Moscow is Still the Master

Posted in Russia , Europe | 14-Apr-09 | Author: Dumitru Minzarari

Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin.

Moldovan presidents have always been notorious for their personal approach to negotiations with Moscow, resulting usually in sound, long-lasting, and humiliating diplomatic defeats. Their Soviet-type leadership style - all three were former high-level apparatchiks - partly explains this foreign policy behavior. Historic feelings of inferiority toward the Kremlin have plagued the Moldovan political class since the country gained independence in 1991.

Eighteen years later, the lame-duck president Vladimir Voronin who is loosing his office after the 5 April parliamentary elections in Moldova, has stepped on the same rake. On 18 March, less than a month before elections won by his Communist Party yesterday, he signed a common declaration with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the secessionist Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov. Quickly tagged the "Moscow Declaration," it met harsh criticism from Moldovan civil society and liberal parties.

This political document was perceived by them as a major surrender of Moldova's positions in the negotiations with Russia over the Transdniester conflict. The most questioned elements of the declaration included acceding to Russia's long-held insistence on the term "parties" in regard to both Moldova and its rebel region. Until now Chisinau has staunchly resisted equating itself to the secessionist leadership. This position irritated Moscow, undermining the persistent efforts of Russian diplomacy to obscure Moscow's role as the perpetrator of the conflict and main beneficiary behind the territory's leadership.

President Voronin's signature on the declaration was also viewed as a deliberate move to diminish the importance of the "5+2" negotiations format, which also includes Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, with the United States and European Union as observers, in favor of the "2+1" format (Moldova, Transdniester leadership, and Russia).

The Moscow meeting carried a powerful symbolic significance, through which Russia meant to signal to the West who is in control. It easily summoned the leaders from Chisinau and Tiraspol in a show of disregard to the United States, EU, and OSCE. Moscow also managed to convince Voronin to sign a document every line of which put Moldova at a disadvantage.

The biggest trap of the declaration for Moldova was the agreement of the co-signers to accept a modification of the Transdniester peacekeeping format, currently under total control of Russia. The declaration stated the current setup should be replaced with one under OSCE auspices, but only after a future unclearly defined "political settlement." And this will never happen, as long as Russia is allowed to maintain the conflict, feeding funds and political support to Tiraspol under its "peacekeeper" guise, with tacit Western approval. At any rate, Smirnov gave, in an interview to Russian media shortly after the signing, his opinion that the settlement is never going to happen.

Revealingly, he stated that the Transdniester administration will get more support from Medvedev than it used to receive from his predecessor, Vladimir Putin. "We talked with Dmitry Medvedev like the two Russians we are," he said, mentioning the $200 million in assistance that he expects to receive from the Kremlin. Voronin also brought home a petty gift from Moscow: the Russian promise to send him some 50,000 tons of diesel fuel for the spring planting season.

The pro-government and pro-Russian Moldovan media praised Voronin's performance in dithyrambs, targeting the poor, rural dwellers, and pensioners, praising the "exceptional success" of the leader of the Moldovan Communists. That seems to have been part of a well orchestrated campaign. The incumbent Communist government praised their leader for his diplomatic success, while Russian media outlets in Chisinau underlined the "sincere wish of an impartial Russia to help the two conflicting parties find a common language." The head of the local office of the Russian RIA news agency, Vladimir Novosadyuk, went even further, bluntly distorting the facts as he informed Moldovan readers that domestic experts recognized the positive results of the meeting.

That was rather unprecedented, and suggested the immense interest that the Kremlin had in the declaration. Apparently some concerns had been raised in Moscow that the Moldovan opposition might call people into the streets to protest against the "treacherous" document, as liberal parties have tagged it. The positive media coverage of the declaration may have been aimed at dampening popular tensions.

The events preceding the signature of the declaration also suggested the importance attached to it by the current Russian administration. After a few visits to Chisinau by Russian Security Council deputy chief Yury Zubakov, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came to Moldova at the end of February. His agenda included no items that would require the visit of such a high-profile official, and the opening of the Russian cultural center in Chisinau was not really worth his visit.

Prime Minister Putin also came to town for the CIS summit held in Chisinau last November. Never in its history of independence has Moldova received so many high-level Russian officials during such a short period. And a few days before 18 March, Voronin received a personal phone call from Medvedev, who repeated his invitation to Moscow for the "2+1" meeting.

All of the activity clearly outlines the Kremlin's thorough approach to getting the document signed. In this regard, the available foreign and domestic analyses of Moscow's aims are unconvincing. Russia does not need additional leverage on Moldova in the process of the Transdniester negotiations because it already has complete control over the process.

A more plausible explanation of the frantic efforts and resources Moscow put into that one-page legally nonbinding document is that the target audience was different. The declaration was apparently timed for Medvedev's meeting with Barack Obama at the beginning of April. The withdrawal of Russian troops from Transdniester is the main unsolved dispute between Russia and the West linked to the as-yet non-active Adapted Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and seems to be an element of the new pan-European security architecture promoted so insistently by the Kremlin. Thus, the declaration is a powerful argument in Russian hands.

Moscow is able now to claim that it has the Moldovan leadership's agreement to keep its troops in the Transdniester region so long as a political settlement is not reached. And as Russia is the real second party to the Transdniester conflict, it is up to her whether such a settlement will be reached or not. There are few indicators pointing that President Medvedev may have referred to the "Moscow declaration" in his recent meeting with President Obama to object a possible American reference to Russian obligation to withdrawal its troops from the Transdniester region of Moldova. Official press releases on last week's meeting of the American and Russian presidents mentioned neither the Adapted CFE treaty nor the Russian proposal on the new pan-European security architecture, which are important issues and were certainly discussed. It suggests that agreement was not reached on these questions, and the usual diplomatic etiquette tends to suppress the negative issues if there is a will to show positive trends. Certainly, the first meeting between Obama and Medvedev, that sign of "reset" American-Russian relations, could not carry too many negative notes.

Another indicator was the rather direct disappointments over the declaration expressed behind the scenes by Western diplomats that began filtering through to Moldovan officials right after Voronin's return from Moscow. Voronin was very quick to shed all responsibility, claiming it was his advisers who should be questioned since they had not counseled against his signature. Aside from the futility of a leader trying to pass the buck to advisors he himself hired, there might be a piece of truth here. The influential Russian newspaper "Kommersant" wrote that after the signature of the Moscow declaration, an unidentified official in Voronin's suite said, "if I was Putin or Medvedev I would never return Transdniester to any Voronin, even if he was my brother. As long as Ukraine is willing to join NATO, Russia should not give away that strip of land, and we in Chisinau understand that."

If this represents the thinking of Voronin's advisers, no wonder the current administration in Chisinau has not advanced a single inch in the question of a settlement to the Transndniester conflict. But this is completely understandable, considering that the current Communist ruling elite in Moldova have never selected advisers based on competence, but rather based on loyalty and cronyism. Less understandable is why, with so many advisers from EU countries in Chisinau, and even one attached to the presidential administration, their impact on foreign policy is basically non-existent. Do they do nothing in Chisinau but having good time and only consult the Communist leadership on how to obtain EU benefits while not abiding by its promises? This is not clear, but what is clear is that regardless of increased Western involvement in Moldova, the Kremlin's influence continues to surpass anything Brussels and Washington can put together, and all the strings are still pulled from Moscow.