Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Dr. Charles King
Assistant Professor - School of Foreign Service at Georgetown Univ.


Mr. Co-Chairmen, members of the commission: It is an honor to come before you today to offer some thoughts on the situation in the Republic of Moldova, particularly the vexed question of the withdrawal of Russian troops still located there. I have followed Moldovan affairs for more than a decade now, and many of the issues we are considering today have been on the table for most of that period. That, perhaps, is not an encouraging sign, but it is an indication of the military, political, and diplomatic complexities of the Moldovan case.

The Current Situation and Context

Against the stated wishes of the Moldovan government, the Russian Federation maintains a detachment of troops within Moldova’s recognized borders. Those troops are the remnants of the former Soviet 14th army, which was progressively downsized to the status of an “operational group” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The troops are headquartered in Tiraspol, the regional capital of the so-called Dnestr Moldovan Republic (or Transnistria), a separatist region which declared itself independent of Moldovan authority during a series of armed clashes from 1990 to 1992. Over the last ten years, Russia has moved back and forth on the withdrawal of its forces, at times pledging its commitment to leave, at other times maintaining that the soldiers are essential to looking after the interests of Moldova’s ethnic Russian minority. As you know, at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the OSCE, Russia committed itself to the full and timely withdrawal of these forces and their equipment by 2002. Despite some removal of munitions, the troops remain in place, and it is now highly unlikely that the terms of the Istanbul agreement will be reached.

I would like to place the current situation in a broader political context, highlighting four of the reasons I think this issue has been such a hard nut to crack.

1. The Reality of Dnestr Statehood

Analysts and policymakers often speak of the Dnestr Moldovan Republic as if it were a phantom state propped up by the Russian Federation. It is not. The fact is that over the last ten years the Dnestr leaders have gone about building a functioning state, although one that lacks international recognition. Its armed forces—not including the Russian Federation troops, which could be expected to help the Dnestr army in the event of an armed conflict—are larger than those of Moldova. It has its own passports and its own currency. It organizes elections, although they have never been monitored by neutral outside observers. In many economic categories, it is a net “exporter” of goods to the rest of Moldova. And crucially, it has spent the last decade educating its children in the belief that the country to which they owe their allegiance is the Dnestr Republic, not the Republic of Moldova. Children who were not even born when the conflict began, are now almost teenagers. Neither they, nor their parents, will accept a resolution to this dispute that does not, at some level, recognize the independence that they now take for granted.

It is sometimes hard for us in America to imagine how any of this can be the case. How can the roughly 650,000 people in the Dnestr region live in a situation of such political ambiguity, citizens of a state that no one recognizes, cut off from the rest of the world? The important point to remember, though, is that for average citizens, life inside a recognized state—Moldova—is not appreciably different from life inside an unrecognized one—the Dnestr Republic. Moldova is a remarkably weak state, now routinely labeled the poorest country in Europe. Pensions and salaries, when they are paid, are inadequate. People in urban areas survive by having relatives in the countryside, who are able to supply them with food from their gardens. Poverty is deep and structural. Moldova is, in every sense of the word, an underdeveloped country. The lives of average citizens rarely intersect with the state, and where they do it is usually in less than pleasant ways: being waved down by a corrupt traffic policeman for an imagined offense; paying a bribe to a doctor at a state hospital to perform a needed operation.

All of this has important implications for the troop withdrawal. Dnestr authorities see the troops as a guarantor of their hard-won statehood (even though, in practical terms, they could probably defeat the Moldovan army in a pitched battle all by themselves). They are a visible presence of Russia’s commitment to looking out for Dnestr interests. Many local officials—including senior commanders of the Dnestr security forces—were once officers in the Soviet 14th army. They also covet the military equipment still in Russian stores, materiel which would allow them to increase their lead over the Moldovan army.

2. The Policies of the Russian Federation

The Moldovan government has long pointed to Russia’s dithering on the troop withdrawal. Because of the general disorder in Russian foreign policy over the last decade, there have in fact been several Russian policies toward Moldova, most of which have been at odds. The Russian presidents, both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, have assured international organizations that they are committed to removing their troops. The Defense Ministry and individual military commanders, on the other hand, have often stated that the army is a guarantor against the “ethnic cleansing” of Moldova’s Russian minority. (In fact, most Russians in Moldova live outside the Dnestr region.) Various factions of the Russian parliament, who make frequent trips to the Dnestr Republic, have called for the Dnestr leaders to remain vigilant against the perceived Moldovan threat. There is thus no Russian “policy” toward Moldova, but a series of often inconsistent “policies,” the bottom line of which is to strengthen Dnestr statehood.

