Chapter 4: Trans-Dniestria

by Irina F. Selivanova*

The principal reason that Russia was drawn into the conflict between the Moldovan government and the armed forces of the breakaway trans-Dniester region is all too typical for the majority of the conflicts in the post-Soviet period: the presence of a Russian army in the region as a legacy from the Soviet Union.

Although Russia clearly had objective strategic, political, and economic interests in the region, these interests were not the defining factor in Moscow's decision to allow the 14th Army to intervene in the conflict in Moldova. Rather, Moscow had no choice. The essence of the "14th Army phenomenon" is that even at the apogee of the armed conflict in the trans-Dniester region, the 14th Army was not so much the object but the subject of politics. It is possible to say with only slight exaggeration that Moscow did not control its military units, but that these units, on their own initiative, "amended" Moscow's political agenda in the region.

This phenomenon, which was revisited in the crises in Tadjikistan and Abkhazia, was a product of the political transition that was underway in Moscow at the time. Russia's new, post-Communist leadership lacked both clearly-defined concepts of national interests and security and well-defined rules of conduct toward the newly independent states. As a result, the Russian military, and especially those units stationed in the territories of the former Soviet republics, were for all intents and purpose left to their own devices. On the one hand, this led to the organizational breakdown of the chain of command, and the uncontrolled proliferation of weapons and stocks from forward-based garrisons. On the other hand, this political decapitation left local Russian army units free to assume political roles independent of the supervision of legitimate political authorities in either Moscow or the newly formed states.

The dominant characteristic of the 14th Army (unlike analogous Russian military units in Tadjikistan and the Caucasus) was that it was capable of resisting the temptation to take sides, and, due to its firepower, was able to assume the role of an "amateur" peace-making force. This aroused suspicions on both sides of the conflict and presented the Russian government with a series of delicate issues in its search for a mutually acceptable resolution of the conflict. In particular, the Russian leadership had to balance limitation of the unsanctioned (although subsequently approved) military-political activity of its expeditionary armed forces against the realities of ethnic conflict in the region. As it turned out, however, none of the possible solutions to the problem--such as the assignment of a peace-keeping mandate to the 14th Army, retention of the army in Moldova, or withdrawal of the army--were realized.

The primary reason for this failure (excluding the technical difficulties associated with controlling, training, and withdrawing such an armed force) stemmed from the political and ethnic nature of the conflict in the trans-Dniester region. The ethnic dimension, in particular, made this conflict extremely important for nationalist opposition movements in both Moldova and Russia. For nationalists in Kishinev the conflict could be presented as part of a Russian imperialist offensive aimed at keeping Moldova in Moscow's sphere of influence indirectly through the control of its separatist minions in Tiraspol. Similarly, nationalists in Russia could depict the conflict as a struggle by the Russian-speaking people of the trans-Dniester region to resist Moldova's forced "Romanianization" campaign. In Russia, calls to employ the 14th Army "to defend our countrymen in the trans-Dniester region" were popular in the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) that was controlled by the anti-Yeltsin opposition. Given the acute struggle waged between the Executive and Legislative branches of the Russian government, the Kremlin could ill-afford to disregard these sentiments.

At the same time, the Russian leadership could not discount international public opinion, not to mention the West's position, or the insistence by its CIS neighbors on strict adherence to the standards of civilized political behavior. In order to observe these constraints without giving the domestic opposition a political "trump card," Russia observed three principles in managing the 14th Army and the settlement of the conflict in the trans-Dniester region. First, Moscow strove for recognition of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova within the administrative borders of the former Moldovan SSR, thus observing both the spirit of the accords signed in Belovezhskaya Puscha, and the principles of international law as stated in the bylaws of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.N. charter. Second, the Yeltsin leadership demonstrated a readiness to resolve the status of Russia's 14th Army through peaceful negotiations with the legitimate leadership in Kishinev. Finally, Moscow sought protection of the rights of ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking population in Moldova.

The Russian leadership's ability to realize these principles faced two obstacles. First, the majority in the Russian Parliament had its own approach to resolving these issues--one that often did not coincide with that of the Executive Branch. Second, the situation was complicated by the fact that only Russia's 14th Army could prevent a full-scale civil war from erupting in Moldova. Despite these obstacles, and unlike in all other "hot spots" in the former USSR, the Russian leadership was successful at attaining a cease-fire among local belligerents and in creating a real basis for the peaceful resolution of the broader conflict.

