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Moldova: Russian Envoy Says Moscow To Keep Troops In Transdniester

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov has indicated that Moscow may not withdraw all its forces from Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, despite being obligated under treaty to do so. During his visit last week to Moldova, Trubnikov, who is also Moscow's chief negotiator in the Transdniester debate, did not deny reports Russia was considering maintaining its forces in the region as peacekeepers. Trubnikov said such a decision does not contradict Russia's 1999 commitment to withdraw its troops and military equipment from the region by the end of this year. But the OSCE says it has not yet received any offer from Moscow to turn its troops in the region into peacekeepers.

Prague, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia last week suggested it might not withdraw its troops from Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester -- despite a 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreement that provides for a pullout by the end of the year.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, Moscow's top mediator in the dispute between Moldova and Transdniester, was on a two-day visit to Moldova last week (31 January-1 February). During the visit, Trubnikov did not deny reports that Moscow was working on an additional agreement to keep Russian forces in the breakaway region as "peacekeepers."

Russian troops and military equipment in Transdniester belong to the former 14th Soviet Army -- which is now known as the Transdniester Operative Group of Russian Troops (OGRT). OGRT still has 2,500 soldiers in the area.

In 1999, under growing international pressure, Russia pledged to withdraw its troops and military equipment -- estimated at 50,000 weapons and 40,000 tons of ammunition -- by the end of 2002.

Trubnikov said last week (31 January) after meeting separatist leaders in Transdniester that Moscow will fulfill the 1999 agreement, but that Russian forces may stay in Transdniester to help consolidate a future agreement on the region's status.

"Russian troops do not intend to leave [Transdniester]. We will fulfill [the 1999 OSCE agreement] even more actively, in the hope that [the] OSCE, too, will be interested in having guarantees for the [future] Transdniester status and for consolidating this status. But what kind of guarantees these will be [remains to be seen]. There could be military guarantees, there could be other guarantees. We will discuss this problem with our colleagues within the OSCE."

Portuguese diplomat Manuel Marcello Curto, the OSCE's representative in the Transdniester dispute, said the organization has not yet received a concrete proposal from Moscow regarding its troops. Curto, also in Moldova last week on a fact-finding mission, said on 1 February that any Russia proposal would be taken "extremely" seriously.

"If it [the proposal] comes to the [OSCE] forum, we will have to have an extremely serious debate with Russians within the OSCE, but I would prefer not to imagine things, not to put [forward] hypotheses. I would like to wait for the evolution of the events. I repeat myself, as far as of today, February 1, 2002, the Russian Federation has not put forward any idea of a peacekeeping operation."

Trubnikov also met with Moldova's Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, and Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev.

Russian-speaking Transdniester -- a narrow strip of land situated along the Dniester River between Moldova and Ukraine -- broke away from Moldova in 1990. At the time, many in Transdniester feared Moldova would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. Moldova was part of Romania until World War II, and about 65 percent of its 4.5 million people speak Romanian.

In 1992, Moldova and Transdniester fought a short war that ended with a Russia-mediated settlement enforced by Russian troops stationed in the region.

But little progress on the Transdniester status has been achieved despite a series of agreements under international mediation by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE. A final agreement on the region's political status has yet to be adopted.

Separatists in Transdniester want to turn Moldova into a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states, while Moldovan leaders say they will only grant the breakaway region autonomous status.

Negotiations between Moldova and Transdniester stagnated again late last year after initial indications that Moldova's new pro-Russian Communist government -- which took over a year ago -- was better positioned to persuade the separatist leadership to accept Moldova's terms.

Moldova finally signed a bilateral treaty with Russia in which it gained official Russian recognition of its independence and territorial integrity. But despite being easily approved by Moldova's parliament the treaty has yet to be ratified in the Russian Duma.

Moldova, in order to obtain Russian recognition, 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.

Trubnikov also apparently told Tarlev that a Russian consulate should be opened in the breakaway region's capital of Tiraspol.

According to Moldovan diplomats, Trubnikov said such a move would pave the way for the treaty's ratification in the Duma and bolster negotiations.

Trubnikov said that while Russia is aware that the Transdniester dispute can only be resolved while "respecting Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Moscow favors a solution that is equally acceptable to "both sides of the Dniester River."

Meanwhile, a stalemate persists in negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol.

President Voronin said after talks with Trubnikov that he favors resuming negotiations with separatists.

He warned, however, that he would no longer treat separatist leader Igor Smirnov as an equal but merely as an administrator of a Moldovan province.

Voronin accused both Tiraspol and Kyiv of obstructing Moldovan efforts to institute customs controls along Transdniester's border with Ukraine.

The border between Ukraine and Transdniester is thought to be an area of intense arms trafficking as well as a route for cigarette, oil, and alcohol smugglers. The illegal operations bring the separatist leadership profits estimated at $1 billion annually.

Ukraine has repeatedly refused to accept that Moldovan customs officers be deployed on its side of the border, and Voronin last week said he knew the reason why -- but he refused to elaborate.

He also proposed that international customs officers from countries such as Germany, Austria, and Portugal be deployed along the border, together with Ukrainian, Transdniestrian, and Moldovan officials.

A visit to Moldova next month by Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama -- whose country currently holds the rotating OSCE presidency -- is expected to jump start negotiations between Chisinau and the separatists.