PUTIN-LUCINSCHI NEGOTIATIONS: ONE STEP FORWARD, THREE STEPS BACK.
Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 120
On June 16-17, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin paid a “working visit” to Moldova–the first by a Russian president since 1992. The visit aimed to recoup for Moscow at least part of the political influence lost during the nine years of Moldovan independence. The bargaining chips: the Transdniester conflict and the Russian military presence in that part of Moldova.
President Petru Lucinschi’s discussions with Putin centered on resolving the conflict politically and completing the unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova by 2002 (a decision of the November 1999 OSCE summit). But rather than bearing fruit, the talks achieved only a serious net setback to both goals.
From a Moldovan standpoint, the main achievement was Lucinschi’s refusal to include Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov–a Russian citizen–in Moldova’s delegations for the talks with Putin. Lucinschi, moreover, stated quite clearly that “we must emancipate ourselves from those old-fashioned cliches, according to which Russia has geopolitical interests in Moldova.” Considering the more than 1,000 kilometers separating Moldova from Russia, with Ukraine in between them, Lucinschi’s statement seems as self-evident as overdue. It refutes a thesis which forms, explicitly or implicitly, the basis for Transdniester’s and the Moscow hardliners’ attempts to perpetuate the presence of Russian troops in Moldova.
Yet Putin seemed to ignore that admonition throughout his remarks and proposals during the visit. First, he unilaterally claimed a permanent political role, including oversight rights, for Russia in Moldova: “Russia is interested in Moldova being a territorially whole, independent state. But this can not 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.” That statement implies a settlement shaped and arbitrated primarily by Moscow. Moreover, the second part of Putin’s statement would seem to cover not just the left bank (Transdniester) but the right bank of the Dniester as well, where in fact the great majority of Moldova’s “Russian-speaking population” resides.
No one reminded Putin that ethnic minority rights in Moldova, as in all independent European states, are guaranteed by international covenants, not by special arrangements with any one foreign power; nor that Moldova’s performance on observing minority rights has been rated highly by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, the latter having admitted Moldova ahead of Russia as a full member due to Chisinau’s good record on interethnic relations. Putin’s statement indicated an intent to link, more clearly than has been the case, a settlement of the Transdniester conflict to Moldova’s internal arrangements and a tutelary role for Moscow. That was the first setback of these talks.
Second, the execution of the OSCE’s troop withdrawal decision was–according to Lucinschi–“not discussed because Vladimir Putin had stated from the outset that Russia will fulfill her obligations.” But Lucinschi’s words look like an excuse, considering that nothing has been done since November to implement the OSCE’s decisions on the evacuation of Russian arsenals and troops. Even Moscow’s token pledge to repatriate ten train convoys [“echelons”] of military hardware has remained a dead letter since November. Lucinschi himself had noted that fact just ahead of Putin’s visit, as did the OSCE mission in Chisinau both before and after.
The Moldovan president may well have been technically correct in stating that “the words ‘military basing rights’ [of Russia in Moldova] were not emphasized during the discussions” with Putin. Lucinschi introduced a note of ambiguity, however, by declaring on Russian television, on the eve of Putin’s visit, that Russia’s “peacekeeping troops must, in one form or another, stay in place until the final political settlement of the conflict.” Because Moscow has proven adept at dragging out the settlement indefinitely–as Lucinschi himself is on record as recognizing for years–his latest suggestion can turn into an open-ended prolongation of Russia’s military presence, potentially beyond the OSCE-stipulated 2002. Lucinschi, moreover, was cited as explicitly leaving open the possibility of conferring a “peacekeeping” mandate to Russian troops other than those currently so mandated. Local observers connected that remark to the one about the stay of troops “in one form of another.” The Moldovan president needs to dispel those ambiguities. He had not fully done so in April of this year when his reelection campaign staff and Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis came out in favor of granting Russia military basing rights on certain conditions. Perpetuating such ambiguities is the second setback.
The third comes from Putin’s decision to appoint Yevgeny Primakov as coordinator of Russia’s policy toward Moldova and from Lucinschi’s attempts to suggest that the move promises progress in the negotiations on a political settlement and on the military withdrawal. Primakov is, however, the main author of the “common state” scheme for settling the conflict. As foreign minister and prime minister of Russia, Primakov browbeat the Moldovan leadership–Lucinschi included–into signing the 1997 Moscow and 1998 Odesa memoranda, against OSCE objections to the content of those documents. They enshrine the “common state” concept and have been in large part responsible for the deadlock in the negotiations. “Common state” is a recipe for perpetuating the deadlock and ensuring for Moscow the role of permanent arbiter of the negotiations and of the ultimate settlement, should it ever materialize. Georgia and Azerbaijan understood this years ago and rejected the scheme. Moldova has been paying the price for her acceptance ever since. Primakov will make sure to maximize that price (Flux, Basapress, Infotag, Itar-Tass, Russian Television, NTV, June 16 through 19; see the Monitor, January 14, February 8, 10, April 5, 7, 12, 18).
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