11.02.2007
Russia Must Regain the Initiative in Moldova
№1 2007 January/March



 

When the
Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (CPRM) scored a
sensational victory during parliamentary elections in 2001, winning
71 out of the 101 seats, there were no signs of a possible crisis
in Russian-Moldovan relations.

 

Indeed,
relations between Moscow and Chisinau increasingly strengthened. In
the period from 2001 to 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and
his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin, met on 24 separate
occasions. The two leaders discussed economic and political
problems, among them the state of trade and economic relations
between their countries, prospects for Russian business in Moldova,
gas prices and, of course, the problem of the Transdnestr Moldovan
Republic [a breakaway region of Moldova that declared its
independence from Moldova on September 2, 1990 – Ed.]. Both Moscow
and Chisinau delivered optimistic forecasts for the
future.

 

COMMUNISM,
MOLDOVAN-STYLE

 

Many
politicians in Moldova and beyond, however, were not so sanguine
about the rapid rapprochement between Russia and Moldova. The West
took a very cautious stand with regard to Voronin and the Moldovan
Communist Party, while all programs for providing financial support
to Moldova via international organizations were suspended for an
indefinite time.

 

In
February-March 2002, the Moldovan opposition launched a massive
offensive against the ruling Communist Party: rallies were staged
on consecutive occasions, and the opposition camped out in tents on
Chisinau’s central square. One might say that the protests were a
first rehearsal of a “colored revolution” in the former Soviet
Union. On several occasions, the crowd, manipulated by the
opposition leaders, became so rowdy that it managed to break
through riot police cordons and enter the parliament building. The
protesters, however, realizing that if they were the first to
initiate “military actions” the authorities would have all legal
grounds to reciprocate, called off their actions at the last
moment.

 

Meanwhile,
the president and his team gave a strict order to the Interior
Ministry not to use force under any circumstances, so fortunately
there were no broken noses, not to mention more serious injuries.
The police that manned the cordons were unarmed and did not even
carry batons. When the crowd went into frenzy, the officers simply
stepped aside and allowed the crowd the freedom of
action.

 

By March,
the protests began to subside. Then, early one morning, the
oppositional tent camp was awoken by the boisterous voice of a man
who was walking between the tents. He kept repeating: “Hey, wake
up, it’s time for work. Now say it all together: ‘Down with the
Communists!’ ‘Down with Voronin!’” The sleepy protesters did not
immediately realize that the man really was President Voronin, who
decided to see the conditions in which the protesters lived. In the
afternoon, the people in the camp were served soup delivered
directly from the presidential canteen.

 

Thus, the
Moldovan Communists not only rebuffed the oppositional attacks, but
they remained in power without resorting to violence. They
strengthened their authority in the country and showed to the whole
world that they did not intend to go back into the past and, most
importantly, that they were not going to diverge from the path of
democracy. Interestingly, Moldova is the only country in the
Commonwealth of Independent States to have three presidents
replaced in democratic elections. Moreover, all of the major
political groups have been elected to power in that country:
National Democrats, Agrarians, and Communists (Mircea Snegur, Petru
Lucinschi, and Vladimir Voronin, respectively). Moldova is,
perhaps, the most democratic of the CIS countries in this
respect.

 

Despite
appeals from the orthodox wing in the CPRM, the Moldovan
authorities opted not to abolish private ownership and launch
nationalization. They set out to establish order in the economy and
put an end to the embezzlement of public funds.

 

By that
time, the national economy was in a state of ruin. In the previous
10 years, the GDP had plummeted by 68 percent (compared with a
40-percent decrease following World War II). The much-publicized
“Earth” program for reforming the agrarian sector had delivered a
devastating blow at the agricultural sector: Land had been shared
among peasants, but private owners had been unable to cultivate it.
Meanwhile, wage, pension and allowance arrears continued to grow;
in 2001, for example, people were just receiving their wages and
pensions for the period 1995-1997. The population became accustomed
to living without electricity, heating and gas. In just one decade,
Moldova had gone from being a prosperous Soviet republic, once
described as a “showcase of socialism,” into one of the most
backward countries in Europe.

