27th May 2019

Moldova instability could get worse

Instability around the breakaway Moldovan republic of Transniestria could get worse in the coming weeks, a top EU diplomat told EUobserver, calling for "maximum international support" for the new EU-backed customs regime on the Transniestria-Ukraine border.

Transniestrian leader Igor Smirnov is trying to create an international crisis to shore up his position, the EU high representative for Moldova Adriaan Jacobovits de Szeged warned, speaking shortly after 40 separatist soldiers seized the Moldovan river port of Varnitsa in late April.

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  • Chisinau: the Moldovan government refuses to speak to Igor Smirnov (Photo: EUobserver)

"I think that Smirnov feels himself threatened by the recent developments, especially the active involvement of the EU and US in the Transniestrian issue," he said. "If you feel your position is in danger, a crisis is often construed useful by leaders."

The EU in March gave support to a Ukrainian blockade on black market Transniestrian goods crossing the border, with 50 EU customs monitors riding around the frontier in jeeps to monitor implementation.

The EU became an active part of the so-called five-plus-two conflict resolution group, which also comprises Moldova, Transniestria, Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE and the US, in 2005.

The new border regime is a small step toward eventual Moldovan reunification, Mr Jacobovits de Szeged believes.

But the other two elements in the reunification blueprint - democratic elections in Transniestria and the change from a Russian peacekeeping force to a multinational team - have not seen much movement in recent months.

Moscow meeting positive

A 19 April meeting in Moscow gave Mr Jacobovits de Szeged some hope that the EU and Russia can work more closely on the issue in future.

"I was very pleased to hear from the Russian side that they are in favour of the territorial integrity of Moldova, of stable borders and one single customs regime for the whole of Moldova," he indicated.

But Russia has so far shown hostility to the black market blockade, putting its 1,300 troops in Transniestria on alert and stoking fears of a potential humanitarian crisis in the region.

Many western analysts believe the Kremlin supports Transniestria with gas-on-credit deals and financial aid to help block Moldova's pro-EU drift in a throwback to Cold War-era imperialist thinking.

Mr Jacobovits de Szeged explained that Moldova has no prospect of EU membership, but that Transniestria is sapping Chisinau's energy for judicial and economic reforms designed to bring it into a future single economic area with the EU and Ukraine.

"The EU is not interested in having miserable, unstable neighbours," he said. "I don't see how Russia could be interested in having a ring of unfriendly countries around it, unfriendly because of Russian pressures. A stable, friendly Moldova is much better."

He described Transniestria as "an authoritarian, if not a police state" with camouflaged tanks on the border, zero free press and statues of Lenin on street corners. "It strikes you, that you are back in the Soviet Union. Really, the place is very isolated."

Smirnov digs in

The EU believes Mr Smirnov is trying to hold fort until the emergence of a new government coalition in Ukraine in July, hoping this would lift the export embargo, while lobbying high-level business contacts in Kiev, Moscow and Chisinau.

But Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko "remains 100 percent behind" the new border control regime and is set to hold onto foreign policy reins despite the coalition-building, Mr Jacobovits de Szeged indicated.

On the democratic reform side, the majority-holding Renewal movement in the Transniestrian national assembly, the Supreme Soviet, recently forced through the first reading of a bill limiting Mr Smirnov's powers on dismissal of ministers.

But the de facto state refuses to host an OSCE mission to explore prospects for free elections in future.

"I've seen advice given to the Supreme Soviet by the so-called minister of foreign affairs of Transniestria in the past two weeks, which concludes that this assessment mission is not in the interest of Transniestria," the EU diplomat stated.

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