A border war we filed away: Politicians in the West should be wary of the 'impartial' peace-keeping that Russia is operating in Moldova, says Jonathan Eyal

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THE RUSSIAN foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, never tires of reminding the West that his country now bears the heavy burden of stabilising conflicts in former Soviet republics. It is effort which, he insists, requires international help.

In a joint article published recently, he and the British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, proposed a set of principles to guide Moscow's peace-keeping activities: they should not diminish the independence of any former Soviet republic, and they should be mounted only with a clear mandate specifying both a timetable for withdrawal and international monitoring.

The Foreign Secretary's decision to take up pens with Mr Kozyrev is understandable. Faced with the choice of ignoring the turmoil altogether or giving Russia carte blanche in its former empire, Hurd opted for the best possible compromise: the enunciation of principles according to which Russia's future behaviour could be judged.

To Mr Hurd's credit, he is translating words into action. Last week a British diplomat, Richard Samuel, arrived in the former Soviet republic of Moldavia (now Moldova) as the new head of the observer mission dispatched by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). The Foreign Office could not have picked a better place to demonstrate the limitations of current Western policy and to test Russia's real intentions.

Seized by Stalin from Romania during the Second World War, Moldova is the only former Soviet republic which has a 'mother country' outside the former empire. In language, religion and historic experience, Moldovans are identical to ethnic Romanians; Moscow's efforts to create a separate Moldavian nation (including a laughable attempt to force Moldovans to write Romanian in the Cyrillic alphabet) failed.

Now an internationally recognised independent state, Moldova has reverted to the Latin script and recognises its cultural and historic ties with Romania. A union with Romania, however, while briefly mooted immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is not imminent: all opinion polls suggest that most ordinary Moldovans do not want it. Romania is not West Germany: its penury is hardly an inducement to Moldovans, and Moldova's leadership, still dominated by the old Communist elite, will do all it can to keep Moldovans and Romanians apart.

Although unification between Moldova and Romania is still remote, leaders of Moldova's Russian minority have used the spectre of such a union to justify their own separatist demands. Concentrated on the left bank of the Dnestr river, in the province of Transdnestr, the Russians have campaigned for their region to secede from Moldova and join Russia lest it be subsumed into a greater Romania.

While Transdnestr's leaders say they want secession because they are subject to language discrimination by the Moldovan authorities, the evidence suggests that the move has been orchestrated from Moscow and is aimed at higher stakes.

Although Romanian was declared Moldova's official state language, the use of Russian was explicitly permitted and minorities elsewhere in the republic have had little cause for complaint. Furthermore, the Russians of Transdnestr are not even that province's most numerous minority: Romanians account for 43 per cent of Transdnestr's inhabitants, followed by Ukrainians with 28 per cent; Russians account for 26 per cent.

Finally, Transdnestr's request to be regarded as part of Russia proper made no sense, since this sliver of land, sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, can never have a border with Russia unless Ukraine's independence is extinguished.

This is the crux of the problem. As well as accounting for a large share of Moldova's industrial output and controlling virtually all rail links into the republic, Transdnestr is also a convenient launch pad for Russian troops, close to the disputed Ukrainian region of Crimea.

From the moment of Moldova's independence in late 1991, Moscow refused to discuss the withdrawal of its troops from Transdnestr. Russian soldiers armed local militias, and by the summer of 1992 there were bloody confrontations throughout the province. With pressure from Russia, a ceasefire was achieved and a peace-keeping force introduced.

The same Kremlin leaders who are now demanding a mandate from the West for similar operations elsewhere in the former Soviet Union asked for no international permission in Moldova: they simply painted some Russian soldiers' helmets blue and called them 'peace-keepers'.

Moscow claimed to be impartial in the conflict. In fact the local Russian commander, General Alexander Lebed, repeatedly called the Moldovan authorities 'fascist' and, lest there be any lingering doubt about his 'impartiality', was also elected a deputy in the Transdnestr rebels' assembly. Peace-keeping, Russian style.

After pressure from the West, Russia finally agreed to have a CSCE mission sent to Moldova to help to bring about peace, while ensuring the unity of the republic and protection for all minorities. The mission, which arrived a year ago, was precisely the kind of conflict-resolution measure that every Western leader routinely advocated and Moscow officially welcomed. And the result?

The CSCE requested access to the meetings of the commission that is supposed to supervise Russia's peace-keeping operation; Moscow adamantly refused. The CSCE asked for an explanation as to why bridges in Transdnestr were controlled by Russians alone, in apparent contravention of ceasefire accords; none was given. The mission then wanted to visit some newly erected Russian fortifications in the province. Again, Moscow said no.

Far from agreeing to withdraw its forces, Russia linked the presence of its troops to the 'solution' of Transdnestr's 'political status', a sure reference to the province's self-styled independence - and a condition to which the CSCE, which is committed to respecting existing borders, cannot accede.

The hapless CSCE mission has sent back 14 reports in the past six months, each one identifying the causes of the deadlock in increasingly stark terms. And the West's reaction? Every report was received with thanks and duly filed away.

It would be comforting to believe that Moldova was a special case. Unfortunately, the fate of this small republic conforms to a pattern according to which Russian enclaves are created on the periphery of the former Soviet Union. Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transdnestr: everywhere ethnic conflicts begin and stop miraculously - precisely when Moscow wants them to. In each case Russian forces are directly involved and in each Russia also claims to be an impartial arbiter.

Western governments are only too aware of what is actually going on. But the conspiracy of silence is maintained. As the example of Moldova shows, Russians pretend to do the peace-keeping while the West pretends to do the monitoring. It is a nice arrangement which, in the words so loved by diplomats, keeps everyone 'involved' in 'The Process'.

Britain's CSCE envoy, Mr Samuel, who has extensive diplomatic experience in Moscow and the Baltic republics, can be relied upon to take his new CSCE mission to Moldova seriously. The Foreign Office believes that London's contribution to the CSCE is often underrated, and fervently wants him to succeed.

But succeed in what? The big problem for Western governments is whether the involvement of international institutions as powerless observers or 'dialogue facilitators' just bestows unwarranted legitimacy on operations that remain in essence Russian frontier wars.

Moldova should serve as a warning that it is simply not possible to tread a line between a de facto acceptance of the presence of Russian troops and the imposition of paper limitations on their behaviour. Mr Samuel will, no doubt, write eloquent reports. The CSCE secretariat is guaranteed to file them neatly. And Moldova? Where is it anyway?

The author is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photographs and map omitted)