The Historical Setting Of Russia's Involvement In the Conflict

The Russian Federation, in its efforts to resolve the conflict in the trans-Dniester region, had to deal with a fracturing Moldovan state. As was the case in other former Soviet republics, perestroika during the second half of 1980s gave rise to national movements that were bent primarily on restoring indigenous cultures and languages. Those involved in this cultural renaissance used methods that expressed national self-identification through the persecution of "enemies," "aliens," and "invaders." Their activities quickly led to the disintegration of Moldovan society into warring nationalist factions.[1]

The political leadership of Moldova, comprised mostly of representatives of the former Communist nomenklatura, embraced the nationalist resurgence. Following the results of the elections held on February 25, 1990, the nationalists of the Moldovan Popular Front acquired a greater voice in the republic's Parliament. As a result, republican authorities gave up attempts to represent the interests of the politically and ethnically diverse peoples of Moldova and focused primarily on protecting the interests of the titular nationality.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was also accompanied by the disintegration of Moldova's administrative and territorial cohesion. In the fall of 1990, two self-proclaimed states emerged on Moldovan territory--Gagauzia, which proclaimed independence on August 19, and the Pridnestrovian-Moldovan SSR, later renamed the Pridnestrovia-Moldova Republic (PMR). At the beginning of 1993, the president of Moldova, Mircha Snegur, acknowledged that Soviet Moldova was in many respects artificially created. He averred that the territories and people of Moldova were not homogenous "in any historical, ethno-psychological and cultural sense," thus acknowledging the objective basis for a split in the society.

At this time, it was possible to detect in the words of the Moldovan president de facto legitimacy for the rejection by certain segments of Moldova of the creation of an "ethnocratic" state and future incorporation of Moldova into an enlarged Romanian state. The fact is that the trans-Dniester region, unlike Bessarabia (Pravoberezheye), was never part of the so called "historic Romanian territories." Moldovans, furthermore, never comprised the majority of the local population. At the end of the eighteenth century, the territory of the trans-Dniester region once and for all became part of the Russian empire, and its people identified themselves with the Russian state. Bessarabia, on the other hand, was annexed by Russia in 1912 following a treaty with Turkey. In 1918, Bessarabian authorities decided to join Romania. Refusing to acknowledge the loss of the territory, in 1924 the government of the USSR announced the creation of the Moldovan ASSR (on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR) on the left bank of the Dniester River, where ethnic Moldovans comprised less than one-third of the population.

In 1940, as a result of an ultimatum presented by the USSR (with Germany's consent), Bessarabia was re-incorporated into the Soviet Union. In creating the Moldovan SSR, Bessarabia was once again divided, severely undermining its historical and economic integrity. Several southern regions, including Northern Bukovina, and access points to the Black Sea through the mouth of the Danube River (the city of Ismail) and Dniester estuary (the city of Belgorod-Dnestrovsky) were ceded to Ukraine.

Within the framework of the Soviet Union, changes in the borders of the constituent republics carried little political significance. Beginning with Gorbachev's perestroika, however, when the possibility arose for the people to choose their own course of development, historical and territorial, as well as ethno-political, issues came to the forefront of social and political life. This, in turn, created a number of serious conflicts, some of which would affect the fate of the future Republic of Moldova.

In the early 1990s, Kishinev tried to distance itself from Moscow. It did so by refusing to carry out a republican referendum on the fate of the USSR, as well as by ignoring the invitation to participate in the crafting of a new Union Treaty.[2] This effort to exit the Soviet Union was accompanied by the infusion of "Russophobia" at the governmental and popular levels. The most extremist elements of the national-unionist movement (the supporters of uniting Moldova and Romania, even before the abolition of the USSR), introduced a new political program that stressed Moldova's immediate withdrawal from the Soviet Union, the disbanding of the "army of invaders," and consolidation within the borders of Moldova of "all previously occupied Romanian territories--such as Bessarabia, the trans-Dniester region, Northern Bukovina and a number of other regions in Southern Ukraine--and the subsequent unification with Romania. On August 27, 1991, immediately following the failed coup attempt in Moscow, Moldova declared its independence.

