Vol. 2 No.4  

Fear of a Kosovo precedent for Transnistria

The prospect of an independent Kosovo could provoke the Black Sea's frozen conflicts to seek a warmer reaction to their status from the international community, Michael Bird reports

     International moves towards an independent Kosovo may embolden separatist states in the Black Sea region to call for recognition of their sovereignty.
     This could be of concern to Romania because of its strategic position between Kosovo and the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria and its strong links to Belgrade and Chisinau.
     Russia has warned that an independent Kosovo could become a precedent for the ambitions of other states in the region. Separatist governments in the former USSR have also begun to use the Kosovo case to argue that what applies in the southern Balkans should apply to them.
     “[An independent Kosovo] will change international law,” says Iulian Chifu, director, Centre for Conflict Prevention and Early Warning, Bucharest. “In the age of globalisation we offer a precedent of how to split up countries and obtain democracy.” But he says none of the region's frozen conflicts, Abkhazia, Tsinvali (or Southern Ossetia), Karabakh and Transnistria are comparable to Kosovo.
     “The declarations which try to artificially create parallels between Kosovo and Transnistria are willingly forcing reality,” Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu told The Diplomat.
Calling Kosovo a precedent could be of concern. “It could bring about the perpetuation of a status-quo which could generate instability and insecurity,” says Ungureanu.
     Some analysts argue that Transnistria is useful to Russia as a tool for them to retain influence over the Republic of Moldova.
     “Moscow leaders, supporting the Transnistrian regime, have made quite clear that they will consider the idea of recognising Transnistrian independence if the international community would recognise Kosovo as an independent state,” argues Radu Gorincioi political analyst and director, Centre of Information, Education and Social Analyses, Chisinau.
     Gorincioi adds that, until now, the Russian leadership “has preferred to refrain from such actions” because of the consequences on its own internal security issues.
     “The follow up would be explosive for its Northern Caucasus and other republics,” Chifu adds.


     But there are differences between each of the frozen conflicts.
     Kosovo has been under the supervision of the international community and UN for nearly seven years, plus there is no debate on genocide in Transnistria.
     “The reasons of the conflict of Transnistria are purely political, not ethnic or religious,” says Ungureanu.
     Local Russians and Ukrainians outnumber Moldovans in Transnistria, but not in the large numbers that ethnically divide Kosovo from the rest of Serbia. This mix is similar to the rest of the Republic. In Moldovan affairs, Russians are well represented in Parliament and business. In 1991 the international community, including Russia, has also recognised the sovereignty and borders of the Republic of Moldova.
     There is also a different atmosphere.
     “People of all nationalities from both sides of the Dniestr generally get along with each other very well,” says Ambassador William H Hill, head of the OSCE Mission to the Republic of Moldova.
     The Republic has offered Transnistria the option of autonomy on the model of Gagauz Yeri, the autonomous region of Turkic people in south Moldova. Tiraspol has rejected this. Transnistria's ultimate ambition is either to rejoin Russia or become independent. This received further press coverage when, last April, Transnistrian leaders called for a referendum on independence.
     “This is a provocative PR action with an aim to undermine the negotiation process,” says Lidia Gutu, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Bucharest.
     Moldovan authorities and some NGOs argue that if such a referendum took place it would be unfair because the leadership cannot ensure that its people have freedom of expression and thought. Opposition members and the alternative media also suffer intimidation.
The Republic of Moldova says that if the Transnistrian leaders' political will begins to support rights and freedom of citizens that live on the left bank of the Dniestr river, including the right to freedom of expression, it will support OSCE efforts to prepare and hold free and democratic elections in Transnistria.
     “But until that happens, it is impossible to approach the theme of holding or recognising any 'pseudo-referendum' organised by separatist and unrecognised authorities,” says Ambassador Gutu.
     Hill says the OSCE would “not recognise, nor observe” a referendum called unilaterally by Transnistrian authorities on the status of the region. However he adds that the OSCE would support and monitor a referendum conducted on the entire territory of the country on the implementation of a comprehensive negotiated political settlement.
     “If you have a re-election tomorrow [in the breakaway region], the Transnistrian authority would be re-elected,” says Chifu.


