The lessons and knowledge accumulated from Transnistria and Northern Cyprus should be a valuable asset when tackling another emerging frozen conflict in Europe – the Ukrainian Donbass.
By Anastasiya Marchuk*
Transnistria, a secessionist region of the Republic of Moldova, is often compared to Northern Cyprus. Both share many common features – aspirations for independence and non-recognition by the international community, over-involvement of external actors or ‘guarantors’, a history of violence which preceded establishment of the current status quo, strong self-identity and cultural differences, presence of foreign military forces and disadvantaged conditions for trade and movement of people in comparison with the opponent.
At the same time, the Cyprus conflict is aggravated by a number of factors, including strong religious and ethnic contrasts and existence of minorities, who are severely underrepresented. A certain level of ‘demonization’ and misinterpretation of past events have led to the formation of strong feelings of hostility between the two communities. As in the case of Transnistria, international efforts brought little comfort, if any, and are often strongly rejected by at least one of the parties, feeling that the proposed measures are one-sided and biased. Indeed, the only feasible plan which had a chance to succeed was the ‘Annan Plan‘, that can be compared to the ‘Kozak’s Memorandum’ for Transnistria. Paradoxically, the attempt to reach settlement through consultations not with elites but the population, through two separate referenda, yielded unwanted results. As in any conflict, radical segments of the political arena – those from the South calling for ‘Enosis’ and those from the North promoting ‘Taksim’ – took advantage of the situation to launch propagandistic campaigns and influence the public opinion, which had been already very much divided.
These lessons and knowledge accumulated through mistakes and failures should be a valuable asset when tackling another emerging frozen conflict in Europe – the Ukrainian Donbass. Clearly, at present it is going through the phase of active violent confrontation, but it will most likely transform into a frozen condition when all sides acknowledge the impossibility to gain a clean victory without full physical destruction of the opponent.
The factors – objective or generated artificially – which divide the communities, are already apparent and they will prevent reunification of the population far more successfully than any borders or armed soldiers. Different interpretation of historical events, creation of myths about atrocities committed by both sides, deliberate or unconscious maintaining of a behavioral paradigm ‘us’ vs ‘them’ – these are the primary topics which should be addressed within the process of conflict transformation.
The reconciliation strategy must be comprehensive and consistent, since it will be severely challenged in both communities, and for different reasons. First, the chaos of war creates high incentives for flourishing of organized crime. Second, it leaves much room for corruption and financial jiggery-pokery in the area of military procurement and such. Finally, there are certain segments of the population that find it honorable, inevitable or even exciting to continue fighting.
With the beginning of protests in November 2013 in Kiev and subsequent escalation of violence caused by inadequate reaction from the Government, the society of Ukraine has started the process of its conversion. Young men and women picked-up wooden shields and clubs, to be later replaced with rifles and body armor. Wearing clothes with camouflage patterns and balaclavas became fashionable. Youth self-organized itself into semi-military formations and started duplicating the work of the police, protecting public order. At times they even attempted executing ‘justice’ the way they see it, as seen in the recent Mukachevo incident, although the motives of the ‘Right Sector’ activists remain to be verified. Distrust in state institutions, nurtured by decades of corruption and loyalty to only certain groups in power, and active dissemination of firearms across the country pose a great threat to the fragile balance in the country and bode ill for any peace-building initiatives.
The experience shows that prior to offering any settlement proposals, there is an obvious need to build trust between the two communities, ideally with recognition and involvement of existing minorities. Any agreements reached at the level of the leaders will fail if they are not backed up by the population. Confidence building measures and technical initiatives which benefit all people should precede all settlement efforts. The area for interaction could include creation of favorable conditions for commerce, education, sports, culture, women’s rights. Building bridges between minds is no less important than building them across rivers.
Anastasiya Marchuk works for the EU Border Assistance Mission to the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine in the field of conflict analysis, with focus on the Transnistrian settlement process. Her favorite research topic is frozen conflicts and their transformation.