The leaders of the trans-Dniester region categorically rejected Moldova's new state symbols. They also rejected the Latin-based alphabet that was akin to the Romanian alphabet, and preserved Russian as an official language in the region. In the fall of 1990, the regional government began to disregard Kishinev's legal authority in the trans-Dniester region. This precipitated a series of armed conflicts with Kishinev-backed groups that ultimately led to bloodshed. The first such incident took place on November 2, 1990, in the city of Dubossary, where Moldovan police, in an attempt to liberate the district council, court house, and district attorney's office (all of which were seized by the people), opened fire and killed three people. By early 1992, Kishinev lost control over the PMR and, for all intents and purposes, found itself entangled in an undeclared war.

In Moldova, this kind of separatism was perceived exclusively in light of Moscow's "imperial intrigues." It was attributed to the dominance of newcomers from Russia in Tiraspol and their seizure of power in this "historically Moldovan territory," as well as to a "conspiracy of the Russian political elite." President Snegur referred to the government of the PMR as a "fascist regime"; its separatism as "mutiny"; and its armed forces as "gangs." As far as the PMR is concerned, he said, "It would be too much to give up this part of heaven in favor of those who arrived from who knows where. . . . Let Igor Smirnov (PMR president) make his own republic in Kamchatka, where he resided before settling in Tiraspol."[3] President Snegur, consistent with all of the anti-Tiraspol propaganda in Moldova, said nothing about a December 1, 1991 referendum regarding the independence of the PMR in which 98 percent of the voters (representing 78 percent of the total population of the PMR), including Moldovans, voted for the PMR's independence.[4]

This, in sum, reflected the general tenor of politics that was inherited, at least initially, by the leadership of the new and independent Russia.

Russia's Search For An Intervention Policy: "Rutskoi's Line" Versus "Kozyrev's Line"

By spring of 1992, armed conflicts between the government forces of Moldova and the trans-Dniester region became increasingly frequent and violent. Both sides deliberately inflamed the situation in order to alter the existing balance of power and to attain their goals under the fluid circumstances. Kishinev viewed Moldova's admission into the U.N., its recognition by more than 100 states, and its establishment of diplomatic relations with Russia as indications of the international community's extension of carte blanche to Kishinev to assert its authority across the territory of the former Soviet Moldovan republic, including the trans-Dniester region. As a consequence, the laws "On Defense," "On Military," and "On Military Service for the Citizens of Moldova," were hastily adopted in Moldova. Moreover, on March 28, 1992, a "state of emergency" decree was issued by President Snegur in which all state bodies were charged with taking all necessary steps "to liquidate and disarm illegal formations."

For its part, Tiraspol, having formed its own Republican Guard in September 1991, strengthened ties with Cossack units that arrived from the Don and Kuban regions, and garnered the moral and military support of the 14th Army (90 percent of which were stationed in the trans-Dniester region). It declined Kishinev's offer to grant the trans-Dniester region the status of a free economic zone once Moldovan state sovereignty was established.[5] Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the PMR Grigoryi Marakutsa commented that "we would like to live in Moldova with a federal constitution. Moldova should recognize that for centuries we have had stronger ties with Russia than with Romania."[6]

During this period, President Yeltsin issued a critical decree on April 1, 1992 that transferred the 14th Army to Russian jurisdiction. At this point, it was almost inevitable that the 14th Army would become embroiled in the military conflict. Finding itself in the middle of an escalating crisis, the 14th Army could maintain neutrality only with great difficulty. Its legal status following international recognition of Moldova's independence became that of a foreign army illegally occupying the territory of a sovereign state. Kishinev insisted on the immediate withdrawal of the 14th Army from the territory of Moldova, as its presence interfered with Kishinev's plans to regain control over the trans-Dniester region. The situation was further complicated by popular agitation in the region, as local inhabitants persisted in lobbying the 14th Army for protection from the Moldovan authorities.

In an effort to signal its disposition, the Military Council of the Russian 14th Army published an address to the parliaments of Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia that placed the blame for the armed conflict on the republics of both sides. The address underscored the violations of rights of the Russian-speaking population, and the aspirations of several political groups to unite with Romania as factors which fueled the armed conflict. The Russian military saw an opportunity to stabilize the situation by deploying the 14th Army as "blue helmets" that could separate the warring sides, and by establishing the PMR as an independent autonomous region within Moldova. Marshall Yvgenyi Shaposhnikov, then Commander in Chief of the United Armed Forces of the CIS, considered this the only option if the army was not "to be dragged into the political and multi-national conflict."[7] President Yeltsin concurred, and considered that such an option was acceptable if endorsed by the leaders of the CIS states.

