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Russo-Ukrainian war should doom the “5+2” negotiations on Moldova’s Transnistria

T-64 tanks taking part in a military parade celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Transnistria foundation”. Tiraspol, occupied region of Transnistria, Moldova. 2 September 2015. Image: novostipmr.ru
Article by: Vladimir Socor
Source: Part 1
Source: Part 2
Source: Part 3
Source: Part 4
Russia’s war against Ukraine has dealt the coup de grâce to the “5+2” negotiations on the settlement of the conflict in Transnistria (the Russian-controlled eastern region of Moldova, – Ed.), the forum where Russia and Ukraine sit next to each other. Moscow and Kyiv have been seated formally at the top of the table, but Russia was always the dominant player by far, manipulating the 5+2 forum against Moldova’s as well as Ukraine’s interests. Western powers have conceded that role to Russia in spite of the Kremlin’s serial military interventions in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.
Map of Moldova showing the zones of a frozen military conflict with Russia in Transnistria/Transdniestria and a resolved conflict in Gagauzia.
Map of Moldova showing the zones of the frozen military conflict with Russia in Transnistria/Transdniestria and a resolved conflict in Gagauzia.

Keeping the 5+2 process alive must be deemed inconceivable after Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine. Yet, some process-addicted diplomats envisage resuscitating this same forum once the war in Ukraine subsides. They only acknowledge a temporary difficulty in “seating Russia and Ukraine together at the table again”—merely a procedural, but not a substantive obstacle.

The 5+2 forum took its present shape in 2005 when the European Union and the United States entered it as “observers”—a status inferior to that of the incumbent full members. The European Union and the United States thereby joined the construction that Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov had created in 1997 and remains in place officially to date. Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) are “mediators” of an eventual political settlement between Chișinău and Tiraspol as well as “guarantors” of the ultimate settlement. The two Western “observers” amount to little more than appendages within the 5+2 forum itself, but they can and do exert their influence outside this Russian-dominated forum.

Transnistria state emblem and flags, downtown of the city Tiraspol, occupied Transnistria, Moldova. 25 August 2020. Photo: emerging-europe.com

The Kremlin had, back in 1997, awarded Kyiv with the role of co-mediator and co-guarantor, as Russia was comfortable with a weak and vulnerable Ukraine in that role. In fact, Ukraine was never able or willing to counterbalance Russia in the 5+2 forum—all the less after itself being invaded by Russia in 2014.

Russia had, from the outset, imposed its definition of this conflict as one internal to Moldova, between two parts of that country, hoping to exempt Moscow from responsibility for igniting the conflict and occupying Transnistria. The Kremlin also imposed its strategic agenda on the 5+2 forum. Its official purpose is to devise a “special status” for Transnistria, on terms to be negotiated between Chișinău and Tiraspol as co-equal parties. Russia envisages the special status as creating a Russian-controlled statelet-within-the-state, influencing Moldova from within in Moscow’s favor. Chișinău and the “observers” find such terms unacceptable, while Russia does not accept anything else. Moreover, Russia refuses to withdraw its troops from Moldova (and disarm Transnistria) without a special status acceptable to Moscow and Tiraspol (see EDM, August 12 and 13, 2020).

The 5+2 format has perpetuated and entrenched Russia’s ground rules of the process: first, the “special status” as an immutable goal (Western participants would differ with Russia over the terms, but they accept and even promote that goal); and second, the conditional linkage between an agreement on the special status and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldovan territory. This vicious cycle—no political solution, no troop withdrawal; no troop withdrawal, no political solution—perpetuates the deadlock, to Russia’s advantage.

Moldova denied rotation of Russian troops in occupied Transnistria

Compared with the other protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, the 5+2 format is the only one in which Western powers have accepted a role inferior to Russia’s. The US and France co-chaired, with Russia, the Minsk Group on the Karabakh conflict (a forum defunct since 2020); Germany and France were equal participants with Russia and Ukraine in the Normandy Group after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine (forum defunct since late 2021–early 2022); and the US and the EU are full members alongside Russia in the Geneva International Discussions ongoing since 2008 regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see EDM, December 781213, 2022).

