Transnistria: Accidental Sparks May Flare Smouldering Conflicts

On July 17 Romanian President Traian Basescu paid an official visit to Chisinau to discuss Moldova’s EU integration and stronger bilateral cooperation. Ahead of departure he told reporters, «Our priority is to ensure Moldova’s EU integration with the upcoming 10-12 years». He added, «This will contribute to the two countries’ unification». According to him, the main obstacle for Moldova’s EU integration is the Dniester region conflict that remains unsettled. Mr. Basescu admitted that Romania and Russia have different approaches to the Dniester conflict settlement. «Moscow sees Moldova as a federal state, while we as unitary, but finally only Chisinau can define the level of autonomy for the Dniester region», he explained.

Trayan Basesku received a warm welcome by government officials and organizations like the Union Council, which was created to «gather all unionists» in order to «promote the idea of Romanian national unity». The organization had prepared a list of initiatives aimed at achieving the proclaimed goal. However, not all share the jubilation. The street protests in Chisinau and other cities also added to the picture. On the eve of the event, the leader of Moldova’s Communist Party, the largest political force in the country, Vladimir Voronin, accused Romania of pursuing aggressive policy. «Basescu does not recognize Moldova’s sovereignty and evades the signing of agreements on friendship and cooperation with us as well as on border», he said. Leaders of other parties and non-governmental movements also opposed the Romanian President’s visit. Arthur Reshetnikov, former security minister and a member of Communist party said Basesku doesn’t recognize Moldova as an independent state. He planned to question the legality of the military cooperation treaty concluded last year between the countries in the Constitutional Court. The Russian Youth League and the Patriots of Moldova oppose the military cooperation agreement too.

Military aspect

Indeed, just before the Romanian President’s visit a group of Moldavian MPs made known they planned to appeal to the national Constitutional Court the treaty on defense cooperation between Moldova and Romania. In April 2012 Romania and Moldova signed the intergovernmental agreement on military cooperation. Back then Romanian Minister of National Defence Gabriel Oprea said», Concluding this agreement on military cooperation will contribute to the development of the special relations between our armies, relations that are founded on a partnership having a European vocation». He emphasized the fact that Romania would go on supporting the European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Republic of Moldova and would provide the necessary expertise. Romania's Ministry of National Defence will also continue to train and prepare the military staff of the Republic of Moldova (and indoctrinate the officers as these things go hand in hand, that’s what NATO schools are for after all). Moldovan Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta then pointed out that the treaty was a continuation of the military accord signed by the two states in 1992 as he said, «updated as required by the new circumstances in the past 20 years, Romania joining the NATO and the EU included».

The treaty includes such fields as defence planning, the management of human resources, joint drills, coordination of command structures activities and military intelligence. At first glance there is nothing hostile in team exchanges and joint training events, except that in practice it means Romanian aircraft could fly over the area of the Russian military contingent’s positions. Actually the document opens the way for Romania to deploy troops on Moldova’s territory. NATO will have boots on the ground in the area bordering Transnistria - a NATO beachhead in the area controlled by Russian military, an OSCE peacekeeping component. At present. A three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarized zone, comprising twenty localities on both sides of the river. To my mind, the military treaty between Romania and Moldova has a serious provocative element. In 2008 the Georgian aggression against Russian peacekeeping contingent in South Ossetia did not bring up the possibility of involving NATO. Now with Romanian troops in the area an incident may become a spark to start a fire, a casus belli nobody wants. Romania is a full-fledged NATO member openly stating its intentions to gobble up Moldova, a sovereign state, and, perhaps go further. By no stretch of imagination it could be considered as an impartial party in the Transnistrian conflict.

In October 2012 Russia’s popular Nezavissimaya Gazeta reported the Chisinau authorities were planning to deploy a NATO military base in the Moldovan territory with reference to Vladislav Finagin, chief of the Transnistrian committee for state security (KGB). (1) He said that the Bulboaca military training center (near Chisinau) is being prepared for unfolding a NATO base there, «According to the information available with us, Moldova’s governing Alliance for European Integration is seeking to introduce an amendment to the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova that would permit deploying foreign military bases in the Moldovan territory».