During this period, Russia's policy toward the trans-Dniester region proceeded along two diametrically opposed paths. On the one hand, there was the position of the Foreign Ministry that strove to accommodate the mutual interests of the warring parties to the greatest extent possible. On the other hand, there was the line promoted by Russian Vice President Rutskoi and the Supreme Soviet that openly supported Tiraspol.

In March 1992, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev took the initiative to reduce the intensity of the armed standoff in Moldova by actively pursuing a multilateral diplomatic track. During a session of the OSCE, convened on his initiative, the foreign ministers of Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia jointly announced that "Russia, Ukraine, and Romania intend from now on to build relations with Moldova, based on respect for the territorial integrity and independence of this state."[8] The foreign ministers followed up by creating a multilateral commission to facilitate political consultations between the parties and to monitor and enforce a cease-fire and the disengagement of forces in the conflict. In addition, the Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, and Moldovan foreign ministers declared the trans-Dniester region a free economic zone.

In this effort, Russia and Ukraine demonstrated near-complete solidarity with the Moldovan and Romanian positions. At the same time, understanding that he would have to withstand the pressure from many pro-Tiraspol Russian parliamentarians, Kozyrev cautiously raised the issue of granting the PMR the right to self determination in the advent of Moldova's possible unification with Romania. The foreign minister, explaining the essence of this initiative in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, stated that it would be preferable if Moldova "rejected its unrealistic determination . . . to remain a unitary state at all costs, including regions such as trans-Dniester and the one where the Gagauz people live."[9] In his opinion, the trans-Dniester region warranted special political and legal status.

In the meantime, Russian Vice President Rutskoi, who had already demonstrated his nationalist-patriotic sentiments and opposition to President Yeltsin and the Russian government, unexpectedly paid a visit to Tiraspol, where he sharply denounced Kishinev, characterizing its policy toward the trans-Dniester region as "genocidal." Compounding problems for the Russian government was that Rutskoi was accompanied by a presidential political advisor, Sergei Stankevich, who in practice associated himself with the vice president's position. Moreover, it was during this visit that Rutskoi proposed his plan for a resolution of the trans-Dniester conflict that called for Moscow to protect Russian citizens living in the trans-Dniester region, to recognize the sovereignty and independence of the PMR, to deploy the 14th Army as a buffer between the warring sides, and to guarantee Tiraspol's equal representation during all negotiations pertaining to the settlement of the conflict.

Rutskoi's plan, however, was as incompetent as it was ambitious. From a legal point of view, people living in the trans-Dniester region could hardly be considered Russian citizens. Moreover, Moscow's recognition of the PMR's independence would have raised questions regarding Russia's commitment to OSCE principles of respect for the integrity of borders in Europe, provoked a serious crisis within the CIS, and precipitated the uncontrollable explosion of separatist trends, especially within Russian borders. In addition, the proposal to use the 14th Army as a peacekeeping force was not only categorically unacceptable to Moldova, but intrinsically unpersuasive, since it was hard to believe in the neutrality of Russian soldiers and officers who, in most cases, resided or were born in the trans-Dniester region. Finally, the thought of including trans-Dniester regional representatives in the negotiating process was impractical under existing circumstances because it would legitimize the contested standing of the leaders of the self-proclaimed PMR.

Rutskoi's pro-Tiraspol plan caused indignation in Kishinev and optimism in Tiraspol. Moscow managed to contain some of the fallout by establishing closer diplomatic ties with Moldova. At the same time, there were no indications that the Russian government, and especially President Yeltsin, was trying to dispel the militant mood incited by the vice president's outbursts. That Stankevich, who always strove to be in the political mainstream, accompanied Rutskoi attests to the fact that the Russian president was ambivalent at that moment on the strategic course for resolving the trans-Dniester conflict.

