The Trouble on the Prut

February 8, 2011
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic
Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture; and Executive Director, The Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies

Introduction from the American Institute in Ukraine: On February 7 Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the highest-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee of the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate, presented the Committee with a report prepared by his staff on the issue of Transnistria. The report could have been written in Bucharest: it recommends that the US Administration should “prioritize” the return of the breakaway region to Moldova’s control, it insists that “US leadership on issues of European security remains indispensable,” and demands “high-level diplomatic attention” to put pressure on Russia to accept the region’s return to Kishinev’s control. Presenting the report to his colleagues, Lugar declared that “a resolute US commitment to this cause will ensure that we do not cede influence in a region of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy.”

This initiative by Senator Lugar, an influential and respected figure in Washington, is significant not because of its likely results, but rather because it encapsulates much of what is wrong with the mindset and strategic calculus of a segment of the US foreign policy establishment. Far from being “a region of paramount importance to US foreign policy,” the long and narrow strip along the Dniestr’s eastern shore is well-nigh irrelevant to America’s security interests. Turkish, Russian, Romanian, Soviet, Moldovan and Transnistrian flags have flown above Tiraspol over the past two centuries, without the slightest impact in any change of ownership on the security or well-being of the United States.

If this is “a region of paramount interest” to America, Mr. Lugar must be hard pressed to name a region, anywhere in the world, which he would not thus designate. The report's recommendations typify and imperial overreach that has progressed from simple to folly into a ruinous geopolitical luxury which America can ill afford today – militarily, financially, politically, as well as morally.

The days of forcing Russia to accept US-dictated faits accomplis are over, having lasted from the collapse of the Soviet Union until – at the latest – Russia’s response to Saakashvili’s aggression in South Ossetia. Today America needs Russia’s cooperation to keep its forces in Afghanistan supplied, to keep its Treasury bills solvent, and to keep its many other global initiatives viable, from Iran to Korea to the war on terror.

As Dr. Srdja Trifkovic argues in the article below, Moldova would not be much of a problem if it were left to its own devices. By refraining from meddling (“engagement”) in the affairs of that small and poor country, the United States would do a favor to Moldova’s long-suffering people, it would help stabilize Washington’s relations with Moscow, and it would serve the American interest.

Following their meeting at the Security Policy Conference in Munich on February 5, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko and Moldova’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration Iurie Leanca have confirmed their readiness “to invigorate political dialogue between the two countries.” The bland statement referred to “the prospects of bilateral Ukrainian-Moldovan cooperation in political, trade, economic and humanitarian spheres” but contained no specifics.

It would have been undiplomatic for Gryshchenko to say so, but Ukraine’s primary interests on its southwestern border are the maintenance of an open-ended status quo in Pridniestrovie, the encouragement of Moldova’s equidistance in relation to the West and Russia, and a more effective countering of the Romanian nationalist agitation in Kishinev, with its inherently irredentist agenda vis-à-vis Ukraine. Kiev’s short-term interest should be an end of foreign interference in Moldova’s domestic politics – which clearly seeks to produce an outcome conducive to Romania’s, and thus detrimental to Ukraine’s interests.

That interference – apparently an American-EU joint venture – started a mere two days after the Moldovan parliamentary election on November 28, with a joint statement by Baroness Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, and Stefan Füle, the commissioner for enlargement, claiming that the success of the three-party Alliance for European Integration gave Moldova “an opportunity to consolidate political stability.” It did nothing of the kind, but the ensuing political stalemate could have been ended with a coalition between Vladimir Voronin’s Communists and the Democratic Party headed by Marian Lupu. This scenario, encouraged by Moscow, was effectively torpedoed by a string of foreign visitors, however, starting with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski, and culminating on December 21 with a visit by Germany’s deputy foreign minister Werner Hoyer. In short, Moldova remains a neo-Cold-War playground. Russia and her Western partners may have pretended to be singing from the same sheet at NATO’s Lisbon summit last November, or at Davos last January, but between the Prut and the Bug their geopolitical rivalry remains as lively as it had been in Central Europe forty years ago.

In recent days Western preferences in Moldova’s domestic politics have been stated with unprecedented bluntness. On February 5, Bruce Jackson, head of the Washington-based Project on Transitional Democracies – a pro-NATO quasi-NGO – declared in Kishinev that Moldova missed a big opportunity in the 1990s to emulate the Baltic states in their EU integration and that it should not repeat that mistake. Jackson said the communist governments that ruled Moldova during the previous decade, and especially Vladimir Voronin, “turned down many overtures” from the West and also “mismanaged relations with Russia, Ukraine, and Romania.”

