Ukraine’s Interests in Moldova & Pridnestrovie

By Srdja Trifkovic
Saturday, 18 Jun 2011

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(Keynote address at AIU Round Table, Kiev, June 14, 2011) An outsider looking at the map of Pridnestrovie could be forgiven for assuming that it is an island or a peninsula, a rugged-edged Baja California lookalike, rather than a landlocked aspiring country. Its unnatural shape reflects the circumstances attendant to its birth. By any political, geographic, economic, historical, ethnic and cultural criteria, the natural border between Ukraine and Moldova is the Dniestr. The fact that a narrow strip on its left bank was carved out of Ukraine in 1924 and turned into an artificial construct, known between the wars as the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, was a Bolshevik geopolitical ploy aimed at spreading revolution to Romania or at least staking an irredentist claim to Bessarabia.1 Years later, by pretending that there is a “Moldavia” in the USSR, Stalin could also pretend that he had a valid claim to rescue “the rest” of Moldavia – i.e. Moldova itself – from the clutches of the post-Versailles Greater Romania, built in the vacuum created by the collapse of the two neighboring empires.

Stalin and his cohorts are dead but we are still stuck with their legacy in the form of arbitrarily drawn boundaries. For reasons never fully explained, those borders are still regarded as inviolable and effectively sacrosanct – in the former Yugoslavia and in the former USSR alike – even though the manner of their creation lacked both legality and legitimacy.2 It is noteworthy that, as far as the “International Community” (i.e. the United States and its clients) is concerned, the communist-era internal boundaries – which were turned into international frontiers twenty years ago – are the only legacy of those two states worth preserving and upholding.

That not all borders are created equal, however, is apparent in the treatment of Pridnestrovan quest for self-rule and Romanian irredentism by the decision-makers in Washington and Brussels. To Pridnestrovie, the answer has always been and still is a ringing “No!” accompanied by renewed insistence on Moldova’s territorial integrity. On the other hand, similar Western condemnation of Romania’s often repeated aspiration to absorb Moldova has been conspicuous by its absence.3 This has encouraged the Romanian elite consensus that Moldovans east of the Prut are Romanians, plain and simple, and that Moldova should be eventually “reunited” with Romania on the basis of its people’s right to self-determination. The policy of Bucharest has been developing accordingly, in coordination with the proponents of the Greater Romanian concept in Moldova itself. That policy represents a sustained security challenge to Ukraine and requires an appropriate response.

UKRAINE’S INTEREST, in the context of this challenge, appears to be the maintenance of an open-ended status quo in preference to any outcome that would force Pridnestrovie to submit to Moldova’s rule – and thus, by implication, threaten Romania’s eventual expansion to the eastern bank of the Dniepr. In practice, however, an enduring settlement is needed in order to bring about long-term political stability to the region and thus create conditions for the unleashing of its considerable economic potential, primarily in agriculture but also in other fields.

Kiev should take a proactive role in the quest for such a settlement, in contrast to its previous passivity on this issue. Unless Ukraine comes up with a set of proposals that reflect its own state and security interests, it risks eventual adoption of measures which reflect the interests of other parties. Since Russian and Ukrainian interests in Pridnestrovie largely overlap, Kiev should coordinate its position with Moscow. That does not mean accepting the role of a junior partner or merely following Moscow’s lead. Bold ideas coming from Ukraine as its contribution to the “5+2” process, in addition to being a natural reflection of its size and regional importance, would also send a welcome signal that Kiev is no longer placing its eggs in anyone else’s basket.

UKRAINE’S POLICY in relation to its southeastern neighbor should support and encourage Moldova’s eventual move towards equidistance from both Russia and the West and a policy of non-alignment in preference to NATO membership. A parallel effort by Kiev to encourage the emergence of a new credible leadership in Pridnestrovie is also needed. After prior consultations with Russia, Ukraine should consider launching a strategic initiative to create a tripartite Russian-Ukrainian-Moldovan gas pricing and transiting commission, predicated – informally yet clearly – on Moldova remaining out of NATO. Further elaboration of specific policy proposals will be possible when the results of the forthcoming Moldovan election become known.

