Despite the efforts of the international community, the Transdnistrian problem appears beyond settlement. Nor was it helped by the initiative to resolve it “through democracy,” as proposed by the president of Ukraine on April 22, 2005, and commonly known as the “Yushchenko Plan.” This plan offered hopes for regulating Transdnistria’s status because the initiative was approved by Chisinau and Tiraspol.
But after Ukraine instituted new customs clearance procedures on March 3, 2006, which require Moldovan customs clearance documents for freight, particularly cargo from Transdnistria, the negotiating process ground to a halt. The Ukrainian side does not intend to cancel the new customs procedures on the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, despite sharp criticism from Tiraspol. During his meeting with EU Special Representative for Moldova, Ambassador Adrian Jakobovits de Szeged, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Borys Tarasiuk assured him that Ukraine would maintain its consistent and unchanged stand on the Transdnistrian settlement issue: a peaceful resolution of the problem while preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova, and granting special status to the Transdnistrian region.
Prior to this meeting Jakobovits de Szeged gave an interview to The Day about what the European Union expects from Ukraine within the framework of the Transdnistrian issue. The EU special representative also presented Brussels’ views on the solution to the problem, Russia’s possible role, and what could encourage Tiraspol to sit down at the negotiating table with Chisinau.
The referendum that took place in Transdnistria this fall indicates that the majority of the population wants to live apart from Moldova and to join Russia. A referendum was also held in Serbia in the issue of the constitution that determines the status of Kosovo as part of Serbia. How are these events affecting the settlement of the Transdnistrian conflict?
Szeged: We believe that the problems of Kosovo and Transdnistria cannot be compared. Kosovo does not have ethnic and religious problems. Also, the Kosovo problem is being resolved by the Security Council where Russia has a vote. Therefore, comparing these situations would be totally incorrect because this would lead to wrong conclusions.
How can the Transdnistrian situation evolve?
Szeged: All the sides that are intensively dealing with the Transdnistrian problem (Russia, Ukraine, the US, OSCE, EU) agree that every effort should be made to restore Moldova’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, along with granting Transdnistria special status within the framework of a united Moldova. To do so, two partners, Chisinau and Tiraspol, must sit down at the negotiating table. An agreement on special status for Transdnistria cannot be reached without uniting Moldova and delimiting the jurisdiction between Chisinau and Tiraspol. Therefore, we all believe that the main thing now is to bring these sides together.
Everyone agrees with this except Transdnistria, which is refusing to meet in the 5+1 format. This is very bad. They have set a course on independence and unification with Russia, which has made it clear that it is not interested in making Transdnistria part of its territory. The Transdnistrian government wants to be independent, but no one recognizes Transdnistria’s independence.
The international community adheres to the principle of territorial integrity. Tiraspol’s current policy is a dead end for Transdnistria. On top of this, a presidential campaign is being organized in this unrecognized republic. This is naive. No one will recognize its presidency. Today everyone must join efforts to return Transdnistria to the negotiating table.
Is there a chance of this? There was a recent attempt to start talks on Transdnistria in Odesa.
Szeged: Yes, such an attempt was made, but we couldn’t persuade the sides to sit down at the negotiating table. Transdnistria does not want such negotiations. They are proposing many conditions. It is always bad to insist on conditions before starting talks. One of their main conditions is freedom of foreign trade relations. We all support Transdnistrian businesspeople and are helping them establish contacts abroad so that they can conduct such foreign trade activities. They are already taking advantage of these opportunities.
Whether the Transdnistrian government is competent enough to conduct such activities is another matter. This question has to be discussed and resolved within the framework of settling the Transdnistrian issue. This cannot be done outside such a settlement. The Transdnistrian leadership must realize that it is proposing unrealistic conditions that will thwart the start of any talks.
Did you come to Kyiv to secure the Ukrainian government’s support?
