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Moldova: OSCE Hopes Putin Will Act On Arms Withdrawal

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Moldova later this month, and the OSCE hopes his trip will loosen the deadlock over the withdrawal of a huge Russian arsenal from Moldova. RFE/RL's Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 7 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova, beset by economic ills and locked into a long and tense stand-off with heavily armed separatists, often seems ignored by the international community.

But the announcement earlier this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Moldova on 16 and 17 June has stirred interest in the small country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. The visit raises hopes that progress will be made in resolving the separatist issue -- and that Russia will keep its promises to remove its troops and huge store of weapons from the republic.

Moldova, formerly a Soviet republic, became independent in 1991, but its volatile ethnic mix immediately provoked problems. While around 65 percent of the population is Romanian-speaking and wants close ties or even unification with Romania, that has been opposed by the substantial Russian and Ukrainian minorities, which each compose some 14 percent of the population.

The Russians and Ukrainians in the east of Moldova, in the Transdniester region, have formed a pro-Russian breakaway government, which pines for the Soviet era and demands independence.

In 1992, the Transdniester region fought against the rest of Moldova in a conflict that claimed hundreds of lives. The Slavic separatists were better armed than the Moldovan forces, which have no battle tanks, combat aircraft, or rocket forces.

Observers at the time said the rebels received many of their weapons from the 14th Russian Army, which is based in Transdniester. The presence of the Russian military, most observers said, is what allowed the separatists to secure their territory. The 14th Army now holds the status of a peacekeeping force between Slavic separatists and Moldovan authorities -- but it is not accepted by the Moldovan government.

That makes Moldova the only place in the former Soviet Union where Russian troops remain expressly against the will of the independent government. For years, Russia has promised to pull out its troops, numbering around 2,500 men, and withdraw its vast stores of ammunition and military equipment. The well-stocked arsenal in Moldova, on the former Soviet Union's western border, was intended to become a huge supply depot in case of conflict with NATO.

Russia committed itself under the 1990 adapted Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe to haul its troops and equipment out of Moldova.

At the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Istanbul last November, then OSCE Chairman Knut Vollebaek said Russia again committed itself to unconditionally withdrawing 40,000 tons of heavy weaponry by 2001 and its soldiers by 2002.

"We have clear indications from the Russians that they are moving on the Moldova issue, and this is an issue I have raised in each conversation I've had with the Russian foreign minister lately. My understanding is that that is under way and this shouldn't be too difficult to find a text that we can all agree on."

OSCE members set up a fund to help the Russians, Moldovans, and separatists remove, destroy, or adapt for industrial use the ammunition and equipment. The United States alone earmarked $30 million for that aim.

But the OSCE ambassador to Moldova, William Hill, tells our correspondent that since last November, nothing has happened.

"Since the Istanbul document was signed, there has been absolutely no progress on fulfilling the commitments. While the OSCE was meeting in Istanbul, three train loads, about 120 railcars, of Russian military equipment left Transdniestria. Since then there's been no equipment, no arms shipped out, no arms or equipment destroyed or reprocessed in place. The situation, unfortunately, has been frozen."

Last weekend, the OSCE's Permanent Council convened in Vienna to express concern that Russia is not abiding by its commitments.

Hill said that the stores, particularly tons of ammunition equivalent to the power of two atomic bombs, pose a danger from accidental explosions.

And, he said, the arsenal constitutes a wider threat to regional stability because of the separatist situation, which has already boiled over into conflict once before.

Indeed, the Russians claim that one of the biggest obstacles to removing the stores has been objections by the separatist forces that control the road and rail routes needed to transport the arsenal. In the past, the separatists have asked for all or a large part of the stores to be handed over to them -- which would tip the scales of military might overwhelmingly in their favor compared with the poorly armed Moldovan forces.

"There's ultimately a danger that these weapons could pass out of the control of the Russian forces that now guard them and fall into other hands. In other words, the region could be more secure if the amount of weaponry now stored here were reduced either by shipping it out, destroying it, or reprocessing it for industrial use."

Moldova does most of its trade with Russia, and owes it hundreds of millions of dollars for gas. But when Putin meets Moldovan President Petru Lucinschi in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, at the end of next week, the main topic on their agenda will be the separatist problem in Transdniestria.

The separatists want only the Russians to mediate a settlement. But the Moldovan government wants Ukraine and the OSCE to be involved as well as the Russians.

Since the Moldovan government and the separatists signed a memorandum in 1997 to negotiate a political settlement, there has been no progress.

Hill says he hopes that Putin will be able to prod forward a dialogue between the Moldovans and separatists.

"I would hope that President Putin's attention to these issues and his discussions might result in some progress being made."

Today, a team of diplomats from Norway, Austria, Britain, Canada, and the Czech Republic on a visit to Moldova traveled to Tiraspol, the capital of the separatist region, to review how efforts to withdraw troops and weapons are faring.

But the key to resolving both the separatist and weapons withdrawal issues lies with Putin. His actions in Moldova could provide an important insight into how he wants to use Russian power.