Moldovan negotiator rules out Moscow role in solving separatist issue

FILE PHOTO: Moldovans celebrate decision to open membership talks with EU

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova's top negotiator in resolving the three-decade-old dispute with its pro-Russian Transdniestria separatist enclave on Sunday ruled out any role for Russia in finding a solution as long as it was engaged in its war in Ukraine.

Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian made his comments on national radio as Moldova's pro-European government pressed ahead with its drive to secure European Union membership.

The country's prime minister on Saturday said the newly appointed minister for European Affairs would head Moldova's team at membership talks, which were the green light by European Union leaders last month.

Serebrian said the 5+2 Transdniestria negotiating process in place for 20 years -- which included Russia and Ukraine as well as the United States and European Union as observers -- could serve no purpose as long as Russia pursued its invasion.

"Returning to that format for a peaceful settlement depends on improved relations between Moscow and Kyiv," he said. "It has not been officially disbanded, but it is frozen."

Little progress could be expected for now on the "third basket" of the talks dealing with the enclave's future status in a country lying between Ukraine and Romania.

Serebrian said Moldova's priority for 2024 was proceeding with gradual integration with the EU. President Maia Sandu, who denounces Russia's invasion of Ukraine, has called for a greater role for the EU in resolving the standoff with Transdniestria.

Transdniestria split from Moldova before the 1991 collapse of Soviet rule and fought a brief war against the newly independent state, but has remained on the country's eastern fringe for more than 30 years with a minimum of turmoil. It has no international recognition and is heavily dependent on Moscow.

The two sides hold periodic one-on-one talks, but the latest round this month was beset by new Moldovan customs duties -- part of its EU membership drive -- denounced by the separatists as harmful to its businesses.

Transdniestrian negotiators say they will no longer attend talks in areas controlled by the government as they fear arrest under new tougher laws against separatism.

Prime Minister Dorin Recean on Saturday announced in a video presentation that Cristina Gherasimov, previously foreign ministry secretary of state, would serve as European integration minister and chief negotiator in negotiations on EU membership.

Gherasimov will also head a new European Integration Bureau dedicated to proceeding with those talks. Her appointment, and that of new Foreign Minister Mihail Popsoi, followed the resignation last week of Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Editing by Ron Popeski and Leslie Adler)