Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Transnistria’s Limbo to Continue Indefinitely

It’s being reported now in the Washington Post that talks will continue on November 30th, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on the status of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or Transnistria for short, the sliver of the Republic of Moldova where non-Moldovans, mostly Russians, form a majority and are at times openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union.  The talks will be under the auspices of the Russian Federation, the European Union, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia’s relationship to Transnistria has always been odd.  It “supports” the Transnistrians but does not recognize their state.  The only states that recognize Transnistria are two other mostly-unrecognized states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  (Transnistria also recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh, which has not returned the favor; that must sting.)  Russia’s withholding of recognition of Transnistria may seem odd, considering that Russia went to war in 2008 to carve those two not-terribly-viable puppet states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, out of what nearly the whole rest of the world regards as the sovereign territory of the Republic of Georgia.  Doubly so since Russia’s rationale for supporting Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists involves fears that Ukraine will join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and thus further encircle poor Russia.  But wouldn’t a fully recognized pro-Moscow regime in Transnistria turn the tables and encircle Ukraine, compromising and slowing NATO’s strategic extension toward the Steppes of Asia?  Well, yes, but Russia seems to be making a calculation here.  They knew, in 2008, that the West would never come to the defense of Georgia, because it borders Russia itself, and because the Caucasus is close to volatile areas like Turkey, Kurdistan, Iran, and Iraq; it’s just too close to the powderkeg (see map below).  Transnistria, on the other hand, is enough out of the way—landlocked and wedged between Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine—that an Abkhaz-and-Ossete-style recognition by Moscow might just spark a NATO and Russian proxy war that Russia would lose.  (One can imagine Romania, which joined NATO in 2004, rising to defend the territory of mostly-Romanian-speaking Moldova, requiring NATO to take a stronger position than it would otherwise be inclined to do.)

So Russia is for the moment content to use the Transnistria issue behind the scenes simply to unnerve Ukraine and NATO.  But they are not remotely interested in pushing the issue toward a resolution.

Nor is the Ukrainian government interested in pushing the issue terribly much.  At current levels of stability, Ukrainian admission to NATO will happen eventually, and until then Ukraine is too large and well armed for the Russians to mess with it the way they messed with Georgia.  So Ukraine is in no hurry to dismantle the Transnistrian state.  However, Ukraine is even less eager to prevent Transnistria from moving even one inch closer to legitimacy.  The last thing Ukrainians want is for parts of Ukraine that have a Russian ethnic majority to feel inspired and empowered.  These include Crimea, which has an active Russophilic separatist movement mainly because of its distinct history and the fact that it was not even part of Ukraine until Stalin transferred it from the Russian S.S.R. to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1954.  But they also include vast swaths of eastern Ukraine (some of which have been parts of Russia at various points in history).

As you can see, the slightest bit of progress for Transnistrians could embolden Transnistrians to stoke ethnic-Russian separatism in Ukraine’s nearby Bessarabia region, which includes the important Black Sea port Odessa—a city where even the bare majority of ethnic Ukrainians mostly speak Russian.  The distribution of Russian and Ukrainian speakers and ethnic-self-identifiers in Ukraine also maps quite neatly onto how Ukrainian elections tend to divide the country.  If it looked like the Transnistria project was moving forward, Ukrainians would worry that their country might start to rip apart—even if Russia officially stayed out of the fight, as it would.  And then Ukraine would never be let into NATO.

Nor is it probably accidental that these upcoming talks will be held in Vilnius.  Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian maps of distributions of Russian-speakers look similar to Ukraine’s.  And, while the three Baltic states are in NATO and their Russian minorities are rather chastened (and generally realize, though they rarely admit it, that they’re living in countries with more freedom and stability than Russia offers), no one in the West wants a suddenly restive population of Russians within NATO’s borders.

So, while it’s, I suppose, in general fine that all sides are talking to make sure Transnistria remains stable, don’t expect any changes to the status quo one way or the other.  Everyone wants the status of Transnistria, for the moment, to stay just as it is.

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