Introduction: The Washington Post had an opinion article last week on the conviction of the former Defense Minister of Moldova on corruption charges. E. Wayne Merry, a former assistant to President Clinton's Secretary of Defense William Cohen, argues that the charges against Valeriu Pasat are bogus and that a "friend of America" is being unjustly sentenced to prison and hard labor. Read the story below, and for the education of our readers, we have asked Michael Averko to provide some background on the tiny former Soviet republic of Moldova.
- The Editors
Moldova: The Most Overlooked of the European Former Soviet Republics
By Michael Averko
Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, the former Soviet republic of Moldova is often overlooked. Its tiny population (of about four and a half million), poverty (the poorest of the European former Soviet republics) and relative lack of natural resources doesn't make it as noteworthy as the much larger Ukraine and the considerably wealthier Baltic republics. Because of its perceived bad boy president (Alexander Lukashenko), Belarus is another European former Soviet republic receiving greater attention than Moldova.
It's commonplace for scholars to reference the Soviet seizure of the three Baltic republics without noting how Moldova was gobbled up from Romania by Stalin in the same year (1939). The Moldovans are ethnic Romanians with a distinct regional character (namely, an accented version of the Romanian language).
When the USSR broke up, border disputes erupted in several former Soviet republics on the matter of what was and wasn't acceptable about the Soviet legacy. No one asked Moldova to become part of the Soviet Union as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldavia is the Russified name of Moldova). Conversely, the Russo-Ukrainian population of Trans-Dniester didn't ask to be incorporated into the Moldavian SSR (Trans-Dniester was previously an autonomous region of the Ukrainian SSR).
On this basis, Trans-Dniester's Slavic majority felt justified in declaring independence from a Communist-created entity. Their justification for this separation was hypocritically overlooked, if not frowned upon by some of the very same American foreign policy elites who are sympathetic to the idea of an independent Chechnya. For a variety of reasons the "case" for Chechen independence is much weaker than Trans-Dniester's. Chechnya has been a part of Russia for well over a century and is land locked within Russia. When it comes to the former Soviet Union, the double standard of independence advocacy is premised on a simple formula. If you're pro-Russian like the people of Trans-Dniester, then your right to self determination is deemed as troublesome. However, if you're hostile to Russia like the Chechen separatists, your case will receive a greater degree of favorable treatment.
Upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, a brief war was fought between the Moldovan government and the Trans-Dniester region. A Russian brokered cease-fire arrangement has effectively created two zones, with Moldova proper having little if any control over Trans-Dniester, which has its own elected government and armed forces.
Surprisingly, the ethnic tensions between ethnic Romanians and Slavs aren't as great as one might think. Trans-Dniester's population includes a good number of ethnic Romanians (up to 40%). Whether in Moldova proper or Trans-Dniester, there're ethnic Romanians favoring closer relations with Russia for economic reasons. The governments of Trans-Dniester and Moldova pit two political factions against each other, each one having a noticeable share of Slavs and ethnic Romanians. Hence, the political differences have less to do with ethnicity when compared to some other conflicts in the former USSR (the Armenian-Azeri dispute over Nagorno Karabakh being a prime example).
In Moldova proper, Moldovan Communist Party leader Vladimir Voronin was recently reelected as president. Voronin makes for an interesting case study. An ethnic Russian from Trans-Dniester - he only recently (within the past two years) changed his tune on Moldova's relationship with Russia. The "new" Voronin has walked away from the proposed Common Economic Sphere which currently involves Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with an interested Ukraine observing for the moment. Voronin now champions Moldovan entry into NATO and the EU.
In a recent study, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group believes Trans-Dniester to be better off than Moldova proper. The issue of Moldova is a politically murky one that isn't so easy to spin in a given direction.
Voronin can talk all he wants about bringing Moldova into the EU and NATO. Moldova's extreme poverty (by European standards) will keep it out of the EU for quite some time. NATO membership for Moldova is technically impossible because a prospective NATO country is expected to have securely governed boundaries (something not evident in the ongoing spat between Moldova proper and Trans-Dniester).
