On June 14 I was the keynote speaker at a press briefing in Kiev organized by The American Institute in Ukraine on the problem of Pridnestrovie (Transnistria). The Russian and Ukrainian majority of that self-proclaimed republic straddling the eastern bank of the Dniestr declared secession from Moldova after a brief but bloody conflict in 1991 and proclaimed the “Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic” (PMR). It has not been recognized by any state, however, and the issue has remained unresolved for the past two decades. It is a complex post-Soviet “frozen conflict” par excellence. The diplomatic quadrille still played around it is quaintly reminiscent of the geopolitical games that preceded the advent of postmodern diplomacy.
My remarks at the AIU event were thematically a follow-up on my previous presentation in Ukraine’s capital, exactly a year ago. This time I focused on a set of proposals which Ukraine should consider in devising its own long-term settlement plan within the current “5+2” negotiating framework. The overall solution, I suggested, should be based on the Åland Islands’ model of extensive and internationally guaranteed self-rule. These Baltic islands inhabited by Swedes are under Finland’s nominal sovereignty but enjoy international guarantees of their special status. The guarantees originated with the League of Nations ninety years ago and were reiterated by the United Nations after the Second World War.
When Finland was offered membership of the EU the Ålands were entitled to a separate vote of their own on whether they wanted to join the Union. Likewise, I suggested, all Moldovan international treaties should be separately approved by Pridnestrovie; if not ratified by the entity’s Assembly—e.g., on an eventual NATO membership for Moldova—such treaties could apply to the rest of Moldova, but they would not be applicable to Pridnestrovie. The entity’s full autonomy should be anchored in a UN Security Council resolution, it should be guaranteed by the powers currently facilitating the negotiating process, and enshrined in a new Moldovan Constitution. The entity’s capital city, Tiraspol, should have the right to veto any subsequent attempt to change the division of authority between Pridnestrovie and the Moldovan government in Kishinev. Legislative powers should be divided between Kishinev and Tiraspol and not delegated to Pridnestrovie by Moldova.
Having presented my views and outlined possible solutions in as much detail as could be done in half an hour, I was surprised to see a news report of the event by the Interfax news agency—the regional equivalent of the Associated Press—which was released some two hours later. It was at significant odds with both the tone and substance of my remarks.
“It is in the interests of Ukraine to maintain an open[-ended] status quo position,” the report correctly quoted me as saying, yet omitted the key second half of the same sentence: “… but in practice an enduring settlement is needed, and the decision-makers in Kiev should take a proactive role in reaching it.”
The omission was significant. Advising President Viktor Yanukovich and his government to stick to the status quo—which the report has me doing—is not nearly the same as (1) saying that the status quo may be desirable from Ukraine’s point of view but that is not feasible because all parties need a long-term solution; and (2) adding that the quest for such a long-term solution demands Ukraine’s hands-on diplomatic engagement. In view of my proposals concerning such engagement, it is obvious that the “status quo” part of the sentence merely described what is rather than advised what should be.
More erroneously still, the news item asserted that “Trifkovic said that Ukraine should encourage Moldova’s position, which foresees equidistance from both Russia and the West.” In fact I said the opposite, that “Ukraine should encourage Moldova’s eventual move towards equidistance from both Russia and the West.” Moldova is currently ruled by an unpopular pro-Romanian coalition which is likely to lose elections due later this month. Its position is that Transnistria is an integral part of Moldova and should be reintegrated, plain and simple. For Ukraine to support the position of that government now, on the grounds that it “foresees equidistance from both Russia and the West”—which it emphatically does not—would be ridiculous. Uttering such nonsense is some light years away from supporting (as I did) Moldova’s shift to pragmatic non-alignment, which is desirable and likely when a new government is formed after the election.
The host of the event, AIU President Anthony Salvia, was also misquoted in the same news item. In his introductory remarks he said that an important contribution to settling the conflict would be the replacement of Igor Smirnov as Pridnestrovian president. “He has brought the country that he has ruled for twenty years to a dead end,” Salvia said, and should be replaced by someone better equipped to give his land the international legitimacy it badly needs so that a solution may be found. Yet the news item misquoted him as saying that “the best way to solve this situation would be the replacement of Igor Smirnov.” The self-evident difference between a necessary condition and the sufficient prerequisite to the solution in Pridnestrovie has eluded the subeditors entrusted with the story.
The flawed Interfax news report was promptly (and by the look of it, eagerly) carried in verbatim translation by dozens of newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites in Romania and by the pro-Romanian media in Moldova itself. “Ukraine should maintain the status quo, says U.S. expert,” their headlines declared, as well as “Americans in Kiev say: Solution to Transnistria—Smirnov’s resignation!” The Interfax story turned out to be an unexpected and welcome gift to the promoters of a Greater Romania, one of the most destabilizing and anachronistic “projects” actively pursued anywhere in Europe. The whole thing was surreal, on par with the Albanians gleefully quoting Sergei Lavrov for “saying” that Kosovo should be internationally recognized.
The trouble with many journalists of our time, East and West, is that they lack the education and natural skills of their peers from earlier generations. The latter were expected to have a nose for a story and an ear for its nuances, just as a pianist was and still is expected to have an ear not only for the music but also for the composer’s intent.
The issue of possible mistranslation notwithstanding, the discrepancy between the overall tenor of Mr. Salvia’s and my remarks and the resulting report should have been spotted at a senior editorial level. That it was not spotted should be a cause of concern to the upholders of journalistic standards in the former Soviet lands. The alternative to maintaining those standards is an ever-tighter stranglehold of the CNN and its ilk on what the global village is allowed to know and how its denizens should think about what they think they know.