Federalization Experiment in Moldova


Vladimir Socor, August, 2002,



Volume 1, Issue 4 --
July 16, 2002


At a five-party meeting on July 2-3, ambassadors of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe officially submitted to Moldova and secessionist Transnistria a project to federalize Moldova, under joint mediation and guarantees by Moscow, Kyiv and the OSCE. The full text was published by the government newspapers Moldova Suverana and Nezavisimaya Moldova on July 9.

The project is in the form of a draft agreement, to be signed by: Moldova and Transnistria, as contracting parties to the federation-in-the-making; and by Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE as mediators in the negotiations and guarantors of the agreement's observance in the future. This group would, in effect, arbitrate federalized Moldova's institutional and security arrangements.

The draft agreement represents the most detailed proposal ever offered for settling this decade-old, Moscow-engineered conflict. Throughout these years, Russia and Transnistria had proposed solutions that would have dismembered Moldova in order to create a semi-legalized state of Transnistria and perpetuate Russia's military presence there. Neighboring Ukraine, though aware of the potential security risks to itself from this Russian military exclave, did precious little to help settle the conflict on terms consistent with Moldova's sovereignty and international legal standards. Western diplomacy neither generated specific political proposals on settling this conflict, nor seriously tackled the egregious violations of the rights of Transnistria's native population by the mainly nonnative ruling minority. For their part, Moldova's weak authorities long failed to defend their own state's interests with any consistency vis-a-vis Tiraspol and Moscow.

It is, therefore, a tribute to the OSCE's Chisinau mission under its current American chief, Ambassador David Swartz, that a comprehensive draft agreement has at long last been issued as a basis for serious discussion on settling the conflict. This document is, however, a composite product of divergent interests that try to present an appearance of unity. It consists of two distinct parts: first, Moldova's federalization; and second, a Russia-Ukraine-OSCE mechanism to arbitrate and guarantee the settlement. Turning Moldova into a federation is conceptually legitimate in the contemporary, post-nation-state Europe. This experiment might ultimately prove successful on its merits. But failure is certain if the federation's functioning and its security are--as the draft agreement envisages--to be guaranteed by that peculiar tripartite mechanism, especially if Russian troops are allowed to stay on as "peacekeepers".



The document lists Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE--in that order--as guarantors of the agreement's observance, once it is signed. It also empowers them to mediate any differences between Moldova and Transnistria in the post-signature period. No time limit is set on this guardianship, and no provision is made for adding members to this tripartite group, from which Western countries and neighboring Romania are absent. The tripartite group would oversee the implementation of the Moldova-Transnistria agreement, which in turn would enjoy precedence over Moldova's federal constitution and legislation and those of the federation's units.

The draft agreement would thus place a federalized Moldova, internally and externally, under joint oversight by Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE: a dysfunctional, unprecedented and anachronistic solution. First, it lacks balance, because OSCE decisions and actions are subject to Russia's veto power within the OSCE itself. Russia enjoys double representation in the tripartite group: directly in its own right, and indirectly through the OSCE. Western powers are, however, represented only indirectly, and their initiatives can at any time be overruled by the Russian side in the tripartite group in Chisinau or in the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna. Moreover, among the three designated guarantors, Russia alone can--it already does--wield strong economic levers and local personnel networks to secure a preeminent political position in Moldova.

Second, the absence of Western countries from this mediating/guarantor group is both unnatural and unexplained. It stands in contrast to the growing role of the main Western powers--alongside Russia, and counterbalancing it--as mediators in the Abkhazia and Karabakh conflicts. In Moldova, meanwhile, Russia has for almost a decade successfully blocked any direct role by Western countries as mediators or peacekeepers. Such exclusion not only bucks recent international trends, but reflects Moscow's hopes of establishing a sphere of influence through exploitation of local conflicts and "peacekeeping" operations. There are, however, no valid legal, political, security, geographic or "ethnic" reasons for Moscow to exercise droits de regard over independent Moldova. The one "historic" justification for that would stem from Tsarist and Soviet military conquests--a rationale not accepted in any post-Soviet country, though embraced precisely in such places as Transnistria or Abkhazia.

Third, an international oversight body so weighted toward the East can undercut Moldova's few, embattled Western-oriented political forces. With Russia and Ukraine in the guarantor group, and the European Union and/or NATO countries out, it may become even harder to sustain either the non-communist Moldovans' European choice, or indeed the EU's painfully gestating policy toward its new "direct neighborhood" to the east.

Fourth, as a direct participant in the Transnistria armed conflict, Russia had ab initio forfeited a "peacekeeper's" title by any internationally accepted definition. Given its military and political ambitions in Moldova, neither does Russia qualify as arbiter of Moldova's internal arrangements. On the other hand, Moscow's actual presence and capacity for playing spoiler must be taken into account, necessitating its involvement in the international mechanism for conflict resolution --- whether in Transnistria, Abkhazia or Karabakh. But if such involvement translates into Russian preeminence--as seems uniquely to be the case in the Russia-Ukraine-OSCE trio in Moldova--then Moscow's spoiler and manipulative potential would persist, and even acquire new forms, instead of being reined in.

Fifth, Ukraine's involvement, while useful in several respects, does not in any way or degree offset Russia's influence in the tripartite mechanism for Moldova. There, Kyiv's policy has all along been passive and basically deferential to Moscow. The Ukraine-Russia relationship is fraught with enough controversial issues, as well as fluctuating in accordance with Ukraine' electoral cycles. Consequently, Kyiv can not be expected to act as counterweight to Moscow in Transnistria. This is also why Moscow accepted Ukraine's inclusion in the mediating/guarantor trio, and said it would accept some Ukrainian troops in the Russian-led "peacekeeping" in Transnistria, while rejecting Western troops. For its part, since last September, Ukraine is hurting its own interests as well as Moldova's through collusion in Transnistria's unlawful trading operations. Those defy the European Union's policy and the World Trade Organization's rules, even as Ukraine aspires to join those institutions.

Sixth, the mediating/guarantor group excludes Romania, one of Moldova's two neighbor countries. Romania had as a matter of course been a member of the initial, quadripartite mechanism, but was dropped at Russian insistence. Later, Russia accepted the inclusion of Ukraine as a neighbor to Moldova and in consideration of Moldova's Ukrainian minority (14 percent overall, 28 percent in Transnistria). Romania's title to participation is, however, equally valid as a neighbor country, and even more persuasive on the grounds of kinship with Moldova's majority population (65 percent overall, 41 percent in Transnistria). For its part, Bucharest has all along demonstrated its restraint by not seeking membership in the mediating/guarantor group, because no one wants to irritate Moscow and infuriate Tiraspol.

Meanwhile, Russia being approximately 1,000 kilometers away invokes some vague geopolitical justifications, and points to Moldova's Russian minority (12 percent overall, 26 percent in Transnistria), to claim a a special role in "peacekeeping" and in the political settlement of the conflict. That Moscow was at the origin of this conflict and retains troops in place is, however, its single strongest trump card. This also partly explains Moscow's ability all along to rule countries in or out of the mediating group, and in or out of an internationalized peacekeeping operation still under discussion.



A great deal will depend on how the existing Russian "peacekeeping" operation--which lacks any international mandate--is reconfigured. Under the draft agreement, Moldova and Transnistria--not Russia and the OSCE, though they are the main drafters--would "agree to the presence of OSCE-led peacekeeping troops for a transitional period."The document says nothing" about the composition of that force or the duration of its presence. These are to be set by separate agreement, to be signed simultaneously with the agreement on Moldova's federalization at an unspecified time. The use of the word "presence" (prisutstvie)--not introduction (vvedenie), and not deployment (razvertyvanie)--confirms yet again that Moscow wants part of its troops to remain in Moldova and be legitimized by an OSCE mandate, thus evading the unconditional obligation to the OSCE to withdraw all the Russian troops from Moldova by December 2002. Hoping to force the OSCE's hand through faits accomplis, Russia simply does nothing to withdraw its remaining 2,600 troops and their equipment from Moldova. It is evidently trying to bargain for a cosmetic, rather than real internationalization of its peacekeeping operation.



