On September 3-4, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin paid a private visit to Moscow, nominally at the invitation of Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia on the fortieth anniversary of the latter’s consecration as bishop. There was no word of a meeting between the two, however. Their relations are in any case difficult since Aleksy authorized the bishop of Transdniester to seize, with the support of Transdniester’s security forces, Moldova’s largest religious establishment on the right bank of the Dniester in May of this year.
Voronin used his visit, however, to meet unofficially with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. It was their third bilateral meeting in the five months since Voronin’s election. In each of these sessions, Voronin hoped to elicit clear, visible and politically effective support from Putin against the secessionist leadership of Transdniester. Specifically at this juncture, Voronin needs two gestures from Moscow: first, an endorsement of his offer of autonomy, as opposed to separate statehood, to Transdniester; and, second, some form of cooperation with his current moves to delegitimize the Tiraspol leadership as complicit with organized crime.
The Russian president, however, has again withheld even the slightest signal of support for Chisinau. The Kremlin merely authorized an unnamed presidential official to suggest that Putin and Voronin discussed trade and economic relations, the drafting of an updated “framework” treaty on interstate relations and “coordination” of foreign policies. This last was also the theme of a CIS Foreign Affairs Ministers’ routine annual meeting on September 5 in Moscow. Voronin said then that Transdniester was among the topics discussed with Putin. But, as he had after their July meeting, he maintained an embarrassed silence on returning to Chisinau.
Voronin’s primary ambition is to demonstrate that he can do better than his two noncommunist predecessors, Mircea Snegur and Petru Lucinschi, in solving Moldova’s problems. Moreover, as a Transdniester native, Voronin has placed the goal of “making the country whole again” at the top of his presidential agenda. Although a communist, Voronin is a sincere Moldovan patriot in the local meaning of that notion. But he is bound to fail if he proceeds, as both his predecessors since 1992 did, from a lingering false premise–namely, that Russia can and eventually will solve Moldova’s problem in Transdniester.
To Voronin’s credit, he has publicly distanced himself from the 1997 “Moscow memorandum,” a document that ensures stalemate and ample opportunities for Russian manipulation of the Transdniester problem. By repudiating that document, Voronin follows in the footsteps of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Azeri President Haidar Aliev, who had from the outset rejected analogous documents, proposed to them by Moscow. Those three documents’ main political inspirer, Yevgeny Primakov, now chairs Russia’s state commission, which Putin created to deal with the Moldova-Transdniester conflict. Primakov, Russia’s Duma and Transdniester’s leaders insist on adherence to the memorandum. They realize that its terms, if observed, would severely limit the ability of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to settle this conflict.
Among the memorandum’s chief goals is that of ensuring a legalized presence of Russian troops in Moldova, whether as “peacekeepers” pending a settlement, or as “guarantors” of a Moldova-Transdniester “common state” in the postsettlement period. As the Primakov commission’s tactics suggest, Russia would clearly prefer to obtain an OSCE mandate for those troops, with a few non-Russian troops added as window-dressing. That goal it pursue in the framework of the Russia-Ukraine-OSCE mediation of the Chisinau-Tiraspol conflict.
The next-best solution for Russia would be a Moldovan consent to confer basing rights on those troops, as one part of a separate deal between Voronin and the Kremlin. The other part would be Russia’s blessing on a political status of Transdniester within Moldova, on terms closer to Voronin’s offer of autonomy than to Primakov’s “common state” of two states. Such a scenario is being bruited about as a “[military] bases for [Transdniester] status” deal. It would require Moscow to switch sides locally, casting aside Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov’s team and working instead through Voronin and the central government in Chisinau.
The current political situation in Chisinau offers Moscow two openings. Voronin is the first Moldovan president genuinely committed to returning Transdniester to the fold and willing to work to that end with Moscow. And the recently elected, overwhelmingly Communist parliament is the first Moldovan legislature that would, if asked, legalize the presence of Russian troops.
Thus far, Voronin has improved on the performance of the two previous presidents in dealing with Transdniester. He has abandoned the 1997 memorandum’s straitjacket, and has refused to treat Igor Smirnov or the mafia-infested Tiraspol leadership as legitimate interlocutors in the negotiating process. Voronin is undoubtedly correct in asserting that the current Transdniester leaders would never settle on terms acceptable to Moldova. Those same leaders’ record over more than a decade should similarly tell the OSCE that they would never settle on terms acceptable to the international community.
Voronin, however, would defeat his own primary goals if he ultimately accepts a “bases for status” deal in Transdniester. He would, meanwhile, weaken his own negotiating hand, if he parts ways with the OSCE mediators and goes in for any kind of separate negotiations with Moscow. To dispel any such ambiguities, the president ought to begin by disavowing the communist parliamentary majority leader Victor Stepaniuc’s recent, public proposal to confer basing rights on the Russian troops (Roundup based on recent reporting by Moldovan and Russian news agencies; see the Monitor, May 22, July 16, August 2, 8-9).
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