Thursday, September 08, 2005

Intelligence Brief: Moldova

Drafted By:Federico Bordonaro

The Moldovan separatist state of Trans-Dniester is increasingly at the center of a major geopolitical battle between Russia and the E.U.-U.S. combine in Eastern Europe. Situated between Ukraine and Moldova, Trans-Dniester proclaimed its independence in 1992. Although formally dependent upon Chisinau, the region is actually controlled by Moscow, which maintains its 14th Division (over 1,400 troops) in the Trans-Dniestrian territory. Washington would like an "orange revolution" -- of the kind that recently occurred in Georgia and Ukraine -- to take place in the separatist state to expunge Russian influence there.

A Russia-Moldova quarrel is, therefore, inevitable. Behind the dispute, the battle for Eastern Europe is once again emerging.

Moldovan Geopolitical Issues

Moldova, an independent state since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., is actually the old czarist region of Bessarabia without its southern part -- Budjak, which is now part of Ukraine -- which once gave it access to the Black Sea. Trans-Dniester (the region east of the Dniester River) has a population of over 700,000, the majority of whom are of Ukrainian and Russian descent (whereas ethnic Moldovans speak a Romanian dialect). This separatist state raises permanent concerns among European diplomats both because of its destabilizing effects on Moldova and because it functions as a smuggling hub in Southeastern Europe.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chisinau and Kiev signed a treaty to regulate their disputes. Ukraine would renounce its claims to Trans-Dniester and Chisinau to Budjak. After the recent pro-Western turn in Ukraine, however, the Trans-Dniestrian state increased in geopolitical importance and in its potential destabilizing effect for Russian influence in Southeastern Europe.

Since its independence, Moldova has tried to follow the example of Romania by progressively matching the requested criteria for admission into the European Union. The European Union is perceived by Chisinau as the best guarantee against both Moscow's and Bucharest's hegemonic drives on its soil. Moreover, E.U. membership for the former Warsaw Pact states mean entry into N.A.T.O. Almost all the new elites in Eastern Europe consider that a double security guarantee (N.A.T.O. plus the E.U.) is the best solution for coping with regional threats.

As a consequence, a pro-E.U. Ukraine immediately formed a Western-oriented axis with Moldova to the detriment of Russian interests. Therefore, maintaining a solid grip on Trans-Dniester is Russia's strategy to avoid being expelled from the region.

Moscow's strategy has been to back Trans-Dniestrian President Igor Smirnov's request for national independence, rejecting the regional autonomy solution proposed by Chisinau. Russian decision-makers believe that an independent Trans-Dniester would be a solid Russian rampart against Western penetration.

As Ukraine borders Trans-Dniester, Kiev's new president Viktor Yushchenko and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin formally asked the E.U. in June 2005 to help the two states collectively monitor the Ukrainian-Trans-Dniestrian frontier. This move infuriated Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who sees it as a maneuver to progressively wipe out Moscow's influence from Trans-Dniester.

On July 22, however, the Moldovan parliament voted a law intended to give Trans-Dniester a higher degree of autonomy. Chisinau hopes to pave the way for reconciliation with the separatist state without losing its sovereignty over it. By pursuing this strategy, it hopes to receive support from the European Union. In fact, although the current majority in Moldova is neo-communist, its policy is overtly pro-Western and aimed at joining the E.U.

Once again, as in the case of Ukraine in December 2004, the E.U. and the U.S. appear to be working together in Eastern Europe against fundamental Russian interests, whereas such cooperation is far more difficult on other issues such as Iraq. Brussels needs to secure the entire corridor from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and cannot afford to inherit a potentially explosive conflict such as the Trans-Dniestrian issue (with Russian implication).

Henceforth, the Russo-Moldovan dispute is to be read also in light of the recent confrontation between a Russo-Belarusian combine against a Polish-inspired enhanced cooperation group formed by Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Georgia. These latter states, backed by the U.S., are working together to form a liberal "vertical axis" from the Baltic to the Black Sea in order to facilitate oil and gas transport from Kazakhstan and Caspian sources to Eastern and Northern Europe without passing through Belarus. [See: "The Poland-Belarus Controversy and the Battle for Eastern Europe"]

A pro-Western Moldova, integrated into the E.U. and with a settled Trans-Dniestrian conflict, would be of great help for such a regional project. Moreover, Moldovan stability is also in the interests of other European states such as Italy, whose small and medium-sized business enterprises have established important production and commercial ties with the former Soviet country.

The Bottom Line

After the battle for Ukraine, and the quarrels over Belarus, look for Moldova to be the next epicenter of the U.S.-Russia geopolitical conflict in Eastern Europe. Security and energy issues go hand in hand in the region, and a new setback in a traditionally pro-Moscow region would be disastrous for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As parliamentary elections in Trans-Dniester approach -- scheduled for December 2005 -- the social split between pro-Moldovan and pro-independence citizens in the region is likely to worsen.

Independent of the election's outcome, expect the European Union to back Moldovan efforts to resolve the Trans-Dniestrian question, and the U.S. to seek to ensure that this process marks the end of Russian predominance in the region.


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