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The Kozak Memorandum: One decade on

Russia, the Near Abroad, and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transdniestria Conflict. By: William H. Hill. Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2012.

October 7, 2013 - Octavian Milewski - Articles and Commentary



This book, a narrative focusing on the southwestern confines of the “Russian space,” is an event unto itself: a must-read, full of inside information, for any student or scholar studying Moldova, Transnistria, and de facto statehood (particularly de facto statehood under Russian supervision), and all tinged with an awareness of Russia’s perception of the West. It also should be read, and maybe even re-read, by any scholar, student or erudite observer with an interest in Eastern Europe.

As a research volume interwoven with many elements of a professional memoir, the book has a specific approach based on the author’s personal values and formative experiences. One such experience is reflected in William Hill’s use of the name “Transdniestria” in the very title and throughout the book in general. A blending of the international “Trans” and Russian “Dniester”, which is less and less used by Moldovans living on the right bank of the Nistru river, the author writes that he keeps to this form for reasons of “neutrality, consistency and stubbornness” (p. xiv), which, although not a plea for neutrality, can be attributed to some sort of comfort of conviction among the staffers at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Although neutrality is hard to maintain when dealing with entrenched discourses in a protracted conflict, Hill could have offered more explanatory insights on the use of this most common word of his book, if only because Transnistria is de jure part of Republic of Moldova and could be referred to according to the legal authority’s own terminology. A presupposed reason could be the reference to “Transnistria” in Western historiography on the Holocaust, although the author is not explicit about that.

The volume’s structure is easily grasped. The first three chapters describe the complex relationship between Russia and the West during the 1990s and first half of 2000s. They bring nothing new to the debate, but they cogently contextualise the main foundation on which the patterns of Russian interaction with the West occurred and the permanent form it took after the series of events now conventionally called the “Kozak Memorandum”. The gist of the book comes in the ensuing chapters, where the author transforms the dynamics of the protracted Transnistrian conflict into a barometer of Russia’s mercurial relations with the West.

The crescendo of events surrounding the Kozak Memorandum of 2003 is described in detail, with inside information to which the common observer normally has no access. The author broadly uses conversations, discussions (closed or otherwise), and personal reports, interlacing these with the visions, ambitions, and interests of Moldovan, Transnistrian, and Russian stakeholders as expressed during the negotiations aimed at solving the conflict.

Hill’s own contribution to events provides food for thought, eventually compelling the reader to ask to what degree the personality heading the OSCE Mission is shaping the policy choices of the organisation. In this context, a benign bias that threads its way throughout the text stems from the author’s civic background. As a citizen of a state which is one of the most eloquent examples of federal republic (the United States), Hill provided input that sought a solution based on the most consensual state administrative platform possible, that is one based on federalism and decentralisation of authorities (as seen in the OSCE’s eventual proposed agreement).

The author seems to manifest a certain tension toward the civil society of those days, tangentially blaming it for contributing to the failure both to federalise Moldova and to provide the international community with a precedent for solving an ongoing conflict in the post-Soviet area. It would have been very useful to know the author’s view on why this society is so fiercely anti-federalist and willing to struggle for Moldova’s development as a unitary and not a federalised state. In this respect, Hill does not pay much attention to identity issues, nor, in particular, to the strategic identity issues of elites on both sides of Nistru river and in Moscow (since the Transnistrian conflict in general and the Kozak memorandum scenario in particular, was and is a cycle of events of mostly Russia’s making).

The concluding chapter is shorter than one would expect, given the book’s structure, but perhaps for good reason: it is too early to draw any conclusions about the Transnistrian conflict, as well as about Russia’s place in the world after the collapse of USSR. The book’s final chapter, then, can be completed only after the conflict is resolved. Ten years after the Kozak Memorandum, the conclusions of the book are true as ever, which is striking testament to the intractability of the conflict.

An interesting element is the analysis of the individual. The book itself is an individual-level analysis – the individual as a leader and stakeholder. And there is little hope that we will ever have a similar analysis by protagonists of the Kozak Memorandum which in many respects ran opposite to OSCE mediator document. It would, however, be useful to have accounts by other participant-stakeholders, since in the jargon of conflict analysis in the post-Soviet space the word “Kozak” is an acronym for the (con)federalisation a la russe of post-Soviet countries.

Hill enjoyed the immense advantage of having been in the midst of the very events that, had they been brought to a resolution, might have set a precedent (however questionable) for an entire continent. He officially represented the OSCE – and, one might judge, indirectly the US position – on the conflict, contributing directly to the process that fortunately brought the Kozak Memorandum to a standstill. Imagine how much better we would understand the events of 2003 if other participants in the negotiating process were to publish their own memoirs and accounts. Whether that happens remains to be seen. Until then, Hill’s book will remain the central bibliographic reference to the “Kozak Memorandum” and Russia’s management of its southwestern borderland.

This review has been re-published with kind permission of The Russian Review and Wiley, and will be published in the January print edition of The Russian Review.

Octavian Milewski is a political scientist specialised in post-Soviet area studies. He is currently a project coordinator affiliated to the International Fund for Cooperation and Partnership of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

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