As a result of this ambivalence in Moscow, not a single Russian initiative presented in March-April 1992 to regulate the trans-Dniester conflict positively affected the situation in Moldova. Disturbed by the danger of Russian interference, Kishinev tried to incite international condemnation of Russia, blaming Moscow for direct involvement in the trans-Dniester conflict in order to gain room for maneuver in its actions against Tiraspol. With this aim, Kishinev trumpeted the presence of Cossack military units (which were, indeed, comprised of Russian citizens, although the deployment and organization of such units were not sanctioned by the Kremlin) as examples of the "gross interference of Russian military formations in the internal affairs of a sovereign Moldova."[10] Moreover, it exploited the May 1992 detection of T-72 tanks and armored personnel carriers that were seized by the trans-Dniester militia from the 14th Army's arsenal in the vicinity of the city of Dubossary as proof of "Russia's aggression against the Republic of Moldova."[11] Orders of the 14th Army to "answer fire with fire" in connection with the more frequent attacks on Russian army units by the Moldovan artillery were similarly viewed as a threat of direct intervention by Russia.[12]

Romania was also encouraging assertiveness on the part of Moldovan leaders by publicly linking separatism in the trans-Dniester region to the ambitions of "certain powers in Moscow." The newspaper AZ ("Today"), an organ of the ruling Front of National Salvation of Romania, published an article suggesting that "Moscow [is] interfering in the internal affairs of other states and [seeking] yet again to force its will [on them], oblivious to the fact that the USSR no longer exists."[13] President Snegur suddenly discovered that the Left Bank of the Dniester River was "occupied by the 14th Army" and called upon Moldovans "to devote all their efforts to strengthening national unity and preparation for defending their Motherland."[14] The Parliament, which was then headed by Alexander Moshanu, a member of the National Front of Moldova and an ardent advocate of unification with Romania, reacted to the situation by adopting a resolution that depicted the actions of the 14th Army as a precursor to a full-scale Russian intervention.[15]

The Russian Army Enters the Armed Conflict: Standoff Between the Russian President and Parliament

After joining the PMR (via a local referendum), the city of Bendery, situated on the right bank of the Dniester River, became the stage for the tragic culmination of the festering conflict. By June 1992, political power in the city was divided between the municipal government and militia subordinated to Tiraspol and the Moldovan municipal police acting on orders from Kishinev. Using constant pleas for help by the police as a pretext for intervention, on June 19 Kishinev moved tanks, armored vehicles, and army personnel into the city. This "restoration of the legal organs of power" in the Bendery region resulted in numerous casualties, including non-combatants. Retaliatory strikes by the trans-Dniester militia were decisive and quick, and, with the support from units of the 14th Army, practically re-captured Bendery by June 21. According to information provided by the civil rights group "Memorial," the PMR suffered 203 casualties, while Moldova lost 77 people, with up to 1000 people wounded in the course of battle from June 19 to July 3.[16] (Other figures were given by the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta--484 killed, 72 missing in action, more than 1,000 wounded.)[17]

General Lebed was sent to inspect the trans-Dniester region by the Russian Ministry of Defense on the eve of the crisis in order to clarify "on the spot" the level of involvement of the 14th Army in the military conflict. He was also dispatched to verify information received in Moscow regarding the theft of weapons from the army's arsenals. It is interesting that in order to keep the mission anonymous, Lebed used the name of "Colonel Gusev." Immediately following the outbreak of hostilities in Bendery, Lebed assumed operational leadership of the army and managed to defeat decisively the Kishinev military offensive in about a day-and-a-half. Only after the success of this defensive operation was he officially appointed commander-in-chief of the 14th Army.

According to available information, there was no advanced planning undertaken by either the Kremlin or the Russian defense ministry for use of the 14th Army in the trans-Dniester conflict. We do not have any documented information from the Ministry of Defense or the various political leaderships that pertains to an order to this effect. According to a subsequent admission by Lebed, the Russian military spontaneously reacted to the unexpected large-scale offensive launched by Moldovan forces. Only following the news of such an offensive did the Kremlin approve the actions of the 14th Army and the appointment of Lebed as the de facto commander.

The tragedy in Bendery forced the belligerents in the trans-Dniester conflict to alter their positions. After a brief emotional outburst by politicians in Kishinev condemning the acts of Russian aggression and calling upon the international community to sever ties with Moscow and issue a 24-hour ultimatum for the withdrawal of the 14th Army, public opinion in Moldova became more balanced.[18] The results of public opinion polls proved to be a "cold shower" for the republican leaders, as only 18 percent of those surveyed approved of Kishinev's use of force in the trans-Dniester conflict. Moreover, the moderate deputies forced the resignation of radical unionists, such as Minister of Defense Ilie Kostash, and Minister of National Defense Anatol Plugaru, from the government. It was also decided that a coalition government of Moldova would be formed that would include representatives from the trans-Dniester and Gagauzia regions.

