijan. However, Transnistria’s small sliver of land of a half-million is just as important to European stability and security. Wedged between Ukraine and nearby Romania, Transnistria hosts Russian military units and a functioning industrial complex run by Kremlin-loyal oligarchs, right on the doorstep of NATO and the European Union.(2)
A stable, predictable Transnistria is good for Euro-Atlantic security,but negotiations between Transnistrian de facto authorities and the Moldovan government – mediated in the internationally recognised 5+2 format under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – have had limited success.(3) It is not difficult to understand why: Transnistrians want independence, but remain unrecognised, including by Russia. Moldova, on the other hand, wants Transnistria to be reintegrated into its territory, but is uncertain on what terms.
What is different twenty years later? Moldova has now moved resolutely closer to the European Union under a pro-Western coalition government that came to power in 2009.(4) The EU sees Moldova as top of the class among its eastern neighbours. To keep moving forward, the Moldovan government knows that there can be no EU integration without a final resolution to the Transnistrian problem.(5) Moldova’s Prime Minister Vlad Filat has hence shown real commitment to conciliation through resolving practical issues – like restoring cross-regional rail links – in regular bilateral meetings with secessionist leaders.
What is more, Transnistrians ousted in December 2011 their long-time authoritarian leader in favour of a young, pragmatic president (Yevgeny Shevchuk). On the geopolitical level, Russia, a key stakeholder in the 5+2 negotiations, along with the European Union and the United States (the +2 observers), have all been showing increasing signs of geopolitical willingness to broker a resolution. American Vice President Biden’s March 2011 trip to Russia and Moldova raised the importance of settling the Transnistrian conflict.
What is not so different now? As with the volatile Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, whose resolution is also under OSCE auspices, optimism or pessimism for Transnistria’s conflict settlement usually hinges on what happens in high-level meetings, as well as on the level of commitment of international actors involved.(6) What is missing in settling these conflicts is the involvement of populations and public opinion.
On-the-ground engagement is needed to prepare people for reintegrating a country that has been split for more than two decades. Fears on both sides must be addressed by leaders, or else demonstrations against reintegration could occur, as in the past, when in 2003 over 30,000 people took to the streets to block the Moldovan President’s signing of the Russian-drafted agreement that would have ended the conflict, but on terms unacceptable to Moldovan public opinion.
To close the gap between local attitudes and elite outlooks on Transnistrian conflict settlement, we suggest increased attention and funding towards confidence-building measures (CBMs) that involve citizens. There is ample EU and other funding to support people-to-people contact on a wide scale. Such projects could build on the success of the Western-funded Transnistrian Dialogues, which brought together young people from Transnistria and the rest of Moldova for weekends of informal dialogue.(7) The programme has already built up an alumni network 250 strong, and includes key members of the current Transnistrian leadership. The programme could be replicated in other fields.
This is as Expert Working Groups and ‘track two’ conflict resolution initiatives should incorporate and make use of the dynamic, cross-regional movement of persons and ideas. There is often an assumption of isolation and stagnation of persons in Transnistria. It is assumed that people in the region have little access to outside information and rarely travel beyond its confines. However, many young people from Transnistria move to Moldova’s capital for university education, while others of all ages migrate abroad to work, and still others travel weekly, or even daily, between the left and right-banks for commercial trading and business. More thought needs to be put into harnessing this movement for citizen participation geared towards a sustainable settlement.
Finally, we recommend making secessionist business leaders a part of Moldova’s European future. Given the importance of the EU market to them, we believe economic leaders will profit in the long-run from transparent business practices tied to Moldovan commercial authorities and to the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area.
Incorporating grassroots actors and realities matter for Transnistria and the other Eurasian conflicts in that the escalation, outplay, cessation, and resolution of conflict always involves multiple layers of action and actors. More attention to all of these layers and their interplay is needed in order to understand how effectively to bring conflicts to a close. So even if we see progress in the Transnistrian negotiations this week, as we hope to, we cannot forget that grassroots attitudes and realities are essential for a sustainable settlement.
John Beyer is a Senior Associate Member at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and was the UK Ambassador to Moldova from 2006-2009. Rebecca Chamberlain-Creangă is a Visiting Research Scholar at IERES, George Washington University.