The Transnistria region in Moldova is a Cold War relic. Along with Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenian-controlled Azerbaijan and South Ossetia in Georgia, it is a post-Soviet “frozen conflict” zone where a situation of “no war, no peace” still persists. It did not want to separate from the USSR when the latter was dissolved; the brief military conflict that started in March 1992 was ended by a ceasefire in July 1992.
Despite years of multilateral negotiations, this tiny sliver of land is unrecognized but independent, with its own government, military, police, and currency. While Transnistria is much smaller than Moldova, it retains considerable leverage, in now small part because of the Russian military contingent stationed there.
The European Court of Human Rights considers Transnistria to be “under the effective authority or at least decisive influence of Russia.” Russia thus plays a double game, negotiating a “final settlement” while at the same time supporting its cronies in Transnistria to Moldova’s detriment. Many observers see Vladimir Putin resorting to similar tactics in other heavily Russian areas in the region, such as in the Crimea in Ukraine.
Ambassador Rudolph Perina was the Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts from 2001-04. In an interview with Stu Kennedy beginning in December 2006, he discusses Russian pressure to legalize the status quo, in essence allowing Transnistria to hold Moldova hostage, and notes how Putin angry became when the Moldovans decided not to support such a one-sided agreement. You can also read Ambassador Perina’s views on the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.
“Such a settlement was worse than no settlement at all”
PERINA: I already worked on [the conflict] when I was the Ambassador to Moldova. I just changed hats and continued to work on it as the Special Negotiator. Of course, this was still in sort of an ex-officio capacity since the U.S. was not one of the designated mediators. We just tried to use our influence to promote progress in the talks… When I became Special Negotiator I knew this conflict quite well, I knew [“President” of Transnistria Igor] Smirnov and all the players, and thus was in a position to be helpful.
I also still believed that this should be the easiest conflict to resolve, even easier than South Ossetia. The economic stakes of the black market were probably much higher but Moldova had the advantage of not being on Russia’s border, as Georgia was. Transnistria was not contiguous with Russian territory as South Ossetia and Abkhazia were, and this made it more difficult for the Russians to maintain a grip on it. At least that was my thinking.
Q: Were you wrong?
PERINA: Yes and no. The good news was that Russia in fact was ready to find a settlement, on its terms, to the conflict. The bad news was that its terms included maintaining a status for Transnistria that would largely just have legalized the status quo.
I used to characterize the Russian position, in a very simplified way, as follows: The Transnistrians would wink and say “OK, we are part of Moldova,” and the Moldovans would wink and say “OK. The conflict is resolved.” But otherwise, Transnistria would be given so much autonomy that everything else would stay the same: the Russian presence, the black marketeering, the state within a state structure and so on. In fact, all of these things would be legalized through a settlement.
In our view, such a settlement was worse than no settlement at all because it would have been a permanent, institutionalized Russian presence within Moldova and a permanent economic drain on the country….
We in fact came very close to it in December 2003 with the so called Kozak Memorandum. Dmitriy Kozak, a close confidante of Putin’s and his deputy chief of staff (at right), suddenly showed up in Moldova in the fall of 2003 with a mandate to resolve the Transnistria conflict. He did all of the negotiation in shuttle diplomacy between [Moldovan President Vladimir] Voronin and Smirnov, and it was a unilateral Russian effort. None of the other mediators were involved.
I visited Moldova in late September when he happened to be in town and asked to meet with him. We met for drinks in the lobby of the Jolly Alon Hotel. Kozak was pleasant enough but gave very little information on the substance of the negotiations. He described it as a type of memorandum dealing with the principles of a settlement but not containing many details on implementation. I specifically asked him if there was a military component, such as the question of a peacekeeping force, and he said there was not.
A few months later, in mid-November, we were in Moscow with EUR Assistant Secretary Beth Jones to conduct consultations in preparation for the Maastricht OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] Ministerial meeting, scheduled to be held in early December. It was then that the Russians first showed us a draft of the document being negotiated. They also told us that Voronin had agreed to sign it.
Everyone was in total shock. The document was terribly slanted in favor of Transnistria. It outlined a federal structure which retained almost all of Transnistria’s independence but also enhanced its influence within Moldova through the legislative structure. The Transnistrians acquired de facto veto power over major Moldovan policy decisions, including on matters of foreign policy. There was also an annex allowing Russian troops to remain in Moldova for twenty years and perhaps longer. It would have made Moldova a permanent hostage of the Transnistrians. The Russians wanted the document signed by Voronin and Smirnov prior to the Maastricht Ministerial meeting, and they thus knew they had to make it public. They put it on an internet website, where it began circulating.
The reaction was outrage, not just among Western governments but also among Moldovans. By late November, there were demonstrations in Chisinau of up to 50,000 people by some estimates protesting the memorandum. It seemed neither Voronin nor Kozak had anticipated such a reaction, but Putin was going forward with plans to fly to Chisinau for the signing ceremony early in the week of November 23.