Moscow seems to have had enough of such nonsense. On February 3 Russia accused the European Union, the United States and Romania of “pressuring Moldova’s political processes in an attempt to draw the state towards their area of influence.” Russia’s Ambassador in Kishinev, Valeri Kuzmin, said that during the Moldovan election campaign Russia adopted a “politically correct attitude, as the practice of international relations requests it,” in contrast to Washington, Brussels and Bucharest. It was not reciprocated, he complained, by the Western partners. Interestingly, two days earlier Kuzmin hinted that Moscow would grant Moldova a price discount on Russian gas, as it granted one to Ukraine, in return for military basing rights. “The political dimension can be turned into an economic equivalent,” Kuzmin said, pointing out the agreement with Ukraine on cheaper gas in return for the Black Sea Fleet base. “Moldova also has such opportunities… We are open for discussions.” Kuzmin’s statements indicate Russia’s sudden determination to counter Western interference in Moldova with its own counter-strategy. This is good news for Ukraine, but Kiev should not remain on the sidelines. A number of proactive specific policy initiatives should be considered, including the following:

  • Launch an initiative to establish a tripartite, Russian-Ukrainian-Moldovan gas pricing and transiting commission, which would be predicated – informally yet clearly – on Moldova remaining out of NATO.
  • Ukrainian officials should make public statements expressing support for Moldova’s institutions and calling for an end to foreign interference in its domestic politics. There is no need to name any names, but the intonation should be critical of Bucharest rather than Brussels. The message – couched in standard PC jargon – should be delivered with clarity and firmness.
  • Offer Moldova help with critical wheat supplies in the months ahead. On February 2 Prime Minister Vlad Filat approved the decision to stop exporting wheat, amid fears of a food crisis. Moldova currently has 135,000 tons of wheat reserves, which is less than it needs until the next harvest in the fall of 2011. Ukraine, by contrast, has a healthy surplus. Covering Moldova’s projected shortfall with 20-odd thousand tons of Ukrainian wheat, on soft credit terms, would yield political benefits potentially far greater than the cost of the subsidy itself.
  • A longer-term strategic initiative should entail indirect and unofficial Ukrainian support for those Moldovan institutions and NGOs that cultivate the sense of a distinct Moldovan identity. Thus far only the proponents of greater-Romanianism could count on foreign funds and support.
  • Ukraine should also consider its own diplomatic proposal as an alternative the western-supported "Five Plus Two" talks. On February 7 Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich promised to support a resumption of talks on the settlement of the Pridnestrovien problem. While Kiev’s official position favors special legal status for Pridnestrovie as part of Moldova, Ukraine has been unnecessarily squeamish about advancing a detailed blueprint for the proposed solution. To the extent Pridnestrovie can entertain any future nominal connection with Moldova – itself far from obvious – it can only be on the basis of ironclad guarantees of Pridnestroviens’ effective self-government. For example, a basis for discussion and negotiation, Kiev could suggest a model of autonomy that has been successfully applied for almost a century in one of the model democracies of Europe: the Åland Islands’ extensive self-rule, under Finland’s formal sovereignty but with international guarantees. In the case of the Ålands it was the League of Nations; for Pridnestrovie, it could be the UN and the OSCE. Pridnestrovien self-government would also need to be secured by the Moldovan Constitution. Tiraspol would need to retain the right to veto any changes to the division of power between itself and the government in Kishinev. Legislative powers would have to be divided between the Moldovan government and Pridnestrovie, and not delegated. Pridnestrovien citizenship, as a precondition for land ownership and transaction of business, would be reserved exclusively for persons permanently residing in the region, and be a prerequisite for eligibility to vote in local parliamentary elections. A proposal along these lines from Kiev would attract attention from all sides, and favorable attention from Moscow and from those Europeans who are interested in a genuine solution – as opposed to the western proposals currently on the table and efforts to pressure an unwilling Tiraspol into submission. It would also establish Ukraine as a creative and proactive participant after a prolonged period of self-imposed foreign policy marginalization.

A more active promotion of Ukraine’s interests in Moldova should be seen as part of a wider strategy aimed at containing the challenge Ukraine faces from Romania. That challenge is based on the cultural, strategic and geopolitical realities that are relatively constant. The counter-strategy therefore needs to be comprehensive and long-term.

The European Union and the United States appear to be pursuing policies in Moldova which are effectively supportive of Romania’s destabilizing irredentism. Their behavior is therefore detrimental to the core security interests of Ukraine and – less directly but no less clearly – Russia. American and European behavior is strongly reminiscent of another US-EU joint venture in the region, the promotion of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004. The media myth of a “pro-Western, reformist democrat” (Yushchenko) battling old-timer commie apparatchiks is now neatly replicated in the presentation of Moldova’s political crisis as a morality play with the Alliance for European Integration on the side of progress and Voronov on the side of darkness and reaction. Back in 2004 the Western Ukrainian version of the country’s identity and history was taken for granted no less than the greater-Romanian one is condoned and encouraged in Moldova.

As the demographic, geopolitical and ideological challenge of neo-Ottoman Turkey looms ever larger, “the West” still appears hell-bent on antagonizing, cordoning off and fragmenting Orthodox Slavdom of Eastern Europe. In the name of democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration, but in truth blinkered by ideology and driven by raw cultural prejudice, Brussels and Washington continue to cooperate in geopolitical games along the edge of “Europe,” from the Baltic states to the Danube delta. It appears like they cannot help doing so, as if Samuel Huntington’s notion of ‘civilizational blocks’ determines Western attitudes to the Orthodox Slavdom. Those peoples had lost so much under the Communists that their survival, let alone revival, was scarcely imagined two decades ago, except on Western terms, as faithful imitation of, and absorption in, the postmodern, post-Christian, postnational “West.” In Ukraine in 2004 and in Moldova today, any gap between the multilateralist Left and hegemonistic Right, between the United States and Europe, and between Europe old (Germany) and new (Poland), disappears completely. This is the only crusade that the Muslims can support with glee.