Szeged: Yes, the purpose of my visit is to see what we can do to resume talks between Chisinau and Tiraspol. Moldova and Ukraine instituted a new system of border checkpoints and customs control this past March, which ensure normal procedures on the Ukrainian- Moldovan border. The new system compels both countries to play the game by the rules. Now it is important for both sides to maintain this border control system. There is also an EU mission monitoring the Ukrainian-Moldovan procedures. It is a very good system. In fact, even Transdnistria admits that it works. Cooperation between border guard and customs authorities in both countries is gaining momentum.
We hope that two information exchange protocols will be signed by Moldova and Ukraine next week. The signing of these protocols by the customs authorities of both countries will allow the online exchange of data relating to customs declarations. Customs inspectors will be instantly informed about the type of cargo crossing the border and its value. This will put an end to rampant fraudulent practices on the border, like understating the value of goods, thus reducing customs duties being forwarded to the treasuries of both countries. In Ukraine such budgetary losses can amount to tens and hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Thanks to this information system, customs officials can immediately determine the value of cargo or goods.
The other protocol will be signed between the Ukrainian and Moldovan border guard authorities. If a car crossing the border is deemed suspicious by the checkpoint officers on one side, they can instantly receive the necessary data from their colleagues on the other side. Improving cooperation between the border guard authorities is very important for maintaining a normal border regime and will earn each country a lot of money.
Do you need any guarantees from the new Ukrainian government concerning the preservation and implementation of the norms of the current border regime that the Transdnistrian leadership dislikes so much?
Szeged: The new government has repeatedly stressed that it will retain the current border regime. Last time I met with First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who assured me that the regime would remain unchanged. Since then no questions have been raised along these lines. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych also confirmed in Brussels that the current border regime would be maintained. Any country is interested in a proper border regime that brings in revenue. As we all know, contraband means revenue losses.
Viewed on a broader scale, what means can be adopted to settle the Transdnistrian conflict?
Szeged: First and foremost, we must adopt a single position and issue clear-cut declarations. We have announced in no uncertain words that Transdnistrian independence is out of the question. Ukraine and the EU made this statement after the Soviet-style referendum was held. Ninety-seven percent in favor does not sound serious. Besides, there are no democratic conditions in Transdnistria. Transdnistria must be democratized, democratic conditions must be introduced — above all there must be free media and freedom of political parties and the secret services must be either liquidated or reformed. Transdnistria is a kind of museum of the Soviet Union. This is a very peculiar society; it is lagging behind the times. Therefore, we must make it clear that such antiquity no longer exists in Europe.
How can Transdnistria be democratized?
Szeged: Ukraine and Moldova have proposed that the OSCE organize an evaluation mission in Transdnistria to determine the state of democracy and provide recommendations on what has to be changed in this unrecognized republic in order to hold free and fair parliamentary elections. This mandate was proposed by the OSCE and approved by all sides except Transdnistria. Since they are preparing for a presidential campaign, Tiraspol is probably not interested in accommodating this evaluation mission. I hope that next year, when all this will be over, we will be able to continue work in this direction.
I believe that most people in Transdnistria realize that this is a backward way of life and that changes are in order. We must make it perfectly clear to the Transdnistrian leadership that it has no right to secede from Moldova. There is nothing in international law that allows Transdnistria’s secession. This country can be divided only if all sides agree. There are many examples like this: Czechoslovakia, Serbia, and Montenegro. There is no law anywhere in the world allowing unilateral separation. There is no such legal framework, so we must make the Transdnistrian leaders realize that they should forget about it. Transdnistria must also realize the advantages of the right to conduct lawful trade transactions and have legitimate business structures in Moldova. Businesspeople who register in Chisinau understand this.
Transdnistrian leaders usually claim that a good plan is necessary for settling this conflict.
Szeged: There are many plans available. What we don’t lack is plans. We’ve spent 12 years doing nothing but discuss plans. More plans could be proposed. But we don’t need new plans. The Moldovans must say which way they are prepared to resolve this conflict. In other words, a solution is to be proposed not by the OSCE but by Chisinau and Tiraspol. Sometimes the impression is that someone else, not Moldova, must solve this problem. This is wrong. They must solve it themselves by working out a plan. We, as intermediaries and observers, can help them by suggesting go-betweens and observers, but the bulk of the work must be done by Chisinau and Tiraspol. First, they have to sit down at the negotiating table.
