Moscow. (Alexei Makarkin for RIA Novosti)

The failure of consultations between Transdnestr settlement mediators from Russia, Ukraine and OSCE, as well as observers from the European Union and the United States, held on October 17-18 in Odessa, did not come as a surprise. The problem has long reached a deadlock — differing, however, from the one in relations between Georgia and Abkhazia and South Ossetia: it cannot transform itself into a new military conflict.

Voters supporting Mikhail Saakashvili are not opposed to Georgia using force to regain control over its former autonomies. On the other hand, Moldovan Communists have twice convincingly won parliamentary elections under the slogans of constructive solution to the Transdnestr issue with full account taken of the interests of all sides. A considerable part of the electorate voting for supporters of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin are nostalgic about Soviet times and have nothing against their neighbors from Tiraspol, among whom there are many Moldovans. So this conflict, unlike the Abkhazian one, does not have an inter-ethnic character and is not burdened with a painful refugee problem.

This is why Chisinau, rejecting in 2003 on Europe’s advice the Russian Kozak plan providing for the federalization (with elements of confederation) of Moldova, opted for economic, rather than military, means of pressure against Transdnestr. In this Moldova was helped by Ukraine. When Ukraine was ruled by an Orange government, the two countries agreed to clamp down a blockade on Transdnestr starting March 3 this year, officially motivating the decision by the need to combat smuggling.
The idea was to cause a clash between Transdnestr authorities and business whose interests were infringed by the blockade. Within the first month, the Transdnestr economy lost $65 million, a significant amount for a small unrecognized nation. About 10,000 personnel had their jobs suspended without pay because the mechanism for receiving raw materials and dispatching exports was disrupted. But the events that followed showed that Moldova’s hopes for an aggravation of the domestic political situation in Transdnestr failed to materialize. Igor Smirnov, president of the unrecognized republic, initiated a referendum on independence, which played a consolidating role for Transdnestr society.
Russia demonstrably sided with Transdnestr, first sending humanitarian aid to the republic and then imposing an embargo on the supplies of Moldovan wines, one of the main exports of that country. Then there was a change of government in Ukraine, and new Ukrainian premier Viktor Yanukovich, unsurprisingly, adopted a different position from his predecessors on the economic blockade of Transdnestr. On the one hand, he has no intention of irritating Russia and is not such an ideological Westerner as, for example, Viktor Yushchenko. On the other hand, Ukrainian nationals living in Transdnestr have traditionally voted for Yanukovich and his Party of Regions. So much so that in September Yanukovich said after meeting Russian premier Mikhail Fradkov that Ukraine and Moldova could very soon reach agreement on passenger transit through Transdnestr, while the agreement on restoring goods transit had already been reached. Besides, the new government cancelled the old cabinet’s decision
to close the rail branch to the Ukrainian port of Reni for Transdnestr. In that way, Transdnestr got access to the Black Sea down the Danube.

Understandably, the Yanukovich government’s decisions were met with displeasure in Chisinau: despite a statement by the Ukrainian premier that lifting the blockade was as good as decided, Moldova is not going to step down. The present consultations could have made some progress if a “transit protocol” on the lifting of the blockade had been agreed, but Chisinau opposed it. Kiev and Chisinau even fought a short economic war. Ukraine refused to allow Moldovan wines through rail border check point Mogilev-Podolsky, pleading the need to repair a railroad bridge and suggesting the exports be re-routed via Transdnestr. Chisinau refused, which virtually put an end to the export of Moldovan wines to Central Asia. Moldova responded by drastically increasing tariffs on transit goods going to the port of Reni. There is no way in sight out of the deadlock, although the situation looks more favorable for Transdnestr than six months ago.

The agreed moves of Ukraine and Moldova — associates in GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) and the Community of Democratic Choice — gave way to serious conflicts between them. In addition, Russia has resorted to economic levers. In this situation, a modified version of the Kozak plan may be dusted off, despite the Chisinau leadership finding this step very difficult to take.

Alexei Makarkin is deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies. -0-