Vladislav Finagin explained that «the authors of the said constitutional amendment mean NATO. The Bulboaca exercise ground is being appropriately equipped, and its territory is being prepared for accommodating a NATO base», and that «last half a year, Chisinau has been actively strengthening its military component with the help of the United States and Romania». Back then the paper remarked that it was exactly in response to this trend that Russian Foreign Ministry Ambassador-at-Large Sergei Gubarev stated in Tiraspol on October 13 that «in case the Republic of Moldova loses its sovereignty or neutrality, the Russian Federation shall return to the question of realization by Transnistria of its right to self-determination». Finagin also said that in the near future Moldovan laws would be amended to invite NATO. «According to our information, the ruling alliance in Moldova is trying to introduce changes in the Constitution, which allow deploying foreign bases in the republic. The range ground in Bulboaca is being equipped appropriately, the area is being prepared for a NATO base», the chairman of the KGB said in an interview with the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. «During the last six months, Chisinau has been strengthening the military constituent with the help of the United States and Romania. Specialists of these countries prepare special units of the Interior Ministry and Information and Security Service of Moldova», said Finagin. Let me note the Moldova’s state officials never these affirmations.

Tensions running high

The escalation of tensions between Moldova and the break-away Transnistria region has been causing concern in neighbouring Romania, as well as the EU and NATO. It started already on March 2013 in particular; the Republic of Moldova unilaterally decided to establish migration control of citizens in the six checkpoints without proper coordination at the bilateral or multilateral international level and within the framework of the Joint Control Commission. The decision imposes limitations on the citizens of Russia, living in Transnistria (about 150 thousand people) and forming one-fourth of Transnistria’s population. The Moldovan authorities said they did it in order to establish order on the future eastern border of the European Union, which Moldovan plans to join.

Tensions increased during the night of April 26-27 in the security zone of the Republic of Moldova. In their turn the Transnistrian authorities installed two checkpoints between the village of Varnita (a commune that remains controlled by the Moldovan government) and the city of Bender (controlled by the separatist authorities of Transnistria). The action led to clashes between Moldovan civilians, who tried to remove the checkpoints, and the Transnistrian militia, who intervened to stop them. The conflict was brought to an end by the Unified Control Commission.

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Moldova’s constitution states that it cannot join an international military alliance. During the Romanian President’s visit the voices were raised again calling for amending the clause. The idea started to float since February 2011, when Moldovan Defense Minister Valeriu Marinuta declared that joining NATO is crucial to gaining European Union membership, demonstrating that discussing a membership in the Atlantic alliance is no longer a taboo subject in his country. The very same year, the Policy Association for an Open Society (PASOS) published a provocative analysis in 2009 written by the Chisinau-based Institute for Development and Social Initiatives (IDSI) precisely entitled: «In NATO we Trust: Why Moldova should join NATO». Every now and then incumbent Moldovan president Nicolae Timofti has declared his interest in increasing ties with NATO. It may not be an entry right now, but gradual integration by getting closer with Romania militarily. For the past several years, Moldova has sought the replacement of the present peacekeeping operation in the region, in which Russia participates, for a civil mission of observers. There is a chance that this policy is likely to sooner or later usher in political stand-off and willy-nilly move the situation to the brink of military conflict nobody wants, it can be sparked by incident.

A recent opinion poll from Moldova (April 2013) uncovers 81 percent of the surveyed population believe that the country is not governed by the will of the people and 84 percent affirm that the country is heading into the wrong direction; 82 percent of the respondents are also not happy with how the country's ruling administration is dealing with the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. No foreign policy can lead to success without the support of grassroots. I hope the Moldovan leaders realize this simple and evident fact. There is one more thing to ponder. The Transnistrian conflict can be resolved if Moldova joins the Eurasian Economic Union (EurAsEC) where the nation now has an observer status. (2)

Endnotes and remarks:

1. The Russian original text of the article - In English the issue was covered extensively by media outlet -
2. The opinion expressed in the piece is strictly persona and does not represent any other position but the author’s.