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Ukraine and Moldova: Time to talk openly

By Alyona Getmanchuk

The Republic of Moldova is the smallest of Ukraine’s neighbors, yet the most roublesome as well. An undemarcated border, the frozen conflict in Transnistria, a Ukrainian community on both sides of the Dnister whose interests are not always defended, common challenges linked to neighboring Romania—all these prevent Kyiv from dropping Chisinau from its sights for any length of time.

The cornerstone of Ukraine’s policy towards Moldova is preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a neighboring republic. It is through this prism that the problem of the breakaway republic of Transnistria is seen in Kyiv. And this is a key issue for the development of bilateral relations between the two countries as well.

The outwardly unproblematic dialogue between Kyiv and Chisinau has actually been clouded by a fog of unresolved issues for many years. First among these are the demarcation of the state border and a number of property issues, ranging from resorts to a hydroelectric station. Despite promises from Moldovan officials to resolve these matters once and for all, many problems continue to loom over bilateral relations and prevent real progress.

As a result, there is evident irritation among Ukrainian officials who have had close dealings with Moldova, over the way the country carries out its policies regarding Ukraine. Kyiv has placed considerable hopes on the new leadership in Chisinau. And the reason for this was not long in coming: the current Administration in Moldova has finally put Ukraine among its foreign policy priorities, next to Romania. In addition, the new Speaker of the Moldovan legislature, Mihai Gimpu, supposedly promised President Viktor Yushchenko at the CIS summit in October 2009 that the new Government was prepared to resolve all issues with Ukraine and then “move together towards Europe.” However, it seems that the new Government of Moldova essentially proposed to start negotiations on the touchiest issues “from a blank page”—thereby attempting to level all the understandings reached previously.

Another set of issues that affect Ukraine’s policies towards Moldova is Kyiv’s involvement in resolving the Transnistria conflict. True, this issue is not being raised at the level of bilateral talks with Chisinau: Kyiv sees it as one that needs to be resolved at the international level. Even the Foreign Ministry has separate people dealing with relations with Moldova and solving the Transnistria problem. It would make sense to consider bringing these issues under a single line department, given how directly related they actually are.

With the coming to power in Chisinau of a government clearly interested in European integration, at least according to its statements, some experts have predicted that Ukraine and Moldova could join forces in promoting their mutual progress towards the European Union. All the more so that Moldovan diplomats have consulted with their Ukrainian counterparts more than once in the past on EU matters of various kinds. Indeed, Ukraine’s unofficial leadership role in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) is hard to deny. Even the European Commission, based on available information, is not against the idea of Ukraine and Moldova working in tandem.
 
> Moldova Map
 
Still, despite being united by their common desire to become EU members and their common membership in the EaP, there is little indication that Ukraine and Moldova currently have what it takes to jointly achieve accession. On the contrary, there is good reason to believe that Chisinau’s main partner in this direction will not be Kyiv, but Bucharest. Diplomatic sources in Moldova say that their leaders have been promised that Romania would do everything in its power to get Moldova into the European Union as part of the Balkan group.
 
 
The border leads, as ever
 
Ukraine’s biggest challenges with regard to Moldova have a major security component. First among these is border demarcation. For Ukraine, this issue is critical for two reasons. Firstly, as Kyiv integrates more and more into the EU and NATO, it has gained significance for the Union with the launch of visa-free talks between Kyiv and Brussels. Secondly, despite the EU’s EUBAM monitoring mission, Moldova remains extremely vulnerable to illegal trafficking beyond official border crossing points, from commodities like cognac to high-end cars, and even to human beings.

At this time, three areas of the border are not demarcated: the central section, known as the Transnistrian section; a section around the Dnistrovska HES-2 (hydro-electric station) buffer zone; and a section to the south, around the now-port of Giurgiulesti. Whereas the last two cannot currently be established locally because of unresolved border-crossing issues (discussed further), the demarcation of the central section has long been viewed in Kyiv as hostage to the lack of political will in Chisinau. Year after year, Moldova finds one reason or another to explain why it stands against the start of local demarcation. Among the official reasons listed is a lack of funds. Among the unofficial ones: the risk for Moldova that Transnistria will take advantage of this process to establishposts bearing Transnistrian attributes and the sign, “Transnistrian Moldovan Republic,” along its section of the border. For some Moldovan negotiators, this would be tantamount to Ukraine’s recognizing the breakaway enclave.

Demarcation of the Transnistrian section has been dragging on for over five years, including a visit by NSC Secretary Raisa Bohatyriova in November 2009 to the Republic of Moldova. After the visit, the Ukrainian side apparently sent a note to the Moldovan side calling for demarcation to begin as soon as possible, and verbally requested that it start within 10 days. Otherwise, the note stated, Ukraine was prepared to start demarcating the central section of the border unilaterally. At the same time, Kyiv notified Brussels and Washington, both observers in the Transnistria process, of its intentions.

