NOW IT’S OFFICIAL: MOSCOW WANTS TO KEEP ITS TROOPS IN MOLDOVA.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 23

Russia’s policy on Moldova focused all along on the goal of securing a permanent military presence there. Its international obligation, tactically accepted in 1999, to withdraw all its troops from Moldova by December 2002 did not alter that strategic goal. From 1999 on, much circumstantial and some direct evidence indicated that Moscow would try to elude that obligation and keep some troops in Moldova, as “peacekeepers” and “guarantors” of a political settlement of the Transdniester problem.

On January 31, that goal was for the first time stated from a high official level by Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, who doubles as President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for the Transdniester problem. Visiting Chisinau and Tiraspol, Trubnikov hinted broadly that Moscow wants to signan agreement with the Moldovan government on the stationing of Russian troops and the conduct of joint military exercises.

Trubnikov argued that such a decision would not contravene Russia’s obligation to withdraw all troops under the 1999 decisions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Inasmuch as the OSCE itself is interested in a “reliably guaranteed” settlement in Transdniester, he maintained, the organization could accept the presence of Russian “guarantor” troops there. He added verbal reassurances to the OSCE and to Chisinau that Russia supports Moldova’s territorial integrity and a settlement in the framework of a “single state” of Moldova.

At the same time, Trubnikov reaffirmed Moscow’s commitment to removing or scrapping in place the ammunition and surplus equipment stockpiles of the former Soviet 14th Army in Transdniester. At the moment, Transdniester’ authorities are blocking the disposal and removal processes.

Trubnikov’s remarks reflect Moscow’s current tactics vis-a-vis the three other directly involved players. The Kremlin hopes and quite possibly expects that the Communist leaders in Chisinau would legalize the stationing of Russian troops through an interstate agreement. Moscow is prepared in that case to underwrite a political status of Transdniester that would fall short of the “common state,” hitherto sought by Moscow and acceptable to Tiraspol. The Russian side seeks to maneuver the OSCE into mandating the Russian troops to act as a “guarantor” force.

Moscow has several pseudo-legal cards at its disposal and is already playing them. One is the July 21, 1992 ceasefire agreement–signed by Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Mircea Snegur of Moldova, with the participation of Transdniester’s leader Igor Smirnov–which created Russian-Moldovan-Transdniestrian “collective peacekeeping forces” under Russian control. Another card to play is the OSCE’s consent in recent years to Russia’s prospective role as political and military “guarantor” of an eventual political settlement between Chisinau and Tiraspol. And yet another is the recently signed Russian-Moldovan interstate treaty, ratified by the Moldovan parliament last month, which bestows the “guarantor’s” role on Russia while failing to mention any other guaranteeing party.

The first of those documents, forced on Moldova through Russian military intervention was, however, voided by Russia in 1996. The agreement had explicitly stipulated that the Russian “peacekeeping troops” are not permanently stationed in Moldova, but are being sent in from central Russia for six months at a time on a rotation basis. Meanwhile, Moldova continued negotiating with Russia toward the withdrawal of the Russian troops that were stationed in Moldova, and which were barred from a peacekeepers’ mission. In 1996, however, Russia unilaterally stopped the rotation process and transferred the peacekeeping mission to its troops stationed in Moldova, ignoring the latter’s protests.

The second of those cards can be remedied by the OSCE itself by designating bona-fide guarantors, other than Russia and Ukraine. Russia is itself a direct party to–and in some ways initiator of–the conflict, and thus unqualified ab initio for the guarantor’s role. Yet Moscow functions simultaneously as a party to and as an OSCE-authorized arbiter of this conflict. It is a measure of the OSCE’s built-in weaknesses that it has accepted this situation for years, and made it worse by conceding to Moscow in practicing the role of first violin, both in the political negotiations and with respect to the composition of putative “guarantor” troops. Taking advantage of this opening, Russian officials increasingly tend to argue that the OSCE’s 1999 decisions on those troops’ withdrawal should now be superseded by their acceptance of those same troops as a “guarantor force.”

The third of those documents is usable to justify Russia’s military presence only if the Moldovan constitution is amended accordingly. The constitution explicitly bans the stationing of foreign troops in the country. Chisinau all along cited this provision in calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces. The Communist Party, however, possesses more than the two thirds of parliamentary seats and thus the majority necessary for amending the constitution (Flux, Basapress, Interfax, January 30, 31; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vremya Novostei, January 30; see the Monitor, November 28, December 12-13, 19, 2001, January 14, 18, 23; Fortnight in Review, February 1).

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