On any given summer Saturday morning in Tallinn, tourists can be found walking up and down the Balti Jaam flea market hoping to find a unique piece of the former Soviet era—whether military uniforms, pins or medals, portraits of Lenin, and red Communist Party membership cards. Unfortunately, these visitors rarely realize that since the supply of such relics is of course finite, the majority of them are cheap, newly-made copies—part of an industry that in a bizarre way is keeping the Soviet Union alive.
In a similar way, a self-sustaining relic of Communism has managed to preserve part of the Soviet system for over two decades on a narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border: the self-proclaimed (and internationally unrecognized) Transnistrian Moldovan Republic. There, soldiers sporting the hammer and sickle emblem on their uniforms guard socialist realist murals and Lenin statues produced well after the fall of the USSR.
This separatist part of Moldova perfectly resembles the “antique” replicas that may be in demand at the flea markets of Tallinn (as well as in other Central European capitals from Berlin to Zagreb), but that certainly are not wanted in the European neighborhood. Yet, if the “product” of Soviet-style rule is still being produced, then who is buying it?
Clearly, the status quo enjoys popular support in the region; a recent transfer of power in December 2011 that saw the autocratic Igor Smirnov replaced by the ostensibly more moderate Evgeni Shevchuk did not bring about any changes in the region’s position towards reintegration with Moldova. The personal interests and security concerns of the Transnistrian ruling elite and its Kremlin allies reign supreme in dictating the agenda of the secessionist region. These priorities are reflected in the Transnistrian government’s spending choices: “internal order and security” comprised some 17% of the region’s budget— compared to 7% in that of Moldova.
Transnistria’s official Foreign Policy Concept declares Eurasian integration a core priority, accompanied by the development of allied relations with the “fraternal peoples” of fellow separatist republics in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Tiraspol’s Eurasian vector is clearly a stumbling block for Kyiv and Chișinău, whose aspirations to have open borders with the EU are obviously incompatible with an uncontrolled frontier with the separatist region. To put it more simply: it is politically (and geographically) impossible to have a narrow strip of “Eurasia” (read: the Russian sphere of influence) within a closely integrated European continent.
The Transnistrian conflict continues to be cause for international concern—even if it is viewed mostly with indifference or ignorance by Western public opinion—thanks to the complete lack of progress towards resolution over the past two decades. The EU together with Moldova and with Ukraine, which holds the OSCE chair in 2013, share a common interest in achieving a peaceful resolution for the long-lasting dispute.
However, not all of the negotiating parties are equally committed to finding a conflict settlement. Indeed, Moscow and Tiraspol have successfully blocked any shift beyond the socio-economic issues in the region toward the security or political aspects of the dispute. Both have vetoed any attempt to include the latter dimensions of including any discussions on security or political related issues encouraged by the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Leonid Kozhara and supported by the EU and US diplomats in the framework of the of the 5+2 format (i.e., Moldova and Transnistria as parties to the conflict and Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE as international mediators and guarantors, plus the European Union and the United States as observers) meeting in Lviv on February 18-19, 2013. Russia stepped in strategically in order to prevent a proposed “1+1” format meeting between Transnistria’s leader Yevgeny Shevchuk and his Moldovan counterpart at the time, former Prime Minister Vlad Filat. Ambassador Sergei Gubarev, Russia’s representative at the talks, paid a key visit to Tiraspol a week before the Lviv meeting. Gubarev’s statement that discussions on political issues could not take place without deeper economic cooperation between Moldova and Transnistria jeopardizes Ukraine’s first attempt as chair of the OSCE to “unfreeze” the Transnistria conflict, even if the prospective meeting between Tiraspol and Chișinău would bring more symbolic value to the process.