By contrast, in the 5+2 format, Russia holds two and a half seats: its own, Tiraspol’s, and Russia’s veto power over the OSCE—an organization that cannot make decisions or even speak on its own behalf without Russian approval. For their part, the observers in the 5+2 arrangement do not independently initiate substantive proposals on political and security issues, nor convene 5+2 meetings, but they can comment on other parties’ proposals.

Participating in the 5+2 forum for 18 years—albeit in an inferior role—the EU and US have lent it a semblance of legitimacy without being able to change its dynamics—or, rather, its stasis. Instead, they have seconded Russia’s view that this forum has no alternative. As a result, finding an alternative and more effective forum is hard to imagine, but publicly emphasizing the lack of alternatives in unison with the Kremlin amounts to encouraging the latter’s intransigence.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu. Source: eesc.europa.eu

The “5+2” forum on Transnistria was designed in 2005 based on the old model of the European Concert, updated as Euro-Atlantic: to settle a local conflict through negotiations among great powers. Similarly, the negotiating formats on the conflicts in Karabakh (1994–2020), Donbas (2014–2022), as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008 to date) also corresponded to the concert-of-powers model. Russia should have been excluded from this concert by 2014 (the initial invasion of Ukraine) at the latest, and has finally excluded itself with its re-invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The 5+2 negotiations were already in semi-hibernation before 2023. Re-convening these talks would signify Russia’s readmission to the concert of powers: at first on a local issue such as Transnistria, then potentially as a stepping stone toward comprehensive negotiations on Europe’s security architecture “together with Russia.” The Kremlin would be more than pleased to re-enter polite international company via the 5 + 2 negotiations, but it can hardly force this door open until its war against Ukraine subsides in one way or another.

The European Union and the United States entered the 5+2 format in 2005 in subordinate roles as observers and accepted the Russian “acquis” of this process wholesale: structure, semantics, procedures, goals, conditionalities, and sequenced stages. The EU and US made no known attempts at changing this forum and its operation, nor at creating an alternative forum. They even portrayed this forum as being without alternative in the same way as Russia portrayed it. And they failed to press for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria, thus failing to protect Moldova’s neutrality. For its part, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) followed this Russian-driven process or accommodated itself to it, reflecting Moscow’s overbearing influence in the organization. The international presence in the 5+2 forum, therefore, seemed to legitimize it without remedying it.

The spectre of the FSB haunts Moldova, next target of Russia’s hybrid war

The 5+2 format started operating in October 2005 when the EU and US entered it as observers, with Russia’s consent, and on Russian-defined terms. Moscow, however, suspended this forum at the political level already in February 2006, after Brussels had mandated its EU Border Assistance Mission to curb Transnistrian smuggling into Ukraine and Moldova. It was not until 2012 that the 5+2 political negotiations restarted. The meetings, until 2016, merely conserved the unresolved conflict. The seven-year suspension confirmed the incapacity of the US and EU to counter Russia in the 5+2 forum after having accepted the Kremlin’s ground rules within it.

From 2016 to 2018, the 5+2 forum turned from useless to harmful for Moldova. The OSCE’s German chairmanship in 2016, under then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, introduced the “Berlin Package” as a token (apparently a small one from Berlin’s perspective) of German ingratiation with Russia at that time. The package contained a number of “small steps” (as officially designated) at the socioeconomic level that implicitly strengthened Transnistria’s political identity. It gave Transnistria a type of car license plate for travel in Europe distinct from Moldovan license plates; recognized Tiraspol University’s diplomas as internationally valid; and acknowledged Transnistria’s “state” ownership of agricultural land, in contrast with Moldova’s legislation, which enshrines private land ownership. Those measures were implemented in 2017–2018 and remain in force to this day. The Berlin Package also included validating Transnistria’s interests in international telephony and international banking operations, both unimplemented to date (see below).

Within the 5+2 forum, the OSCE led the “small steps” process, Russia and the US supported it with alacrity and the EU merely accepted them without enthusiasm. This process was seen as a slow-speed street toward a “special status” for Transnistria, without any movement whatsoever toward the withdrawal of Russian troops. From 2016 until at least 2020, Russia, the OSCE, the US, and the EU routinely spoke of the “unity of the mediators and observers” regarding the “small steps,” measured in practice through unilateral concessions by Chișinău. The “unity of views” on the part of Western diplomacy with Russia, however, would by definition run counter to Moldova’s interests. The “small steps”—both those implemented and those pending—initiated a piecemeal “de-sovereignization” process of Moldova in Transnistria, in effect testing a conflict-resolution model at Moldova’s expense (see EDM, September 2026, 2018).

