August 3, 2012 | 2015 GMT
A resolution to the conflict between Russia and Moldova over the disputed territory of Transdniestria has been obstructed by calls for Moldova's reunification with Romania, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin said Aug. 3. The statement by Rogozin, who is serving as special envoy to Transdniestria, came a day after he met in Moscow with the president of the unrecognized republic of Transdniestria, Yevgeny Shevchuk. It also came amid a flurry of activity regarding the status of the breakaway territory. While recent events have raised questions about the trajectory of Transdniestria, major obstacles will impede meaningful change to the political or security situation in the strategic region.
Transdniestria, a sliver of land east of the Dniester River that broke away from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union, has long been a de facto satellite of Russia. It hosts 1,100 Russian and Russian-affiliated troops, which gives Moscow a strong foothold in this small but strategic territory. Transdniestria also receives economic support from Moscow, and Russians and Ukrainians are the majority there, with Moldovans in the minority. While there have long been calls by Moldova proper and Europe (particularly Romania) for Russia to remove its troops and relinquish the territory, Moscow has never seriously considered complying.
Against this backdrop, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigori Karasin surprised many in July when he said that Transdniestria should be federalized and become a part of Moldova proper in exchange for Moldova's halting any attempts to join NATO. Karasin spoke while visiting Transdniestria's capital, Tiraspol, while several developments occurred that favored Moldovan interests.
These changes include an end to political deadlock in Moldova that had deprived the country of a head of state for three years. The Europe-oriented Alliance for European Integration coalition finally mustered the votes to break the deadlock, leading to the election of Nicolae Timofti as Moldova's president.
Transdniestria also has seen a leadership transition. Long-term Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov fell out of favor with his Russian backers, paving the way for the younger, more pragmatic Shevchuck to win the breakaway region's presidential election over the Kremlin-backed candidate, Anatoli Kaminski. Since taking office, Shevchuk has facilitated more cooperation between Transdniestria and Moldova, including the forging of economic links and possibly getting closer to settling the 20-year deadlock between Tiraspol and Chisinau. Therefore, Karasin's suggestion that Transdniestria could become part of a federal Moldova prompted speculation that a deal could indeed be in the works.
Moscow, however, quickly dismissed such speculation. Rogozin emphasized that Russia and Transdniestria only discussed socioeconomic issues and later added that reunification prospects were premature as long as Moldova sought to join Romania. Given that Moldova has indeed shown small signs of increasing cooperation with Romania since Timofti's election, Russia would be loath to consider supporting a deal between Transdniestria and Moldova at this time. For his part, Shevchuk denied he was engaging in federation talks with Moldova's leadership, calling suggestions to the contrary speculation and rumor.
Still, why a high-ranking official like Karasin would float the idea of federalization raises questions. He could be reflecting Moscow's official line. Or perhaps he was simply testing the waters on behalf of the Kremlin. After all, Russia has been in talks with Germany over a softening of Moscow's stance on Transdniestria, and there are rumors that Moscow and Berlin may have reached an understanding on the issue.
Given the recent political shifts in both Transdniestria and Moldova, Karasin's statement could signal that Russia is recalculating its position toward Tiraspol and Chisinau. But while Russia may have become more open to discussing the political format of Transdniestria, Moscow is unlikely to budge on the issue of its military in the territory. No matter what legal form Transdniestria takes, this troop presence is key to guaranteeing Russian interests in the area, and Moscow has given no indication that it will shift its position on that presence.