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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Movement On Moldova?

Prague, 26 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the continued presence of Russian troops in Moldova's Transdniestr region violates that country's constitution. And he said it was time to "make a decision" about their future status.

Yeltsin's remarks on Tuesday were in the first instance a response to demands by visiting Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi that Moscow live up to an earlier agreement between the two countries.

That 1994 accord, widely praised by the international community but never ratified by the Russian parliament, called for the removal of all 6500 Russian troops from Moldova's Transdniestr region within three years.

That region, which has a Slavic majority, has sought autonomy or even independence from Moldova.

Moscow's failure to do so, Lucinschi added, "does no good for the local population" and "could serve as an additional source of tension" within Moldova and between Moscow and Chisinau.

But Yeltsin's comments were far more than a mere diplomatic response to a visiting dignitary. Instead, they appear to have three far-reaching purposes.

First, the Russian president's words represent not a concession to Chisinau but rather another effort by Moscow to put off the withdrawal of its troops still further. By suggesting that the two countries need to reach a new agreement, Yeltsin was in effect repudiating the old one.

Second, Yeltsin's comments are part and parcel of Moscow's ongoing effort to oppose the eastward expansion of NATO. By implying that Russia is prepared to be reasonable on this issue, Yeltsin is clearly seeking to do three things toward that end.

The Russian president in the first instance is seeking to remove some of the sting of Russian reaction to NATO Secretary Javier Solana's comments on this issue earlier this month.

When Solana urged that Moscow live up to its agreement and withdraw its troops, a number of senior Russian officials and commentators angrily dismissed Solana's proposal and pointedly noted that Moscow would do what it wanted and not what a NATO official suggested.

Further, Yeltsin is once again adopting a role he has played in the past: as the reasonable Russian to whom the West should make concessions lest a more unreasonable Russian leader take his place.

And finally, Yeltsin by suggesting there might be movement on this issue is seeking to remove one of the chief arguments of those who advocate NATO expansion.

Many in Eastern Europe have cited the illegal presence of Russian troops in Moldova as evidence of the threat they also feel Moscow continues to represent.

And third, and perhaps most important, Yeltsin's response is very much part of the ongoing political struggle in Moscow itself.

By suggesting that the Russian troop presence in the Transdniestr region is illegal, Yeltsin is taking a swipe at his most powerful political opponent, retired General Aleksandr Lebed.

Lebed, of course, first came to public prominence as commander of the 14th Russian Army in Moldova's Transdniestr region. Sent to "make peace" between Chisinau and that breakaway region's ethnic Russian leadership, Lebed won the support from two very different groups of Russians.

On the one hand, he gained the backing of those in Moscow who saw the Russian army as a positive force for stability across the territory of the former Soviet Union.

And on the other, the often outspoken army commander attracted the support of those in Russia proper who believe that Moscow must defend the rights and privileges of ethnic Russians abroad, even against the governments on whose territory they live and whose citizens they now are.

Yeltsin's carefully crafted statement appears intended to divide Lebed's constituency. On the one hand, the Russian president implicitly criticizes what Lebed did and suggests it won't last.

But on the other, Yeltsin's words strongly imply that there won't be any real movement toward the withdrawal of Russian troops there anytime soon.

By walking along this carefully defined line, Yeltsin himself may win on all three fronts. But those victories do not necessarily presage any movement on Russian troops in the Transdniestr region of Moldova anytime soon.