Transnistria has its own, 7,000-strong army, part of whose personnel came through transfer from Russia's forces and/or are Russia's citizens, and which is more combat-capable than Moldova's army. Under the draft federalization agreement, the two armies are to be unified on an unspecified basis, at the end of a transitional period of unspecified length. During this period, the two armies are to reduce their manpower--Moldova has already done this unilaterally--and are also to take mutual confidence-building steps, such as preannouncing their movements and exercises, and sending observers to exercises. Transnistria's army had until now been viewed internationally as an unlawful force. Now, this document introduces an equivalency between two armies within Moldova in advance of federalization.

While mutual confidence-building measures are spelled out, however, the framework and timescale of military unification seem up in the air. Tiraspol will likely try use the open-ended transitional period to legitimize the continued existence of its own army. This could thwart the federalization project and enable Transnistria to fall back on its "confederal" scheme, by which it means two full-fledged states with distinct armies and two security establishments within Moldova.

Moreover, the draft agreement says nothing about getting rid of Transnistria 's notoriously brutal, criminally tainted, oversized and pervasive security services. Thus, major uncertainties and omissions mark the draft agreement's "military guarantees" section.



Under the "political guarantees", Moldova and Transnistria will "work out" mutually acceptable procedures for bringing into effect [Moldova's] international agreements that involve Transnistria's interests."It brings back a provision that Moscow and Tiraspol had imposed on Chisinau in the 1990s that had allowed Tiraspol to participate in Moldova's foreign policy decisions precisely "on issues that involve Transnistria's interests". Almost any issue can, however, be interpreted that way. Tiraspol proceeded to do this, demanding an eastward reorientation of Moldova's policies, and citing Chisinau's refusal as a fresh pretext for Transnistria's secession. The tactic did not much matter as long as Tiraspol itself had opted out of Chisinau's decision-making processes. Now, however, it may gain some leverage, if Moldova's capacity to observe international agreements were to depend on finding "mutually acceptable procedures" with Transnistria. This condition can lead to stalemate. It may even give Tiraspol an incentive to disagree with Chisinau and contrive that stalemate for either strategic or tactical reasons; and certainly a lever to block pro-Western moves by Chisinau in the future.



Regarding the political institutions of a federalized Moldova, the draft agreement apparently draws inspiration both from European and Russian models. While enshrining the "integrity and inviolability of Moldova's territory" and "Moldova's state sovereignty over its entire territory," the draft agreement envisages the setting up of "state-territorial formations" in Moldova, as components of a federal state.

Such state-territorial formations within Moldova will have their own constitutions and legislations, elective legislative assemblies, appointive executive bodies and law enforcement authorities. The federal center and the state-territorial formations are to negotiate the precise delimitation of their respective powers. Under the draft agreement, the federal center's competencies shall include--as is usual in federal states--foreign policy, defense, state security, border protection, citizenship, criminal justice, the energy and transport infrastructure, currency emission, customs, internal market regulation, state property management, and the arms trade.

All of these powers Transnistria had seized by force with Russian support in 1992, and it exercises them unlawfully to this day. It would lose them, however, if and when this agreement goes into effect as presently formulated. The document envisages transitional periods of unspecified duration before Moldova's currency, customs, commercial legislation and a host of other federal systems and functions become operational in Transnistria.

The federal center and the state-territorial formations will share, notably, the competencies that involve the protection of human and civic rights and the rights of ethnic minorities. This feature reflects two factors: first, the relatively higher proportion of ethnic minorities in parts of the planned "state-territorial formations;" and, second, the late-Soviet and post-Soviet tendency everywhere among nontitular ethnic groups to single out ethnic minority "rights" from the broad range of human rights, often to the point of identifying the former with the latter.

