- EGF Shop
Ukraine’s OSCE Chairmanship and the Transnistrian Conflict: A Breakthrough in the Making?
December 19, 2012 08:03AM
After roughly five years without formal dialogue between Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities, Lithuania was able to resurrect the 5+2 talks during its Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2011. Initial talks in February 2011 led to the official resumption of negotiations in November of that year. Building off this momentum, the subsequent Irish Chairmanship of the OSCE managed to secure an agreement in July 2012 between Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities regarding the restoration of rail freight traffic across the administrative boundary line. By September 2012, agreement had also been reached to establish a joint forum for dialogue with civil society and media from both banks of the Dniester.
The agreements reached in 2012 through the efforts of Ireland’s Chairmanship of the OSCE have all thus far been at the level of ‘low politics’. While no doubt contributing well to the lives of some individuals in the region affected by the conflict, the 5+2 talks have yet to produce a breakthrough at the level of ‘high politics’ that could precipitate the settlement the talks were originally intended to generate. Could that kind of breakthrough be accomplished in the course of Ukraine’s upcoming OSCE Chairmanship, though? Could a combination of the momentum generated from the ‘low politics’ victories of the Irish Chairmanship and the unique geopolitical situation of Ukraine allow for a peaceful resolution to the Transnistrian conflict in 2013?
To explore these questions, it will be necessary to first consider Ukraine’s potential leadership role in relation to some of the other parties to the 5+2 talks. Next, we will examine two proposals that emerged in 2003-2005, the Kozak Plan and the Yushchenko Plan. By identifying where there was agreement and where the positions of the Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities diverged on these two previous initiatives, it may be possible to identify where Ukraine could facilitate compromise in 2013.
Ahead of the formal change in Chairmanship from Ireland to Ukraine, Ukrainian leaders have been emphasizing the importance of the Transnistrian settlement process, placing it as a priority of the 2013 OSCE Chairmanship. Speaking before the Permanent Council, the central decision-making body of the OSCE, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko stressed his government’s commitment to pursuing a lasting settlement to the Transnistrian conflict, “actively facilitating progress in the established 5+2 format.” In his address to the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Viktor Yanukovych stated that the highest priority of his country’s upcoming role in the OSCE will be to increase the effectiveness of the OSCE institutions in conflict prevention and to facilitate the settlement of the ‘frozen conflicts’ in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, it is difficult to say whether the other partners in the 5+2 talks – namely the Russian Federation, the US, and the EU – possess a similar level of political will to foster compromise. For example, the United States has remained largely aloof from negotiations surrounding the conflict. With the advent of the Arab Spring and other issues in the Middle East, the foreign policy focus of the Obama Administration has shifted away from matters in Moldova’s surrounding region. But, aside from active US support for a vague agreement drafted by Russian and Ukrainian officials in July 2002, previous administrations have also largely remained disengaged from the Transnistrian situation. If anything, the American interest in the conflict seems restricted to criticizing Russia’s ongoing military presence there.
The European Union has been more tangibly engaged in mediation efforts. In 2005, the EU Border Assistance Mission to Ukraine and Moldova was launched, which is still in operation. This presence in the region is not only beneficial to counter-trafficking efforts undertaken by Moldovan and Ukrainian authorities but also works to build confidence between Moldovan and Transnistrian officials. Additionally, in September 2012, the Council of the European Union opted to lift some of its longstanding sanctions against Transnistria, including a travel ban on some members of the Transnistrian leadership, in recognition of the progress made in the 5+2 talks. But the EU has also demonstrated a preoccupation with the presence of Russian military personnel and resources on the internationally recognized territory of Moldova, focusing on this admittedly important issue to the exclusion of matters just as vital, if not more so, to the potential for a lasting peace – specifically the nature of Transnistria’s integration into the Moldovan state.
This narrow focus on the military dimension has been reflected in the EU’s criticisms of any settlement proposal that entails the continued presence of Russian peacekeeping forces. Rather, the position of the European Union has been to repeatedly propose that Russian military personnel be replaced with an EU-led civilian and military monitoring mission in contested areas. These proposals have been regarded as offering insufficient security guarantees to Transnistria by Transnistrian and Russian negotiators. With Romania, which continues to be regarded with suspicion in Transnistrian public opinion, now a member of both the EU and NATO, it is doubtful that these EU proposals will be any more welcome in 2013 than they were in 2003.