The 5+2 forum’s 2017 meeting was “successful” in that it hailed the “small steps” and the “unity” between the Russian and Western participants. The 2019 meeting, however, was the last one this forum was able to hold until now. Moldova’s pro-Western government under Maia Sandu (prime minister at that time) came to power for several months in 2019 and blocked the 5+2 meeting’s final document (protocol). Sandu took the position that Moldova cannot continue the “small steps and related processes before clarifying whether the direction of movement accorded with Moldova’s interests (see EDM, July 1722, 29 Part One and Part Two, 2019; Osce.org, October 10, 2019). This remains President Sandu’s and her government’s view to date.

Electoral cycles in Moldova in 2020 and 2021, as well as a new Moldovan leadership determined to change Chișinău’s approach to the Transnistria problem, meant that the 5+2 forum could not meet at the political-diplomatic level but only at technical levels. The forum failed to reform itself from 2020 to 2022 and has been shipwrecked by Russia’s 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, Chișinău has significantly changed its approach to the Transnistria conflict, in ways that the EU and US should support, while Russia is likely to oppose, presaging a breakdown in this forum’s indispensable virtue of “unity.”
Plenary hall at the 2021 OSCE Ministerial Council in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo: State Department/Ron Przysucha.

The European Union has recently granted Moldova the status of candidate country for EU membership (Consilium.europa.eu, June 24, 2022). By way of consequence, the security arrangements of an EU candidate country cannot be left to an organization in which Russia plays an overbearing role, as is the case with the OSCE in the Transnistria conflict. Informal discussions among European diplomats from Brussels and other capitals suggest that the EU should consider stepping into this vacant function in Moldova. The Moldovan government is currently preparing a proposal to Brussels in this regard, reportedly to include an EU presence on the ground.

Similarly, with Moldova as an EU candidate, Brussels can no longer accept an inferior role to Russia’s in international negotiations over Transnistria, as has been the case in the “5+2” forum, in which the future of EU candidate Moldova is at stake. Assuming that the EU has drawn this consequence, it will need to coordinate with the United States (an “observer” alongside the EU in the 5+2 format) to avoid rescuing this Russian-dominated forum from its current quasi-dormancy.

Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine and Moldova’s newly won EU candidate status make it untenable for the EU and the US to continue following the OSCE’s and Russia’s lead on the Transnistria conflict. Washington and Brussels had joined the OSCE’s consensus when the latter abandoned its own resolutions about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. The EU and US also followed Russia’s and the OSCE’s lead by embracing, in the 5+2 forum and elsewhere, the concept of a “special status” for Transnistria as the basis for a political settlement. For almost 20 years, therefore, the US and collectively the EU member countries passively endorsed the OSCE’s year-end ministerial statements, which had, since 2003, dropped the call for the withdrawal of Russian troops. In recent years, the EU and US had agreed on a few European issues with Russia, yet, they, nevertheless, maintained a consensus on Moldova (in tune with their “unity” in the 5+2 arrangement). Accordingly, the OSCE unanimously adopted statements calling for “a special status for Transnistria that fully guarantees the human, political, economic and social rights of the population” and “the ‘5+2’ format as the only mechanism to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable settlement” (Osce.org, December 3, 2021). Such was the wording year after year until Russia re-invaded Ukraine in 2022, which finally scuttled that unique consensus on Moldova.

Ukraine ready to help Moldova get rid of Russian occupiers in unrecognized Transnistria

The EU, a normative organization par excellence, can no longer accept that the “human, political, economic and social rights of the population“ in EU candidate Moldova be regulated and “guaranteed” with Russia’s participation. They are, instead, to be worked out by Moldova with the EU in accordance with the EU’s norms and standards.

After some hesitation, Moldova’s leaders have at long last dropped the “special status” from their comments on a political solution in Transnistria. Notably, Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu omitted this key item from his speech at the OSCE’s year-end ministerial meeting in an organization that had embraced the concept for decades (Osce.org, December 9, 2022). The inflection point in Chișinău‘s decision is hard to pinpoint because the “special status” had faded away gradually from official statements. Any reappearance of this term in Chișinău’s discourse would be a reason for concern (the Foreign Ministry was by dint of habit the slowest to abandon it).