But neither the Moldovans nor the OSCE have been consistent in this regard either. In 1994 the Moldovans signed an agreement in which they committed themselves to “synchronizing” the Russian troop withdrawal with the resolution of the Dnestr dispute. That agreement unfortunately linked the two issues and obviously left the question of timing up in the air: Should the troops be removed before the Dnestr negotiations closed, or vice versa? In 1997 the Moldovans signed another agreement—welcomed by the OSCE—which committed both Moldova and the Dnestr Republic to building a “common state.” That, too, has turned out to be a stumbling block: The Moldovans have interpreted “common state” to mean a unified country, while the Dnestr leaders say that the term refers to no more than a loose confederation and represents a Moldovan admission that they no longer control Dnestr territory.

3. The Complicity of the Central Government

All of that is only part of the story, though. Russia is a useful foil on which Moldova’s ills can be blamed, but there is mounting evidence that powerful individuals in Moldova itself benefit from the limbo status into which the negotiations with the Dnestr Republic have lapsed. Transparency International places Moldova among the most corrupt countries in the world, and there is a crucial link between corruption and the Dnestr problem: Having part of your state outside your own control can actually be a very good thing. Goods can be imported and exported through the Dnestr region without paying customs duties. The industrial enterprises in the Dnestr region can be used to produce goods that are exported abroad outside the prying eyes of the central government and the representatives of international financial institutions. Witness, for example, recent controversies over the dumping of steel produced in the Dnestr Republic on North American markets.

Let me point to one other example. The Dnestr Republic is a piece of territory that holds around 17 percent of Moldova’s total population. In 1998, however, Moldovan customs officials registered an import figure for the region that was four times as large as the rest of Moldova’s. For cigarettes it was 6,000 times as large. All those goods were imported with the full knowledge of the central customs office, since the goods were registered as coming into Moldova for end-use in the Dnestr region. This means one of two things: either corrupt officials on the Moldovan side benefit by diverting these allegedly Dnestr imports onto the general Moldovan market, or the Dnestr problem will resolve itself when the entire population contracts lung cancer from smoking too many cigarettes. The weakness of the Moldovan state, in other words, is not a condition that has somehow simply happened. Continued weakness is in the interests of those in power, whether in the separatist region or in the central government.

In recent weeks, the Moldovan Communist government has actually done more than any of its predecessors to try to address these issues, especially by getting serious about customs fraud. My suspicion, though, is that there will be very powerful forces within the Moldovan state administration and police that will oppose these moves at every step of the way.

4. The Rise of TAKO

I would like to raise one final issue that takes us beyond Moldova but that is relevant to understanding the situation there. The Moldovan predicament is not unique in the former Soviet Union; many of the same problems are to be found in Azerbaijan and Georgia as well. All have separatist disputes that have run on for more than a decade: Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia; Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan; and the Dnestr region in Moldova. All have functionally separate but unrecognized republics on their territory. Moldova and Georgia still have Russian troops on their territory whose presence is not desired by the central authorities.

As you are aware, these countries are part of an informal group of states committed to economic, political, and perhaps security cooperation—Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova—known collectively as GUUAM. The United States has been a strong supporter of GUUAM cooperation, as a way of shoring up these countries’ statehood and of dealing with important common concerns.

GUUAM has a stepsister, however, and I call her TAKO. That is my label for cooperation among the unrecognized states of Transnistria, Abkhazia, Karabakh, and South Ossetia. They are really existing entities, and their cooperation has been substantial. Last November the presidents of these four unrecognized states held a summit meeting in the Dnestr capital, Tiraspol. This past July, the foreign ministers met in the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert. Security services share information on possible threats.

Let me give you one practical example. Last fall a delegation of leaders of Moldovan nongovernmental organizations arrived in Georgia for a brief tour. The Moldovans asked, via the local OSCE office, if they could arrange a trip to South Ossetia as part of their program. After approaching the South Ossetian leadership, the OSCE came back with a categorically negative response. As it turned out, the deputy speaker of the Dnestr parliament had been in South Ossetia only weeks earlier, to attend the celebrations surrounding the tenth anniversary of South Ossetian independence. He had strongly advised the Ossetian interior and foreign ministries against approving the Moldovan visit. In terms of practical outcomes, as a form of international cooperation TAKO is probably more real than GUUAM.

The Policy Dimensions

The TAKO phenomenon, as well as the other complexities I have highlighted above, point to four practical issues that the United States and the international community will need to consider as we move ahead with negotiations in the Eurasian conflicts—and in Moldova in particular.

