On December 17, during a big press conference of Russian President V. Putin, a question was raised about the future fate of the Russian military on the territory of the Republic of Moldova, namely, in separatist Pridnestrovie.
This issue was a response to the recent statements of the newly elected President of Moldova, Maya Sandu, who proposed replacing the peacekeeping contingent, consisting of the Russian military, with the OSCE Civilian Observer Mission in the region. At the same time, during the earlier international negotiations on the reconcilement in Transnistria, Moscow repeatedly assumed the obligation to withdraw its Russian Task Force from the so-called “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”.
Generally, Russian troops have deployed in an unrecognized “republic” in the status of peacekeepers since 1992. The “republic” uncontrolled by Chisinau arose after the collapse of the USSR as a result of the 1990-92 conflict, when the local Transnistrian population opposed the policy of the Moldovan leadership, which was perceived as a course for the “Romanization” of the country.
Initially, the Russian Federation provided the inhabitants of Transnistria with covert ideological military assistance, supplying weapons and mercenaries. Later, Russian troops officially took a direct part in the conflict, and Russian generals issued an ultimatum to Chisinau, threatening Moldovan cities with artillery shelling. Since then, the conflict has been in a “frozen” stage. Russian servicemen (about 2 thousand people) serve as peacekeepers, and also guard large warehouses of weapons (mainly artillery shells left over from Soviet times) in Cobasna village.
Answering a journalists’ question about the Russian military in Transnistria, V. Putin noted that, in general, he does not oppose their withdrawal, but “some circumstances must arise.” Undoubtedly, V. Putin hinted at the desired federalization of Moldova. Thus, Moscow proposes Chisinau to implement the scenario it had already proposed, called the “Kozak memorandum” in honor of its author, high-ranking Russian politician Dmitry Kozak.
According to the proposed “memorandum”, Moldova was to become an “asymmetric federation”, and Transnistria and Gagauzia, its autonomous regions, were to receive the right to block legislation that would seem undesirable to them. In addition, Russian troops would have remained in the country for at least another 20 years, while the Moldovan army had to be demobilized.
However, at the very last moment, late in November 2003, the then Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin refused to sign the document, which was imposed on Chisinau by Moscow. According to Russian diplomats, renouncing of the “Kozak memorandum” occurred through the intervention of the US ambassador in the process. The settlement process was “frozen”. Considering that Igor Dodon, a politician of avowedly pro-Russian views, became the President of Moldova later, the narrative of the presence of the Russian military in the country was raised far less often.
The situation received an impetus for change after Maya Sandu’s victory in the presidential election. It is worth noting that during the pre-election campaign Russia actively supported the nomination of its rival, pro-Russian corrupt politician Igor Dodon. Thus, for example, on the day of voting in the second round, a mass delivery of residents with Moldovan passports from the territory of Transnistria to polling stations was organized, although they did not hide their pro-Russian views. Although V. Putin congratulated Maya Sandu on the victory, the announced plans of the new President of Moldova (focus on reforms, fighting corruption, reintegration of Transnistria and EU membership) drew sharp criticism from the Kremlin. Today, Moscow, at every opportunity, reminds that Maya Sandu has Romanian citizenship, accusing her of lack of independence and the implementation of the policy of the United States and the West in general.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin is going to refrain from too aggressive attacks against the new Moldavan leader, since, in addition to military leverage in Transnistria, Russia has opportunities for economic pressure. Firstly, the Russian market continues to be the main sales market for Moldovan goods. Secondly, thousands of Moldovan citizens survive only thanks to their seasonal earnings in Russia. And thirdly, Moldova is still completely dependent on Russian natural gas supplies.
Moreover, in the near future the gas issue will undoubtedly become the main subject of disputes between Moscow and Chisinau. Thus, Maya Sandu said that Chisinau will not recognize the debts of Pridnestrovie, formed as a result of the consumption of Russian gas by the citzens of the unrecognized “republic”. The Kremlin, however, claims about the total gas debt of the Republic of Moldova amounting to $7 billion, with $6.914 billion of debt owed by Transnistria only.
This statement of the issue does not give Chisinau any hope for upcoming resolution of the Transnistrian conflict. In turn, Moscow retains a whole range of opportunities to put pressure on Moldova – from a military presence to economic blackmail. Generally, given that in recent years the Kremlin has overtly demonstrated its complete disregard for international law, it is not difficult to predict that Russia’s pressure on Moldova (and the pro-European choice of its people) will only grow.