Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 49

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin will attend NATO’s summit in early April to seek a post-summit endorsement of Moldova’s permanent neutrality, in a document to be signed by the Western powers with Russia.

Chisinau defines such neutrality as a commitment to never join military alliances and a ban on the stationing of foreign troops on Moldova’s territory. In practice, the first part means staying out of NATO for an indefinitely long period of time; the second part entails ridding a reunified Moldova of Russian troops as soon as possible.

Following his latest discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 21 in Moscow, Voronin confirms in a detailed interview with Kommersant (undoubtedly intended as a public message to the Kremlin) that he sticks to this offer: an internationally witnessed Moldovan commitment to permanent neutrality in exchange for withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova (Kommersant, March 11).

International recognition of neutrality so defined would underpin — and, at least implicitly, ratify — the outcome of bilateral negotiations between Chisinau and Moscow to resolve the long-running Transnistria conflict. Chisinau expects the outcome to involve Transnistria’s return under Moldovan sovereignty, albeit with a broad-autonomy status; and an international mission of civilian observers to replace the Russian “peacekeeping” troops.

Voronin and his team believe that such a resolution is imminent, expecting Russian consent to the Moldovan-drafted “Package” of documents. Moscow has indeed conducted bilateral negotiations on that Package since the autumn of 2006, tantalizing Chisinau with hints at every step that a solution on those terms could be around the corner. The involvement of Russia’s National Security Council’s Deputy Secretary Yuri Zubakov as main negotiator, with Putin occasionally involved, has encouraged the Moldovan presidential team along this path. At present (unlike in 2007), Chisinau realizes that full disclosure to its Western partners is ultimately its best bet.

In fact, Moscow has dragged out these negotiations, pending its own discussions of a far more complex nature with NATO and the United States regarding the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and its implementation. In the CFE discussions, Russia has come close to extracting de facto consent from NATO and the United States to drop the demand for Russian troop withdrawal from Moldova (and Gudauta in Georgia) as a pre-condition (under the 1999 Istanbul Commitments) to ratifying the CFE treaty.

In this situation, Western endorsement of Moldova’s neutrality could add political impetus to demands for Russian troop withdrawal from Moldova, irrespective of ups and downs in the ongoing CFE negotiations. For its part, Moldova has long tried to invoke its neutral status as one of the arguments in calling for withdrawal of Russian troops. However, the argument resting on neutrality would carry far greater weight if Moldova’s neutral status were to receive some form of international endorsement

Moldova’s “permanent neutrality” has been enshrined since 1993 in its constitution, along with a ban on the stationing of foreign troops on the country’s territory. However, the neutrality remains to this day self-declared and has translated into a permanent Russian breach of the same, with troops in place.

Chisinau now seeks support for an international declaration that would bring the Western powers and Russia together in endorsing a neutral status for Moldova. In its four-paragraph draft, Chisinau presents the permanent neutrality as a Moldovan national choice and sovereign decision. The document would enshrine international support for the permanent neutral status at Moldova’s own request. The word “recognition” could lead to semantic and legalistic debates. It seems that Chisinau seeks a declaration that would carry largely political and moral value, rather than legal commitments by the signatory parties to oversee or pledge to enforce Moldova’s neutrality.

Moldova hopes to submit its draft for discussion and possible development and signing by Russia, Ukraine, the United States, European Union, and OSCE — that is, the five international participants in the “5 + 2” negotiations to resolve the Transnistria conflict. Moldova would sign the declaration alongside them; whereas Tiraspol’s de facto authorities would not qualify for signing, as they are not recognized by Moldova or internationally.

In parallel with initiating discussions on the neutrality declaration, Moldova seeks to wrap up its negotiations with Russia on the Package, which Moscow hints it could broadly accept. In Chisinau’s sequencing, a positive closure with Russia should be followed by a relaunch of the “5 + 2” negotiations, which would review, possibly edit, and ultimately bless the package documents.

Voronin proposes that the “5 + 2” forum should emulate the Dayton procedure for resolution of the Bosnia conflict. It should involve a single, secluded, marathon-length negotiating session, with a prior commitment by all participants to emerge with a full resolution at the end. This new Dayton would be convoked in either Helsinki or St. Petersburg. Chisinau shows a slight preference for the latter venue, presumably to stimulate Russia to feel as a stakeholder in this process and its success.

A “5 + 2” agreement would then be crowned with the signing of the proposed declaration on Moldova’s permanent neutrality. Chisinau hopes for this process to be completed within the next few months, in time for elections to be conducted in Moldova on both banks of the Nistru, to a single national parliament.

At the moment, the entire process seems to hinge on the trade-off involving Russian troop withdrawal in exchange for Moldovan permanent neutrality internationally endorsed internationally. Whether Russia would regard such a neutrality pledge as sufficient is far from certain. It seems more likely that it would pose additional preconditions, such as veto prerogatives for Tiraspol in a reunified Moldovan state; and that such trade-offs would involve on the Russian side not an actual withdrawal of its troops, but rather a promise to withdraw them after an intermediate period.

(Kommersant, March 11; Moldova Suverana, March 12)