Trans-Dniester’s leaders — partners in “federalism” with the U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — are offering military assistance to South Ossetia now, and to Abkhazia if the need arises. The two top leaders of Trans-Dniester made these statements in the wake of their latest respective visits to Moscow.
Interviewed on Russia’s state Television Channel One on June 2, Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov cited the 1994 agreement, signed by Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regarding mutual assistance in the event of “aggression” against any of the signatories. Smirnov went on to declare, “Trans-Dniester is watching with concern the events unfolding in the friendly states Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We have constantly provided material assistance to South Ossetia, including foodstuffs, grain, and training. If necessary — and as the events show such a necessity becoming increasingly evident — we will also provide comprehensive military assistance.”
Smirnov recalled how, “We were helped in 1991-92 (referring to Russian military and Cossacks assistance to Trans-Dniester”. We shall by all means provide such help — any help that South Ossetia may request” (Russian TV Channel One, June 2). Elaborating on the offer in an interview with Russia’s news agency Interfax, Smirnov described the situation in South Ossetia as “nothing but preparations for aggression by Tbilisi.” “If there is an act of aggression, we will not stand aside. We will provide comprehensive assistance, including military help.” Trans-Dniester’s leadership is maintaining permanent contact with the leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a common effort to “prevent aggression,” Smirnov said (Interfax, June 2; Olvia Press [Tiraspol], June 2).
Trans-Dniester Supreme Soviet Chairman Grigorii Marakutsa reaffirmed the commitment in an interview published on June 10, in which he seems to hint at steps taken toward implementation. “We have a mutual assistance agreement with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which includes provision of military aid. We intend to honor our obligations. How difficult this would be to implement is another matter, as weapons would have to be transported through Ukraine and Russia. So, for the time being we shall confine ourselves to helping South Ossetia by sending in our military specialists, as well as foodstuffs and goods.”
Marakutsa indicated that this is not just his and Smirnov’s policy, but that of the entire Trans-Dniester leadership. “Even if Smirnov or myself are not here, any new leaders would do just what he and I are doing at the moment.” He cited as well the favorable reception that the Supreme Soviet’s delegation recently received in Russia’s Duma (Novyie Izvestyia, June 10; Olvia Press, June 10). In a separate announcement, Trans-Dniester’s “deputy foreign affairs minister” Ruslan Slobodenyuk stated that his and the Abkhaz and South Ossetian “foreign affairs ministries are in permanent contact,” and that “a group of Trans-Dniester specialists was in South Ossetia, analyzing the situation.” (Olvia Press [Tiraspol], June 2).
The significance of these offers is not so much practical as it is symbolic and political, and it reaches beyond Tskhinvali, Tbilisi or even Moscow to the U.S. State Department and OSCE. On the symbolic level, the Kremlin-controlled state television evidently decided to send an encouraging signal to secessionist areas in Georgia and Moldova. While certain to be perceived there as coming on Russia’s behalf, it also preserved deniability for the Russian government. Indeed following Smirnov’s televised appearance, an unnamed Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry official told Itar-Tass that the Russian government is not responsible for statements by “a region’s leader” (Itar-Tass, June 3).
Politically, these threats from Tiraspol amount to a painful snub to U.S. diplomats on middle-level floors of the State Department and at the OSCE, who are staking their Moldova policy on legalizing Smirnov’s group in Trans-Dniester and granting it a share of central power in Chisinau by agreement with Moscow. This “federalization” offer explicitly includes preservation of Trans-Dniester’s army, a division-size Russian force under a Trans-Dniester flag. After two years of negotiations, mediated through the OSCE by American diplomat William Hill with State Department authorization, Trans-Dniester is now threatening in its limited capacity to use force against America’s friend and ally Georgia.
Tiraspol’s threats also illuminate its interpretation of the concept of the “territorial integrity” of Moldova and Georgia. Professed respect for Moldova’s territorial integrity has supposedly qualified Tiraspol as a party to negotiations on “federalizing” Moldova. However, both Moscow’s and Tiraspol’s interpretation of territorial integrity allows complete de facto secession, and is consistent with the retention of armed forces and unchecked military activities. The vast military stockpiles in Trans-Dniester — some of controlled by Russian troops, others by Trans-Dniester’s troops — are out of bounds to verification, and there is no way at this time to check whether Tiraspol carries out its stated aim of sending arms to South Ossetia or, for that matter, to other conflict theaters.
Neither Washington nor the OSCE has reacted to Tiraspol’s statements and steps regarding South Ossetia. A massive delegation of OSCE ambassadors from many countries arrived in Moldova yesterday for visits to Chisinau and Tiraspol, shepherded by the American-led OSCE mission in Moldova. If past experience is any guide, they will be unable to respond adequately when they meet with the leaders in Tiraspol.