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An East-West flashpoint that needs more attention

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CHISINAU, Moldova — Local conflicts and crises in different parts of the world continue to threaten global and regional peace and security. Often, managing these conflicts leads not to cooperation, but to greater confrontation. 

In Moldova – where we have a 25-year-long, Russian-backed secessionist movement on our sovereign territory – we are trying to avoid that fate. And we need the help of our friends in the United States and Europe.

{mosads}It is a difficult predicament, because there are about 2,000 Russian troops, as well as a few thousand separatist paramilitary troops, in Transnistria – a thin strip of land that runs about 200 miles along our eastern border with Ukraine. The Russians also have more than 20,000 tons of weapons and munitions in this tiny breakaway region, located just 30 miles from our capital, Chisinau.

But the threats to Moldova are not just military. Moscow has imposed a punishing trade embargo on many of our products, and they harass our government officials on trips abroad. Russia exercises a pervasive influence in our country and constantly vilifies the European Union and the United States of America. Last fall, the Russian media meddling in our national election helped deliver Moldova’s presidency to a pro-Russian candidate, Igor Dodon.

While Dodon wants to terminate Moldova’s association agreement with the European Union and instead strengthen ties to Russia, our governing coalition, which is led by the Democratic Party of Moldova, is staunchly pro-EU and committed to Western values. This month, with the support of our governing coalition and over the objections of President Dodon, a NATO liaison office will open in Chisinau.

Even though the Transnistria dispute is more than two-decades old, you might never have heard about it. But this “frozen conflict” scenario may sound familiar, because similar situations – each with their unique circumstances – exist elsewhere in former Soviet states, where Russia seeks leverage and influence over its newly independent neighbors by stoking separatist passions and political dissent. Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are all regions with simmering disputes that, like Transnistria, remain flashpoints not only within and between countries, but between East and West.

I just returned home from a trip to Washington, and I was happy to find many allies in the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration who fully support Moldova in our struggle to maintain our sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Negotiations to settle the Transnistria conflict have been on-again, off-again, including a six-year hiatus from 2006 to 2012. The talks are based on a so-called “5+2 format,” with Moldova and Transnistria as the parties in conflict, Russia; Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as mediators; and the United States and EU as observers. To date, the talks have failed to achieve their objective: the elaboration of a special status for the Transnistrian region within Moldova that respects our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

With a population of just under 400,000 citizens, Transnistria is 11 percent of Moldova’s territory.  It is a self-proclaimed state that is not recognized by any other internationally-recognized country. Today, its residents remain cut off from the international community and the majority do not benefit from the positive changes and new opportunities afforded to Moldovan citizens.

This “grey area” is beyond the control of Moldova’s constitutional authorities and generates multiple risks. The conditions foster corruption, cross-border crime, a shadow economy, illicit smuggling and serious threats to regional security.

Chisinau has repeatedly called for the withdrawal of Russian military forces and their arsenal, and for the replacement of the current peacekeeping mission with a civilian one, under an international mandate. Our goal is to bring all the people of Moldova together in a reintegrated country, in a way that respects both the legitimate rights of residents of Transnistria and the territorial integrity of Moldova.

Two years ago, Moldova was faced with an economic and banking crisis. The Democratic Party heard the demand for accountability and good governance and implemented far-reaching reforms, in partnership with political allies, that have restored political, economic and social stability. We are determined to keep pushing to resolve other issues affecting Moldova, including the Transnistrian conflict. 

To our partners in Transnistria: As our record shows, there has never been a more pragmatic, results-oriented Moldovan government. We are open-minded, flexible, and ready to negotiate a solution. We really have only one precondition: that our country remain whole. Otherwise, we can consider economic incentives, security accords, autonomy agreements, social development programs and other inducements for peaceful reunification.

To our partners in the P5+2: There are new leaders in both Moldova and Transnistria that present historic opportunities. Now is the time to lean in.

And to our friends in Washington and Brussels: supporting Moldova so far has been an exasperating process, but we need you to redouble your efforts. If this problem remains a low priority, it will continue to fester, until one day, the Transnistria conflict forces itself to the top of the world’s agenda for all the wrong reasons. We need your engagement now more than ever.

Vladimir Plahotniuc is Chairman of the Democratic Party of Moldova, the main party in the nation’s governing coalition.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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