Yes, Mother Russia is the major power broker in this part of Europe, with neighboring Ukraine playing an important role as well. Slowly but surely, Russia is positively rebuilding itself after decades of Communist mismanagement. Over time, this Russian resurgence will likely attract some non-Russian Federation parts of the former Soviet Union to Russia (one can already find evidence of this). Moldova might eventually take this route.
As I've previously noted in commentary for Russia Blog and other venues - as long as this process is peaceful and popular, the West should take a hands off approach. The economic vitality of that part of the world is important to the West's own security. I conclude with this open question: Has the "divide and conquer" strategy of surrounding Russia with unfriendly states worked in better maintaining Western interests?
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst whose commentary has appeared in Eurasian Home, Johnson's Russia List, Intelligent.Ru, The Moscow Times, New York Times and Newsday.
America Abandons a Friend
Washington Post, February 25, 2006
America Abandons a Friend
By E. Wayne Merry
An obscure arms deal from nine years ago has produced a major human rights case in the former Soviet country of Moldova, challenging the U.S. government to stand up for its own good name as well as for the rule of law.
The case centers on the conviction Jan. 16 of the former Moldovan defense minister, Valeriu Pasat, and his sentence to 10 years in a hard-labor penal camp. Pasat's ostensible offense was to sell 21 MiG-29 fighter aircraft to the Pentagon in 1997 for $40 million. The prosecution alleged the planes were worth $55 million more and thus Pasat was guilty of malfeasance. The trial also implied that the United States had swindled Moldova in the transaction. These accusations are false.
I was the official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense most closely involved in the MiG purchase from its inception, on several occasions negotiating directly with Pasat in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. Pasat was a stubborn and difficult interlocutor who prolonged the bargaining for months to gain more compensation for his country. In the event, the transaction was an entirely fair one for both sides. The additional $55 million supposedly available from another potential customer (widely identified as Iran) was phantom money, something understood by all responsible Moldovan officials engaged in the matter. In fact, some in the U.S. government believed we overpaid for the aging aircraft. In any case, the final decision on the Moldovan side was made at the political level by the country's president and prime minister, not by Pasat.
The facts of the case were made available to the Moldovan court by the person who was U.S. ambassador in Chisinau at the time and by me, in legal depositions that were cleared by the State Department and, in my case, by the Pentagon. But the secret Moldovan tribunal created for this trial refused to admit these depositions or any factual evidence favorable to the defendant. All proceedings were conducted with minimal legal accommodation for Pasat. On their face, the verdict and sentence are scandalous and redolent of Soviet political trials at their worst.
The true essence of this case is that Pasat, at the time of his arrest, was employed by the Russian Unified Energy Systems company and was also an active member of the domestic political opposition to the present Communist Party government in Moldova. I have been involved with Moldova in various capacities for over 20 years and consider Pasat to be a political prisoner and a hostage in the energy disputes between Chisinau and Moscow. Whatever sympathy and support Western countries might tender toward Moldova in its unequal contest with Russia should be tempered by recognition of the Soviet-style abuse of judicial power employed in this case.
In time Pasat may find justice from the European Court of Human Rights, which would at least consider the publicly available evidence. But in that time he might suffer irreparable damage to his health -- already poor -- from the conditions of his hard-labor imprisonment.
Moldova considers itself an ultimate candidate for membership in the European Union. At minimum, then, European governments should intervene with Chisinau in support of the basic standards of human rights and civil protections required of any country seeking inclusion in Europe.
Thus far the United States has walked by on the other side in this shameful affair. Neither the State Department nor the Defense Department has spoken out on behalf of Pasat -- once an honored guest here of then-Defense Secretary William Cohen. This may be so in part because the MiG purchase was conducted by the previous administration and in part because Washington correctly supports Chisinau against Moscow on the matter of the secessionist Transnistria region of eastern Moldova.
But this silence makes a mockery of the administration's supposed support for the rule of law in former Soviet states. It gives implicit confirmation to the notion that we defrauded a poor country in an arms transaction. And, finally, it communicates to similar officials in other countries that if they deal with the United States in good faith -- as Pasat did -- and the domestic political landscape changes, Washington will wash its hands of its former partners.
This case is not only about civil liberties and justice in Moldova; it is also about the honor of the United States.
The writer is a former State Department and Pentagon official and is now a senior associate of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.