15.02.2011 @ 18:17 CETEUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Miroslav Lajcak, the EU's top official covering post-Soviet countries and the western Balkans, has said he is optimistic about progress on the frozen conflict in Transniestria and on signing a landmark treaty with Ukraine this year.
Speaking to EUobserver by phone from Vienna on Monday (14 February) during his first meeting with the so-called 5+2 group on Transniestria, Mr Lajcak said there is a "positive dynamic" for giving the body a more formal status and for launching regular talks every two months.
The event brought together Mr Lajcak, US envoy Dan Russell and OSCE officials with Transniestrian envoy Vladimir Yastrebchak, Moldovan diplomat Eugen Carpov, Russian envoy Sergey Gubaryev and Ukrainian diplomat Igor Harchenko.
Transniestria broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s. The EU believes it will one day rejoin Moldova in a power-sharing deal giving it semi-autonomous status. But Russia currently has 1,200 troops in the region, giving the conflict a geopolitical dimension linked to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, a global pact on post-Cold War military deployment.
"There are elements that need to be solved at the highest political levels. But there also elements that can be handled by experts to prepare for the best possible decisions at the higher levels," Mr Lajcak said.
The former Slovak foreign minister and EU special envoy to Bosnia was appointed in December as European External Action Service (EEAS) director for relations with former Soviet and Balkan countries.
He is yet to visit Ukraine and Russia in his new capacity. But he dismissed reports that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is taking the country backward in democratic terms.
"No. There is no reason to be concerned. There is a new current. But as far as the EU is concerned, we have our processes going on and we hope that all our programmes will continue," he said. "Sure, it's realistic," he added, on the prospect of signing a deep free trade deal and a political Association Agreement later this year.
Asked if he believes the Russia-friendly Mr Yanukovych when he says that EU integration is his top priority, Mr Lajcak answered: "We have no reasons not to believe him. We are pleased that this is what he says - it's the best thing for Ukraine."
Ashton's big chance
Mr Lajcak's predecessor on Transniestria, the former EU special envoy to Moldova, Kalman Mizsei, said the frozen conflict is a chance for EEAS chief Catherine Ashton to make her mark. "The opportunity is that if somebody solves the Transniestria conflict, it will bring them fame. And it is solvable," he told this website shortly after leaving office on 31 January.
His snapshot of life in the unrecognised state showed how badly its people need change.
Transniestria is more pluralistic than it looks from the outside, with its leader Igor Smirnov vying for power with a young politician, Yevgeny Shevchuk, and two local tycoons, Ilya Kazmaly and Andrei Yudin, Mr Mizsei said. The regime is "not brutal" and people are rarely arrested for political reasons. But they have "very little say" about their future and police interrogations create "a degree of fear."
"Transniestria is a very sad place," the former EU envoy added. "I feel sorry for the half-million people who are trapped in this geopolitical controversy."
For his part, Udo Burkholder, the head of EUbam, an EU customs mission on the Transniestria-Ukraine border, warned that EU structures should deal directly with Mr Smirnov. "[The 5+2 envoy] Yastrebchak can make promises. But if Smirnov doesn't give the green light, nothing happens," he said.
On Ukraine, he noted that Mr Yanukovych has improved working conditions in Odessa, where EUbam has its base. "The new governor [Edward Matviychuk] is much better than [former president] Yushchenko's man. He's very open and he has started a serious anti-corruption drive," Mr Burkholder, a veteran German police officer, noted.