Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 68

Moldova’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced yesterday that the Russian side has promised to submit by the end of this month a timetable for removing and/or scrapping the Russian arsenals from Moldova, as required by the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe. The Russians made that promise in Chisinau last week during a round of bilateral consultations at the level of expert groups of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministries. According to the Moldovan account, the Russians finally gave up their long-standing demand to link the military evacuation with the resolution of the Transdniester conflict. That tactic, dubbed “synchronization,” has for years helped Moscow to block both the military withdrawal and the political negotiations. The OSCE’s November 1999 summit, however, gave Russia until December 2001 to remove or scrap the arsenals, and until December 2002 to complete the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. That decision also ruled out any conditions or linkages, in effect rejecting the “synchronization” tactics (see the Monitor, November 22, December 6, 1999).

On April 3, Kyiv confirmed its readiness to provide a corridor for Russian military convoys in transit from Moldova to Russia via Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is one of the mediators and prospective guarantors–alongside Russia and the OSCE–of a political settlement in Transdniester. President Leonid Kuchma’s special representative to the negotiations and ambassador to Chisinau, Yevhen Levytsky, conferred with Transdniester leaders in Tiraspol on April 3 in an attempt to defuse their objections to the removal of Russian armaments and troops. Those leaders responded by reaffirming two familiar positions. First, that the Russian troops must stay on with a new mandate, namely that of “peacekeeping” forces, so as to ensure “stability in the region,” promote a political settlement and eventually guarantee that settlement. And, second, that the arsenals constitute “Transdniester property,” at the disposal of the Russian troops stationed there, and automatically to revert to Transdniester authorities if the Russian troops withdraw.

Backing up the “official” Transdniester authorities, a number of “unofficial” groups in Tiraspol have declared their readiness to impede the evacuation of Russian military convoys. Transdniester leaders and the local Russian command have a record of staging shows of “popular pressure” on the Russian military to hand out arms or otherwise to support the region’s secession. The authorities seem again prepared to choreograph some “public resistance,” including physical resistance, to the Russian military withdrawal ordered by the OSCE. Such a spectacle could provide Moscow with the semblance of a justification for evading its international obligations.

The Tiraspol leaders have their price, too. Some of them hint that they might “allow” the Russian military withdrawal to proceed, if the cash value of the arsenals is counted against Transdniester’s arrears to Russia for natural gas. Those arrears currently approach half a billion U.S. dollars. Gazprom and the Russian government readily tolerated the accumulation of that debt–a clear indication of official Russian support for Transdniester. Nevertheless, it seems difficult to imagine Moscow writing off that debt for the privilege of being “allowed” by its client to withdraw the Russian forces from that territory. Transdniester leaders may even hope to extract some Western rewards for “giving up” the Russian military property. Realistically, however, they only stand to gain access to international development aid and a share of the Western credits available to the central Moldovan government, provided that Transdniester recognizes Moldova’s territorial integrity and settles for autonomous status within Moldova. The United States has offered to contribute US$ 30 million, and other Western countries lesser amounts, toward defraying the transportation costs of the Russian forces, not as a contribution to Transdniester’s economy (Flux, Basapress, Infotag, March 30-31, April 3-4).

Moscow will almost certainly continue dragging its feet on the military withdrawal and delay the submission of the time-table which it promised last week. The Russian government and military have contrived to miss a series of such deadlines in the past, including last year. On the eve of the OSCE’s November 1999 summit, hoping to influence the deliberations in her favor, Russia officially announced that it would immediately evacuate thirteen military echelons [trainloads] of equipment from Tiraspol to Russia. That amount would only make a modest dent in the Russian arsenals in Transdniester. Yet the Russian side only withdrew three out of the promised thirteen trainloads. The OSCE and Western governments, notably that of the United States which currently pays close attention to Moldova, should plan ahead for a situation in which Transdniester authorities “block” the Russian military withdrawal, and the Russian government seizes on that alibi, in the hope of perpetuating the unlawful presence of its troops or even legalizing them as “peacekeepers” (see the Monitor, January 14, February 8).