The Kremlin also has a source of traditional leverage over Moldova—energy—to prevent it from taking any steps on the Transnistria issue it sees as against Russian interests. Moldova is currently dependent on Russia for 98% of its gas supplies. The Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry has demanded Moldovan government to pay Transnistria’s gas debt of $3 billion. Moldova and the secessionist region consume up to 2.7 bcm of natural gas per year; despite its much smaller share of the total population, Transnistria consumes half this amount due to its energy-inefficient economy. Since 2011, after a separate Transnistrian joint venture was established, Gazprom keeps separate accounts for Moldova and Transnistria gas supplies. Transnistrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk has already recognized Tiraspol’s debt requested by Russia, bringing the breakaway territory under even closer Kremlin control.
Meanwhile, the Moldovan government faces considerable energy security risk, being so dependent on one gas supplier with one main delivery route—through Ukraine, which has had a very tense gas transit relationship with Russia Moldova’s 85% dependence on the electricity produced by a power plant located on the east bank of the river gives further leverage to the Transnistrian side in the conflict resolution process. The energy question plays significant role in Moldova’s EU integration, particularly since as a member of Energy Community since 2010, Chișinău has adopted the EU’s second and third energy packages preventing foreign export suppliers (read: Gazprom) from simultaneously owning domestic distribution networks. However, the energy diversification process is a long shot; and Russia’s control remains is robust. Obviously, Moscow has further bargaining power to take a bigger lead in 5+2 negotiation format influencing the agenda.
Although, while progress in the negotiations may be frozen solid, the situation on the ground is beginning to heat up, as demonstrated by clashes between Moldovan civilians and Transnistrian militia in April 2013. On the night of April 27-28, violence broke out in the Moldovan security zone between residents of the government-controlled village of Varnița and Transnistrian authorities over newly-installed checkpoints between the village and the city of Bender. The OSCE mission in Moldova assessed the escalating clashes as “very severe”. While the conflict is still “frozen”, the involvement of police and Transnistrian “Spetsnaz” special forces is certainly a sign of more active hostilities.
The next 5+2 meeting, held in Odesa on May 23-24, was distinguished from previous conferences by the extremely negative emotions on display. Chișinău has reacted lividly to Tiraspol’s proposal to relocate the main Transnistrian legislative body, the appropriately named Supreme Soviet, from Tiraspol to Bender—a city located on the primarily Moldovan-controlled right bank of the Dniester, and the site of the April checkpoint clashes. Moldova’s attempts to keep order in the security zone were frustrated by Transnistria’s restrictions on Moldovan police operations in the area, including limitations on their use of uniforms. Moreover, if Transnistria succeeds in dissolving the Joint Control Commission in which both sides have thus far kept peace in the immediate conflict area, it will damage and weaken position of Moldova in relations with the EU in the doorstep of the Vilnius Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit scheduled for November 2013. Kremlin would reap benefits from the failure of Moldova—so far the “success story” of the Eastern Partnership—as well as from Ukraine’s unsuccessful efforts to play a bigger role in resolving an issue of key concern to the EU. The outcome of the peacekeeping process is thereby crucial to the European future of both Moldova and Ukraine.
The year 2013 is a decisive one for the European Neighborhood Policy, as the clock continues to count down to the Vilnius summit —pushing all six countries to make sure their “homework” is done on time. Ukraine has pledged to demonstrate its ability to take the lead in the Transnistria conflict resolution process, bringing results from its OSCE chairmanship. Unfortunately, current Tiraspol leader Yevgeny Shevchuk has put the negotiations—and the region’s stability—at risk, only months before the summit. The Soviet relic is still beneficial for Kremlin’s bargaining power in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood, and Russia pays a considerable price for the Soviet-style “product” counting the gas debt, humanitarian aid and maintenance of its military presence. The EU must be persistent in pursuing progress in the resolution talks and in bringing further attention to a conflict that presents such considerable risks to regional economic, energy, and geopolitical security.
The article is prepared in frames of newly established cooperation between Eastbook.eu portal and International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS), a leading Estonian think-tank affiliated with the Ministry of Defence. The Eastern Partnership programme led by ICDS will advance public thinking and policy debate on the broader strategic context of the European Union’s relations with its Eastern neighbors via a series of publications in cooperation with Eastbook.eu portal.
Feature image by Ostblog.org – Der Osten im Fokus