MOLDOVA: ONE STEP FORWARD, THREE STEPS BACK

Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 13

On June 16-17, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a “working visit” to Moldova–the first by a Russian president since 1991. The visit aimed to recoup at least part of the political influence which Moscow had lost during nine years of Moldovan independence. Transdniester’s secession and the Russian military presence in that part of Moldova provide Russia with effective levers to pursue that goal.

President Petru Lucinschi’s discussions with Putin centered on the political resolution of that conflict and the fulfillment of the November 1999 OSCE summit’s decisions on the unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova by December 2002. The discussions appear to have produced a serious net setback to both of those goals.

From a Moldovan standpoint, this meeting’s main achievement was Lucinschi’s refusal to include Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov–a citizen of Russia–in the Moldovan delegation for the talks with Putin. Lucinschi, moreover, unambiguously stated that “we must emancipate ourselves from the old-fashioned cliches that Russia has geopolitical interests in Moldova.” Considering the distance of more than 1,000 kilometers that separates Moldova from Russia, with Ukraine between the two, Lucinschi’s admonition seems as self-evident as overdue. It refutes a thesis which forms, explicitly or implicitly, the basis for Transdniester’s and the Moscow hardliners’ attempts to perpetuate the presence of Russian troops in Moldova.

Yet Putin seemed to ignore that admonition. First, he unilaterally claimed a permanent political role, including oversight rights, for Russia in Moldova. He stated: “Russia is interested in Moldova being a territorially whole, independent state. But this can not be achieved unless the interests of all population groups, including Transdniester’s population, are observed. Russia is prepared to participate in creating the conditions in which all residents will feel secure in Moldova. The political treaty must firmly ensure the rights of all those who reside on the territory of Moldova and who consider that Russia can be a guarantor of their rights.”

Those conditions imply a settlement shaped and arbitrated primarily by Moscow. Moreover, the second part of Putin’s statement would seem to cover not just the left bank (Transdniester) but the right bank of the Dniester as well, where most of Moldova’s “Russian-speaking population” resides amid the Moldovan majority. In Transdniester itself, local Russians amounting to 25 percent of the region’s population exercise a militarized form of minority rule. Local Moldovans and Ukrainians–41 percent and 28 percent, respectively, of Transdniester’s population–experience Soviet-style linguistic russification and political control by a security apparatus under officers of the former Soviet KGB.

No Moldovan official managed to remind Putin of the fact that ethnic minority rights in Moldova, as in all independent European states, are guaranteed by international covenants, not by special arrangements with any foreign power; or that Moldova’s performance in observing minority rights has been rated highly by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, the latter having admitted Moldova ahead of Russia as a full member due to Chisinau’s good record on interethnic relations. Putin’s statements indicated an intent to link, more clearly than has hitherto been the case, a settlement of the Transdniester conflict to Moldova’s constitutional arrangements and a tutelary role for Moscow. That was the first setback registered in these talks.

Second, the fulfillment of the OSCE’s troop withdrawal decision was–according to Lucinschi–“not discussed, because Vladimir Putin had stated from the outset that Russia will fulfill her obligations.” But Lucinschi’s words sounded like an excuse, considering that nothing has been done since November to implement the OSCE’s decisions on the evacuation of Russian arsenals and troops. Even the token pledge by Moscow to repatriate ten railroad convoys [“echelons”] of military hardware has remained a dead letter from November until now. Lucinschi himself had noted that fact just ahead of Putin’s visit, as did the OSCE mission in Chisinau both before and after the visit.

The Moldovan president may well have been technically correct in stating that “the words ‘military basing rights’ [of Russia in Moldova] were not pronounced during the discussions” with Putin. However, Lucinschi introduced a note of ambiguity by declaring on Russian television, on the eve of Putin’s visit, that Russian “peacekeeping troops must, in one form or another, stay in place until the final political settlement of the conflict.” But with Moscow dragging out that settlement indefinitely, and now adding new and more complex conditions, Lucinschi’s suggestion risks turning into an open-ended prolongation of the Russian military presence, potentially beyond the OSCE-stipulated 2002 deadline.