I was in Vienna at this time involved in the final OSCE preparations for Maastricht. I remember walking along the street in the early afternoon of November 21 and getting a call on my cell phone. It was Voronin’s office saying that he wanted to speak with me. He got on the line and asked me what I thought the U.S. reaction would be if he signed the memorandum. I told him that it would be very negative, and that he would lose the support of the United States and most other Western countries as well. He told me he was reconsidering the entire memorandum and would make a decision that weekend.
Well, as we later found out, on the eve of Putin’s departure for Chisinau, Voronin told the Russians he would not sign and cancelled the signing ceremony. We heard from many sources after that that Putin was just furious at Voronin. What Putin hoped would be a triumph of Russian peacemaking turned out to be a huge personal embarrassment. It led to a major deterioration in Russian-Moldovan relations.
Still, the Russians have never given up on the Kozak approach to resolving this conflict, and they continue to put pressure on Voronin to accept such an approach. He has so far resisted, to his credit, but he is unpredictable in these things and could still change his mind. I like to think that I played a role in preventing him for signing the 2003 document, though the situation was such that there were other Western governments démarching him at the time, and our bilateral Ambassador Heather Hodges also delivered a formal demarche from Washington against signing the memorandum.
In retrospect, however, I think the factor that influenced Voronin most were the domestic demonstrations. By coincidence this also happened to be the weekend that Shevardnadze was toppled from power in Georgia by demonstrations — the weekend of the Rose Revolution. I think this is what scared Voronin most. He saw what happened to Shevardnadze. While Moldova’s demonstrations were still manageable, Voronin did not want to take the chance of the same thing happening to him and that is why he decided not to sign.
“We do see more of a Soviet pattern emerging in Russia”
Q: Given all this, what was your assessment of the U.S. role in all of these frozen conflicts? Was there really a role for the U.S.?
PERINA: I think there was a role in two respects. First, as I mentioned, it is important to keep a negotiating process, a diplomatic track, going in all of these conflicts. If there is no diplomatic activity, the only alternative for those wishing to change things is war. The participation of the U.S. is important to giving most of these negotiations credibility and support.
Secondly, the U.S. role is also important as a counter-weight to the Russians. The Moldovans and others understood this, and that is why they always wanted the U.S. engaged in the negotiations. The European Union, for all its good efforts, is still not cohesive or organized or fast enough to be able to stand up to the Russians when it becomes necessary.
At the same time, I think it is true that none of these conflicts can be resolved without Russian cooperation. Russia’s influence in this part of the world is just too great and likely to remain so. In the case of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia is in fact the key factor that perpetuates the conflicts. In the case of Karabakh, the Russians cannot force a settlement but they can be spoilers and prevent one if they choose to do so.
We spent a huge amount of time trying to figure out Russian policy and what they were really up to. It was very difficult because the policies were so often seemingly inconsistent and contradictory. The Russians would say one thing and act completely differently. Part of this, of course, might be attributed to basic duplicity, and I am sure it was, but it was also more complicated.
The Presidents in the region such as Voronin and Shevardnadze all complained to me about their frustrations with the Russians. Voronin in particular would tell me how Putin promised him something but then it never happened. I once asked Trubnikov, the Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister whom I got to know well through the Karabakh negotiations, why this was so. He answered “Well, you know, Putin can decide something but then by the time it works its way through the bureaucracy, it can come out looking very different.”
It occurred to me then that part of the problem was that all of us who were trained as Sovietologists were in part still looking at Russia from that perspective. We assumed decision-making was centralized, coordinated and controlled, as in the days when all power was concentrated in the Kremlin.
In fact, many things in Russia had turned 180 degrees. Russia was more chaotic, uncoordinated, and decentralized than we imagined. There were new factors such as bureaucratic resistance, political and economic rivalries, and corruption that were playing out in very different ways from how things had worked in the Soviet period. I think that was a big part of the challenge in understanding Russia at this time. Now I would say that since this period, the pendulum has again started to swing, and we do see more of a Soviet pattern emerging in Russia. Certainly, Putin has gotten much stronger than he was five years ago and stronger than many people expected. But Russia remains very different from the Soviet Union, and that has made its policies much more difficult to understand and predict.
But let me make on last point here about Russian policy. Even though I believe the Russians are responsible for perpetuating three out of four of these conflicts that I worked on, I think it is still remarkable how relatively few conflicts emerged from the break-up of an enormous empire like the Soviet Union.
Imagine if the Soviet Union had split apart in the same manner that Yugoslavia did — what a bloody scene that would have been. It could have happened but it did not. Overall, the Soviet break-up was remarkably peaceful and civilized, certainly when compared to the Yugoslav experience. I think the leaders of the time, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and also the Russian people, deserve credit for this. There are not many empires in history that allow themselves peacefully to disintegrate. We are all lucky that by and large the Soviet Union did.