Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 70

Even as Western countries are finally undertaking serious efforts to free Moldova from Russian troops, some close associates of President Petru Lucinschi seem to be working at cross-purposes with both that policy and their country’s interests. In recent days, the president’s Republic Movement has proposed that Moldova grant basing rights to the Russian troops, and Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis has indicated that the government would seriously consider that proposal. These statements, if allowed to stand, would appear to signal a revision of the policy that Moldova has officially followed since attaining her independence. The policy until now has been to refuse legalizing Russia’s military presence in any form and to seek the unconditional withdrawal of the Russian forces.

On April 4, however, the Republic Movement published a call for legalizing the Russian military presence in Transdniester through the conferral of basing rights on the Russian troops there. Framed as the product of some sort of “public opinion questionnaire,” and geared to the president’s reelection campaign, the proposal is being presented as a “step toward the resolution of the Transdniester dispute and toward reunifying the country.” The idea seems to take at face value Moscow’s oft-repeated hints that Chisinau could recoup some of its lost authority in Transdniester with Russia’s help, provided that Chisinau grants basing rights to the Russian troops and otherwise reorients its policies toward Russia.

The Republic Movement has recently been set up by Lucinschi as his political vehicle, officially dedicated to securing his reelection in the November 2000 presidential contest. In that spirit, Lucinschi was the keynote speaker at the movement’s founding conference last month. The movement’s chief, a major-general of the internal troops, Mihai Plamadeala, is both a communist and a top presidential adviser, currently as secretary of the Security Council under the president. Lucinschi picked Plamadeala for senior state posts as a token of gratitude for the Communist Party’s support of Lucinschi’s presidential candidacy in 1996. In 2000 even more than in 1996, the support of leftist and Russian-oriented groups is crucial to Lucinschi’s reelection. The indigenous Moldovan majority is, on the whole, politically apathetic and displays–not unlike the Moldovan elite itself–but little concern about Transdniester.

On April 6, Braghis was interviewed about his stance as prime minister regarding the possible legalization of Russia’s military presence in Moldova. Braghis took the position that the issue must be seen “through the prism of economics. Let us weigh the pluses and minuses involved in the decision. If we can, as a result of it, receive natural gas and other benefits, I don’t see why we should not take that step. As a small country, we can’t dictate to others how to deal with us.” That resigned shrug would seem to ignore the current Western efforts to secure the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. However, the prime minister did admit in the same interview that legalizing the presence of Russian troops would contravene the Organization for Security and Cooperation summit’s decisions of November 1999 and Moldova’s own declarations to date.

Braghis asked for “two to three months for an assessment of all the pros and cons” by the government. That timeframe would coincide with the meeting, planned for July, of the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Moldova, the Transdniester leadership and OSCE mediators, at which Lucinschi hopes to produce a Transdniester settlement apt to boost his electoral prospects. However, a settlement which would retain Russian troops in Transdniester would not only abandon Moldova’s interests, but would also hurt Ukraine by keeping Russian forces wedged into that country’s flank.

Braghis, too, is a Lucinschi loyalist. A former first secretary of Moldova’s Komsomol, he was picked by the president in December 1999 to head a government which depends on the reborn Communist Party’s graces, and which replaced the unambiguously pro-Western government of Ion Sturza. That change represented the first major move of the presidential team toward a pre-electoral deal with the Communist Party and, as it now appears, toward exploring the possibility of an arrangement with Moscow on the matter of Russian troops.

Lucinschi’s re-election prospects mainly depend on a deal with Moldova’s Communist Party, the support of the “Russian-speaking” electorate and the blessing of Moscow. Lucinschi desperately needs to put that combination together, failing which he would face probable defeat at the hands of Communist leader Vladimir Voronin. The president’s first term of office has been marked by economic disaster, for which he is unfairly being blamed by much of the populace. The Communists are adept at exploiting that disaster for political advantage, as demonstrated by their spectacular gains in the 1999 parliamentary elections.

The president, moreover, is ending his first term in a state of acute conflict with most parliamentary parties. Lucinschi seeks to change the constitution and turn Moldova into a presidential republic, severely reducing the parliament’s powers. He argues with much justification that this parliament is dysfunctional and that pre-term elections would likely produce an equally dysfunctional chamber. In response, a substantial parliamentary majority across party lines favors changing the constitution and turning Moldova into a parliamentary republic, with a figurehead president to be elected by the legislature, not by popular vote. The likely winner in that case would again be Voronin, whose party holds forty seats in the 101-seat chamber and can count on at least a dozen allies. The three center-right and rightist parties hold less than forty seats between them and tend to exhaust themselves in mutual rivalries. They provide a sharp contrast with the well-drilled Communists, who play those parties off against each other.

With the constitution currently treated as a political plaything, it seems hardly surprising that the Republic Movement’s proposal and the Braghis statement failed to invoke the constitutional ban on the stationing of foreign troops on Moldova’s territory. Nor is it entirely surprising that those suggestions should arise from presidential circles. As Moldova’s indebtedness to Russia ballooned, and the unreformed economy headed for bankruptcy, government officials began informally to consider the idea of granting military basing rights to Russia in return for debt writeoffs, or “free gas.” This fact was known to those familiar with official thinking in Chisinau. But hardly any officials would air the idea publicly until now. One who boldly did so last year was Vladimir Babii, who is another ex-Komsomol leader and headed Lucinschi’s council of economic advisers.

Some of the president’s detractors will undoubtedly cite his earlier career in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to explain the overtures of his immediate subordinates in Moscow’s direction. Such an explanation would, however, miss the fact that these overtures represent an improvised and perhaps desperate response to the presidency’s internal political predicament and the approaching elections. Lucinschi is the closest thing Moldova has to a modern leader of European convictions. His current, weakened position notwithstanding, only he can stop the Communists from capturing the presidency. The centrist and right-of-center parties are small, divided and worn out from earlier stints in power, and unable to identify a suitable presidential candidate. Ultimately, however, at least some of those parties would support Lucinschi in a runoff against a communist challenger.

The timing of those overtures to Moscow is particularly counterproductive. They undercut the efforts of Moldova’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, which has consistently and ably mobilized support in the United States and in Western Europe for the removal of Russian forces, and is continuing that work in order to ensure implementation of the OSCE summit decision. They cast doubt on Moldova’s volition to accept the benefits of that decision, taken as recently as last November, and which was rightly described by Lucinschi at that time as a national victory. They can discourage Western financial contributions to the international fund that has been created to defray the costs of the Russian military withdrawal. And they risk emboldening Moscow to disregard its own pledge, made only last week after much foot-dragging, to submit by the end of April a detailed schedule of the complete removal of Russian arsenals from Moldova until next year. A clarification from a level higher than that of the prime minister is required in order to dispel the doubts and ambiguities that have been created (Flux, Basapress, April 6-7; see the Monitor, April 5, February 8, January 14; December 6, November 22, 1999).

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