Lucinschi, moreover, did not rule out the possibility of authorizing the presence of Russian troops other than the “peacekeepers.” Indeed, that status only covers three Russian battalions, but not the 2,500 troops of Russia’s Operational Group of Forces, stationed on the left bank of the Dniester without any legal basis, in defiance of both Moldova and the international community. Russia and the Transdniester authorities hope to legalize those troops’ presence by mandating them to “guarantee” an eventual settlement of the Transdniester conflict. Such a mandate would require Moldova’s consent. Lucinschi’s remarks seemed to imply a willingness to consider such a possibility.

The Moldovan president needs to dispel those ambiguities in the interest of his own credibility and that of his country. In April of this year, Lucinschi’s reelection campaign staff and his Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis came out in favor of legalizing the status of those Russian troops under certain conditions. Lucinschi disavowed those suggestions belatedly and half-heartedly. The perpetuation of such ambiguities constitutes the second setback for Moldova in the Putin-Lucinschi meeting.

The third setback comes from Putin’s decision to appoint Yevgeny Primakov as coordinator of Russia’s policy toward Moldova with Lucinschi’s blessing. The Moldovan president soothingly suggests that the appointment promises to advance the political settlement and the military withdrawal. Primakov is, however, the main author of the “common state” scheme for settling the conflict. As foreign minister and prime minister of Russia, Primakov browbeat the Moldovan leadership–Lucinschi included–into signing the 1997 Moscow and 1998 Odesa memoranda, in spite of OSCE objections to the content of those documents. They enshrine the “common state” concept and have been partly responsible for the deadlock in the negotiations. “Common state” is a recipe for perpetuating the deadlock and casting Moscow as permanent arbiter of the negotiations and of the ultimate settlement, should one ever materialize. Georgia and Azerbaijan understood this years ago and rejected the scheme. Moldova has been paying the price for her acceptance ever since. Primakov will undoubtedly maximize that price.

Primakov will be chairing an interdepartmental commission of the Russian government for negotiations with Chisinau and with breakaway Transdniester. A bilateral Russian-Moldovan forum is thereby created outside the existing framework, which includes Moldova, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE–the latter three as mediators. Creation of the parallel forum would privilege Moscow and strengthen Russian influence at the expense of the other two mediators. It risks moving the decisive aspects of the negotiations from the multilateral framework into a bilateral Russian-Moldovan framework, with Chisinau and Moscow obviously mismatched. And it can introduce a wedge between Moldova and the international community, complicating even further the latter’s job of rescuing Moldova from the brink.

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The Gusinsky case was yet another test of whether Putin was the puppetmaster or the puppet.It was quite an audacious demand, given that the state had already loaned ORT US$100 million, and that the station had used shares from the state’s stake in the company as collateral for the loan.More than 60 percent of Russia’s foreign debt of US$150 billion, moreover, is owed to Germany, so Putin had good reasons for trying to mend fences with Berlin.The Chinese government, which has enthusiastically backed Moscow’s opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, appeared somewhat taken aback by Putin’s talk of pooling Russian, American, and European capabilities in a joint missile defense plan.’The failure to atone represents an insuperable stumbling block to normal relations between Russia and the Baltic states.’Lucinschi, moreover, unambiguously stated that ‘we must emancipate ourselves from the old-fashioned cliches that Russia has geopolitical interests in Moldova.’Primakov is, however, the main author of the “common state” scheme for settling the conflict.Primakov will be chairing an interdepartmental commission of the Russian government for negotiations with Chisinau and with breakaway Transdniester.

“The Fortnight in Review” is prepared by senior analysts Jonas Bernstein (Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), and Vladimir Socor (Non-Russian republics). Editor, Stephen Foye. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4526 43rd Street NW, Washington, DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of “The Fortnight in Review” is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation