The foreign ministers of Russia and Moldova yesterday in Chisinau initialed a bilateral treaty between the two countries. In the document, Russia recognizes Moldova's territorial integrity and pledges to work toward a political settlement of the dispute between Moldova and its breakaway Transdniester region. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also said Russia will observe a 2002 deadline for completing the withdrawal of its troops and weapons from Transdniester.
Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Under the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty between the Russian Federation and Moldova -- initialed yesterday by the countries' foreign ministers, Igor Ivanov and Nicolae Dudau -- Moscow officially recognizes Moldova's independence and territorial integrity. It also pledges to work toward a negotiated settlement of a decade-long dispute between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniester.
Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov, speaking at yesterday's ceremony in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, said the agreement will help build what he called "a strategic partnership" between the two countries and resolve the Transdniester conflict.
"This treaty opens the way for a future strengthening of cooperation between our countries in various fields -- political, economic, cultural and foreign policy," Ivanov said. "The document reflects the objectives and the parameters of the strategic partnership we want to build between our countries, including the fact that this treaty must contribute to a settlement of the Transdniester conflict."
The Transdniester issue has been the main bone of contention between Russia and Moldova for more than a decade. The pro-Russian region broke away from Moldova in 1990 -- a year before the then-Soviet republic declared independence from the USSR -- over fears that Moldovans would seek reunification with their ethnic kin in neighboring Romania.
Armed conflict followed in 1992, and several hundred people died in seven months of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Moldovan security forces. Fighting ended in July 1992 with a Russian-mediated settlement enforced by Russian troops already stationed in the region.
A final agreement on the region's political status has yet to be adopted, despite a series of agreements under international mediation by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Russian legislators in 1999 refused to ratify a first Russian-Moldovan treaty -- signed by the two sides back in 1990 -- because of what they called the document's failure to reflect the new situation after Transdniester's secession from Moldova. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin withdrew the document from the State Duma and negotiations on a new bilateral treaty began soon afterwards.
The treaty's completion was stepped up after pro-Russian Communists earlier this year won both parliamentary and presidential elections in Moldova. Upon his election in April, Moldova's Communist President Vladimir Voronin said establishing better ties with Russia was one of his top priorities, along with resolving the Transdniester dispute.
Foreign Minister Dudau said yesterday that work on the new treaty had progressed rapidly: "Having initialed the treaty -- which as you noticed, was a very speedy procedure -- we have entered the final phase. I hope [Moldovan] President Voronin's visit to Moscow will take place in a short time, where the treaty will be signed. We are also preparing for its ratification in Moldova's parliament and in Russia's State Duma."
Voronin and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to sign the treaty during the Moldovan leader's visit to Moscow scheduled for 18-20 November.
Both Ivanov and Dudau said Moldovan and Russian legislators were likely to ratify the document by overwhelming majorities -- despite a pro-Transdniester lobby in the State Duma. Analysts say the treaty is a disappointment for Transdniester's pro-Russian leaders, who had insisted on having a role in negotiations and wanted the document to mention the existence of a "common state" composed of Moldova and Transdniester as two independent entities.
They also wanted the treaty to state their right to establish separate economic, cultural, and social ties with Russia and to provide for a Russian consulate in Transdniester. But Russia refused to include any of the separatists' demands in the treaty without Moldovan consent.
Diplomat Ion Stavila, Moldova's chief negotiator, told RFE/RL that although the Transdniester separatists' proposals were discussed, the separatists themselves were not allowed to participate in the negotiations over the treaty: "Representatives from Transdniester came up with suggestions and proposals regarding the treaty during negotiations, but I want to stress that they did not take direct part in the negotiations process."
Transdniester officials were not even invited to the initialing ceremony. A final version of the document was handed to a Transdniester representative by Russian and Moldovan officials only after the ceremony.
At the same time, however, experts say Moldova had to cave in to some demands to reach compromise on the treaty.
Transdniester leaders have always insisted they want Moldova to become a loose confederation of two independent states, despite offers of large autonomy made by Moldova's new communist leadership.
In order to gain official Russian recognition of its independence and territorial integrity, Moldova had to agree that the treaty would include direct mention of Moscow's role as main arbiter and guarantor in the Transdniester dispute. It also agreed to note the "strategic partnership" between Moldova and the Russian Federation.
Furthermore, the document gives the Russian language more prominent status in a country where some 65 percent of the 4-million-strong population speaks Moldovan -- which is virtually identical to Romanian. Moldova pledges in the treaty to provide "necessary conditions in accordance with Moldovan law" for those who want to study in Russian.
Russia's presence is also felt in the form of the some 2,500 troops, 50,000 weapons, and 40,000 tons of ammunition it maintains in the Transdniester region.
Under a 1999 OSCE agreement signed in Istanbul, Moscow pledged to withdraw its troops and arsenal from Transdniester by the end of 2002, but the project started only in July of this year under the auspices of the OSCE.
Ivanov said yesterday Russia will honor its commitments under the Istanbul conference and will withdraw both its troops and arms from the Transdniester by the deadline.
Dudau in turn said Moldova was satisfied with the pace of Russian weapons withdrawal, which he said was one month ahead of schedule. But so far, only old armaments have been destroyed or removed from the Transdniester region -- and even that has drawn repeated protests by Transdniester leaders and residents.
It is still unclear how Transdniestrians will react if and when the real test -- Russian troop withdrawal -- begins.
In Georgia's pro-Russian separatist region of Abkhazia, Russian troop and weapons withdrawal was repeatedly stalled because of what the Russians said was opposition to the plan from the local population -- despite a withdrawal agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi.