Leading article: Time for a thaw in the frozen conflicts

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The Independent Online

Compared with the murderous conflicts being waged elsewhere in the world, the simmering dispute between Moldova and its breakaway region of Trans-Dniester might seem a mere note in the margin. And, in principle, the result of the referendum that took place in the region this weekend need not detain anyone very long.

Moldova is a sovereign state - the former Soviet republic of Moldavia, which became independent when the USSR collapsed - and Trans-Dniester is a constituent part of it. Its unilateral declaration of independence 16 years ago was not recognised internationally and a brief campaign of armed resistance fizzled out. It remains a region of Moldova.

Yet a vote for secession by almost 80 per cent of the region's mainly Russian-speaking population should give international rule-makers pause for thought. Trans-Dniester is clearly not reconciled to its present status. Either it should be granted real autonomy within Moldova or - just perhaps - the unthinkable should be thought.

Trans-Dniester is one of several "frozen" conflicts left unresolved at the end of the cold war. Most, but not all, concern ethnic Russian enclaves within a majority non-Russian state. Whether in Georgia, Azerbaijan or Moldova, every one is a continuing source of friction and suspected by the newly independent states of being a potential Russian fifth column.

The region of Kosovo, in former Yugoslavia, is in many ways analogous to these post-Soviet Russian enclaves. Administratively part of Serbia when Yugoslavia broke up, Kosovo contains sites of great cultural significance for Serbs, which is one reason why the late Slobodan Milosevic tried so ruthlessly to keep hold of the region.

Even under UN protection, as it is now, the territory belongs officially to Serbia. But all the UN's best efforts to integrate the minority Slav population with the Albanian majority have failed. Earlier this summer, talks began on a final settlement for Kosovo. Despite Russia's opposition, the outcome is widely expected to be Kosovo's full independence. And, however much the negotiators insist - as they will - that Kosovo is an exception that must never become the rule, any change in its status will give succour to other demands for secession - including Trans-Dniester's.

The principle that borders are sacrosanct was necessary during the Cold War. Now, though, perhaps there is room for more flexibility. At least some of the frontiers now being contested were drawn artificially to cement Soviet power. As the sensitivity of Kosovo shows, any change will be fraught with risk. Ultimately, though, that risk could prove less destabilising than preserving an untenable status quo.