What role can (and must) Russia play in settling the Transdnistrian problem? It has a great deal of influence on Transdnistria. Why doesn’t Moscow want to pressure Tiraspol to make the Transdnistrian leadership understand that it must play by these rules?
Szeged: I agree that Russia can play a very important role in this process. I have always stressed during negotiations with my Russian colleagues, “You declare that Moldova must have territorial integrity and sovereignty, yet at the same time you’re providing the Transdnistrian regime with a great deal of support.” This regime feels very comfortable and is trying to conduct its own policy. I use every opportunity to ask the Russians, “Have can you combine these two things? We all agree that the country’s territorial integrity is the main thing. If so, let us translate this policy into life.”
Some experts believe that changes in Transdnistria will become a possibility when new leaders come to power. When do you think the leadership of this unrecognized republic will be rejuvenated?
Szeged: I don’t know. That is for the Transdnistrians to decide. We see that the new movement Obnovlenie has obtained the majority of seats on the Supreme Council, but I don’t know what this Obnovlenie is struggling for. Today it is possible to infer that they are campaigning for the reduction of powers vested in the president of Transdnistria and for an increase of those vested in parliament. So far they have not succeeded. I don’t know how far they will go and how democratic Transdnistria will become. We feel that its businesspeople want to do business with the EU and are against the borders being closed by their own leaders, as has been the case since March 2006; this situation has led to considerable losses for Transdnistrian businessmen. If the government controls the media, it is easy to convince most people that the blockade is being orchestrated by Ukraine. Yet the government cannot convince the Transdnistrian businesspeople that this is really the case because they know the situation from their own experience. Businessmen are following their own road by getting registered in Chisinau.
I don’t know what course events will take. It is important for us to maintain the new customs procedures and guarantee businesspeople an opportunity to establish contacts with foreign partners and to legally export their goods. We must keep track of the development of a civil society in Transdnistria. We must foster freedom of its media and progress of a democratic society that will take its due place in Europe.
Do you think that Moldova is doing enough to convince the Transdnistrians of the advantages of living within the boundaries of a single country?
Szeged: I think that the advantages of belonging to a large economy and European space are very important for such a potentially rich country as Moldova, including Transdnistria. This does not mean that its economic figures will not have contacts with Russia or other parts of the world. Still, they will belong to a country that will eventually become part of one big European market; this is a great advantage for an advanced industrial society. Transdnistrian businesspeople are aware of this. Moldova has to accomplish a lot to become attractive, with freedom of the press, an independent judicial system, without a secret police tasked with persecuting people. Changes in Chisinau and on the right bank of the Dniester River are taking place in the direction of European society. This is a very important implementation of the Action Plan that we have with Moldova and Ukraine. The right bank of the Dniester will become more attractive when it starts evolving in this direction.
What do you think of the articles and other publications in the Romanian press about how much the annexation of Moldova could cost Romania?
Szeged: This subject is out of the question. Romanian politicians do not espouse the goal of joining Moldova to their country. Romania has officially recognized Moldova’s territorial integrity. Of course, contacts with the neighboring republic are felt in Romania, but there is no concept of a Greater Romania including Moldova among reasonable politicians. On the other hand, Moldova also wants to feel different from Romania. They speak Moldovan in Moldova. In addition, Chisinau is trying to find its place in Europe as a separate country. This is understandable to everyone, including Romania. There may be Romanians who dream of a Greater Romania. Let them dream, but the Romanian government has a different concept.
You are the EU’s special representative to Moldova. How long will you stay in this post to fulfill the task of resolving the Transdnistrian problem?
Szeged: I hope not for the rest of my life, maybe for several years more. It is a long-term process, but I hope that it won’t last another 12 years. I believe that it will take less time. My goal is to achieve progress in 16 months, starting from today.