Ukraine should also consider countering Romanian irredentist agenda by sponsoring an information campaign aimed at the media, the decision-making community, and the public at large in Western Europe and the United States. Ukraine needs to increase the awareness of Romania’s problematic positions and policies by indirectly supporting events, research and publications conducive to its views on regional stability.

Regardless of the Moldovan election outcome, Kiev can and should do more to counter the Greater Romanian agitation within Moldova by encouraging indirect, unofficial Ukrainian support for those cultural institutions and NGOs that cultivate the sense of a distinct Moldovan identity and seek an end to foreign interference in its domestic affairs. A broad model already exists in Bucharest’s indirect support for Moldovan civic groups and institutions which are engaged in pursuit of its own agenda. A more even playing field is needed, and Ukraine’s past restraint has resulted in an undue advantage for the pro-Romanian side in Moldova’s domestic discourse. Even so, the spontaneous opposition in Moldova to “the reunion with the Romanian motherland” remains strong.4 It should be cultivated and strengthened.

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.

UKRAINE’S PLAN FOR PRIDNESTROVIE should combine federal and confederal elements. It may be broadly based on the Åland Islands’ successful and time-tested model of extensive self-rule. These Baltic islands inhabited by Swedes are under Finland’s nominal sovereignty, but they enjoy firm international guarantees of their special status. Those guarantees originated with the League of Nations ninety years ago and were reiterated by the United Nations after the Second World War. Likewise, Ukraine should propose that:

  • Pridnestrovie’s self-rule will be anchored in a UN Security Council resolution, it will be additionally guaranteed by the powers currently facilitating the negotiating process, and enshrined in a new Moldovan Constitution;
  • Moldova’s nominal sovereignty will be affirmed, but legislative powers will be divided between Kishinev and Tiraspol, and not delegated by Moldova to Pridnestrovie;
  • All Moldovan international treaties will be separately ratified by the Pridnestrovie Assembly. If they are not so ratified (e.g. if Moldova applies and is approved for NATO membership), such treaties will not be applicable to Pridnestrovie;
  • Tiraspol will have the right to veto any subsequent initiative by Moldova to change the division of power between Pridnestrovie and the government in Kishinev;
  • Pridnestrovie will have the right to declare independence if Moldova at some future date chooses to unite with Romania.
  • Pridnestrovie’s citizenship will be a distinct category of the Moldovan one,5 and only full-time residents at the time of the signing of the agreement will be entitled to it;
  • Pridnestrovie’s citizenship will be a precondition for land ownership (although foreign investors will be able to lease it) and for the right to vote in Pridnestrovie’s elections.

The above proposals are reasonable, fair and legitimate. If all sides negotiate in good faith, they may provide a viable basis for a stable and enduring solution.

IN CONCLUSION, let me quote the final paragraph of my paper on “Romania’s ambitions east of the Prut” presented аt the AIU Roundtable in Kiev on June 17, 2010:

The challenge Ukraine faces from Romania is not going to fade away because it is based on certain cultural, strategic and geopolitical realities that are relatively constant. That challenge can and should be met more forcefully than before, and recognizing its existence would be the necessary first step. The source of the challenge is relatively weak and vulnerable. With its size, resources, and comparative advantages, Ukraine has nothing to fear in tackling it responsibly but firmly.

That conclusion still stands. By becoming creatively engaged in the quest for a solution to the problem of Pridnestrovie, Ukraine can further its own state and security interests – and at the same time contribute to the emergence of a plan resulting in a plus-sum-game for all.    (First published on

1. The official capital was the “temporarily occupied city of Kishinev.”
2. Lord David Owen, the EU negotiator during the Bosnian War, in his Balkan Odyssey concedes that much: “My view has always been that to have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries … as being the boundaries for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition itself.” (p. 33)
3. E.g. in January 2010, when President Traian Basescu declared in Kishinev that he would not sign a Border Treaty with Moldova (“I will never confirm that Romania’s border passes on Prut River”), there was no Western reaction.
4. An IRI poll (November 2008) had 29% Moldovans in favor of a union with Romania, 61% against it.
5. In addition to the existing precedent of the Åland Islands, until 1991 this principle was also applied in the former Yugoslavia: its citizens were also citizens of the constituent republics.