Instead, senior Moldovan officials underscore the constitution’s definition of Moldova as a “unitary state,” fully consistent with the country’s European integration. The position had until recently been that any Transnistrian “special status” must not render Moldova dysfunctional for purposes of European integration. Such had of course been Russia’s intention; and Western powers went along with this by inertia as long as Moldova was not an EU membership candidate. What is, or can become, dysfunctional is a matter of interpretation, however. Moldova can in no way put its European integration prospects at risk by negotiating a Transnistria special status with Russia and Tiraspol.

Chișinău has also advanced to calling for the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian forces from Moldova’s territory. It no longer differentiates between Russian “peacekeeping” troops that could remain and those troops outside the peacekeeping mission that should leave. Chișinău now considers all Russian troops without distinction as an illegal presence on Moldovan territory, one that violates Moldova’s neutrality and increases security risks. President Maia Sandu asserted this at the UN General Assembly’s autumn session and Popescu at the OSCE’s annual ministerial conference (Media.un.org, September 21, 2022; and Osce.org, December 9, 2022).

The Moldovan government has adjusted its public messaging convincingly in response to the war next door and the opening of EU membership prospects. The main tenets in Chișinău’s internal and external communications with a bearing on the Transnistria conflict include (Ziarul National, January 30):

  • Moldova regards itself as belonging to the free world and is determined to integrate into it via the EU.
  • Any resolution of the “dispute” [diferendul] on Transnistria shall be peaceful, democratic, and European.
  • Transnistria’s population shall benefit from European standards of human rights as part of the settlement.
  • The demilitarization of Transnistria is a prerequisite to a political resolution, alongside democratization. (These tenets are consistent with Moldova’s 2005 law on Transnistria conflict-settlement, which bars negotiations on any political status until Russian forces withdraw from the territory.)
  • New international negotiation formats and platforms are necessary to resolve the Transnistria “dispute”; they must be instituted as soon as the Russo-Ukrainian war subsides.
  • Chișinău will remain in direct dialogue with Tiraspol to mitigate tensions and address economic problems in their mutual interests. (Chișinău sees itself as situated “in the same boat” with Tiraspol regarding Russian gas and electricity supplies, pending Moldova’s diversification measures.)
Russian and Transnistrian soldiers march together on 9 May 2016 on the streets during a military ceremony held in Tiraspol, the breakaway region of Transnistria, Moldova. Photo: Transnistrian diplomacy website, via BalkanInsight.

Russia, immersed in its war against Ukraine, does not currently have Moldova in its crosshairs, at least as long as Ukraine holds out. Russia has adopted a reactive posture regarding Moldova. The Kremlin seems to refrain from any significant initiative toward Moldova—for example, re-launching the “5+2” process on Transnistria—unless and until the course of the war in Ukraine might open that and other opportunities for Russia.

Moscow has certainly noticed Chișinău’s hopes in replacing the 5+2 format with one free from Russian control. The Kremlin’s reactions thus far have been low-key, infrequent, and voiced by mid-level officials. Thus, the Russian ambassador-at-large, Vitaly Tryapitsyn (the Foreign Ministry’s representative in the 5+2 process), has called for “reanimating this forum … as an opportunity for Russia to renew diplomatic contacts with Ukraine and with the Western countries” (RIA Novosti, September 6, 2022). This statement confirmed Russia’s hopes to use a reconvened 5+2 process as an opportunity to break out of isolation and re-enter international diplomacy with great-power status.

Russian officials continue describing the 5+2 forum as indispensable and immutable even if it is inactive at this time.

“This format, irrespective of the halt in its work, remains the only multilateral mechanism for seeking a comprehensive resolution of the Transnistria question. Alternatives to it do not come into consideration,” declared the Foreign Ministry’s CIS Affairs Department Director Aleksei Polishchuk (TASS, October 9, 2022).

And according to spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, commenting on Chișinău’s wish for alternative platforms: “We definitely disagree and regard this as an attempt to break up an internationally recognized format to resolve the Transnistria conflict” (TASS, August 2, 2022). Yet, Moscow’s sporadic comments reflect a low level of attention to this issue for the time being.