Arguably the most engaged partner in the 5+2 talks and other forums, the actions of the Russian Federation will be the most difficult to predict. As the 5+2 talks formally resumed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the Russian government is prepared to serve as a guarantor of any agreement reached between Moldovan and Transnistrian authorities. The Russian Federation has certainly initiated a number of proposals for the resolution of the conflict, which will be examined here subsequently. Russia has also actively defended the interests of Transnistrian authorities at the international level, and the Russian Federation represented Transnistrian interests in its intermittent bilateral talks with Moldovan authorities during the lapse in the 5+2 talks.
But how truly committed is Russia to the cause of Transnistrian quasi-independence? Aside from the cost in political capital of propping up the Transnistrian leadership, the Russian Federation also expends considerable economic capital each year on this. It is reported that Russia heavily subsidizes the Transnistrian economy, and has repeatedly forgiven a staggeringly high gas debt. The Russian military presence in Transnistria is estimated to consist of some 1,000 troops, which requires considerable expenditure to maintain. At the same time, the Russian Federation extracts little strategic benefit from its support for Transnistria, aside from the capacity to interfere with Moldova’s aspirations toward membership in the Euro-Atlantic community.
With President Vladimir Putin pursuing an eastward strategic reorientation for the Russian Federation in his third presidential term, seeking to make the Eurasian Union functional and establishing a greater role for Russia in APEC, it may well be that Russian policymakers would very much welcome the opportunity to disengage from Transnistria. The resources spent in bolstering Transnistria’s position could then be assigned to relationships and goals that can generate far greater benefit for the Russian state and the Russian people. Within the wider context of negotiations over the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, honouring previous commitments to withdraw the Russian military presence in Transnistria could be used as bargaining chip by Russian negotiators, securing some advantage in these separate talks while also eliminating the expense of maintaining that presence.
In any case, many of the parties to the 5+2 talks are of questionable commitment to pursuing a lasting solution to the Transnistrian conflict. This could be advantageous, however; the disinterest and ambivalence of some partners implies an unwillingness to interfere with a compromise struck between Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities just as much as it implies a lack of political will to actively seek common ground between these two stakeholders. For much of the past two decades, Ukraine has also held ambiguous positions on the conflict. Kyiv has lacked a consistent policy in part because the ethnic Ukrainian community in Transnistria has been divided as to how best to resolve the conflict, if at all. Furthermore, Ukrainian policymakers have been concerned that any resolution will set a precedent for greater demands for autonomy from Crimea.
As Ukrainian leaders set conflict resolution here as a priority for the 2013 OSCE Chairmanship, however, ambiguity seems to have been replaced with decisiveness. This is fortuitous as Ukraine is ideally placed to facilitate a compromise not just between Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities but also among the other partners to the talks. Ukraine was never engaged in the outbreak of hostilities in 1990-1992, but it views the volatility of the situation as a threat to Ukraine’s security. Given its geopolitical position, Ukraine must balance Russian, European, and American interests in many spheres of policy. But what sort of resolution could culminate from such strategic balancing? What proposal might Ukraine offer that translates the ‘low politics’ successes of the Irish Chairmanship into a ‘high politics’ accord? Next, we examine the two most ambitious proposals considered to date: the Kozak Plan and the Yushchenko Plan.
The Kozak Plan emerged in 2003 as an effort by the Russian Federation to take the initiative in finding a solution to the ongoing Transnistrian conflict. Putin appointed Dmitri Kozak, at the time his Deputy Chief of Staff, as his chief negotiator and Kozak frequently travelled to both Chisinau and Tiraspol to work out an agreement between the two parties. The Kozak Plan, which resulted from these meetings, initially enjoyed support from both Moldovan and Transnistrian leaders. Deeper scrutiny of the proposal, however, resulted in then Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin rejecting it.
