L’Invité D&B: International recognition of Moldova’s neutrality – lessons to be learned from Austria and Ukraine

Moldova’s Neutrality as a viable model, or as an illusion? By Dionis Cenusa

By Dionis Cenuşa° – initially published on H1

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° Dionis Cenuşa is a political scientist from Moldova who works as Program Director on Energy Security at the Independent Economic Think-tank “Expert-Group”, based in Chisinau.

In a close connection with the Transnistrian issue, a request to strengthen Moldova’s neutrality status is part of a constant political discourse, lately being promoted abroad. Since taking office at the end of 2016, the Moldovan President Igor Dodon has asserted neutrality as an essential element of the final settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. During his discussions with the Head of the European diplomat Federica Mogherini (2014-2019), Igor Dodon underscored that Moldova’s neutrality goes hand in hand with the balanced foreign policy (presedinte.md, September 5, 2019). Earlier, he also highlighted the interdependence between the permanent neutrality and a balanced foreign policy at the Münich Security Conference (presedinte.md, February 15, 2019).

Continuously, President Dodon’s speech at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly was a new episode of his pro-neutrality assertive actions. On one hand, he expressed the objective to obtain “international recognition” of Moldova’s neutrality, and on the other one, he invoked Austria’s military neutrality as an example for Moldovan case (Presedinte.md, 26 September 2019).

Meanwhile, to the East, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s entourage proposed the negotiation of an international agreement to be signed by the main external actors “when” the conflict in Donbas will be resolved. Specifically, Zelensky’s advisor on international affairs, Andrey Ermak, favors an agreement between the US, UK, Germany, France and China, which would require them to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity (LB.ua, 23 September 2019). Notably, Russia is not considered among these external guarantors.

It should be noted, however, that Ermak’s idea irretrievably ignores the failures of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which provided Russian-British-American guarantees in exchange for Kiev’s surrender of its nuclear arsenal. Moreover, three out of six conditions of that Memorandum were flagrantly violated by Russia (Text of the Memorandum). That includes the revision of the Ukrainian border by mimicking a referendum (annexation of Crimea), violating the Ukrainian border (military intervention in Luhansk and Donbas) and trade sanctions for political purposes (trade embargoes).

Thus, the new Ukrainian government simplifies and idealizes the willingness of foreign actors to confront Russia in order to protect Ukrainian interests. And, a perception emerges regarding the supposed capacity of certain international measures to discourage the geostrategic ambitions of the Russian government, in particular in the Eastern European region.

The Austrian model of neutrality and the failure of security guarantees for Ukraine contained in the Budapest Memorandum, highlights some important lessons to be drawn for Moldova’s case:

The historical-circumstantial aspect. Austrian neutrality stems from Vienna’s attempt to remove all foreign military forces from the territory of Austria after the Second World War. The Austrian State Treaty, signed in May 1955 (U.S. Department of State), provided for the introduction of constitutional neutrality as soon as the retreat of the foreign military forces is ensured.

The Austrian authorities informed the international community, through diplomatic channels, about country’s neutrality, without requiring external actors to recognize this status through other additional signed-and-ratified documents. Furthermore, these constitutional provisions on neutrality have been adjusted along the time to allow accession to the EU and participation in UN peacekeeping missions. According to Austrian diplomat Helmut Tichy, Austria’s neutrality is currently limited to “non-participation in wars, defense of neutrality at any cost, non-adherence to military blocs and rejection of any military bases in Austria“.

Therefore, President Dodon’s attempt to use the Austrian model seems artificial and futile. First of all, the independence and sovereignty of Moldova is strongly challenged by the presence of Russian military and armaments in the Transnistrian region, which contravenes the principle of neutrality enshrined in art. 11 of the supreme law, and were qualified as “unconstitutional” (Europa liberă, May 3, 2017). For this reason, the introduction of international guarant(ees)ors, as Igor Dodon suggests, is artificial as long as the application of the constitutional provisions in force is obstructed by Russia. At the same time, the Austrian state’s approach to neutrality was conceived in a very specific historical context, representing rather a sui generis case. At a time, establishing neutrality was essential to escape foreign occupation, in particular the Soviet one.

Therefore, there is no justification for using the Austrian model, since Moldova already meets the criteria for permanent neutrality, and the only impediment is Russia’s refusal to withdraw its troops from the Transnistrian region (Institute for the Prevention of Hybrid Threats, 29 September 2019).

The aspect of Russian disengagement from the international agreements. The failure of the Budapest Memorandum, knowingly executed by Russia, was a major obstacle for Ukraine’s statehood. The ideas of Zelensky’s adviser, Andrey Ermak, do not coincide with reality, given that the Ukrainian territory has been reduced by direct or hidden (hybrid) military interventions from Moscow.

A Memorandum guaranteeing the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine – 2.0. version –  cannot replace the general international law openly violated by Russia. For this reason, the recognition of Moldovan neutrality on the basis of an international agreement, with Russia’s signature, would have a questionable value. The real solution is to strengthen the existing framework of international law instead of employing individual, fragile, and temporary approaches. Furthermore, appropriate measures to make Russian authorities comply with international law are lacking. The sanctions imposed by the West serve only to diminish the scale of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, but they cannot completely stop them. Meanwhile, Russia continues to prevail or even emerge in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and the Arctic Ocean.

In conclusion, the arguments mentioned above imply that international recognition of Moldova’s neutrality is an artificial construction, wrongly inspired by the unique Austrian experience and not adapted to the tragic experience of Ukraine. In fact, the main objective of the Moldovan political class should be to strengthen the defense capabilities through intense collaboration with NATO and to determine the withdrawal of the Russian military presence from the Transnistrian region, including by strengthening the role of the OSCE.

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