In contrast to Kishinev's moderating position, however, Tiraspol's stand after the events in Bendery became more extreme and uncompromising. The president of the PMR declared that from that point forward the citizens of the trans-Dniester region would no longer agree to be "under Moldova."[19] This meant that the trans-Dniester authorities were only willing, at best, to enter into a confederation with Moldova.

Under these circumstances Russia proceeded to embrace contradictory policies. First, as previously mentioned, Moscow appointed General Alexander Lebed as the commander of the 14th Army. Not only was Lebed popular with his troops, but he had previously served as a deputy commander-in-chief of the air force's black berets, and was known for his independent views and a tendency to criticize leading politicians. After only a few days at the helm, he successfully returned the soldiers to the barracks, curtailed the theft of weaponry, imposed a curfew in the PMR, and declared the neutrality of all Russian troops in the region.

Second, Russian Vice President Rutskoi visited Kishinev and Tiraspol in the middle of July and unexpectedly brokered a coalition government in the trans-Dniester region. He brought to Tiraspol a cease-fire proposal from the Moldovans that called for the disengagement of the armed formations, deployment of peace-keeping forces, and return of the deputies from the eastern regions to the Moldovan Parliament. The Moldovans thought these preliminary conditions would create opportunities for the creation of a coalition government, in which the trans-Dniester regional representatives would receive the positions of Minister of Finance, Minister of Industry, Minister for the Eastern Territories, as well as First Deputy Minister of Defense. Upon creating this government, Moldova was expected to start negotiations on the political status of the trans-Dniester region. Rutskoi's mission established a basis for constructive negotiations.[20] As reported by political analysts at the time, this was the first time in six months that the president and vice president of Russia "were united in their understanding of the trans-Dniester problem and the ways to resolve it."[21]

Third, Moscow won international approval at a meeting in Istanbul of members of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation zone for bilateral discussions between Russia and Moldova on the status of the 14th Army.

These measures reflected Moscow's burgeoning reliance on its bilateral relationship with Kishinev to resolve the trans-Dniester conflict. The meeting between Yeltsin and Snegur in Kremlin on June 3, 1992 confirmed this new course. At this summit, the two presidents publicly aired the idea of creating a "safety corridor" controlled by designated peace-keeping forces.

In the meantime, the Russian Parliament, which was in opposition to Yeltsin, also decided to "take part" in the development of this idea, having adopted a special decision on July 8 that sanctioned the use of the 14th Army as a peace-keeping force in the trans-Dniester region until the presidents of Russia, Moldova, and Ukraine agreed on an inter-governmental peace-keeping force. This initiative was basically designed to break the Moldovan-Russian agreement on the creation of the "safety corridor," as it was well-known that Kishinev repeatedly refused to discuss issues dealing with converting the 14th Army into a peace-keeping force.

Evidence of the Russian Parliament's ulterior motives could be found in the statements issued by Congress of Peoples Deputy Zhigulin, a representative of the nationalist-patriotic movement. Specifically, Zhigulin recommended that the Parliament's decision be supplemented with the following ultimatum: if Moldova does not agree to the Parliament's initiative, the Supreme Soviet of Russia would discuss the question of the PMR's independence, including its absorption into Russia. This proposal was subsequently rejected out of the concerns voiced by many deputies that it could backfire and galvanize separatist trends within Russia.[22]

Fortunately, Kishinev had already learned to disregard the demonstrative acts of the Russian Parliament. On July 21, Snegur and Yeltsin signed an extremely important Agreement on the Regulation of the Trans-Dniester Conflict. This document provided for the deployment of a peace-keeping force (comprised of six Russian battalions, three Moldovan battalions, and two battalions of military forces stationed in trans-Dniester), the creation of a "safety corridor," and the gradual withdrawal of the 14th Army from the territory of Moldova. At the same time, the sides undertook to strictly respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Moldova, to observe human rights, and to define a special status for the trans-Dniester region in Moldova, providing the people of the region with the right to self-determination in the event of any changes to the status of the Republic of Moldova ("changes to the status" referred to the unification of Moldova and Romania).[23]

The Political Struggle Surrounding the Withdrawal of the 14th Army

Following the cease-fire agreement, the withdrawal of the 14th Army became the critical issue in the trans-Dniester conflict. By that time, the high command of the Russian 14th Army was a de facto independent force in the region with substantial influence on both sides of the conflict. General Lebed, who was convinced that the 14th Army was the only instrument for preserving peace in the area, was skeptical of the negotiations between the leaders of Russia and Moldova and acted as an obstacle to further progress toward shaping the region's future via these diplomatic channels.[24] At the same time, the Russian leadership had begun to question the utility of a prolonged deployment of the 14th Army in the trans-Dniester region and proposed to Kishinev that the withdrawal of the 14th Army proceed simultaneously with progress toward a political settlement of the trans-Dniester conflict.