The core feature of the Kozak Plan was the proposal that Moldova become an asymmetric federal state, with Gagauzia and Transnistria holding the status of special autonomous regions. The integration of Transnistria into this federal state would in fact be precipitated through the drafting of a new constitution, reconstituting the country as the Federal Republic of Moldova. This was some cause for consternation among many Moldovan policymakers, as were the terms of the Kozak Plan specifying how this new Moldovan federation would be structured. For example, the unicameral legislature of Moldova would be replaced with a bicameral arrangement. The upper house of this legislature would need a three-quarters majority in order to adopt legislation, with Transnistria afforded 34% of the seats. In effect, Transnistria would hold a veto over any and all legislation proposed in Moldova. Similar problems arise regarding the proposed composition of the Federal Constitutional Court, which would consist of six judges appointed by the lower house of the Moldovan legislature, four from Transnistria, and one from Gagauzia. Decisions taken by this Federal Constitutional Court would require no less than nine votes, again affording Transnistria effective veto power.
Other provisions of the Kozak Plan generated concern among Moldovan policymakers, including the capacity for Transnistria to secede from the Federal Republic of Moldova should Moldova ever seek political union with another state. This provision was intended as a security guarantee for Transnistria, where there is still a fear that Moldova may seek unification with Romania and Transnistrians will be forced to learn the Romanian language and renounce Russian. But the most significant protest from the Moldovan side centred on the Kozak Plan’s explicit provision for continuing Russian military presence on Transnistrian territory until 2020. This was portrayed by Kozak as another security guarantee for the Transnistrian side, but much of the Moldovan public regarded it as an effort to preserve Russian influence and dash Moldova’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions.
Clearly, there were a number of issues with the Kozak Plan. Reintegrating Transnistria into its state apparatus could be of considerable economic benefit to Moldova, given the significant industrial capacity that Transnistria has possessed from the Soviet era onward. But the Kozak Plan expected the Moldovan authorities to make many drastic concessions in order to achieve the reintegration of Transnistria. The re-structuring of Moldova into an asymmetric federation had support from the Moldovan side, but giving Transnistria veto power in the upper house of the legislature and the constitutional power, as well as the capacity to secede at any time, expected Moldovan policymakers to sacrifice much for limited returns. The provision regarding the Russian military presence merely added to the indignation.
The Russian Federation retaliated swiftly against Moldova following President Voronin’s announcement that he would not give his assent to the Kozak Plan. Trade with Moldova in a number of industries was suspended. In the OSCE, Russian representatives heavily criticized the United States and the European Union for their unwillingness to support the Kozak Plan. If the proposal itself had not done so, the Russian reaction to Moldova’s rejection greatly undermined the Russian Federation’s credibility as a facilitator of compromise.
The stage was set for Ukraine to take on a greater role in conciliation efforts. While the EU had imposed travel bans on a number of Transnistrian leaders, these same officials were able to freely travel to Ukraine and have been known to make frequent visits to Kyiv and other destinations within the country. A few months into his presidency in 2005, Viktor Yushchenko unveiled his own proposal for a resolution to the conflict at a round of talks held in the Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa. In the lead-up to this event, considerable speculation was held in the Moldovan press as to what the provisions of this new proposal would be, with many suspecting it to be nearly identical to the Kozak Plan.
But this new proposal, colloquially called the Yushchenko Plan or the Vinnitsa Plan, differed from the Kozak Plan in many ways. Rather than calling for a Federal Republic of Moldova, the Yushchenko Plan made no reference to a federative status and instead proposed the reintegration of Transnistria with the same level of autonomy currently enjoyed by Gagauzia. This would have precluded the possibility of Transnistria unilaterally declaring its secession, as well as simply allowing for Transnistrian representation in the unicameral Moldovan legislature on the same basis as any other region of the country.
The Yushchenko Plan did not make any reference to the Russian military presence, but it did propose replacing the ongoing Russian peacekeeping force with an international mechanism of military and civilian observers. The implementation of such a mechanism in this case would likely be conducted through the auspices of the OSCE, much like the unarmed military monitoring officers deployed along the administrative boundary line between the de facto South Ossetian territory and the de jure Georgian state up until the expiration of that particular mission’s mandate at the end of 2008. Additionally, the Yushchenko Plan called for the “enforcement of democracy” in Transnistria, which would have entailed immediate elections being held in that territory under the supervision of observers from the OSCE, EU, US, and Russia.
