PRIMAKOV’S GAME IN MOLDOVA.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 79

In his capacity as chairman of Russia’s state commission on Transdniester settlement, Yevgeny Primakov visited Moldova on April 18-20. In Chisinau and Tiraspol he held talks with the central government, the secessionist authorities, the mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and representatives of Ukraine–the country which figures, along with Russia and the OSCE, as a mediator in the Transdniester conflict. In his public remarks, however, Primakov managed barely a nod in either the OSCE’s or Ukraine’s direction. He made it clear that Moscow holds the key to any solution, if only because the others seem to have yielded that key.

President Vladimir Putin appointed Primakov to that post in June 2000 as Moscow approached the endgame phase of its effort to keep the Russian troops permanently in Moldova’s Transdniester region. For that, Russia counts on the Tiraspol leaders’ cooperation and on Chisinau leaders’ subservience. It also hopes to extract some form of OSCE consent to a Pax Russica in Moldova.

The OSCE’s 1999 summit required Russia to withdraw its heavy weaponry–in accordance with the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE)–from Moldova’s territory by the end of 2001, and to withdraw all the arms and ammunition stockpiles and all the troops by the end of 2002, liquidating Russia’s unlawful military presence there.

Since those resolutions were passed and Putin came to power, Russia has withdrawn practically nothing. Meanwhile, the OSCE has seemed unable to ensure even a semblance of Russian compliance. Moscow hopes to maneuver the OSCE into a situation which would restrict the organization to two options. First, incur a grave, precedent-setting embarrassment for failing to obtain compliance with its own resolutions, and tolerating a member country’s military occupation of another’s territory. Alternatively, save the organization’s face by legalizing the stationing of Russian troops under a new guise–of “guarantors” of a Russian-devised, OSCE-accepted settlement in Moldova.

As the two withdrawal deadlines draw closer, pressure increases on the OSCE to either act at the eleventh hour, or decide to disguise its defeat and the Russian dispensation by applying a fig leaf of legitimacy on the deal. Moscow would clearly prefer the latter, as Primakov had made clear all along and confirmed during this visit. Russia may be able to keep the troops in place for years to come without any legal basis. But it clearly wants to gain both the OSCE’s and the Moldovan government’s consents to its military presence there.

In Chisinau, Primakov declared more openly than ever before that Russia would not withdraw the forces by the OSCE-stipulated deadlines, and refused just as firmly to name either a starting date or a timeframe for the withdrawal. Instead, he insisted on Russia’s familiar preconditions. Those include laying the basis for a “political settlement” between Chisinau and Tiraspol, obtaining the Tiraspol leadership’s consent to the removal of Russia’s CFE-limited armaments and removal or disposal of other Russian military property, and bestowing an international mandate on Russian troops to “guarantee” the settlement.

Those preconditions have no standing under the OSCE’s 1999 resolutions and under Russia’s own commitments in that pre-Putin year to observing those resolutions. Under those documents, the withdrawal of Russian forces would have to proceed unconditionally. If the OSCE now accepts the logic that Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov’s signature is required in order to allow the Russian forces to withdraw, the OSCE would have walked into the trap set for it.

In recent months at the OSCE’s Permanent Council, American and other Western representatives were pointing out that Russia “has the means to overcome” Tiraspol’s resistance in order for Russia to respect her own commitments to the OSCE. At the same time, however, Primakov is insisting on the same preconditions. That in essence involves Moscow hiding behind its own creation in Tiraspol. Meanwhile, no Moldovan or international authority is calling Primakov’s bluff: If Russian troops cannot “guarantee” Smirnov’s “approval” to Moscow to fulfill its international obligations, what can the Russian “guarantor” troops possibly guarantee in the post-conflict period? This situation gives a foretaste of the manner in which Moscow could exercise the role of arbiter of an eventual political settlement by exploiting its lopsided military preponderance on the ground.

The composition of guarantor troops–that is, the postconflict peacekeeping force–figured prominently in Primakov’s discussions with all the other parties. Russia wants a contingent that would consist overwhelmingly of Russian troops, possibly with a minor Ukrainian element, and in any case under Russian operational command. But it wants that contingent to act under an OSCE mandate, perhaps in the presence of unarmed OSCE observers. Several months ago, the inclusion of a token element from a European neutral country was being discussed confidentially. Whether that item is still on the current agenda remains unclear. The structure desired by Moscow would ensure Russian military leverage, exploitable politically, on both banks of the Dniester; and could be used any time to extract compliant behavior on any issue of interest to Moscow from any government in Chisinau, even after the Communists are no longer in power there (Itar-Tass, Flux, Basapress, Infotag, April 18-20; see the Monitor, June 20, October 12, 2000, April 20).

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