Germany is a key stakeholder in diplomatic activities around the “Transnistria conflict” but is not a participant in the 5+2 format. The European Union is supposed to represent the views of Germany and the other EU member states (outsiders to this process) in the 5+2 negotiations, but Brussels cannot do so effectively from its perch as a mere observer. Germany has therefore tried to carve out an independent role, commensurate to its weight in Europe. Berlin has consistently disclaimed any intention to substitute for, let alone compete with, the 5+2 arrangement. The disclaimers have probably aimed to reassure primarily the Russian side that Berlin would not act against Moscow’s interests.

Germany’s diplomatic involvement has taken three forms, all temporary. In 2010, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel submitted the Meseberg Memorandum to then–Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, proposing to create an EU-Russia Political and Security Committee to oversee European security affairs. The Kremlin was asked to provide a token of good faith by helping “resolve” the Transnistria conflict. Berlin, at that time, insisted that Moldova’s “federalization” was the solution, which had all along been to Russia’s liking but unacceptable to Moldova. The German proposal circumvented not only the 5+2 format but also the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as Berlin acted unilaterally without a mandate from either of them. Medvedev embraced the proposal but, most likely for that reason, President Vladimir Putin did not deign to pursue it when he returned to the presidency (see EDM, October 22October 22, 2010; March 31, 2011).

In 2016, then–German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, chairing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that year, introduced the “Berlin Package” of  “small steps,” amounting to the erosion of Moldova’s titles to sovereignty in Transnistria. Unlike Merkel in 2010, however, Steinmeier did not circumvent the 5+2 forum but acted directly through it in 2016, loading it with the “small steps” agenda for the ensuing years.

For an extended period, the German government hosted the “Bavarian Conference” process, which involved informal meetings of fairly large delegations from Chișinău and Tiraspol. The meetings were held in various Bavarian localities behind closed doors. The German government took the position that these meetings were held under the OSCE’s auspices and that they were linked with the 5+2 process. In practice, however, the German government was in every respect in charge of these meetings, acting in a full-fledged mediator’s role. This format fostered the impression of political equivalence between the Moldovan government and the unrecognized Tiraspol authorities. The Bavarian Conference process had to be suspended in 2019, sine die, for the same reasons as the 5+2 process: back-to-back Moldovan electoral cycles culminating in the advent to power of pro-Western forces.

The 5+2 forum has been a major success for Russian diplomacy during the 14 years of its active operation (2005–2019). It should be allowed to fade away quietly as it cannot be fixed. Russia designed it as a process not for conflict resolution, but for conflict conservation, namely on Russian terms. Various interested parties—particularly Moldovan governments in years past—complained that the 5+2 process was “dysfunctional” and “ineffective.” Such complaints were naive. This forum functioned quite effectively for its Russian-designed purpose of “freezing” the conflict—as well as freezing any resolution on terms that would have been compatible with Moldova’s statehood and its European integration.

This format cannot be redeemed by upgrading the roles of the EU and the United States from observers to full-fledged members. This sort of repair was already undertaken in 2005 when Russia allowed the EU and US to enter the forum as observers. These Western actors joined the Russian-designed structure and ground rules. They legitimized it without affecting it. Instead, they adapted themselves to it, ultimately touting the Western-Russian “unity of views” in the 5+2 forum.

Moldova and Ukraine are now candidate countries for EU membership. This requires emancipating these two countries from conflict-resolution formats and security arrangements that include Russia. Accepting Russia back into these formats would block the European integration path for both countries. It would also open the door for Russia’s return to the European concert with destructive implications continent-wide. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy understands those implications and has accordingly proposed a transformative concept for Ukrainian and Euro-Atlantic security, excluding Russia from participation (see EDM, December 16, 2022).

The Moldovan government understands this, as does Kyiv, but Chișinău is at peace (at least for now) and the government is less vocal.

Russia’s conduct in Ukraine (capping Russia’s long record in that regard) would make the reopening of the 5+2 forum morally untenable on top of all other considerations.

To denounce the 5+2 arrangement, or officially declare it as expired, would however be superfluous and counterproductive. This forum can be allowed to fade away quietly, simply through no longer convening it. The current, three-year inactivity can be prolonged informally, indefinitely.

Read also:

Source: Part 1
Source: Part 2
Source: Part 3
Source: Part 4
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