In February 1994, President Yeltsin sent personal messages to Presidents Snegur and Smirnov (president of the trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic) recommending that proposals advanced by the OSCE be taken as a basis for the final political settlement of the crisis. These proposals envisioned granting to the trans-Dniester region formal autonomy with a broad spectrum of rights. Subsequently, Vladlen Vassev, a plenipotentiary of the Russian president, brought to Kishinev Yeltsin's proposal for the creation of a special provisional commission that consisted of representatives from the opposing sides, as well as a Russian mediator. This idea was approved by the Moldovan president, and on February 28, both Snegur and Smirnov reached an agreement concerning the creation of a bilateral commission devoted to working out the details of the special status conferred upon the trans-Dniester region. They signed a document in which the president of Moldova officially concurred that "it is necessary to define a special state and legal status of the trans-Dniester region within the framework of a united and indivisible Moldova."[25] From this point forward, Russian diplomats pursued a two-track policy toward the negotiations. First, a Special Ambassador of the President of Russia participated in the meetings conducted by the representatives of Kishinev and Tiraspol that were dedicated to the creation of the special status for the trans-Dniester region. Second, authorized representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defense conducted talks regarding the withdrawal of the 14th Army from Moldova.

After nine rounds of negotiations between senior Russian and Moldovan military officials, however, there was no significant progress. In August 1994, when Colonel-General Eduard Vorob'yev, the special representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense to the talks (who had a strong personal conviction for reaching a settlement) declared that Russia was ready to start an immediate withdrawal of its troops, it turned out that the Moldovan side was not ready for such a change. In fact, Moldovan authorities at that time depended on the presence of Russian troops to contain the separatist ambitions of Tiraspol. Given this predicament, Kishinev agreed finally to a three-year phased withdrawal of the 14th Army (as proposed by Moscow) that was synchronized with the political settlement of the trans-Dniester conflict.

On October 21, 1994, at a meeting of the leaders of the members of the CIS, an agreement was signed providing for a three-year withdrawal of the Russian army from the territory of Moldova. Understandably suspicious of Moscow's undertakings, Kishinev simultaneously began to seek international guarantees for the timely withdrawal of the Russian army. In particular, one idea was put forward concerning the creation of a special international body that would monitor the process of withdrawal. This entailed the possible stationing of international peace-keeping forces on the territory of the republic in place of the Russian 14th Army, which Kishinev could not be convinced would remain a neutral force. In an attempt to generate more active interest on the part of the OSCE toward the issue of the Russian military presence on the territory of Moldova (Kishinev submitted its application for becoming a member of the European Council as early as in the spring of 1993), the Moldovan representative to the Political Commission of the OSCE initiated proposals to condition Russia's admittance to the European body on the timely withdrawal of 14th Army. The Moldovan proposal, however, was rejected, and, contrary to the precedents established with the Baltic states, the withdrawal of troops from Moldova did not become a condition for Russia's membership in European security structures.[26]

The most decisive international support for the Moldovan position came from the United States. However, despite the assurances of U.S. Representative to the United Nations Madeleine Albright that "the departure of Russian troops from Moldova is still one of the major objectives of American policy in this region,"[27] Washington's attitude was circumspect. Reports prior to President Snegur's January 1995 visit to Washington claimed that the United States was ready to facilitate the peaceful removal of Russian military equipment from the trans-Dniester region, but President Clinton merely expressed a wish that "the process of negotiations between Moscow and Kishinev be conducted in the spirit of mutual understanding."[28] In other words, Moldova was told that the issue of the withdrawal the 14th Army must be resolved in direct negotiations with Russia.

