Border Issues Undermine Moldova’s EU Association Bid

June 27, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

Notwithstanding the hasty patching together of a shaky coalition government under Iurie Leancă, Moldova’s prospects for initialing an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union (EU) at the Vilnius summit in November remain questionable. Now at issue is an emerging border dispute, most importantly renewed tensions with Pridnestrovie (Приднестровская Молдавская Республика, or the PMR), the self-declared republic claimed by Moldova.

The credibility of Chișinău’s bid for closer ties with the EU was already thrown in doubt by the complicity of top justice officials in a suspicious shooting death in December 2012, the March 2013 collapse of its three-party “pro-Europe” coalition, the April ouster of the parliamentary speaker (with Communist Party cooperation), and the May reemergence of the Communists as kingmaker in Moldovan politics. Nevertheless, with little else to show in the face of the manifest failure of the EU’s so-called “Eastern Partnership” (EaP), some European capitals still hope to salvage some dignity by marking the progress of a country once held up as the EaP’s showcase.

A budding border dispute with Tiraspol does nothing to bolster Chișinău’s chances. The EU already was wary of getting mixed up in further unresolved territorial issues following Cyprus’s admission without first solving the problem of the Turkish occupation of the island’s north (the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)” – recognized only by Turkey), and facing the looming issue of accession talks with Serbia and its province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but which almost half of the world’s countries (including five EU members, as well as Moldova and Ukraine) refuse to recognize.

Last week Moldova’s parliament was set to approve a border treaty with Romania as well as a military cooperation accord. That development was complicated by the signing by Pridnestrovie’s President Yevgeny Shevchuk of a law defining the PMR’s territory to include areas on the right (western) bank of the river Dniester, including some villages controlled by Chișinău. In late April, violence broke out between residents of the Chișinău-controlled village of Varnița and Pridnestrovien authorities over newly-installed checkpoints between the village and the west bank city of Bendery – to which Tiraspol has proposed to relocate the PMR’s legislature.

In addition to complicating Moldova’s AA aspirations, the eruption of border issues poses a renewed threat to finding a sustainable, non-violent resolution to Pridnestrovie’s status in line with applicable legal principles. Recent developments and moves by both sides have only complicated the task of the so-called “5 + 2” negotiations (Moldova, Pridnestrovie, Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], plus observers from the United States and the European Union) to find such a resolution to this longstanding “frozen conflict.” One possibility that should not be ruled out would be granting special status to Pridnestrovie within a federalized Moldova, which by definition would entail the PMR’s acceptance of Moldovan sovereignty. But if acceptable at all, that arrangement would have to be based on the right of the people of Pridnestrovie to determine their future independently if Moldova takes an unacceptable direction in its relationship with the EU, with NATO, and most particularly in the direction of union with Romania.

Indeed, prospects for initialing the AA with Moldova, and its companion Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), can be seen as having pushed the border issue to the forefront. While the EU and Moldova formally and publically claim that the AA and DCFTA would “cover the whole territory of Moldova” with “no special provisions” for Pridnestrovie, in practice Moldova would be expected by the EU to erect what amount to full border and customs controls to exclude Pridnestrovie:

“By including Transnistria [Pridnestrovie] in the free trade area, the EU would knowingly create a ‘hole’ in its customs border by opening up the possibility that goods produced outside the DCFTA could freely enter the EU market. This is because Chisinau would not be able to inspect Transnistrian manufacturers in order to enforce the so-called Rules of Origin, which are designed to prevent the re-export of goods produced outside the DCFTA area into the EU. Consequently, the EU cannot extend DCFTA privileges to Transnistria, because it would not be able to ensure that Moldovan goods produced in Transnistria had not in fact been produced in China or Russia, for example, and only repackaged in Transnistria.” [“Could Transnistria block Moldova's integration with the EU?” Centre for Eastern Studies, 23/10/12]

Thus, Tiraspol’s moves were a response to Chișinău’s preparation to establish border and customs controls as a necessary part of its preparation for the AA and DCFTA. Paradoxically, if such controls were successfully emplaced, they would effectively create a Cyprus/TNRC or Serbia/Kosovo scenario, resulting in Pridnestrovie’s de facto independence – exactly what Chișinău says its doesn’t want!

For its part, Kiev – and particularly Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara – commendably has exercised a restraining influence. Making good use of the dual Ukrainian role as a full member of the “5 + 2,” both as Ukraine and as the OSCE (of which Kozhara is the OSCE’s current Chairman-in-office), Kiev is actively proposing constructive solutions. But even with Ukraine’s positive exertions, finding a resolution would require from both sides –Chișinăuand Tiraspol – restraint and goodwill, both of which are in short supply.

On Chișinău’s side, the instability of Leancă’s government is itself a negative factor in its inability to make any substantial deal with Tiraspol. While it would be better to wait until a new government will be formed after the parliamentary elections in Moldova in 2015, Chișinău already needs to start considering the likely contours of a possible settlement. Among the obvious ones to be considered, Moldova should back off demands for a unitary state and consider giving Pridnestrovie special status within a federalized state, of which there are a number of variations that would have to be debated. Such a position would win broad support from quarters as disparate as the U.S. government and U.S. experts, who have been urging such an arrangement (as a preferable alternative to an independent Pridnestrovie) to Moldova’s Communists, who enshrined that concept into law in 2005. (The Communists’ law on federalism is now a serious obstacle towards the political settlement with Tiraspol, which insists on independence. It is not well understood in the West the degree to which the Moldovan Communists are no less nationalistic than other parties and bear a significant share of responsibility for the ongoing stalemate. Their recent return to power is unlikely to be helpful to reaching a political solution with Pridnestrovie.)

For its part, Tiraspol needs to resist confrontational moves like relocating the PMR’s parliament to Bendery. Instead of inflaming tensions with authorities in Chișinău, Shevchuk should focus on economic development and on human rights and media freedoms, and particularly to stop muzzling the Internet to silence his critics. He also might consider where Moldovan authorities are out of step with public opinion, such as Chișinău officials’ brewing confrontation with the Orthodox Church (and the possibility of nationwide protests) over a new law prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people – part and parcel of the kind of “European standards” the EU wants to impose on unwilling Moldovans (in the name of “democracy,” of course). By taking the Church’s side, Shevchuk can show people on both sides of the Dniester that they have a lot more in common with each other than they might think, whatever state structures they ultimately agree upon.