Will North Macedonia Tackle the Transnistrian Conflict?

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Anton SVET
North Macedonia takes over from Poland the baton of the OSCE chairmanship in 2023. Resolution of the frozen conflicts is among the named priorities, but it appears that Skopje does not really have big plans for the Transdniestrian case
Next year, for the first time in history, the right to chair the OSCE will go to North Macedonia, a small Balkan state that declared its own independence from Yugoslavia only in September 1991. In fact, the chair country is the same age as our republic and was similarly created as a result of the defeat of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the Cold War, as well as disintegration processes in Europe. Despite the fact that Macedonia’s secession took place peacefully (Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the independence of the new republic), Skopje has some experience in resolving specific conflicts. Thus, for many years there was a political and legal dispute between it and Athens over the name of the state, which coincides with the historical area in the north of Greece. For this reason, North Macedonia could become a NATO member country only in 2020, remaining a EU candidate and one of the poorest countries on the continent. North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani named the priorities of the OSCE chairmanship back in September – before the permanent council and the parliamentary assembly of the organization. He said that “Russia’s war against Ukraine undermines the foundation of the OSCE and contradicts the agreed principles regulating relations between the participating states.” Osmani pledged that the political-military dimension of security, conflict prevention and management would remain a key goal: “Protracted conflicts, their costs and steady peace progress will be at the top of the future chairmanship’s agenda.” The Macedonian Minister did not single out any conflict other than Ukraine, but he wants to build on existing formats and support field missions in the search for peaceful solutions. Other challenges in 2023 include border management, hybrid and cyber threats, energy, food security, the climate change-security nexus, migration and human trafficking. Apparently, North Macedonia, led by the OSCE, plans to work on a fairly routine set of topics without any ambitious super-objectives. There is a sense that Skopje’s expectations for the resolution of the “traditional” conflicts in which the OSCE plays a prominent role (Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, and Georgia) are minimal to say the least. After all, the OSCE Minsk Group was unable to prevent a large-scale military confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the talks on the Transcaucasia have been frozen since Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the Transdniestrian region, which, for example, the Slovakian chairmanship in 2019 singled out as the most promising, the OSCE has not made much progress either. The last noticeable progress achieved with the direct involvement of the organization dates back to 2016-2017, the period of the consecutive German and Austrian chairmanships. In the summer of 2016, Berlin was able to revive the 5+2 format, bring the parties to the conflict to the negotiating table and, under considerable political “pressure”, achieve the signing of a final document that set the trajectory for interaction between the two banks of the Dniester River for several years to come. The following year, Vienna promoted a series of agreements, the so-called Berlin Plus Package: a bridge was opened across the Dniester River near the village of Gura Bicului, issues were settled concerning land use in the Dubossary district, apostilization of Transdniestrian diplomas and the work of Latin-script schools in the Transdniestrian region. An agreement on telecommunications was also signed, but it was never implemented. The successes of five years ago can probably be explained not only by the serious ambitions of Berlin and Vienna, but also by the general geopolitical environment in Europe – at that time even the Normandy talks on the implementation of the Minsk agreements were quite active. Moreover, the head of the OSCE mission to Moldova at that time was the influential American diplomat Michael Scanlan, who energetically pushed for results in the negotiation process and was not particularly worried about possible offenses and discontent from Chisinau or Tiraspol. Over the past three years, the Transdniestrian settlement process has actually come to a standstill. The 5+2 format is in a state of coma, and the legendary Berlin-Plus Package is not being fully implemented, for which the two sides are systematically blaming each other. Such a situation has largely developed with the tacit consent of the three consecutive OSCE Chairmanships – the Albanian, Swedish and Polish, which have not shown any significant interest in the Transdniestrian file. This is confirmed by the absence of attempts to resume the 5+2 format and the regular extension of the mandate of the OSCE Special Representative Thomas Mayr-Harting, who has not been very successful and active in his position. This, however, did not embarrass any of the countries that appointed him. As a result, for the first time in 11 years, the OSCE participating states did not even manage to adopt the final statement of the Warsaw Foreign Ministers’ Summit on the Transdniestrian settlement. Whether North Macedonia will appoint its own emissary is still unknown. Plans for the 5+2 format are also unclear. Moscow and Tiraspol have repeatedly and even ritually declared their interest in revitalizing it. However, the other participants are cautious, not without reason, believing that as long as there is war in Ukraine, it does not make much sense, and it is hardly possible to gather this format. However, there is one more factor – the new head of the OSCE Mission, American Kelly Keiderling. It is unlikely that a U.S. representative has been appointed only to passively monitor the processes. The more so that Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian recently said that the authorities were preparing some new reintegration strategy – and there is no alternative format for its promotion at the moment. Which, of course, does not preclude the possibility of their creation, which is also hinted at. All this means that, under certain circumstances, Northern Macedonia may still be required to activate the “turbo mode” in the Transdniestrian issue. Time will tell whether Skopje is ready for this.