Against this backdrop, Moscow sought to advance an initiative that had been nurtured for a long time by the Russian military. In June 1995, during Russian Defense Minister Grachev's visit to Kishinev (and during the subsequent meeting between Presidents Yeltsin and Snegur in Moscow), the Russian Ministry of Defense suddenly proposed the retention in the trans-Dniester region of "several mobile and highly effective combat units totaling 3,500 servicemen" as a Russian military base in Moldova. Meanwhile, the implementation of Moscow's plans for the withdrawal of the 14th Army was, not surprisingly, being resisted by General Lebed, with some initial success. In April 1995, however, the 14th Army was transformed into an "operational military group," and Lebed's post as army commander was eliminated.

The Russian Duma (Parliament) protested this disruption of the status quo in the trans-Dniester region, citing the overwhelming negative results of a March 1995 survey of the population of the trans-Dniester region on the withdrawal of the Russian army from the area, and predicted financial and technical difficulties associated with the withdrawal of the army (in particular, data were cited showing that even a token transfer of combat equipment through the territory of Ukraine would cost 100 billion rubles). Duma officials also trumpeted General Lebed's claims that the staff reduction in the command and control directorate of the army from 170 to 97 generals and officers was tantamount to the "decapitation of a smoothly running mechanism and was, in effect, a major crime that risked provoking a military conflict within Moldova over the division of the 14th Army's "spoils." Lebed also predicted that should a large-scale conflict flare up again in the trans-Dniester region, it would "ignite the whole Balkan-Caucasian arc of crisis, to the pleasure of the rest of Europe." On May 24, 1995, the Duma passed the first reading of the federal resolution on the 14th Army. In effect, the documents imposed a ban on "both the structural re-organization of the command and control directorate, and the reduction and re-deployment of the 14th Army and its equipment.

Despite this parliamentary support, on June 14, General Lebed bowed to the inevitable and tendered his resignation from his post and from military service. He was replaced by General Valery Yevnevich, who had received a "Hero of Russia" award for his valor in the storming of the White House in October 1993. Kishinev was satisfied with Moscow's assurances that Russian troops would be withdrawn in accordance with mutually accepted terms. Tiraspol, alternatively, banked on fruitful cooperation with the new army commander, who had early on impressed local authorities with his candor and accessibility. A commission from the Russian Ministry of Defense, headed by General Kobets, relieved initial tensions that had appeared in military units by applying a traditional "carrot and stick" approach. However, while politics and diplomacy ameliorated the festering problem of the Russian 14th Army, final settlement of the trans-Dniester conflict remains elusive for the foreseeable future, as all sides have been slow to make the necessary compromises.


[*] Irina F. Selivanova is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Economic and Political Research, Russian Academy of Sciences.

[1] For a more detailed description, see V.A. Mikhailov, "Nationalist Movement," Polis, 1992, No. 4, pp. 85-93; V.I. Bruger, V.A. Solonar, "Moldova: Attempts at Political-Cultural Analysis," Polis, 1993, No. 3, pp. 185-187.

[2] Moldova Republic: Chronicle of the Pridnestrovksy Conflict, Kentavr, 1994, No. 4, p. 145.

[3] Snegur probably had in mind the fact that the trans-Dniester region (home to less than 20 percent of Moldovan population), produced about 40 percent of the net national product and almost 90 percent of the republic's electrical power. It was these figures, coupled with the fact that there are more Slavic peoples living in the trans-Dniester region--Russians comprised 25 percent; Ukrainians comprised 28 percent--that accounted for the Tiraspol leaders' switch to the conscious strategy towards independence.

[4] "Report of the Human Rights Center Memorial," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 22, 1992.

[5] Izvestiya, October 23, 1990.

[6] Izvestiya, March 20, 1992.

[7] Komsomolskaya Pravda, April 4, 1992.

[8] Izvestiya, March 25, 1992.

[9] Izvestiya, June 8, 1992.

[10] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 13, 1992.

[11] Izvestiya, May 20, 1992.

[12] Izvestiya, May 20, 1992.

[13] Izvestiya, May 20, 1992.

[14] Izvestiya, June 2, 1992.

[15] Izvestiya, May 26, 1992.

[16] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 22, 1992.

[17] Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 29, 1992.

[18] Izvestiya, June 23, 1992.

[19] Izvestiya, June 27, 1992.

[20] Izvestiya, July 15, 1992.

[21] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 17, 1992.

[22] Izvestiya, July 9, 1992.

[23] Izvestiya, July 22, 1992.

[24] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 7, 1992.

[25] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 6, 1994.

[26] Neva, November 13, 1994.

[27] Segodnya, October 15, 1994.

[28] Segodnya, February 1, 1995.


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