At the end of 2009, the Deputy Foreign Ministers of the two countries, Kostiantyn Yeliseiev for Ukraine and Andrei Popov for Moldova, took on direct responsibility for the resolution of the touchiest issues between the two countries, including border demarcation. This was necessary not least because resolving border issues with Belarus and Moldova was marked “urgent” on the list of priorities of the then-newly appointed Foreign Minister, Petro Poroshenko. The Presidential election in Ukraine finally pushed this process into motion and at the moment of writing, the demarcation of the section has symbolically begun with the laying of the first border marker, with the participation of Mr Poroshenko, his Moldovan colleague and representatives of the European Commission.
 

> Ukraine Map
 
This was quite timely, as Ukraine has not abandoned its plans to begin demarcating the border unilaterally if Moldova continued to use delaying tactics. Kyiv was also ready with a few more cards in its deck. For one, the implementation of an admission regime for Moldovan citizens requiring proof of a suitable amount of money, based on a resolution issued in May 2009 but suspended at the request of the Moldovans.

While the demarcation of the central section depended purely on political will in Chisinau, that of the border near the buffer zone around the Dnistrovska HES-2 and the Giurgiulesti transport and fuel complex is directly tied to the fulfillment of agreements reached between the two capitals. In violation of agreements signed in the mid-1990s on the exchange of a land parcel near the village of Giurgiulesti, Ukraine has yet to receive a deed to the property. Meanwhile, Moldova itself has long been making use of what is effectively the new status granted to it by Ukraine, that of a maritime region, and has been building up a transport and fuel terminal on the site.

What’s more, the Moldovan side has raised the question of “acquiring” additional territory in the vicinity from Ukraine, in order to make it easier for tankers to pass through. Kyiv is open to the idea, in exchange for Chisinau’s allow87 ing the border to go around the Dnistrovska HES-2 buffer zone, as some of the technical buildings related to this station are currently on the Moldovan side. One of Ukraine’s most recent proposals mentioned offering Moldova a longterm lease on the land parcel near Giurgiulesti in exchange for Ukraine’s getting a lease on part of the territory of the power station. Moldova rejected the offer. Instead, the republic’s new leadership insists on getting more land around Giurgiulesti in exchange for the deed to the land near Palanka, which Moldova was supposed to have handed some 15 years ago. For Ukraine, this business of “selling” one and the same concession twice is seen as little more than a kickback fee for bilateral talks.

Obviously, the political crisis in Moldova, with the failure of several attempts to elect a President, does little to move border issues with Ukraine towards resolution. Still, a new President in Ukraine should not put the Moldova question into a deep drawer, but, take advantage of the dynamic of the last half-year of negotiations and push things through to their logical conclusion.
 
 
Waiting for Transnistria to go European
 
Ukraine’s involvement in resolving the Transnistria problem offers the country both an opportunity and a certain amount of threat. Kyiv’s active position towards Moldova has so far brought a number of political dividends: the breakaway region is the only frozen conflict where Ukraine has been directly mediating a dispute resolution process, in the so-called 5+2 format. In addition, Ukraine can, unlike the other mediator, Russia, influence the situation because it has an important trump card: a common border with Moldova. In this way, the Transnistrian issue is a diplomatic rallying point for Kyiv, which could play a key role in resolving the only post-soviet conflict directly bordering with the European Union. And this would mean a lot, not just to Ukraine but to the EU as well.

This situation also presents a number of threats for Kyiv. First among these are Moldova’s occasional attempts to turn Kyiv from conflict mediator into direct participant. Such machinations have been possible not least because Ukraine often underestimated the skills of Moldova’s diplomats, including in relation to the EU. Having nurtured its image as a “poor, defenseless relative” whom everybody abuses, Moldova has successfully gained the support of powerful external players, including on issues Kyiv sees as fairly contentious.

Secondly, Chisinau does not perceive Ukraine as an independent player in Transnistria. Local politicians and analysts believe that in order to get Kyiv over to one position or another, all that is necessary is to gain the support of the European Union. The most successful case of Chisinau influencing Kyiv through Brussels was the institution of new customs rules for crossing the Ukraine-Moldova border. Transnistria and Russia interpreted this as an “economic blockade” of the separatist enclave.

At first glance, Ukraine’s peacemaking achievements in Transnistria appear quite modest. Mr. Yushchenko’s 2005 plan, ambitiously named “Resolution through Democratization,” could never become the key regulating document because Russia simply did not accept it—and traditionally offers its own initiatives for the final resolution of a conflict. At the same time, it should be said that Ukraine was instrumental in getting the EU and the US involved as observers, and in getting the EUBAM monitoring group on the Ukraine-Moldova border up and running. Without Ukraine’s consent, Moldova would not have been able to take such important steps as, say, the passage of cars with Transnistrian plates outside its territory.

Ukraine has two main positions in resolving the Transnistria conflict. First, the conflict has to be resolved on the principle of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova. Second, this should be done using the 5+2 negotiating format. The importance of this second position became obvious when Russia launched consultations with Chisinau and Tiraspol in a 2+1 format. The arrangements of the trio were presented in a joint statement issued by Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev, Moldova’s Vladimir Voronin and the enclave’s leader, Igor Smirnov, on 19 March 2009. At the insistence of Transnistria, the document contained not one word about maintaining the territorial integrity of Moldova, and its fourth point actually announced that the Russian military presence in Transnistria would be transformed into “a peace-keeping operation under the aegis of the OSCE” only after the Transnistrian conflict was resolved. In this way, Russia effectively started carrying out its Kozak-2 plans.

