Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 218

With barely ten days remaining until the OSCE’s year-end conference in Brussels, the draft ministerial declaration (the centerpiece of the conference documents) would weaken the West’s hand and strengthen Moscow’s on the most salient hard-security issue in Europe: Russia’s 1999 commitments to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova. Moscow has repeatedly tried to decouple this issue from the 1999-adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), so as to bring this treaty into force on the territories of the three Baltic states and to place the Baltic states under treaty limitations.

Those commitments, as well as that treaty, were approved as a package at the OSCE’s Istanbul summit in 1999. Consequently, the NATO and European Union member countries have taken the position all along that the Russia-desired ratification of the adapted CFE treaty is “linked with” (that is, conditional on) Russia’s complete fulfillment of its Istanbul Commitments. In 2005-2006 Russia made significant progress toward withdrawing its forces from the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases in Georgia on a timetable running until 2008 — a fact welcomed in the 2006 draft ministerial declaration. Apart from that promising step, however, Moscow has continued to breach its 1999 Commitments and CFE treaty principles on multiple counts during 2006.

The relevant text in the OSCE’s 2006 year-end draft declaration would — if adopted — loosen the linkage policy, relegate major elements in Russia’s Istanbul Commitments to oblivion, and bring the adapted CFE treaty’s ratification much closer. The treaty’s entry into force would in turn trigger a procedure to extend its applicability to the three Baltic states’ territories and negotiate with Russia about setting limits to any possible allied deployments there.

Drafted largely by this year’s Belgian chairmanship and reflecting some of Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel de Gucht’s publicly stated views, the OSCE declaration’s relevant text reads:

“We urge State Parties to the CFE Treaty to fulfill the outstanding commitments undertaken at the 1999 Istanbul Summit. We welcome the [Russia-Georgia] agreements that have led to substantial progress on the ground. We call for completion of this process. As regards Moldova, no progress could be registered in 2006. We call on the Russian Federation and parties concerned to allow the process of withdrawal of ammunition and related military personnel to resume expeditiously. We reaffirm our shared determination to promote the entry into force of the Adapted CFE Treaty” (OSCE Ministerial Council, Belgian Chairmanship, MC.DD/2306, November 23).

The paragraph on Moldova is phrased in a way that could all but liquidate the remaining Istanbul Commitments there. It only mentions withdrawal of ammunition, omitting the troops, although the Istanbul Commitments require the complete withdrawal of Russian forces, a term that focuses on the troops. From 2002 to date, the United States and European allies as well as Moldova have consistently focused on the Russian troops when calling for fulfillment of Russia’s Istanbul Commitments. Earlier this year, however, De Gucht repeatedly called for withdrawal of Russian ammunition only, omitting the troops. And earlier this month, Belgium’s ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna, Bernard de Combrugghe, heading a fact-finding delegation to Chisinau and Tiraspol, similarly declared in both places that the OSCE sought the withdrawal of ammunition, failing to mention the troops (Basapress, Infotag, Regnum, November 12-14).

The reference to “ammunition-related personnel” is an innovation. In the course of that visit to Transnistria, the OSCE group was told by the Russian command that only about 100 Russian “personnel” (sotrudniki), not army troops but a “militarized protection service” (voyennizirovanaya okhrana), are guarding the vast Russian ammunition stockpile there (Regnum, Infotag, November 13). Thus, it appears that the ministerial declaration’s drafters would be content to see just those 100 Russian personnel withdraw along with the ammunition. While de Combrugghe did mention in Tiraspol the known fact that “one of the sides” (Chisinau) does not accept the Russian “peacekeeping” operation, that point remains academic if the OSCE releases Russia from the Istanbul Commitments on troop withdrawal.

The document’s “call on Russia and parties concerned to allow” ammunition withdrawal to proceed is a further innovation to accommodate Moscow. Responsibility for the unlawful stationing of Russian forces in Moldova has all along been Russia’s liability and no one else’s. The Istanbul Commitments also hold Russia alone liable for the unconditional withdrawal of its forces. However, Moscow has attempted to offload those responsibilities onto other “parties,” thereby dividing its own political liability and setting third-party preconditions to fulfilling what are Moscow’s unconditional obligations. In the last few years, Moscow has falsely claimed that Tiraspol’s authorities “do not allow” Moscow to withdraw the ammunition, let alone the troops. Occasionally, Moscow has also alleged difficulties with Moldovan railroads and rolling stock or Ukrainian safety concerns about the transport of old and dangerous ammunition, although the Tiraspol authorities (its appointees) provide Moscow’s main alibi for blocking the withdrawal.

The OSCE’s draft declaration plays along with Moscow’s tactics by asking unnamed other parties to unblock Russia’s withdrawal.

In its finely nuanced, trademark OSCE phrasing, the document calls for the ammunition withdrawal merely to “resume, as an open-ended “process,” rather than asking for it to be completed within a certain timeline. With Russia having breached several actual deadlines in succession, the OSCE at its year-end 2003 Maastricht conference gave up setting any deadlines or timelines, realizing that Russia’s persistent noncompliance was exposing the organization’s ineffectiveness.

The document’s pledge to promote the adapted CFE treaty’s ratification is not accompanied by a conditional clause that would have referenced a linkage with Russia’s Istanbul Commitments. Nor is any reference made to Moscow’s breaches of both the original 1990 and the 1999-adapted treaties. The unfulfilled commitments and ongoing treaty breaches include: Russia’s retention of the Gudauta base in Georgia, which was due for closure in 2001; deployment of treaty-banned combat hardware with secessionist forces in Abkhazia, Karabakh, and Transnistria; and stationing of “peacekeeping” and other Russian troops in conflict areas without host-country-consent, although such consent is a central principle of both existing and unratified CFE treaties.

Adopting this section of the OSCE’s ministerial declaration for 2006 in this form could at one stroke erase most of Russia’s outstanding Istanbul Commitments by the custodial organization itself. Such a development, should it come to pass, would mark a high point of Russian clout within the OSCE.