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Moldova/Romania: Walking The Joint Peacekeeping Tightrope

Prague, 1 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- More than a few eyebrows must have been raised when Moldovan Foreign Minister Valeriu Pasat paid a two-day visit to Romania last week and agreed with his Romanian counterpart, Victor Babiuc, to set up a "joint peacekeeping unit."

That agreement follows a recent pattern triggered in part by the efforts of would-be NATO members to "prove" to the West that their militaries can be "providers of security, not merely security consumers" -- as Romanian officials recently put it -- and to demonstrate that territorial disputes with neighbors are being resolved.

While reaching an agreement to set up joint peacekeeping units has evidently become a rite of passage for NATO candidacy, it has seldom been followed up in practice. A Hungarian-Romanian peacekeeping unit has been in the offing for more than half a year, and there has also been talk about setting up Romanian-Ukrainian and Romanian-Polish units. More recently, Bulgaria followed suit when it decided to set up a joint peace-keeping unit with neighboring Turkey.

But while the Romanians are clearly still hoping to gain entry to NATO in a second wave of expansion, the question to be asked is why the Moldovans would be keen on such a unit. President Petru Lucinschi has repeatedly emphasized that Moldova intends to keep its neutrality and that NATO membership can be considered only sometime in the distant future, following Moldova's integration into the EU, which is clearly far from being imminent.

The question is all the more relevant given that Transdniester separatists cite the "danger" of Moldova's reunification with Romania as the main reason for pursuing independence. Why should Chisinau, then, wish to provide Tiraspol with additional ammunition? While it is true that both Babiuc and Pasat stressed that the envisaged unit will not be deployed in the Transdniester, such statements are unlikely to convince Igor Smirnov's supporters.

Viewed from this angle, Pasat's expressed interest in the purchase of PUMA helicopters produced in Romania under U.S. license seems to have verged on irresponsibility. It was also unclear why such intentions were made public. Furthermore, the July 24 agreement states that Moldovan officers would receive instruction at Romanian military establishments. Moldovan Chief of Staff Gen. Vladimir Dontu, who accompanied Pasat to the Romanian capital, explained that the Moldovan officer corps could not be trained in Russia because Moscow conditioned such collaboration on participation in the CIS collective security system, to which Moldova does not belong. He added, however, that problems may arise with the plan to have officers trained in Romania because Moldovans do not have sufficient command of Romanian.

The Moldovans' seemingly strange behavior was soon explained, however. Shortly after Pasat's visit, it transpired that the "Bucharest show" was a smoke screen designed to pre-empt criticism of a real policy departure being prepared by the Chisinau government and likely to enrage the pro-unification opposition. No sooner had Pasat returned from Bucharest than he left on another visit, this time to Moscow. And it was "not a coincidence" -- as "Pravda" used to write -- that he reached there two agreements (one of which is still to be signed at deputy premier level) that seemed carbon-copies of those concluded in Bucharest.

There was one significant difference, however: Russian, not Romanian, troops are stationed on Moldova's territory. Nothing was said about the significance of the agreements for Moldova's non-integration in the CIS collective-security structures. But while Pasat was still in Moscow, an announcement was made in Chisinau that a CIS summit in the Moldovan capital in early fall was "under consideration". The fact that nothing Pasat and Dontu did or said in Bucharest was "coincidental" was demonstrated at the end of the visit to Moscow, when it was revealed that Moldova was studying the possibility of purchasing Russian-made helicopters.

The agreements reached in Moscow provide for the instruction of Moldovan officers at Russian military establishments (where they apparently will have no communication problems) and for joint military maneuvers of "peacekeeping forces." The first such maneuvers are to be held in Moldova in October. The location has not yet been specified, but it is a safe bet that it will not be in the Transdniester. To hold maneuvers on that territory would infringe on what Tiraspol regards as its "sovereignty," which, such as it is, would not exist without the continued presence of the Russian troops.

While in Moscow, Pasat discussed with Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin the withdrawal of the Russian troops and the ratification by Russia of the basic treaty with Chisinau. The agreement on the withdrawal dates back to 1994 and that on the basic treaty to 1992. This, in itself, says volumes about Chisinau's recent show of tightrope-walking. While such a feat may be taken for skillful diplomacy, the origins of the metaphor should not be forgotten -- namely, the circus.