In some respects, this democratic component to the Yushchenko Plan might no longer be applicable. Previously, some of the partners to the 5+2 talks perceived the Transnistrian leadership as an impediment to compromise. Igor Smirnov, the Transnistrian leader at the time, had been involved in the secessionist movement in Transnistria from its earliest inception in 1989. Furthermore, the perception was that elections in Transnistria were not being held in accordance with democratic best practices, with Igor Smirnov seeking to turn the territory into his personal fiefdom. Yet an unexpected shift has occurred in Transnistria, with Yevgeny Shevchuk winning a hotly contested election for the presidency in December 2011. An ethnic Ukrainian, Shevchuk defeated both Igor Smirnov and Anatoli Kaminski, who had received backing from the Russian Federation in his candidacy. With a democratic transition from Smirnov to Shevchuk, this aspect of the Yushchenko Plan may be of less importance. Certainly, Moldovan authorities should, upon securing the reintegration of the Transnistrian territory, invite the OSCE and the Council of Europe to deploy full-scale election observer missions to monitor subsequent Moldovan elections. But such a measure need not be enshrined in the terms of a peace agreement.
In any case, whereas the Kozak Plan was ultimately rejected by the Moldovan government, the Yushchenko Plan received support from both Transnistrian and Moldovan leaders. This proposal envisioned an 18-month timetable, at the end of which the conditions would be in place for Transnistria’s reintegration into the Moldovan state. Initially, many steps were successfully taken by the Moldovan side to implement the provisions of the Yushchenko Plan. But, as it increasingly became clear that the Russian Federation would not withdraw its military presence within those 18 months, the Moldovan government abandoned the timetable and little progress was made until the resumption of the 5+2 talks.
With Ukraine having already facilitated a reasonably successful compromise between the Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities, the upcoming OSCE Chairmanship has the benefit of considerable credibility with both parties as an effective facilitator. The strategic decision facing Viktor Yanukovych and other relevant Ukrainian policymakers is whether to continue to press forward with the Yushchenko Plan on a revised timetable or to update the Yushchenko Plan somewhat.
Were the Ukrainian negotiators to attempt to revise the Yushchenko Plan too drastically, it may open the process up to increasingly severe demands from the Transnistrian leadership for further concessions. While Smirnov agreed in principle to the Yushchenko Plan, the Transnistrian leadership at the time greatly preferred the terms of the Kozak Plan. Shevchuk has already stated that he is committed to preserving as much autonomy for Transnistria as possible. Still new to his office, he may exploit any opportunity to demand concessions in order to shore up his support from hardliners and those who had remained loyal to Smirnov in the 2011 election.
The challenge facing Ukrainian negotiators will therefore be to preserve as much of the content of the Yushchenko Plan as possible, while updating the timetable and securing the withdrawal of the Russian military presence. In order to avoid launching a debate on the merits of the Kozak Plan’s ideas of asymmetric federalism, the Ukrainian Chairmanship of the OSCE might best be served by addressing the issue of the Russian military presence in the context of its efforts to secure Russian compliance with the aforementioned CFE Treaty. A parallel agreement, reached outside the 5+2 talks, could reinvigorate Moldovan enthusiasm in the Yushchenko Plan, or a revision labelled as something along the lines of a Yanukovych Plan. In turn, the Ukrainian Chairmanship could then press for the deployment of an OSCE civilian and military monitoring mission to the buffer zone.
If there is one particular area that the upcoming OSCE Chairmanship would do well to place its focus in future 5+2 talks, it is the status of Bender. If the Yushchenko Plan must be revised intensively, then overlooking the status of this city must not be overlooked. Bender is located on the right bank of the Dniester, while Transnistrian territory lies on the left bank of the river. Nonetheless, Bender is within the buffer zone and has come under the administrative control of the Transnistrian authorities. If Transnistrian reintegration into Moldova is secured, some of the issues regarding the status of Bender will be resolved to some degree. Even so, it will be necessary to determine whether Bender would be part of the autonomous region of Transnistria within the Moldovan state or instead be fully part of the unitary state structure of Moldova.
