MOLDOVA: 'Consolidating the borders is the highest priority'
Karin Palmquist

For tiny Moldova, the second smallest of the former Soviet republics after Armenia, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, and close, but not touching, the Black Sea, the transition to a stable, independent democracy has not been easy.

For the lasttwelve years, a tiny sliver of land in the east of the country called Transnistria has been trying to break away from the rest of Moldova. Separatist rebels in the predominately Russian-speaking region have declared an independent republic with its own currency and army.

A third round of talks to settle the conflict in Transnistria started on June 21. sat down with Moldova's ambassador to the United States, Mihail Manoli, to hear what he hopes will be the outcome of the talks.

"Over the last twelve years, Moldova has made several concessions to Transnistria, but these concessions were not understood by the separatist leaders in the spirit of reconciliation," Ambassador Manoli said. "Unfortunately these concessions were not enough for the Transnistrian regime. Instead of trying to find a common solution, [the leaders in the Transnistrian capital] Tiraspol slipped towards political extremism, spurred on by some external forces. Determined to find a lasting solution for the Transnistrian conflict, the Moldovan leadership came with a new proposal in 2002, to create an asymmetric federal state. This is the ultimate concession the authorities of the Republic of Moldova can make."

The external forces spurring on the Transnistrian conflict, the ambassador said, are "some nationalistic movements in Russia."

"In April this year, the Transnistrian leaders came with their own proposals, which lacked a constructive approach, " the ambassador said. "In our view, the future federal state must be an asymmetrical one, while the separatist regime in Tiraspol suggested a union of two equal states on a confederate basis. The proposals put forward goes against the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] arrangement negotiated by all three mediators [Russia, Ukraine and OSCE] in 2003 and presented to both parties [Moldova and Transnistria] in January of this year."

Asked how far the Moldovan government is willing to go in terms of power sharing, the ambassador said: "It's premature to predict the autonomous status of the Transnistrian region. First of all, we need to agree on the basic principles of a political settlement. That will subsequently guide the drafting of the future constitution."

The former Soviet republic of Georgia, across the Black Sea from Moldova, has been plagued by separatist movements in the regions of Adjaria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have both expressed a desire to join the Russian Federation and both deny any authority of the Georgian government over their internal affairs. Asked if he sees any parallels between the conflict in Transdniestria and what is happening in Georgia, the ambassador said:

"We cannot draw exact parallels with Georgia. However, these conflicts have some common traits. They were created by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They are considered frozen conflicts in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], and, of course, all of them represent a real threat to the regional security, and to European security as a whole."

"We truly hope that in the next round of negotiations, Transnistria will take a constructive attitude by embracing the conciliatory proposal put forward by Moldovan authorities," the ambassador continued. "The current negotiations are pentagonal, between the Republic of Moldova and the Transnistrian separatist region, and with Ukraine, Russia and OCSE as mediators. We hope these negations will ultimately end with a viable and lasting solution to this conflict."

The United States has also taken an interest in finding a solution to the conflict in Transdniestria. Former US ambassador to Moldova Rudolf Perina is now the Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts at the State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR).

Moldova also has military cooperation with the United States, a relationship the country wishes to expand. In late May, the Moldovan government and the US European Command signed a memorandum to establish a Bureau for Military Cooperation in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.

"The bureau will complement the bilateral military cooperation already in place between the United States and Moldova," the ambassador said. "The United States has helped with training and providing technical assistance to the Moldovan army. For example, between the years 1994 and 2002, 98 soldiers have taken English language courses, and 150 have undergone military training in order to prepare them for participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Between 2001 and 2003, we have received over $3 million in technical assistance from the United States. Moreover, the United States has helped our army to train and outfit a peacekeeping battalion."

According to the Moldovan constitution, the country must remain neutral. Membership in organizations like NATO is therefore ruled out, but it can participate in programs like the Partnership for Peace.

The Moldovan government supported the US-led military intervention in Iraq, and the country sent 42 soldiers, mainly de-mining specialists, to help with the country's reconstruction. The soldiers' mission has expired, but they will soon be replaced by twelve new soldiers, also they specialists in de-mining.

"Moldova has signed ten out of twelve conventions on terrorism," the ambassador said. "After the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Moldova approved a law on fighting terrorism. The Moldovan authorities worked with the US government to block financing of terrorists. We verified all bank accounts against the list of dangerous people."

For Moldova, the problem with terrorism is one close to home.

"Transnistria region is a regional hub of all sorts of illegal activities that could eventually feed international terrorism," the ambassador said. "The dangerous nature of the Transnistrian separatist regime was recently brought to light when regime leader Igor Smirnoff publicly threatened Georgia [by saying he would] provide military assistance to the illegal regime of South Ossetia for its own separatist strife against the Georgian government. It is well known that the Transnistrian separatist regime has signed alliance agreements with [Georgian breakout republics] Abkhazia and South Ossetia."

Along with the security concerns, there are economic problems as well. Smuggling and trafficking along the border with Ukraine is a big problem for Moldova, which recently asked the United States and European Union for help with setting up customs offices on that border.

"Strengthening customs and border control on the Moldovan-Ukrainian frontier, particularly along the Transnistrian segment, is the highest priority for the government of Moldova," the ambassador said.

"When Moldova joined the WTO in 2001, changing the customs seals was at the top of the agenda," he continued. "Moldova's initiative to establish joint customs posts was met with reticence by the Ukrainian government. At last, after several rounds of Moldovan-Ukrainian consultations mediated by the European Union, we agreed to set up an international border-monitoring mission under the aegis of OSCE and with participation of the European Union. This mission will keep an eye on how the customs and border agreements are implemented. In 2003 we signed a customs protocol with the government of Ukraine. With that protocol Ukraine finally recognized the new customs seals introduced by the Moldovan government in 2001. The United States is helping us to address this problem as well. The United States has pledged to assist the Moldovan government with 22 mobile customs inspection teams to patrol the internal "border" between Republic of Moldova and the Transnistria region. Just last week the United States donated 100 computers and equipment worth $700,000 to the Moldovan Department of Border Control."

The goods smuggled across the border include alcohol and tobacco, and, according to some reports, drugs and arms.

"A solution to the conflict in Transdniestria would positively influence the economic progress of the Republic of Moldova. The problem with smuggling would go away, and it would make it easier for us to solve our external debt problem and speed up the European integration of our country," the ambassador said. "Consolidating the borders is the highest priority."

Mihail Manoli
Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States of America

Birth date: 09.20.1954

Place of birth: Valea-Mare, Ungheni, Moldova

1971-1975: Polytechnic Institute, Economic Faculty, Chisinau

1979-1982: Doctorate Studies at the Economic Faculty, Moscow University "M. V. Lomonosov"

1982: Doctorate degree in Economics

July-August 1994: Courses on "Transition economies" sponsored by the World Bank and IMF

1997: Institute of Public Administration of CE, (Maastricht, Netherlands)

Professional career:
1978 -1991: Assistant professor at the State University, Faculty of Economics, Chisinau

1991 -2002: Assistant professor at the Academy of Economics Studies, Accounting Department, Chisinau

1993 - 1995: Price Waterhouse, Lending Specialist, Project "Capital Markets in Moldova"

1995 - 1999: Deputy Minister of Finance

1999-2002: Minister of Finance of the Republic of Moldova

May 18, 2002: Appointed by presidential decree as Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States of America

Marital Status: Married, one son
Wife - Natalia Zlatina, Doctor in Economics, professor at the Moldovan Academy of Economics Studies
Son - Andrei Manoli, high school student