Moldova's state-territorial formations are to enjoy a broad range of local competencies. But the federal constitution and federal laws are to have binding force on Moldova's entire territory. Any legal disputes between state-territorial formations and the federal center, or among state-territorial formations, are to be settled in the courts. The draft agreement does not, however, specify the procedures for such settlement.

On the politically explosive issue of language, the document stipulates that the state language is "Moldovan" in the Latin script throughout the country. This provision might rescue that language and that script in Transnistria from systematic suppression. State-territorial formations will be entitled to using locally spoken languages as "official languages", alongside the state language, in these formations' legislative and executive bodies, courts and schools. In Transnistria, durable Soviet Russification and present Russian minority control would ensure that the Russian "official language" prevails against the Moldovan language, unless the Moldovan state itself protects the language and its speakers there.


In place of the existing unicameral parliament, the federal state will have a bicameral one, with a Legislative Chamber elected in the country at large, and a Representative Chamber for the state-territorial formations. The Representative Chamber will have the power, with a simple majority of its members, to veto laws enacted by the Legislative Chamber. The latter can only have the last word on a two-thirds majority. The draft agreement does not set a target date for elections to the federal parliament and the state-territorial formations' legislatures. But the document seems to hint an early move by setting the total number of seats in the planned bicameral parliament at 101.

That is precisely the number of seats in the current, unicameral parliament, elected in February 2001, expiring in 2005, and which the Communists would want to perpetuate because they hold more than 70 seats in it. With the Communist Party's poll ratings currently record-high, its leaders may well be tempted to schedule elections for the new parliament soon, before the popularity erodes. A timely, mid-term move should achieve reelection of the incumbent majority for another four-year term, also redistributing that majority between the two chambers. In Transnistria, any free elections to the federal Representative Chamber and to the state-territorial formation's legislature would probably result in a victory of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin's supporters over those of secessionist leaders Igor Smirnov and Vladimir Antyufeyev. A federalization deal with the latter group would simply allow it to continue in its old rogue ways and cement its power. This is one reason why Voronin has, almost a year ago, discontinued his negotiations with Smirnov, and never resumed them.

The draft agreement names only one state-territorial formation--Transnistria. It implies that Moldova's heartland would form another state-territorial formation. But it does not mention the existing Autonomous Territorial Unit Gagauz-Yeri (Gagauzia), where some have long called for Moldova's federalization on the basis of three coequal components: Transnistria, Gagauzia, and rump Moldova. On July 10, predictably, Gagauzia's Popular Assembly [the autonomy's legislature] demanded for Gagauz-Yeri the upgraded status of a state-territorial formation and full participation in the negotiations toward federalizing Moldova. Also unmentioned in the draft agreement is the Taraclia county, created through gerrymandering only a few years ago as a Bulgarian-majority unit, and in which similar calls may now arise for the first time.



Ultimately, the success or failure of the project to federalize Moldova will directly hinge on three external factors. First, the composition of the mediator/guarantor group, which must have American and European representation. Second, the West's handling of the issue of Russian troops, whose continued presence after December 2002 would--unless offset by others--damage the credibility of all concerned, let alone that of the federalization project. And, third, the degree of international engagement in ridding Transnistria of its Moscow-bequeathed army and security services.

Transnistria's present rulers are, all, citizens of the Russian Federation, many of them holding ranks in Russia's security services and military, and propped up by Moscow from 1991 to date. President Vladimir Putin may soon conclude that clients like these--inveterately sovietophile, and in league with Russia's Red-Brown opposition--embarrass him internationally, much as the Belarusan dictator does. In that case, Putin might any time pension off the ageing Smirnov team, and bring a replacement team with a more humane face. Whether with Smirnov or with Kremlin-picked substitutes, a federalization agreement would be a travesty of federalism. For its part, Moldova's electorate and incumbent leadership seem able to dislodge the Smirnov regime in free elections, as soon as such can be held in Transnistria.