Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
The parliament in Moldova’s breakaway republic of Transnistria voted on April 16 to appeal to Moscow for official recognition, followed by entry to the Russian Federation. The move sparked an angry response from the Moldovan government, which fears pressure from Russia as it prepares to finalise its EU Association Agreement in June.
Transnistrian MPs unanimously adopted an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian State Duma and Federation Council for recognition of the tiny republic as a sovereign state. The document also asks for recognition from the UN. “According to the universally recognized norms of international law, the right of people to self-determination should be the basis of political decisions, each state is obliged to respect that right,” reads a statement issued by the the press-service of Transnistria's Supreme Soviet.
The statement refers to a 2006 referendum within Transnistria, a slither sitting between the eastern bank of the Dniestr river and the internationally-recognised Moldovan border with Ukraine, which has been called a smuggling operation with some land attached. An overwhelming majority - 97% - voted at the time in favour of independence and subsequent entry to the Russian Federation.
"As western democracy teaches us, the referendum is the basis for fundamental decisions that affect the fate of nations," reads a statement by Chairman of the Supreme Council Mikhail Burla.
The Moldovan government reacted angrily to the statement from the Transnistrian capital Tiraspol. Chisnau described the appeal as “nothing but a direct defiance of the Transnistrian conflict settlement process [and] Moldova’s territorial integrity.”
“By such an appeal, Tiraspol ignores an objective reality – and namely the fact that the Transnistrian region is recognised as a component part of the Republic of Moldova by all international actors participating in the process of five-plus-two negotiations... we appeal to our partners from Russia to come with a prompt reaction, in full accordance with the norms and principles of international law,” says the statement.
However, Tiraspol's request to Moscow is the latest of several, and the second since the crisis in Ukraine blew up. "From a legal point of view, Transnistria doesn’t differ from Crimea in any way," Transnistrian MP Vyacheslav Tobukh told Russian news wire ITAR-TASS. "The process of its reunification with Russia should follow the Crimean scenario."
The situation in east and south Ukraine remains on a knife edge, with Russian troops reportedly massed on the border as Ukrainian forces seek to take back control of several cities from pro-Russian militants. The nightmare scenario for the West is a Russian drive to cut Ukraine in half, creating a territory of control that would link to Transnistria. "The (Russian) force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready," said Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove in late March. Nato is concerned that Transnistria is likely viewed by the Kremlin as the "next place where Russian-speaking people may need to be incorporated," he added.
Fire and ice
Transnistria, which has a population of around 500,000, has been de facto independent from Moldova since a four-month war in 1992. Although it receives substantial economic and military support from Russia, it has not gained international recognition, including from Moscow. However, like other separatist movements within the former Soviet Union, Tiraspol has been encouraged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, and hopes a resolution to the frozen conflict may be in sight.
Russia’s relations with Moldova took a turn for the worse in late 2013, when it initialed an EU association and free trade agreement at the Vilnius summit. Russian pressure ahead of the November meeting saw to it that of the six states originally planning to sign off on deals, only Moldova and Georgia followed through. It was former president Viktor Yanukovych's refusal that sparked the protests in Ukraine that eventually unseated him.
Chisinau has so far resisted Russian pressure - mainly in the form of trade restrictions - to drop plans to sign off on the pact in the summer. However, it's feared Moscow could seek to up the ante on the Moldovan government by recognizing, or even annexing, Transnistria - or at least threatening to do so. Military exercises by Russian troops stationed in Transnistria in late March, just days after Crimea was annexed, left little to the imagination.
Elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, other separatist movements have also been emboldened by the Russian move into Crimea. The situation in the Caucasus in particular is being closely watched for any signs that the region’s frozen conflicts could suddenly ignite. “Russia promoting internationally the right of self-determination is a cause for celebration for all the breakaway republics,” writes Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight.
The government of Nagorno-Karabakh, a self-declared republic within Azerbaijan, issued a statement on March 17 describing the Crimean referendum as “yet another manifestation of realization of the right of people to self-determination.” Similar statements were issued by the authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Russian-backed republics in Georgia.
However, Gevorgyan points out that the rapid annexation of Crimea, which has long been claimed by Russia, is a special case. Incorporating separatist republics such as Transnistria would “be serious red lines that if Russia ever crosses, it could seriously challenge the current nation–state system that [it] is so much in favour of and has benefited [from] immensely,” adds the analyst. “When it comes to other territorial conflicts, Russia is interested in conflict management, and not resolution, as these conflicts remain as leverages on involved parties.”
Talks in the 5 + 2 format, comprising Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with the US and the EU as observers, have been in progress for several years. Similarly, Russia is a co-chair of the Minsk Group, set up to find a negotiated settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, alongside France and the US.
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