 

In 2001,
the situation in Moldova began to improve. The annual GDP growth
rate reached 6 to 7 percent. The basic sectors of the Moldovan
agriculture – winegrowing, farming, and animal husbandry – were
gradually reanimated. The financial system was stabilized. Under
the Communists, for the first time since Moldova gained
independence, budget revenues began to be planned without depending
on foreign loans. The infrastructure began to improve: rolling
blackouts became a thing of the past, while the problem of
supplying the population with natural gas was solved. People began
to receive their wages and pensions on time. Apart from addressing
urgent social and economic problems, the authorities found the time
and money to renovate old monuments – and even build new monuments
– to the many soldiers killed in World War II (no other former
Soviet republic, besides Russia, performs this act).

 

A YEAR OF
UNFULFILLED HOPES

 

This was
all well and good. However, Chisinau’s main problem continued to be
the Transdnestr settlement. In 2003, presidents Putin and Voronin
agreed to put an end to the confrontation on the basis of
compromise on both sides. Dmitry Kozak, an active member of the
Russian presidential team, was instructed to draft an
agreement.

 

The
success of the agreement seemed to be very close at hand, and
Chisinau expressed its readiness to make concessions. Under
pressure from Moscow, Tiraspol, the capital of Transdnestr, also
had to take a realistic position. Kozak shuttled continuously
between Moscow, Chisinau and Tiraspol, and spent hundreds of hours
in negotiations. Finally, an agreement was 90 percent ready, with
only a few points open for debate.

The
authorities of Bendery [the second largest city in Transdnestr –
Ed.] hastily prepared everything for the signing ceremony: the
administration building was given a fresh coat of paint, new
furniture was purchased, and formal red carpets were laid. On
November 24, a so-called “vanguard” aircraft of the Russian
delegation arrived at the airport. The city waited in great
expectation for the Russian president.

 

That
evening, Voronin looked through the final variant of the memorandum
and, much to his surprise, saw that the document did not contain
amendments promised to him earlier. In particular, a provision
regarding the Russian military base remained unchanged, while
Transdnestr was awarded too much power in the planned future
federation, which enabled it to secede from the federation at any
moment on the slightest pretext.

Kozak
tried to convince Voronin that the absence of the amendments was an
insignificant issue. But the fact was that Moldova had been offered
to sign a document with unacceptable terms. There followed a
telephone conversation between Voronin and Putin, a cancellation of
the Russian president’s visit to Moldova, and Kozak’s
departure.

 

According
to Moscow’s reading of the matter, the failure was due to
last-minute interference by the Americans and the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe. They did not want to yield the
palm in the settlement efforts to Russia, exerted pressure on
Chisinau and forced Voronin not to sign the document.

 

Anyway, it
was haste that played the fatal role. The memorandum fell victim to
the parties’ desire to expedite the solution of the difficult
Transdnestr problem. Too many important issues were left to be
decided later and were “sort of” agreed on and “sort of” adopted.
When these “sort ofs” reached a critical mass, everything fell to
pieces.

 

Moldova
and Transdnestr missed a great opportunity to reach an accord;
while for Moscow, the failure represented a serious foreign-policy
setback. Had the memorandum-based settlement plan been adopted and
signed, that would have been the first real example of conflict
settlement with Moscow’s assistance. Thus a real mechanism would
have been set in place for reconciling conflicting parties. It
would have set a precedent that could be applied with regard to
other conflicts – Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia –
under Russia’s aegis.

 

A success
in Transdnestr would have demonstrated that it could handle a
situation that was beyond the powers of the peacemakers from the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council
of Europe. U.S. diplomats would have found themselves on the
sidelines, while the CIS would have new life breathed into it.
However, the reality was just the opposite.

 

PEACE OR
WAR?

 

After
November 2003, Russia’s policy toward Moldova radically changed.
Throughout 2004, economic ties between the two countries gradually
declined. In 2005, Moscow banned the import of Moldovan fruit and
vegetables. The next year, the ban was extended to Moldovan wines
and brandy. That represented a serious blow to the economy of
Moldova, as wine exports make up an important part of the country’s
income.

 

Apart from
economic sanctions, Russia started to support the Moldovan
opposition. Its members began to pay frequent visits to Moscow and
promised to the Kremlin their full loyalty and concessions on all
issues. These events attracted some Russian politicians and
security officials who had close connections with the
Transdnestrian regime. Actually, it attracted their attention so
much that they overlooked some important
points.