     This March, Ukraine started to respect a customs agreement with the Republic of Moldova, whereby Ukraine will not accept trade from Transnistria if the companies are not registered in Chisinau.
     “This is an important step forward, because it illustrates that at last one of the key players in the Transnistrian dispute, Kiev, is now playing ball with the rest of the international community,” says Charles King, associate professor and Ion Ratiu Chair in Romanian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
     In the first two months the Moldovan authorities have registered more than 100 Transnistrian companies in Chisinau, under the conditions of this agreement.
     But Russia has recently banned the import of Moldovan wine, calling it unfit for human consumption, which some analysts see as a response to Ukraine's action. This is crippling the country's wine exports, which some estimated claim account for around 30 per cent of the nation's GDP.
     Moldova has already rejected the prospect unification with Romania in a referendum at the beginning of the 1990s. Now 43 per cent of Romanians favour such a reunification, according to a recent Civis survey. Although this is not a majority, only 27 per cent are against the reunion.
     If Moldova reunified with Romania, its existing autonomous region, Gagauz Yeri, has the right to give up its autonomy and ask for independence.
     Some analysts say international actors could be proposing the same provision in a statute of autonomy on Transnistria.


     Tasked with resolving the Transnistrian issue is the 5+2 group. This includes the Republic of Moldova, the Transnistria region, Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, USA and the EU. Proposed by Ukrainian President Yushschenko in 2005, a three-stage-settlement plan, which gives a 'special status' to Transnistria, is still the main basis for the current talks.
     “It is our aim to work out a lasting settlement for the Transnistrian problem which would grant this region a special status within a reunited, sovereign, territorially whole, viable Moldovan state,” says Hill.
     Romania is not part of the talks.
     “In the past, when Romania has proposed a more active role in the Transnistrian dispute, Tiraspol has always seen this as evidence of meddling--and it has merely confirmed Tiraspol's view that the Moldovan government is essentially a stooge of Bucharest,” says King. “That view is simply wrong, but I think the Romanian government has been wise to take on the role of interested neighbour rather than as one of the major sponsors of the talks. Staying outside the process, but supporting it, is the appropriate role for Romania, I think.”
     But once it is a full-fledged member of the EU, Hill presumes there will be “even greater opportunity” for Romania to participate through the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in the settlement process. Ungureanu says Romania wants a peaceful solution which observes international law and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova
     “We count on Romania continuing to offer support within the EU as well, in the Republic of Moldova's efforts to solve the conflict in Transnistria,” says Ambassador Gutu.
     Romania has a consultative role with all the parties involved in the negotiations and Ungureanu says the county is “helping articulate” the policies of the EU on the Republic of Moldova, which includes the Transnistrian conflict.
     Romania also has lobbying power within international organisations, a strong intelligence service and could promote more educational and cultural ties with its neighbour that may help in resolving the conflict.
But some think of the 5+2 as a talking shop.
     Chifu says the format for talks have “done nothing in real terms.”
     The conflict, after 15 years, is still in deep freeze.
     The fourth round of negotiations in February failed to end with the signing of any new document or resolution. Ambassador Gutu says when the subject of democratising the region was brought up, the Transnistrian delegation refused to “constructively” discuss this topic.
“This continuous delay of discussing real issues can only prove that Tiraspol is blocking international efforts to turn this region, which is controlled by an authoritarian and unconstitutional regime, into a democracy,” says Gutu
     There was no success in the talks' demands for Tiraspol to exchange information about the military status of the region.
     Chisinau is concerned because there are illegal military formations active in the Transnistrian region that do not fall under the control of constitutional authorities and which hold weapons, including tanks.
     “All previous terms agreed have not been respected because of Tiraspol,” says Gutu. “The behaviour of the Transnistrian delegation during the negotiations and their unwillingness to see any progress on the topics on the agenda are intolerable.”
     In March, Itar-Tass reported that Igor Smirnov, self-proclaimed leader of the Transnistrian Republic would cancel the continuation of talks, following Ukraine's decision to implement its agreement on unauthorised trade from the region.
     “By joining Moldova’s blockade of the Dniestr region, Ukraine turned from the guarantor country and mediator into a party to the conflict,” Igor Smirnov reportedly said.


     There is risk that if the current status-quo persists, Transnistria could atrophy into another frozen conflict the EU and international community has failed to resolve: Cyprus.
     But Chifu argues this should not be a deterrent to restricting the Republic's EU ambitions. “Moldova should not be blocked from opening negotiations with the EU because the international community has failed to help the resolution in the frozen conflict.” he says.
     However Gorincioi says the Cyprus situation seems the “most likely scenario” to take place. “A great compromise between Russia and the EU could be a divided Moldova, integrated in the EU in ten to 15 years,” he says. “In this case, the Transnistrian region could remain an enclave, subordinated to Russia or Ukraine, if the latter will fail to integrate in Euro-Atlantic structures. The other scenarios could be an integrated country, without a clear European perspective, with Transnistria accepting the statute of a subject of Moldova Federation or that of autonomy of Moldova, though with very large privileges.”
     But Cyprus has a different history and Hill says relations between the divided communities in the Republic are close enough that a settlement can be achieved quite rapidly: “If the political leaders show the necessary understanding and flexibility,” he adds.

