Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 129

On November 9 and 16, the OSCE’s Joint Consultative Group (JCG), meeting in Vienna, witnessed Russia’s overt repudiation of its obligation to withdraw its troops from Georgia and Moldova.

The 30-country JCG deals with issues related to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), the 1999 OSCE Istanbul agreement on that treaty’s adaptation, and the 1999 Istanbul Commitments whereby — as part of the adaptation package — Russia pledged to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova. Russia wants the 1999-adapted treaty to be ratified, and the Baltic states to be placed under its restrictions, despite Moscow’s ongoing breaches of the Istanbul Commitments and of the adapted treaty itself in Moldova and the South Caucasus.

In its statements to the JCG’s November 9 and November 16 meetings, Russia rejected any linkage between the Treaty and the Commitments. It went on to charge that “the United States and its allies” were using that linkage illegitimately “in order to promote their geopolitical interests in the post-Soviet space.” Thus, Russia now implicitly equates keeping its forces in a perceived sphere of influence with resisting Western policies there. Moreover, the Russian statements insisted that issues related to Russian bases and troops in Georgia and Moldova are bilateral issues between Russia and each of those two countries, outside the adapted CFE treaty’s purview and thus outside JCG’s legitimate agenda.

Charging that Georgia “did not show any serious intention to come to an agreement with us,” the Russian delegation warned that it would only “continue the negotiations after Tbilisi responds constructively” to Russian proposals. The Russian delegation stopped short of citing those proposals, however. They envisage an 11-year extension of Russia’s bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki (informally hinting at an eight-year term), legalization of that now-illegal presence for the duration of that term, and hundreds of millions of dollars in “compensation” for any subsequent relocation to Russia.

The Russian side insisted that its base at Gudauta (located in Abkhaz-controlled territory) has been “closed.” This claim is both unverified and manifestly inaccurate, as several hundred Russian soldiers continue to garrison the base, and its depots are not inspected. Moscow wants to hand the base over to its “peacekeeping” troops (it was previously used by the Army and the Airborne Forces). It tries to equate re-labeling with closure and wants the state-parties to the CFE treaty to accept such moves. Under the 1999 agreements, the base was due to have been closed in July 2001 under international inspection. Nevertheless, during the JCG meetings Russia called for linking the implementation of those commitments with a settlement of the Abkhazia conflict.

With regard to Moldova, the Russian delegation only held out the possibility of removing ammunition and equipment stockpiles to Russia, not the troops. Moreover, the Russian statements redefined this issue as one “closely interrelated with the negotiations toward a settlement of the Trans-Dniester problem” — specifically, a “settlement based on principles acceptable to all of Moldova’s regions” (the plural perhaps again implying a “federalization” process that would, as initially envisaged, go beyond the left-bank Trans-Dniester to encompass portions of the right bank as well).

Criticizing unnamed Western countries for “thwarting” the adoption of Russia’s November 2003 Memorandum on Trans-Dniester conflict settlement, the Russian delegation held those countries responsible for the halt in the removal of Russian military stockpiles. It stopped short of mentioning that the “thwarted” November 2003 Memorandum envisaged Russia keeping its troops in Moldova until at least 2020. Insisting, “Progress in the negotiations toward a settlement is the most basic prerequisite to resuming the withdrawal of military stockpiles,” the Russian delegation called for “resumption of the negotiations in the five-sided format, on the basis of the well-known draft documents” (i.e. federalization under Russian guarantees).

The Georgian and Moldovan delegations pointed out in their statements that the Istanbul Commitments stipulate no conditions of any kind to the withdrawal of Russian troops. Georgia described Russia’s political conditions to troop withdrawal as “new excuses for preventing the fulfillment of Istanbul Commitments” and “absolutely irresponsible, contradicting the CFE Treaty and international law.” Moldova’s statement underscored that “attempts to synchronize the withdrawal of the troops with the political settlement of the Trans-Dniester problem amount to unilateral revision of the Istanbul Commitments.” The linkage that the 1999 agreements do stipulate is that between ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty and withdrawal of Russian troops from the two countries. The Istanbul Commitments form an integral part of the CFE Final Act, and the latter forms an integral part of the adapted Treaty.

Georgia urgently called for a resumption of the negotiations with Russia. It pointed out that Georgia has no possibility to express its position on troop-withdrawal issues in negotiations with Russia, because the Russian side refuses to negotiate. Indeed, Moscow stopped the political-level negotiations in 2002 (adducing the situation in the Pankisi Gorge as a pretext) and has refused to hold expert-level meetings since 2003 (citing the change of government in Georgia, then the situations in Ajaria and in South Ossetia, as the pretexts for that). For its part, Moldova called the ICG’s attention to the CFE Treaty-limited heavy weaponry in the possession of Trans-Dniester’s army. Moldova urged that this weaponry be considered as an inseparable part of the process of withdrawal of Russian forces. Known as Unaccounted-for Treaty-Limited Equipment, the Russian Army transferred that heavy weaponry to Trans-Dniester’s forces, also a creation of the Russian Army.

The positions of Georgia and Moldova met with general sympathy on the unofficial level but only lukewarm official support in the two JCG meetings. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Stephen Rademaker, firmly insisted on the linkage between ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty and withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia and Moldova. He also reaffirmed the U.S. offer (in concert with some allied countries) of financial support for Russian base closure and ammunition disposal. However, U.S. official statements did not address the political issues and other pretexts that Russia raised for keeping those troops in place and repudiating its 1999 Commitments.

Moreover, the European Union did not speak at all in the two JCG meetings. The EU has difficulty finding a common position because several countries, with Germany in the lead, advocate concessions to Russia at the expense of Georgia and Moldova, and clearing the way for Russian-desired ratification of the adapted CFE Treaty. This seriously weakens the leverage that the West tries to use by delaying ratification of the CFE Treaty in hopes of inducing Russia to fulfill its Istanbul Commitments. The two JCG meetings very nearly coincided with those Commitments’ fifth anniversary. An emboldened Russia seems to treat them with increasingly open disdain.

(Statements in the Joint Consultative Group meetings, November 9 and 16).