First, the
opposition leaders – Serafim Urechean, Dumitru Braghis, Nikolae
Andronik, and others – were well known in Moldova as nationalists,
famous for their anti-Russian statements and actions. The news
about their sudden “pro-Russian orientation” perplexed ethnic
Russians and Russian-speakers in Moldova.

 

Second, in
the 1990s many of these individuals were involved in various shady
dealings, possibly of a criminal nature. So they were very
vulnerable in this respect. Finally, it was clear that the
opposition had very little chance for success in the struggle for
power. So the money spent on their support was actually cast to the
wind.

 

The
parliamentary elections in Moldova, held in February 2005,
confirmed this conclusion. Despite the impressive support from
Russia, the oppositional Democratic Moldova bloc (led by Urechean,
Braghis, Dumitru Diacov, Oleg Serebrian, and Veaceslav Untila)
failed to offer strong competition to the Communist Party. The
Communists again won the majority in parliament, which elected
Voronin president for the second time.

The
aggravation of Russian-Moldovan relations has not brought any
benefits to either country. Moscow’s economic sanctions cost
Moldova about 200 million dollars in 2006. The sanctions hit hard
Moldovan wineries (ironically, they are owned largely by Russian
companies), as well as Russian consumers: along with fake wine, the
ban has removed from the store shelves relatively cheap
high-quality wine. Finally, Russia’s prestige has sharply decreased
among the Moldovan population because of its support for the
nationalist opposition. The only party that has gained from all of
this is the leadership of the unrecognized Transdnestr
Republic.

 

THE
TRANSDNESTRIAN KNOT

 

For 15
years, a political group led by Igor Smirnov has ruled Transdnestr
(on December 10, Smirnov was re-elected for his fourth term).
Throughout this time, the Transdnestrian leadership has been
rejecting all proposals from intermediaries, and especially from
Russia, for the settlement of the conflict. Every time the
negotiating process was about to produce some real result (e.g.
when Russia’s special envoy for the settlement was Yevgeny
Primakov, or later Kozak), Tiraspol launched rash efforts to thwart
any chance for a compromise. The main goal of the Transdnestrian
leadership is official recognition of Transdnestr
independence.

 

Proceeding
from the Kosovo precedent (which still looks obscure), Russia’s
State Duma and political analysts have been actively discussing
proposals to officially recognize the self-proclaimed states of
Transdnestr, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and, less frequently,
Nagorno-Karabakh. The official recognition of these states by
Russia would obviously cause great exultation in Tiraspol,
Tskhinvali, Sukhumi and Stepanakert. But what would such an
acknowledgement give Russia? Has anyone calmly figured out all of
the possible consequences of such a move? It seems that someone is
trying to involve Russia into a dangerous, reckless scheme, which
may complicate or even put an end to its economic and political
revival.

 

The four
abovementioned unrecognized states provide a good analogy to the
situation in Serbia in 1914. The belligerence, pertinacity and
19th-century mentality of these four territories can unleash armed
conflicts again. Clearly, Russia would be inevitably involved in
those conflicts.

 

Moscow is
dedicated to maintaining its peacemaking forces in the conflict
zones; it has been waging years-long diplomatic battles. However,
it is continuously accused and attacked from all sides – in spite
of the fact that due to its efforts the conflicting parties are
refraining from resuming military actions.

 

Tiraspol’s
unwillingness to compromise has put Russia into a difficult and
no-win situation. Russia is now confronted with a unified position
of Moldova, Ukraine, the United States, the OSCE and the EU. These
parties are in support of a plan proposed by Ukrainian President
Victor Yushchenko [an early withdrawal of the Russian peacemaking
forces from the conflict zone; demilitarization of the region; and
giving Transdnestr the status of an autonomy within Moldova]. Also,
they demand that the peacemaking operation’s format and the
structure of peacemaking forces in Transdnestr be changed, and seek
to deliver democracy to Transdnestr.

