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22nd Mar 2019

Moldova breakthrough could soothe wider EU-Russia tensions

  • Russian soldiers: Putin's 1,300 men in Transnistria are key to the future of Moldova and CFEII (Photo: wikipedia)

The EU says a new settlement on Moldova's rebel province of Transnistria would help soothe wider EU-Russia tension over military deployment in Europe, with some EU states keen to send EU badge-wearing police to the region to help keep the peace.

"The right settlement would make a tremendous contribution to confidence building on the continent, including the CFE treaty," the EU special envoy to Moldova, Kalman Mizsei, told EUobserver on Wednesday (6 June), in reference to the Conventional Forces in Europe II treaty, which was signed by 30 countries in 1999.

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The 1999 document puts constraints on the number of troops NATO or Russia can deploy in European states. But NATO countries have not ratified the text, saying Moscow should first make good on old political promises to remove 1,300 troops from Transnistria.

CFEII hit the headlines last week when Russian leader Vladimir Putin threatened to pull out of the treaty in response to US plans to build a missile shield in Europe, with Moscow calling for CFEII crisis talks on 12 June in Vienna. "Moldova could be instrumental in building goodwill," the EU's Mr Mizsei said.

Transnistria broke away from Moldova in a civil war in 1992, with a tense ceasefire holding for the past 15 years. Multilateral conflict resolution talks in the so-called 5+2 format - Moldova, Transnistria, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE plus observers the EU and US - started in 2005 but have lain dormant for 15 months.

Meanwhile, Chisinau and Moscow last autumn began bilateral talks that have led to a new draft settlement, raising hopes of a breakthrough. Brussels had been concerned about lack of transparency on the bilaterals, but in recent days the EU received Moldovan and Russian assurances no deal will be signed outside the 5+2 format.

EU envoy Mr Mizsei said the 5+2 meetings could restart in late June. He explained that - according to Moldova's settlement ideas - Russia should ship out its ammunition dump in Transnistria in the four to six months after an agreement and that Russian soldiers should be replaced by an international monitoring mission by January 2009.

The international monitoring mission could be of a military or a police nature, potentially including a Russian as well as an EU contingent. Mr Mizsei added that he had not seen anything other than the "rather sensible" Moldovan settlement proposals come out of the bilateral talks.

The negative scenario

But another senior diplomat from the 5+2 group told EUobserver he has seen a "document" which foresees powerful jobs for Transnistrian officials in a post-settlement Moldovan government. He said the document also leaves the door open for Russian soldiers to stay indefinitely, giving Moscow de facto control of the country.

An official from one of the EU member states warned that if the final form of the Transnistria settlement is overly pro-Russian, it could spark internal opposition to Moldova president Vladimir Voronin, who could react with a crackdown, further undermining his credentials as a pro-democracy reformist.

The EU official said the negative scenario could harm a €1.1 billion 2007 to 2010 EU and US aid package for Moldova. He added that while some EU states support one day sending EU troops to Transnistria, others are concerned that Russian soldiers stationed close by to, say, Polish troops in a mixed mission "might not get on well."

For his part, EU envoy Mr Mizsei said "a bad [Transnistria] resolution would be worse than postponing the resolution. I don't want to speculate on a bad resolution. I just don't want it to happen." The diplomat also voiced optimism that a positive scenario is possible, as ordinary Moldovans want to move on.

'Not a place of hatred'

"The fact the last decade has not seen hostilities there is significant. It's just not a place of hatred, neither ethnic nor religious, unlike most other conflict areas in the world. There are 4 million Moldovans who are poor, who should not be so poor, and who are being held hostage by this conflict."

Mr Mizsei played down the importance of aggressive Kremlin rhetoric on Europe - Russia's Putin this week said he might again point nuclear missiles at the west and that Transnistria's claim to independence is equally as strong as Kosovo's. "The [Russian 2008 presidential] election season is definitely a factor in the rhetoric," the EU envoy said.

He added that his job is made more "complex" by the fact the EU "is not in a position" to offer an "immediate membership perspective" to states like Moldova. Referring to 2004 EU enlargement countries, such as his own native Hungary, he said the prospect of EU accession was a major tool of change.

"This perspective worked as the most powerful anchor of rapid institutional reforms," Mr Mizsei said. "We need to achieve the same with less attractive incentives here."

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