The Barack Obama administration is continuing to engage in feverish debate about the future direction of its policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The high stakes of the argument are reflected in a whirl of media stories and briefings about its possible direction and the personalities of those involved.
Moldova hosts the Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States this week and hopes to have a better turnout than President Medvedev did in July, at the annual "summit-at-the-races". Back then, only five CIS leaders made it to Moscow, but the Russian horse, Monomakh, did win the day. Moldova will preside over an expansive multi-lateral agenda on social and economic anti-crisis measures, wrap up its CIS presidency and attempt to prepare a raft of joint CIS agreements for ratification by heads of government in November in Yalta.
However, what's really on the new Moldovan leadership's mind, is a couple of vital bilateral issues with the Russian Federation. The first is the continuing presence of Russian troops ("peacekeepers" in an artificially maintained "conflict") and armaments (thousands of tons of Soviet-era ordnance and bullets at Colbasna that need guarding) in Transnistria, despite Moldova's constitutional neutrality and long-standing request for their withdrawal. The second concerns trade with, and economic support from Russia, including the still-open question of a $500 million loan promised before the July 29 repeat Moldovan elections.
Russian president Medvedev is expected to attend on the second day, October 9, and this will provide the first opportunity for contact between him and Moldova's new pro-European leadership. But in contrast to the positive pre-Summit sounds coming out of Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, both Russia and Moldova have already transmitted signals and laid down markers which make it unlikely that significant progress will be made regarding the troops and the loan.
While Sergei Naryshkin, chief of the Russian president's apparatus, was in Chisinau recently to check on preparations for the Summit, acting Moldovan president Mihai Ghimpu, prime minister Vlad Filat and other members of the majority Alliance for European Integration (AEI) publicly insisted on a Russian withdrawal from Moldova. This of course comes as no surprise, as it has been the consistent position of all Moldovan governments since the Transnistrian conflict.
At the same time, however, the Moldovan leadership downplayed and downgraded the importance of its own reintegration efforts. While organizing its new government, the AEI eliminated the Moldovan Ministry of Reintegration, which had garnered a good deal of institutional experience in dealing with the vexing questions that arise - or are provoked - on the left bank of the Nistru. Perhaps more significantly, an individual relatively inexperienced in separatist matters, albeit one of four new Deputy Prime Ministers, was put in charge of the reintegration effort, while the well-regarded (and non-political) former deputy minister of reintegration was overlooked.
These changes quickly elicited a snide statement from Transnistria's "foreign ministry" that it really didn't much matter what the Moldovans did with their Ministry of Reintegration, because the breakaway region didn't - and wouldn't - interact with it anyway. The unsurprising subtext here was that any change in the status quo was unlikely and that Moldova's internal political struggles will simply provide another convenient argument for Transnistria to avoid negotiations, regardless of the formal exhortations of the "3+2" - mediators Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE along with the EU and U.S. as observers + which met yesterday in Vienna.
Eternal Transnistrian strongman Igor Smirnov was, as usual, more direct, declaring categorically just before the Summit that "Transnistria is ready to join the Russian Federation" and that the self-proclaimed republic has no intention of improving ties with Moldova. Smirnov added, that it would, of course, accept good neighborly relations, as between sovereign equals, following Moldova's overdue election of a president. However he warned that political instability on the right bank could lead to "military provocations," the "danger" of which, naturally, justifies the on-going Russian military presence.
No change in peace-keeping operation
Nor was there any pre-Summit good news on the long-standing effort to transform the Russian "peacekeeping" operation into a more transparent - and finite - civilian observer mission. Here, the new Moldovan leadership cannot help but trip over former President Vladimir Voronin's efforts to secure pre-election Russian support for his Communist Party. On March 18, just days before the first Moldovan election, Voronin signed a joint "1+2" declaration with Russian president Medvedev and Smirnov in Moscow. In the future, this document will remain one of the many contradictory and chaotic "ratified agreements" that are trotted out as needed to stymie progress or avoid negotiations.
In it, Voronin agreed that the current Russian-dominated peacekeeping operation in Transnistria could not be transformed (let alone withdrawn) until a final settlement of the conflict is reached. Voronin's deal served to formalize what was indeed the long-standing state of affairs on the ground. Certainly, without Russian consent, there is no way to withdraw or transform the peacekeepers, but until March 18 Moldova's policy had been to continue advocating for a re-formatting and de-escalation before settlement and to resist recognising an obvious, but imposed, condition.
Chisinau and the EU
Acting president Mihai Ghimpu was in Brussels on October 6 and 7 in an attempt, among other things, to move EU officials away from the now-official "1+2" formula - this is a losing battle. The European Union has never had any appetite whatsoever for peacekeeping transformation before settlement and is surely not going to expend any political capital with Moscow over this issue now. OSCE Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut wisely pointed out during his own visit to Bucharest on October 6 that "we have to accept the reality [that] we need the support of all involved parties in order to make this suggestion [peacekeeping transformation] effective."
Another sign that the Kremlin is not expecting any uncontrolled activities or sudden troubles on the left bank, was the decision last month to replace the commander of Russian forces in Transnistria, retiring Major General Boris Sergeyev, with a non-flag officer. Colonel Vyacheslav Sitchikhin was sworn in as commander of the 1,500 Russian troops on September 11, marking the first time that a non-general officer has commanded the 14th Army or its successor force. While there may be all kinds of unrelated internal reasons for this move, it does suggest that there is an expectation of low-simmering "controlled instability," rather than reconciliation and withdrawal, or more serious trouble.
China becomes a new player on the Moldovan stage
Finally, there is a new player in the military mix in Moldova, a highly circumspect one, who is likely to be taking a long-term view of its involvement. Following its intention to lend the Moldovans $1 billion on favorable terms, the Chinese government has also made a move to enhance its military cooperation with Chisinau. As Moldovan Chief of the General Staff Ion Coropcean met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Beijing late last month, the Chinese declared their willingness to "step up military ties with the National Army of Moldova.