Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 190

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seems set to embark on its most serious effort yet to remove the Russian troops from Moldova and settle the Transdniester conflict. Possibly as early as next week, the first in a series of meetings will be held at the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna. Both Russia’s Yevgeny Primakov and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Horbulin–chairmen of those countries’ presidential commissions on Transdniester–and Chisinau and Tiraspol officials will participate. The outcome of the meetings should, before the year is out, determine whether the decisions of the OSCE’s November 1999 summit regarding Moldova will be carried out.

That summit required a complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian arsenals and troops from Moldova’s Transdniester region by December 2002. Almost one-third of that term has gone by, but no Russian troops or combat hardware have moved out. If Moscow continues stonewalling, the OSCE-stipulated deadline will come and go while Russian troops stay. That is almost certainly Moscow’s current plan. The Russian side wants to keep most of its troops in place under a new guise as “peacekeepers” and “guarantors” of the eventual settlement. Moscow therefore hopes that the OSCE would bestow the appropriate mandate on those troops.

Moscow officials are prepared in return to accept a limited internationalization of the peacekeeping operation in Transdniester, but they want the operation structured in a way to preserve a dominant position for the Russian contingent. They insist ruling out NATO member and candidate countries; they would even reject European neutrals, save one–namely Finland, apparently deemed preferable to others; and they would welcome a certain number of unarmed OSCE observers. Moscow accepts Ukrainian participation as well nigh inevitable for obvious geographic and logistical reasons, but wants the Ukrainian contingent to be smaller than the Russian one and to be placed under the operational authority of the Russian command.

Ukrainian peacekeeper and guarantor troops could provide a long-overdue counterbalance to Russian influence in Transdniester, and–by implication–in Moldova as a whole. Kiev has some legitimate interests in Transdniester. These are, first, a concern to avoid Transdniester’s permanent transformation into a Russian military outpost flanking Ukraine on the southwest. Second, a need to monitor and police this 300-kilometer-long corridor along Ukraine’s border. And, third, a concern for the local Ukrainians, who form 28 percent of Transdniester’s population, inhabit compactly the two northern districts, and do not constitute a diaspora, inasmuch as they are both indigenous to that area and directly contiguous to Ukraine. As the Ukrainian state matures, it is only natural for it to assume internationally authorized peacekeeping responsibilities in this area.

Ukraine, however, is not capable at this stage to offset Russia’s influence in Transdniester without international assistance. Russian military, political, organizational and intelligence assets on the ground are far superior to anything Ukraine could now or in the near future bring to bear. Ukraine can supply effective counterbalance only in the framework of a genuinely international peacekeeping operation which would include Western contingents. Absent those, the Ukrainian peacekeepers would turn into an appendage to the Russian contingent.

That would be the case even if Kiev stays the pro-Western course in foreign and security policies. The continuity of that course has, however, just recently been put in question with the dismissal of Foreign Affairs Minister Borys Tarasyuk, amid hints from President Leonid Kuchma and other leaders that Ukraine’s economic situation requires a cautious handling of relations with Russia. From Moldova’s standpoint, therefore–and, presumably, that of the OSCE as well–the effectiveness of Ukraine’s peacekeeping cum guarantor role in Transdniester would uncomfortably depend on the state of Kiev’s political and economic relations with Moscow. And in that relationship, Kiev plays the weaker hand.

The Russian-Finnish-Ukrainian formula would not be much more reassuring. A Finnish presence could not even marginally affect the Russian military supremacy in Transdniester. If Moscow persists in ruling out participation by NATO countries, the OSCE can legitimately insist on the execution of its summit decisions–that is, the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops, without a return through the back door as “peacekeeper/guarantors.”

The meetings in Vienna will also focus on the future political status of Transdniester. The OSCE’s 1999 summit conclusively removed the linkage–known as “synchronization”–between withdrawal of Russian troops and determination of Transdniester’s political status. Moscow could no longer insist officially that the troop withdrawal must be conditional on the adoption of a status acceptable to Transdniester.

Nevertheless, Moscow and Tiraspol are suggesting in a number of ways in which local authorities could physically block the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transdniester–and even “seize” Russian arsenals–unless Tiraspol’s demands are met. Those familiar demands include adopting a political status on Tiraspol’s terms and compensation to Tiraspol for the movable military property which would eventually be sent back to Russia. Although “synchronization” is out, both the OSCE and Chisinau seem eager to have the political status worked out as expeditiously as possible in order to clear the way for an orderly withdrawal of Russian troops.

While Chisinau’s proposals generally proceed from European concepts of devolution of powers and local self-government, Moscow and Tiraspol demand the creation of a “common state” of Transdniester and the rest of Moldova (see the Monitor, April 28, September 11). Beyond its technical details, the plan’s underlying political intent is threefold: first, to preserve a dominant position for Moscow in Transdniester; second, to use that position on the left bank in order to restore substantial Russian political influence in right-bank Moldova; and, third, to keep the Russian troops in place as “guarantors” of the peace settlement in the post-conflict period.

During his June visit to Moldova, Putin linked a settlement in Transdniester to Russian “guarantees” for citizens of right-bank Moldova. With Primakov at his side, Putin said: “Russia is interested in Moldova being a territorially whole, independent state. But this cannot 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” (see the Monitor, June 20; Fortnight in Review, June 23). It is in fact on the right bank–primarily in Chisinau and Balti–that two-thirds of Moldova’s “Russian-speaking population” resides, amid the Moldovan majority.

As the decisive meetings get underway at the OSCE, members will have to grapple with the consequences of Moldova’s blunders and the OSCE’s own missteps of recent years. Russia, a direct party to the Transdniester conflict, has nevertheless been accepted as “guarantor” of the eventual settlement, and has long been treated in practice with the deference due a main guarantor. That turned out to be a prescription for deadlock in Transdniester. Further, Putin’s team is now capitalizing on the guarantor’s status in an attempt to extend its scope over both banks of the Dniester. The “common state” is the mechanism for that. By treating Transdniester’s status and Moldova’s overall constitutional setup as parts of one package, such a settlement would ensure oversight functions for Russia in Moldova as a whole. And those functions would be backed up by the Russian troops in place, if Moscow has its way.

The OSCE and the current Moldovan leadership would risk serious embarrassment in conferring a “peacekeeping” or “guarantor” mandate on Russian troops, barely a year after the OSCE had demanded their unconditional withdrawal from Moldova by a certain date. No political, diplomatic, historic, ethnic or legal factors dictate that Russian troops should be assigned to police Moldova, whether singly or in combination with token contingents from countries acceptable to Moscow. The brunt of existing experience with Russian troops throughout the former Soviet Union advises against such a recourse. If, however, the OSCE and the current Moldovan leadership insist on the complete removal of the Russian troops in strict accordance with the 1999 decisions, it will be possible to avoid the emergence of a second Kaliningrad-type region, a militarized Russian exclave, sited in this case in Transdniester on the threshold of the Balkans (see the Monitor, April 28, June 20, July 10, 21, 27, September 11; the Fortnight in Review, June 23).