IWPR – Institute for War and Peace Reporting (Autor)
Attempts to resolve the frozen conflict in Transnistria are still ongoing, nearly 30 years after it broke away from Moldova following a short war.
Recently appointed deputy prime minister for reintegration, Vasile Șova, is the coalition government’s representative in the negotiations.
Sova, a member of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, explained the progress that has been made and outlined upcoming challenges.
IWPR: In early October, Bratislava hosted a 5+2 meeting - Moldova, Transnistria, the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US - on the Transnistrian settlement. What was the outcome of the talks?
Sova: The Berlin protocol [a memorandum of understanding signed in June 2016] is very detailed and some small details are still to be agreed. Our partners from Tiraspol want more future attention paid on the banking system and oil imports to the Left Bank, but Chisinau’s interest is focused on Moldovan schools. In 2004 we had the so-called school crisis when the Tiraspol administration closed the Moldovan schools on the Left Bank, schools operating according to the Moldovan curriculum [and using Latin rather than Cyrillic script]. There were eight schools, and a few of them still don’t have proper buildings.
In Bratislava we asserted that if our colleagues insist on business, we are more interested in human rights. We didn’t find any common solutions. Tiraspol refused to find any suitable buildings for our schools. We said to the observers and mediators, as long as we are not given back the school buildings after 15 years then we will not sign the protocol. From the rest of the 15 points [on the memorandum], this was the only one that we could not find a solution for… At the beginning of November, there is a conference in Bavaria where we can have an informal discussion. We hope until then to find some common solution.
It could be a very simple solution but our colleagues from Tiraspol think our curriculum is more attractive to students and see the risk of losing some students. They are examining this issue from a political and ideological point of view and not the point of view that everyone has the right to study in their own language. Our students are studying in inappropriate conditions, with no classrooms, no sports facilities or supplementary activities, no dining halls. We are in Europe, it is the 21st century, we have to end these unsuitable conditions. Our colleagues in Tiraspol see their economic interests as much more important, but these have mostly been solved as they have the possibility of trading with the EU based on these agreements. So we want to solve these problems with our children.
You previously also served as minister for reintegration between 2002 and 2009. What has changed in terms of both public attitudes and the stance of the international community in recent years?
If we talk about public opinion, what has changed is related to the situation in Ukraine. People from Chisinau or Tiraspol don’t want major problems or military confrontations. They don’t want a repetition of the situation in Donbas. They want to solve all problems peacefully and we agree. There is some kind of fatigue because of this long period during which the conflict has not been solved. It all has a negative impact on the standard of living in Transnistria and even here. It’s a very important fact that there is no conflict between the population of the left and right bank. Most people consider there to be a conflict only existing between the elites, who are fighting over their economic interests. People see the problems as relating to contraband and the situation is changing now, let’s say the first steps have been taken… Moldova, Ukraine and the EU border assistance mission all together are trying to make border activities more transparent and acceptable. If we talk about our international partners…they are helping with a dialogue to close the gaps, in a mutual process. A new element is that they agree that in future all confidence building measures will have the goal of “a comprehensive, peaceful and sustainable settlement of the Transnistria conflict” [from Point Three of the OSCE ministerial statement]. This means that a total of 57 states have a common position; not just our partners. Another goal for Chisinau is to find a common position among the political parties in parliament. We have to find a model for solving the conflict.
What is the official policy on federalisation?
There is no official policy in this direction. But in the 2000s all our international partners, including the UK, recommended us to use this format. It was the official initiative of the OSCE, the UK and Russia in 2002; it was even supported by the EU and the USA. But the situation has changed and today this formula is no longer attractive. Moldova and its partners are paying more attention to decentralisation and autonomy. Even the word federalisation has become unpopular but nobody can explain why. Some are promoting this idea, but it is more of a geopolitical debate. It’s difficult to explain to our external partners why in 2000 we were pro but now in practice have turned away! It is a debate about form, not content.
There is the possibility of a special status, regulated by a special law that has to be approved by parliament, and then part of this law has to adopted into the constitution. There are examples of this, for instance with the autonomous republic of Gaugazia; they have a special status. We are also looking at other countries, for instance with the South Tyrol in Italy, Great Britain with Northern Ireland and Wales, in Finland there are the Aland islands. There are a lot of models but we want to find our own, one which is acceptable to the people on both sides.
And will Russia be happy with the outcome too?
There are no serious contradictions in the Russian position – Russia agrees with Point Three [of the OSCE statement]. Moldova’s neutrality also helps. Moldova is not planning to get involved in any military blocs, not with NATO and not with Russia. Moldova is cooperating, but not joining. This helps find a formula to solve the problem.
Russian minister of defence Sergey Shoigu, visiting Moldova in August, proposed the removal of ammunition and armaments from the Cobasna depot in Transnistria. How significant do you think this is?
It is a very important step. These are very, very old munitions. They removed half in 2004, but around 20,000 tonnes are still there. It is very dangerous, even a potential ecological disaster. The Russian Federation took the obligation to remove or destroy these munitions and I hope they will realise it. The munitions that cannot be removed have to be destroyed. The OSCE is participating in this process. We think that the message the Russians are sending is that they have intentions to continue a dialogue with Europe and the US to solve the problem. It will not be easy but we see it as a signal that they are ready to start discussions on this topic.
How do you assess the first few months of this coalition government and the achievments so far?
We have two different blocs with two different points of view working together. That is the very big achievement of this government, and if we succeed in finding common solutions, it will be a very strong development. These two blocs together represent around 80 per cent of the people of this country. It is not as it was before when decisions were made behind the scenes in private and the parliament, government and president only executed the decisions taken elsewhere. It’s not very easy to build a state based on law and democracy. It’s better to work together and have a common responsibility. Six months ago, we were criticising each other and now we work together. This is a great achievement and we have to learn how to work together in this way in the future, too.