The Chance of a Lifetime

ChisinauRussia's Ambassador in Chisinau has submitted Moscow's proposals on solving the Dniester-area problem to President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova, the "Memorandum On The Main Principles of the United Country's State System". The Kremlin plan suggests creating an integral, independent and democratic country, i.e. the Republic of Moldova, which would be based on federative principles and which would also comprise Transdniestria and Gagauzia. The latter territories would enjoy equal rights with the rest of the country and equal opportunities for their peaceful and mutually advantageous development.

The Russian memorandum contains many attractive ideas, but some evoke greater interest than others. A paragraph of point 3.1 expressly states: "The federation is a neutral and demilitarised state. The terms and procedures for abolishing armed forces, as well as social and other guarantees to the servicemen of the Republic of Moldova and Transdniestria, shall be stipulated by the applicable federal law. Prior to complete demilitarisation, federal armed forces shall be recruited and operate in line with the territorial principle, while they shall not be used to uphold law and order or public security. The federal armed forces shall be commanded by an authorised federal agency."

This rather lengthy provision deserves to be analysed thoroughly.

First of all, the demilitarisation concept means that Moldova should completely disband its armed forces. Frankly speaking, not a single European country knows much about this state-system principle. Even tiny Luxembourg has its own small army, even though it has just 900 officers and men, two battalions and six mortars. Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino boast 15 soldiers each. Even the Vatican hires Swiss guards for the Holy Pontiff's palace and for representational purposes, too. The suggestion that Chisinau and Tiraspol renounce their military formations might seem too bold, unless we comprehend the essence of this concept.

Confidence-building measures between Chisinau and Tiraspol are a priority. The two sides are involved in a protracted military conflict, which prevents them from forgetting the tragedy of the early 1990s, from eliminating heart-rending grudges and suspicions. Consequently, they are still unable to merge into one single democratic entity and start building an integral state devoid of inter-ethnic strife and violence. Indeed, 7,000 soldiers along one bank of the Dniester River face another 7,500 soldiers on the opposite bank. Add to this 100 armoured personnel carriers and mechanised-infantry combat vehicles, dozens of artillery pieces, as well as helicopter gunships, tanks, self-propelled guns and multiple-launch rocket systems. This is not the best environment for developing a peaceful life. It would obviously be a really good thing to eliminate the weapons that were used in a fratricidal war 12 years ago. But is this idea feasible, or not?

The consolidated federative state's draft constitution provides Tiraspol and Chisinau with this chance.

However, national armed forces are the foundation of state development in just about any country of the world, while also serving as a state-independence symbol. However, its most important function is to guarantee the state's territorial integrity and defend its sovereignty. So, how will these objectives be accomplished, if Moldova disbands its armed forces? Moscow's proposals say that international peacekeeping forces should be deployed for precisely this purpose.

The plan for settling the Transdniestria conflict and for reuniting the hitherto irreconcilable parties has been co-ordinated with the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), Chisinau and Tiraspol. According to the plan's authors, Russian peacekeepers should form the mainstay of Moldova's interim peacekeeping forces, because they alone stopped the regional inter-ethnic bloodbath in the early 1990s and, therefore, enjoy particular trust. A thousand Russians are still deployed together with Moldovan and Transdniestrian blue helmets on the banks of the Dniester River, where they have been maintaining peace, law and order there for more than 10 years. Trusted by the locals, this troop contingent could be entrusted with the task of protecting this "old-new" country's territorial integrity and sovereignty in the years to come (i.e. five, ten or, maybe, even twenty years).

There is confidence that this contingent will cope with this task, just as it has in the past. The federation's demilitarisation calls for removing all remaining materiel, combat hardware and ammunition of the former 14th army, which was converted into a Russian military base some time ago. Until recently, Tiraspol arsenals and depots, as well as those near the village of Kolbasno, stored tens of thousands of tonnes of shells and mines, combat-engineering equipment, uniforms and rations, military-hospital equipment, canteen equipment, showers, steam-baths and all kinds of weapons for deploying an entire front in the event of war. Moreover, the Soviet army's south and central army groups were withdrawn from Hungary and Czechoslovakia (where they had been stationed since the end of WWII) to the banks of the Dniester River in the late 1980s and early 1990s together with their materiel and ammunition.

Many of those munitions were in a deplorable state, while their security also left a lot to be desired. WWII shells fell out of their half-rotten boxes, lying on the ground with propelling charges, which are normally stored inside brass and steel cases. They were not even surrounded with earth walls, meaning that even a freak lighting strike was likely to cause a terrible disaster. Meanwhile the leadership of the self-proclaimed Dniester Moldovan Republic refused to allow the 14th army's high command, or that of the aforementioned military base, to dispose of the shells properly. Nor was Russia allowed to remove materiel and combat hardware from local depots and arsenals. The republic's leadership proclaimed all this to be the property of the people of Transdniestria as a result of the Soviet Union's disintegration.

Tiraspol has never recognised Moscow's international commitments as regards the dismantling of the Transdniestria military base that it assumed at the OSCE Istanbul summit in 1999. Every combat-hardware train could be dispatched only after lengthy talks and certain economic concessions on the part of the Kremlin and the Russian Defence Ministry. Among other things, army materiel had to be exchanged for the self-proclaimed republic's gas debts, which totalled hundreds of millions of dollars.

Both Tiraspol and Chisinau still owe such debts. Moscow suggests writing off and restructuring them, if both capitals accept its peace plan for settling the conflict in a civilised manner and for establishing a federative state. The new federation would be entitled to some other economic and financial privileges for oil, gas and power deliveries, while additional privileges in trade relations with Russia and other CIS countries are also envisaged.

Will Tiraspol agree to this plan? The chances are that a positive reply will be received. Indeed, many political scientists and military experts believe that this opportunity should not be wasted.

Naturally, the Russian memorandum has to be discussed by the public and the concerned governments. Amendments should be introduced, and it cannot be ruled out that these will concern the demilitarisation concept. However, this memorandum creates an extremely favourable and reliable foundation for the long-awaited intra-Moldovan reunification, all the more so as Chisinau and Tiraspol view Moldova as their common country. It is a chance to return hope to the people for a peaceful life in their united homeland.

If approved, the Russian programme for restoring Moldova's territorial integrity would serve as a good example for the entire world of how to solve inter-ethnic problems without bloodshed and mutual animosity. A number of countries, including such post-Soviet republics as Georgia, need a positive example badly. Quite possibly, the Transdniestria model will serve as a clue for the solution of the South Ossetian, Nagorny Karabakh and Abkhazian problems.

However, it would be premature to jump to conclusions. We should wait for the successful outcome of the peace process on the banks of the Dniester River. Let us hope that our hopes will not be dashed.

Viktor Litovkin, RIAN

Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov