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Moldova: Putin, OSCE Say Arms Withdrawal Faces Serious Delays

Russian President Vladimir Putin says authorities in Moldova's breakaway province of Transdniester are preventing Russia from withdrawing its military forces and equipment from the region. Under a 1999 agreement sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia pledged to remove its Soviet-era military arsenal and troops from Transdniester by the end of this year. But officials from Russia and the OSCE say the withdrawal has fallen behind schedule because of opposition by separatists in the region. Putin said yesterday that Moscow wants its arsenal pulled out of Transdniester but did not set a clear deadline.

Prague, 12 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says it is in Moscow's own interest to complete the withdrawal of its weapons and troops from Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester.

But Putin said the region's leaders are trying to prevent Russia from fulfilling its pledge to withdraw military equipment and forces from the region by the end of this year.

Putin, speaking yesterday at a news conference in Brussels, said Moscow will continue negotiations with Transdniestrian leaders, but he failed to announce a new deadline for withdrawal. "Russia has not only assumed that obligation but is itself interested in withdrawing its military from Transdniester. Unfortunately, the Transdniester leadership is made up of people with whom it is difficult to discuss issues of this kind. They have their own interests, their own concepts of national interests. I believe that these concepts are wrong. We will continue to discuss these issues with them," Putin said.

At a 1999 summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, Russia signed the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or FACE, under which it pledged to withdraw all its troops and military equipment from Transdniester by the end of this year.

It is estimated that Russia has about 40,000 tons of ammunition and weapons, as well as more than 2,000 troops, in Transdniester.

The Russian arsenal in question belongs to the former 14th Soviet Army, later the Russian Army, which has been deployed in the region for decades. Russia says that the military personnel, currently called the Transdniester Operative Group of Russian Troops, are necessary to guard the weapons and ammunition depots.

Russian-speaking Transdniester broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears the Soviet republic would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. Moldova in 1992 fought a short war with the breakaway region that ended with a Russia-mediated settlement enforced by Russian troops.

Ten years later, a final settlement is still not in sight, despite several rounds of negotiations mediated by the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine.

Separatists in Transdniester want a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states, while Moldova says it will only grant the region autonomous status.

David Swartz, the head of the OSCE mission in Moldova, last week said the arms withdrawal is so far behind schedule that the original 31 December deadline is out of the question.

Asked by RFE/RL if Russia is at fault for failing to fulfill the Istanbul agreement, Swartz had this to say: "[Russian] political leaders should answer this question. However, everybody knows that these problems are connected, on the one hand, to a political solution to the Transdniester conflict, and, on the other hand, to the FACE treaty. How will these three elements -- a political solution, the FACE treaty, and fulfilling the Istanbul pledges -- be connected? I am sure that a decision will be made [at the December meeting of OSCE foreign ministers] in [the Portuguese city of] Porto."

Separatist leaders in Transdniester have constantly opposed and even hindered the withdrawal and destruction of arms and munitions, which they claim belong to what they call "the people of Transdniester."

Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov and his allies hold near-absolute control of the region's economy, which is believed to be based mainly on arms, drugs, and oil smuggling, as well as human trafficking and prostitution.

The illegal businesses bring the separatist leadership yearly profits estimated at $1 billion.

Analysts suspect arms depots in Transdniester are an important source for international arms-smuggling rings and even terrorist groups.

The partial arms withdrawals to date followed Moscow's agreement to write off $100 million in Transdniester's gas debt. But the complete pullout has advanced very little so far. Only three trainloads of military equipment have left the region since September.

According to OSCE estimates, there are some 100 trainloads of arms and munitions still left in Transdniester. The OSCE says that, at a rate of one trainload leaving the region every four days, it will take more than a year to complete the withdrawal.

OSCE member states have also established a multimillion-dollar voluntary fund to finance the destruction of old weapons and munitions locally.

But efforts to install a $2 million mobile factory to dispose of the military equipment ultimately failed because of opposition from separatist officials.

Swartz told RFE/RL that the OSCE member states that contributed money to the fund are chagrined by the waste of funds. "I can declare, openly and honestly, that the donor countries are very, very unhappy with the way their money has been wasted," Swartz said.

Swartz said that the current deadlock could be broken at the annual meeting of OSCE foreign ministers, which is scheduled for 6-7 December in Porto.

Swartz told RFE/RL that OSCE representatives at the meeting will have to choose from three alternatives. "I can't say anything specific before [the] Porto [annual meeting of OSCE foreign ministers], but there are three options. [First,] the deadline would not be extended, the fund to support the withdrawal would cease to exist, and we would give the donors their money back. Second, the deadline would be somehow extended. And third, the December 31 deadline would not be extended, but financing the withdrawal would continue in a form different from the one adopted in Istanbul. These are the three possible options," Swartz said.

Swartz said the OSCE believes Russia is a responsible country that remains committed to fulfilling its Istanbul pledge.

But some analysts say Russia's commitment to withdrawing its forces from Transdniester may have weakened in light of NATO's expected enlargement in the region, which will likely include Moldova's western neighbor, Romania.