There is considerable potential for things to go wrong during Ukraine’s drive to find a resolution to the conflict. Much depends on how committed the Russian Federation is to preserving its costly military presence, as well as on how comfortable Shevchuk feels in his negotiating position vis-à-vis Chisinau. But there is considerable potential that the credibility Ukraine has cultivated, the momentum that has been built by the ‘low politics’ successes of the Irish and Lithuanian Chairmanships, and the agreement brokered by Yanukovych’s predecessor in the Ukrainian presidency, can ensure a successful outcome from the 5+2 talks in 2013.
Ukrainian negotiators should move carefully to secure reaffirmation from Transnistrian and Moldovan negotiators that they remain committed in principle to the terms of the Vinnitsa/Yushchenko Plan. Once such reaffirmation has been secured, it will be necessary to take inventory of those commitments which have been implemented thus far. In parallel, negotiations with the Russian Federation on the CFE Treaty must be held in earnest and the Russian military presence in Transnistria should be regarded as having central importance in such discussions, so long as they are kept relatively separate from the formal 5+2 talks. If a timetable for the full withdrawal of Russian troops can be reached, a second push in the 5+2 talks will be essential to ensuring that all the pieces are in place for the deployment of an OSCE civilian and military monitoring mission to the buffer zone and for the reunification of all territories within the internationally recognized borders of the Moldovan state.
Should all of this prove successful, Yanukovych will have won for himself an enduring legacy in Ukrainian and European history as a negotiator. In the process, he may also better define the trajectory on which he wishes to take Ukraine as a country. But the potential pitfalls are many and success here will require that Ukraine’s commitment to a resolution to the Transnistrian conflict in 2013 remain as steadfast as it was when Yanukovych addressed the UN General Assembly.
 Party of Regions. (2012, September 27). Viktor Yanukovych names Ukrainian priorities of OSCE Chairmanship. Accessed from: http://www.partyofregions.org.ua/en/news/50640d43c4ca4249190006b0
 Roper, Steven D. (2004). “From Frozen Conflict to Frozen Agreement: The Unrecognized State of Transnistria” in Bahcheli, Tozun et al. (Eds.) De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty. (p.102-117). New York: Routledge. p.114
 Council of the EU. (2012, September 27). Council lifts sanctions to recognize progress in Transnistria negotiations. Accessed from: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_Data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/132616.pdf
 Popescu, Nicu. (2011). EU Foreign Policy and Post-Soviet Conflicts: Stealth Intervention. New York: Routledge. p.40
 Neukirch, Claus. (2002). “Russia and the OSCE: The Influence of Interested Third and Disinterested Fourth Parties on the Conflicts in Estonia and Moldova” in Kolsto, Pal. (Ed.) National Integration and Violent Conflict in Post-Soviet States: The Cases of Estonia and Moldova. (p.233-248). New York: Rowman & Littlefield. p.237
 Roslycky, Lada & Boonstra, Jos. (2007). “Ukraine: Changing Governments and Persistent Security Concerns in the Region” in Volten, Peter & Tashev, Blagovest. (Eds.) Establishing Security and Stability in the Wider Black Sea Area. (p.119-140). Amsterdam: IOS Press. p.138
 Vrabie, Radu. (2010). “The ‘Humanitarian Dimension’ of Russian Foreign Policy in Moldova” in Pelnens, Gatis. (Ed.) The ‘Humanitarian Dimension’ of Russian Foreign Policy Toward Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. (p.213-246). Riga: Centre for East European Policy Studies. p.221
 Allison, Roy. (2004). “The Unresolved Conflicts in the Black Sea Region: Threats, Impacts on Regionalism, and Regional Strategies for Conflict Resolution” in Pavliuk, Oleksandr & Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ivanna. (Eds.) The Black Sea Region: Cooperation and Security Building. (p.86-122). Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe. p.95
 Stent, Angela. (2007). “Reluctant Europeans: Three Centuries of Russian Ambivalence Toward the West” in Legvold, Robert. (Ed.) Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century and the Shadow of the Past. (p.393-442). New York: Columbia University Press. p.432
 Protsyk, Oleh. (2006). “Moldova’s Dilemmas in Democratizing and Reintegrating Transnistria” in Problems of Post-Communism. 53(4). p.20
 Gordon, Claire. (2012). “The EU as a Reluctant Conflict Manager in Moldova” in Whitman, Richard G. & Wolff, Stefan. (Eds.) The European Union as a Global Conflict Manager. (p.120-137). New York: Routledge. p.123