 

Meanwhile,
Russia’s position in the Transdnestr settlement, which can be
described as “defense on the Dniestr,” has no chances for success,
as political resources for preserving the status quo are limited.
This is not just due to Russia pledging to withdraw its military
forces from Transdnestr during a summit in Istanbul in 1999.
Preservation of the status quo, sought only by Tiraspol and to some
extent by Moscow, is against the plans of all the other interested
parties: Moldova, Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and the OSCE. In 2007,
after Romania joins the EU, Moldova will share a border with the
European Union, and Bucharest will constantly raise the Transdnestr
issue before its European partners. So the West will only step up
its efforts to solve the Transdnestr problem, to undermine the
Smirnov regime in Transdnestr, and to weaken Russia’s positions in
the region.

 

PROSPECTS
FOR RUSSIA

 

To improve
the state of affairs, Russia must thoroughly analyze the real
situation in the region and revise its strategy and tactics with
regard to the Transdnestrian settlement and Moldova as a whole.
First, it must proceed from the fact that Voronin will remain
president of Moldova until 2009. The Moldovan opposition has no
chances to come to power during this period. The Moldovan
Communists will stay in power even if the Russian sanctions worsen
the social and economic situation in Moldova.

 

The
anti-Moldovan measures are disadvantageous first of all to Russia.
This approach will only result in the complete loss of Moscow’s
political influence in the region, not to mention economic losses
for Russia, considering heavy investments by Russian businesses in
the wine-making, brandy-making and tobacco industries of Moldova.
Lastly, sanctions may spoil Russia’s plans for energy expansion to
the Balkans.

 

Russia’s
policy of supporting the Moldovan opposition and the Smirnov regime
is advantageous, above all, to the West and Ukraine. It has enabled
Russia’s opponents to gain the initiative in the Transdnestrian
settlement. Since 2004, they have changed the format of the
negotiations, started monitoring the Ukrainian-Transdnestrian
border, and insisted on inspecting defense-industry enterprises in
Transdnestr. Finally, they are conducting an active PR campaign in
the mass media, presenting in an unfavorable light Russia’s
position as “support of the Smirnov regime for the sake of meeting
the selfish interests of individual groups in the Russian
leadership.” Against these dynamic actions, Russia’s position
really looks like stubborn support of the Smirnov regime, without
any clear goals and prospects.

 

Moscow
must make moves that would make it again a major factor in the
Transdnestrian settlement. These moves are as follows:

  • proposing a new plan for the settlement;
  • proposing several variants for settling the military issues
    (the location and prospects of the Russian military force and the
    arms depot near the town of Ribnita), while using the status of the
    radar station in Azerbaijan’s Gabala as a possible example to
    follow;
  • joining
    in the monitoring of the border, the mission to assess the level of
    democracy in Transdnestr, and other measures taken by Western
    powers in the region;
  • appointing a new active and energetic envoy of Russia for the
    settlement of the conflict, who would enjoy broad
    powers;
  • lifting
    economic sanctions and restoring trade and economic relations with
    Moldova (by the way, Moldova has no debt to Russia for its energy
    supplies).

By
revising its policy toward Moldova, Russia could regain a leading
role in the settlement of the Transdnestrian conflict and its
position as the main intermediary at the negotiating table. Also,
it could possibly prepare a settlement agreement once again. In
this case, the West would most likely reorient itself to the
opposition, which remains absolutely without influence to pose any
threat to the Moldovan authorities.

 

The
restoration of normal and mutually advantageous relations with
Moldova will help Russia preserve its political, economic and, for
some time, military presence in the region. The first step toward
this normalization may have already been made: after a meeting
between Putin and Voronin during the CIS summit in Minsk, it was
announced that Moscow would lift the ban on imports of Moldovan
wine to Russia.

 

Both
Moscow and Chisinau seem to have come to this realization. In any
case, in late 2006 the first step was made toward the normalization
of their bilateral relations: following a meeting between Putin and
Voronin during the CIS summit in Minsk, it was announced that
Moscow would lift the ban on the import of Moldovan wine to
Russia.

 

Today, the
two countries have resumed intensive dialog, and are searching for
solutions to the basic problems that hinder their bilateral
relations. Meanwhile, negotiations over the question of Transdnestr
may soon be stepped up, as well.

 

Thus, there are
grounds for cautious optimism and hope that this time nothing will
prevent Russia and Moldova from reaching agreement and restoring
mutual relations to their fullest capacities.