June 1991 Transnistrian Supreme Soviet claims regional independence from Moldova, adopts a separate constitution and elected a president.
March 1992 The Commonwealth of Independent States adopts a declaration stating territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova is key to regional stability.
June 1992 In Transnistria, sporadic violence and one violent battle in the town of Bendery.
July 1992 The Republic of Moldova and Russia declare a ceasefire.
1995: Within the Republic of Moldova, the Gagauz Yeri autonomous state is created.
2003 European Union Council, then the USA, applies sanctions and travel ban against senior Transnistrian leaders.
2006: In February, Ukraine bans all goods from Transnistria unregistered in Chisinau. Transnistria is a facsimile of a state with its own president, foreign affairs ministry, courts, flag, police, postage stamps and national anthem. Around 1,400 Russian military personnel are present in the region and 20,000 tonnes of ammunition. The number of refugees resulting from the military operations in 1992 could run to several thousands. In Chisinau there are about 130 families registered as families of 'people domestically relocated', according to the Transnistrian Refugees Movement. There is also concern that Tiraspol, in its military-industrial complex, may be producing new armaments.


     Last March Great Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said that Kosovo's independence was almost inevitable.
     However, many of his European Union colleagues have played down this rhetoric, mainly in fear of a knee-jerk reaction from sections of the Serbian leadership against separatism of the majority-Kosovo Albanian province.
     Some analysts believe that, following the death of Slobodan Milosevic and Kosovan president Ibrahim Rugova earlier this year, pure independence is not guaranteed, at least in the short term, due to political instability and the fear of reaction from extreme Serb nationalists.
     “I am not sure now that the EU has a suitable package to offer to Serbia for it to accept independence of Kosovo,” says Chifu. “There is no sustainable solution if it is not also accepted by Belgrade.”
     Kosovo needs to guarantee rights for all its minorities, including its Serb and Rroma populations.
     “The best move is to allow both parts to democratise and then to see which form of Government will offer guarantees for the existence of all their citizens,” argues Chifu
     “There needs to be a system where both parts win more from independence and making reforms... I am quite sure we will not have a solution by 31 December 2006.”


     In Kosovo, the Romanian Government wants “European norms” to apply, especially in protecting minorities, which Ungureanu calls “the first step” in creating a solid basis for concrete results of the reconciliation.
     The Romanian Government is not the most committed European player to the full independence of Kosovo – and instead seems to favour autonomy or 'decentralisation' of some kind, although not ruling out the eventual prospect of a sovereign status for Kosovo.
     Ungureanu tells The Diplomat that a future Kosovo must guarantee indivisibility, the multi-ethnic and multicultural character of the province, the rights of the minorities and the protection of the historical, cultural and religious patrimony.
     “The future status will have to offer a solution for an efficient internal organisation of the province,” he adds, “on the principle of decentralisation and also to give priority to internal security, through maintaining international forces on the land.”
     Basescu has also proposed a 'negotiated autonomy within EU guidelines' for Kosovo, although exact details are wanting.
     “My understanding of this concept is that sovereignty will belong to Belgrade,” says Chifu. “But Kosovo will have an autonomous status. However, if Serbia does not observe the rules of this autonomy, such as undermining the rights of the Kosovan Albanians or changing the status of their autonomy, Kosovo would have the right to independence.”
     But this means the level of autonomy is negotiable. It could mean that Serbia has control over foreign affairs and security, while Kosovo remains in control of education, local development, culture and the preservation of the rights of its minorities.
     Related examples of 'negotiated autonomy' for Kosovo other than full independence include the Flemish and Walloon territories in Belgium and Catalonia in Spain.
     “I don't believe any of these models is really feasible in the Kosovo case,” says Charles King, associate professor in Romanian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. “The Kosovans were subjected to what amounted to attempted genocide only a few short years ago, and asking the new government - which essentially won its independence on the battlefield, albeit with NATO assistance - to negotiate 'autonomy' within Serbia strikes me as unrealistic.”

Total population (including Transnistria and Gagauz Yeri): 4.5 million people
Autonomous region: Gagauz Yeri, with around 100,000 Gagauz (a Turkic) language speakers
Zone east of the Dniestr river in the Republic of Moldova.
Total population: around 600,000
Before 1940: Autonomous area in Ukraine
During the climax of World War II, the USSR combined the area with Bessarabia to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (MSSR)
Centre of military-industrial complex in the MSSR

Under UN administration
Estimated population: Around two million.
Total population of Serbia-Montenegro including Kosovo: About 10.5 million.
50 per cent of Kosovo Albanians are under 18
35 to 70 per cent are unemployed