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Analysis From Washington: A Breakthrough On Moldova?

Washington, 9 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - A Russian-brokered agreement explicitly intended to preserve the territorial integrity of Moldova unintentionally highlights Moscow's ability to play on the internal divisions of former Soviet republics to bend them to its will.

On Thursday, Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi and the leader of the breakaway Transdniestr region Igor Smirnov signed an agreement in Moscow committing themselves to develop their "relations within the framework of a single state."

Also signing this accord as guarantors were Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and Niels Helveg Petersen, the acting head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Already hailed in Russia and the West as a "landmark" decision and a "breakthrough" document, this latest accord does not commit the two sides to anything more than further talks about what their relationship within a single country will be.

It does not commit Russia to withdrawing any forces until these two sides come up with a workable agreement on their own. And as a result, it does not put any new pressure on the Transdniestr leadership to move quickly toward a final agreement with Chisinau.

In sum, this is but the latest twist in the wind of the complex history of the Transdniestr region and its relations with Moldova and Moscow.

In 1992, the Transdniestr region of Moldova, an area with a slight Slavic majority, unilaterally declared independence. That provoked a brief civil war in which 700 people lost their lives and the introduction of Russian forces to keep the two sides apart.

Ever since, Chisinau has sought to have Moscow withdraw its forces so that it could reestablish control over a region that some have characterized as the only place where the anti-Gorbachev August 1991 coup succeeded.

Russia and Moldova subsequently reached an agreement that Russian troops would be withdrawn over a three-year period, but Moscow has not yet pulled them, arguing that the clock for their withdrawal has not started because the Duma has not ratified this accord.

There are at least three reasons for this: The local Slavic population continues to view them as its savior against the Romanian speaking majority of Moldova.

Nationalists in Russia see these forces as the defenders of ethnic Russians abroad. Indeed, they made Aleksandr Lebed, the former commander of the Russian 14th army in Transdniestr, their political hero.

And Moscow sees them as a lever directly on Moldova and indirectly on Ukraine. Moreover, the Russian government remains uncertain of just where to relocate the 6500 Russian troops now there and how to dispose of the enormous arms dumps in the region.

The latest accord does not change any of this. Indeed, Yeltsin admitted as much when he said that the latest agreement "does not mean all the problems have been resolved."

Even more pointedly, Yeltsin said that Russia "is ready to withdraw its peacekeeping contingent from Transdniestr as both sides resolve the conflict."

By defining the issue in that way, Yeltsin has given the Transdniestr authorities every reason to drag their feet. As in the past, they are likely to pursue a strategy of simply making additional demands on Chisinau after every Moldovan concession.

Consequently, this accord is not going to be the "breakthrough" in the way that many commentators are suggesting. But it may be a breakthrough in another and very different way.

By involving the OSCE as a co-guarantor of this latest accord, Moscow effectively voids its earlier agreement with Chisinau to withdraw its forces from the Transdniestr region and does so with the blessing of an important international organization.

That provides a more solid foundation for Russian forces there and perhaps in other places such as Abkhazia in Georgia and in other former Soviet republics.

To the extent that happens, what looks like a small step forward toward the resolution of the Transdniestr region may in fact represent a giant leap backward in the process of securing the genuine independence of the former Soviet republics.