1. In the long run, the status quo hurts everyone. On the face of things, the current situation does not look all that bad. In fact, it is precisely because most people benefit in the short term that so little movement has occurred in Moldova since the fighting stopped in 1992. The separatists get a de facto independent country. Corrupt Moldovan officials get a profitable channel for imports and exports. The Russian Federation gets a strategic foothold in a neighboring country. Western governments get relative peace and, therefore, no CNN on the scene.

But in the long run, everyone loses. The unrecognized states have become conduits through which drugs, weapons, and people are smuggled into the European Union and farther afield. They have become authoritarian, militarized statelets, ruled rather than governed, by many of the same people who originally made the wars of the 1990s. They have had a cancerous effect on Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, eating away at what little democracy exists in the last two, seriously weakening what was a strong procedural democracy in the first.

2. A “breakthrough” in negotiations is unlikely. Given the very real interests that keep the status quo in place, a major move forward in negotiations over the short term is unlikely. In fact, today the negotiations are really not about ending the conflict in a single country. Moldova and the Dnestr Republic represent two distinct political systems, economies, militaries, and increasingly societies. The terms of the negotiations have changed from being about how to stop a civil war into how to integrate two functionally separate countries. And since both countries have more or less learned to live with the current state of affairs, it is little wonder that real progress has been so elusive. Even the most dedicated peacemakers—such as the local OSCE mission in Chisinau—have thus found themselves in a no-win position: pushing an agreement with separatists who have no incentive to negotiate in good faith, central leaders who benefit from the status quo, and an impatient international community looking for any symbol of “progress,” regardless of whether it actually contributes to resolution

3. Removing the troops will on its own accomplish little. The removal of Russian troops has been a focus of international policy largely because it has a definable end point. In the morass of post-Soviet politics, everyone is looking for a clear measure of the success of international policy. But troop withdrawal is not an end in itself. The presence of Russian troops actually contributes very little to the security of the Dnestr Republic, although many local citizens and political leaders do see the troops as an important symbol of Russian support for their cause. Many of the officers who formerly served with the 14th army have now retired and live with their families inside the Dnestr Republic. Others have taken up positions within the Dnestr security structures. For many of the army’s officer corps, “withdrawal” meant little more than a trolley bus ticket to the other side of Tiraspol, since they and their families had long ago come to think of the Dnestr region as home.

Today, the troops actually perform a rather useful service: making sure that at least the majority of the army’s weapons stocks do not fall wholesale into the hands of the Dnestr authorities. That, of course, looks suspiciously like a protection racket. It was the 14th army that largely caused the eruption of violence in the first place, by supplying men and weaponry to the most radical Dnestr leaders. But even if both the troops and the weapons are withdrawn, there will be a large reserve of highly trained, battle-experienced Russian officers and men left inside the Dnestr region. To my knowledge, there has been very little thought or discussion on the Moldovan side about what to do with them.

4. The “phantom republics” are here to stay. The Dnestr Republic, Abkhazia, Karabakh, and South Ossetia may sound like countries in a fantasy game, but they are real places that are likely to be around for a long time. The Russians certainly recognize that fact. The Russian Defense Ministry’s official history of the post-Soviet wars, published last year, argues the point clearly: The only possible course for outside powers, the writers say, is “the preservation of the existing de facto independent status of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia as juridically legitimate entities, as something like associated parts of internationally recognized states.”

So far, the OSCE has taken a strong position affirming the territorial integrity of Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan; denouncing separatism; and encouraging negotiations in which the devolution of autonomy to the separatist regimes is the model for conflict resolution. I believe that that model is now exhausted. Despite the committed efforts of fine diplomats and negotiators in the field, none of these disputes is frankly any closer to being resolved than it was when the fighting stopped several years ago. In some ways, the situation is worse, because over that period the separatist regions have consolidated their statehood and begun to rear a new generation of children convinced that their homeland is a place called the Dnestr Republic or Abkhazia or Karabakh. The problem is that, so long as these statelets remain unrecognized, it is very difficult for the international community to make policy toward them—except to continue with “negotiations” that are often postponed, cancelled or manipulated by all the parties to ensure that they achieve little.

Even in the best-case scenario—a “peace agreement” that would allow for the separatist regions to be formally reintegrated with the existing state but also provide for considerable local autonomy—Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan will still end up as the losers. They are, at the moment, states that do not control significant portions of their own territory (from about 12 percent in Moldova’s case to around 25 percent in Azerbaijan’s), and in which the general trend in terms of democratization, economic performance, and reform in recent years has been largely negative. Whether Russian troops stay or go, I think, is largely peripheral to the broader problem of Eurasia’s failing states.

Thank you.