Interviewed in the inaugural issue of Izvestiya’s local supplement, Izvestiya v Moldove, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin proposes full demilitarization of Moldova on both banks of the Nistru River. He envisions the “liquidation” of all tanks and armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and artillery of any type, both by the lawful Moldovan and the unlawful Transnistria forces, within six months. The easiest method would be handing over that equipment as scrap metal to the Ribnita steel plant, Voronin suggests.
Under Voronin’s proposal, the manpower of forces on both banks would undergo deep cuts, whereupon the remaining units would become parts of a single army. The units would be recruited on a territorial basis during an unspecified initial period, meaning that units based in Transnistria would retain a local profile during the transitional stage toward a single force.
That unified force would clearly not possess the attributes of an army. Its sole mission would consist of participating in peacekeeping operations mandated by international organizations. All units on both banks of the Nistru River would be transformed into training centers for peacekeeping troops, with officers-trainers employed on contract. Trainees would serve for six months, with an option to choose an officer-trainer’s career. Confident that Russia, the United States, and NATO would welcome Moldova’s demilitarization, Voronin also expressed hope that international assistance would be forthcoming to finance a social protection program for officers released from service and to set up the peacekeeping training centers.
The stated rationale behind Voronin’s proposal is fourfold:
1) the armies of Moldova and Transnistria are “absolutely useless” to either side;
2) the Moldovan army is merely symbolic, “like a coat-of-arms, rather than a fighting force” (an implicit admission of its inferiority, compared to the Transnistria-flagged forces);
3) as proof of peaceful intentions: “Evidently Moldova is not going to wage a war against anyone; and we don’t see any state in this part of Europe posing a military threat”; and
4) in order to redirect military expenditures, however meager, toward civilian pursuits.
Voronin links demilitarization with Moldova’s status of permanent neutrality, enshrined since 1993 in the country’s constitution. By the same token, the constitution bans the stationing of foreign troops on Moldova’s territory. Voronin regards these constitutional provisions as a key legal argument in calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops, including Russian “peacekeepers.” The argument is also a political one, to defuse the Kremlin-contrived suspicions that Moldova intends to host “NATO” troops, if and when the Russian troops withdraw.
In this and other recent statements, Voronin insists that Moldova’s neutral status is final and irrevocable and that no political force could muster the necessary 50%-plus-one vote to amend the relevant constitutional provisions. He vows that he and his Communist Party would always offer insurmountable resistance to such amendments, whether as a governing force or in opposition. “Neutrality the cornerstone of our approach to national security.”
It is clearly not a reliable cornerstone, however. Moldova’s neutrality and the accompanying ban on foreign forces was declared unilaterally are not recognized internationally, and never prevented Russia from keeping its troops in Moldova. The neutrality argument — just like the argument citing Russia’s 1999 Istanbul Commitments — is useful but insufficient to the goal of ridding Moldova of Russian troops and providing for its security.
Aware of this gap, Voronin and his key adviser, Mark Tkachuk, are seeking international endorsement in some form or another of Moldova’s permanent neutrality. That search has been on, intermittently, since 2004 and seems to be on again now.
Given Moldova’s location between Romania and Ukraine, the chances of aggression are nil and the option of armed neutrality irrelevant. In view of the country’s dire economic situation, demilitarized neutrality would seem to make sense.
The idea of dissolving the army (in parallel with disbandment of Transnistria-flagged forces) was casually and inconsequentially discussed in Moldova during the 1990s. Former president (1997-2001) Petru Lucinschi favored that idea, but stopped short of implementing it for fear of losing the votes of the military and their families. Voronin floated that idea early during his presidency, proposing stage-by-stage cuts in armaments and manpower, to be implemented by Chisinau and Tiraspol in parallel. Tiraspol demurred, but Chisinau proceeded to cutting its forces unilaterally. The Moldovan army currently numbers some 6,500 and is ready for further cuts. Transnistria-flagged forces number some 10,000 and are superior to Moldovan forces in armaments and training.
Tiraspol has some 15 to 18 tanks (Moldova has none) as well as armored vehicles, artillery systems, and combat helicopters, all handed over to it by Russian forces, in breach of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. That arsenal forms the “unaccounted-for treaty-limited equipment” in CFE treaty and OSCE parlance. The OSCE (custodian of that treaty) and Western chancelleries are aware of the problem but seem to close their eyes to it — as they do in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh.
Voronin’s demilitarization proposal follows in the wake of his six-point package of economic and social projects, advanced publicly on October 4 for Tiraspol’s consideration. The demilitarization proposal is to be seen in conjunction with Western efforts to induce Russia to fulfill, even if incompletely, the 1999 Istanbul Commitments and achieve quick ratification of the adapted CFE treaty. While some would tolerate a residual Russian military presence in Moldova, the Moldovans insist on complete Russian withdrawal, an international civilian observer mission, and demilitarization of the entire territory to remove any excuse for military “peacekeeping” in Moldova.
(Izvestiya v Moldove, October 10; Moldova Suverana, Moldpres, October 11-13)