According to diplomatic sources, Russia was looking at eventually changing the 2+1 format into a 2+2 format with the involvement of either Ukraine or the EU. The participation of either of these is necessary for the Russians as a kind of insurance that there will not be a repeat of Moscow’s failed 2003 plan to resolve the issue, called the Kozak Memorandum. Immediate reactions from both Washington and Brussels were very negative because the trilateral statement had been put together as a backroom deal. Another form of insurance this time around could be that Russian diplomats are ready to agree a final resolution, even in the 5+2 format, though most likely only nominally. But with the arrival of a new government in Chisinau, the viability of the 2+1 format once it expands to 2+2 and the fate of Kozak-2 “lite” are both under question.

Ukraine primarily hopes the conflict will be “Europeanized” with the arrival of a new political leadership in Moldova—that is, that the role of the European Union in the resolution process will grow. This is important for Kyiv and not just because Transnistria is the only frozen conflict in which Ukraine is playing a direct role. Nearly a third of Transnistria’s population is ethnically Ukrainian, and nearly 100,000 of its residents are Ukrainian citizens. Transnistria is the only other region in the world where Ukrainian is an official language, along with Moldovan and Russian. In this context, it is unusually important for Ukraine that the confidence-building measures between Tiraspol and Chisinau, proposed by President Voronin in 2007 and later reinforced by EU proposals in 2008 (the Union offered an additional socio-economic stimulus package and is prepared to finance it) continue to roll out, regardless of the state of the 5+2
talks.
 
 
Recommendations for the President
 
1. Follow a consistent policy directed at maintaining Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As long as there is an impression in both Chisinau and, especially, Tiraspol that at any moment the borders of Moldova can be revised, the leaders of the enclave will have little incentive to engage in serious dialogue on reintegration.

2. Settle the demarcation issue once and for all. So far, Ukrainian-Moldovan relations have been distinguished by the fact that, no matter who was in power in either capital, neither found the political will to close the book on border demarcation. The new government in Moldova has made the first step towards an understanding on this issue, the proof being the official start of the Transnistria demarcation process. Kyiv needs to make it absolutely clear to Chisinau that full-fledged dialogue between the two countries will only resume after real demarcation of the Transnistria section of the border takes place and readiness to accept compromise solutions in rapidly settling the situations around the Dnistrovska HES and the land parcels near Giurgiulesti is demonstrated. Should Moldova refuse to compromise on demarcation, Ukraine needs to consider instituting a strict border regime on its Moldovan border.

3. Promote a stronger role for the European Union in resolving the Transnistria conflict. Launch joint Ukraine-EU initiatives in Transnistria. Work intensively to set up a “Dnister” Euroregion that would contain Moldovan counties, including Transnistria, and border counties on the Ukrainian side, with funding from the EU—something that Hungary is already negotiating. Mediate in the dialogue between the EU and Transnistrian leaders ready to engage in constructive dialogue.

4. Prevent backroom attempts to carry out Moldova’s European integration plans along the Chisinau-Bucharest axis. As an immediate neighbor of Transnistria, Ukraine has a stake in the transparency of any options for reincorporation into Moldova and progress toward EU membership. It also has a stake in ensuring that Brussels controls the process. Get the new Administration in Chisinau—and the Romanian government—to understand, by whatever means possible, that the Transnistria conflict cannot be resolved without the participation of Transnistria itself.

5. Work on getting Romania to finally sign a basic agreement and the Border Treaty with Moldova. Endless speculation over a possible union between Moldova and Romania is one of Transnistria’s main arguments against resolving its conflict in line with the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Moldova. Signing these treaties with Moldova could be the biggest contribution Romania can make to resolving the Transnistrian conflict. Kyiv must put its best diplomatic efforts into getting Romania to finally sign the basic agreement with Moldova and the Border Treaty between the two countries. This means engaging Ukraine’s EU allies and the US, both of whom have their own means of influencing Bucharest.

6. More actively engage the sizeable Ukrainian community in Moldova—including in Transnistria—in carrying out Ukraine’s policies in Moldova. Settle the issue of opening up a Ukraine House in Tiraspol, whose premises, according to some sources, will be provided cost-free by the Transnistrian side. Increase the number of scholarships for Transnistrian students in Ukrainian educational institutions.

7.
Look into options for expanding the functions of the relevant department of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry. It would be good for this department to simultaneously handle Ukrainian-Moldovan relations and the Transnistria question, given the impact of the internal political and economic situation in Moldova on progress in resolving the conflict.
 
 
Conclusion
 
Ukrainian-Moldovan relations will never mature as long as Ukraine is perceived in Moldova as dependent on and vulnerable to outside players. Meanwhile, the new President should take advantage of the arrival of a new government in Chisinau to demonstrate firmness on its key interests, regardless of the positions of the EU or Russia.
 
 
Institute of World Policy

A New Foreign Policy. Expert perspectives
 
 
31.05.2010
 

 

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