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Moldova: Transdniestrians Say 'Yes' To Independence, Union With Russia --> The turnout was reportedly around 80 percent (epa) PRAGUE, September 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Preliminary results show voters in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have overwhelmingly voted in favor of maintaining independence, with a view to eventually joining Russia.

The head of the Transdniester Central Election Commission, Pyotr Denisenko, said that 97.1 percent of voters voted in favor of a course of independence with the ultimate goal of union with Russia.

Denisenko also said that almost 95 percent of the voters said "no" to reunification with Moldova.

RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service spoke to people on the streets of Tiraspol who favored a union with Russia.

"Only with Russia, because that's where our children's future is, where our future is," said one man.

"I want a happy future for my son and for his children. I see that in a union with Russia. My younger son was an officer, he died for Russia," one woman said. "After all, citizens of Russia are citizens of Transdniester. Russia is the only country that didn't abandon us at difficult times, in 1992, and during the first and second blockades. I'm sure they will recognize [this vote]."

Two-Part Question

The referendum consisted of two questions. One asked whether the voter supported the course of Transdniestrian independence -- with an eye to eventually joining the Russian Federation. And the second asked whether the voter would support giving up independence and joining Moldova.

The referendum was largely shunned by the international community. Western countries have all refused to recognize the referendum and called on Transdniester to return to negotiations with Chisinau. Moldova reiterated today that it does not recognize the poll. Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan said: "Yesterday will change nothing. The so-called referendum is a political farce of [Transdniester leader's Igor] Smirnov."

But Smirnov has played up Transdniester's democratic credentials: "It's not surprising that many [officials in the former] Soviet republics make such decisions on their own, without asking the public. Let's say, even Ukraine, Moldova say: 'We're joining NATO, the European Union,' without holding referendums. We're holding a referendum. And that for some reason meets with disapproval, especially from opponents of popular government, I would say."

Russia Recognizes Poll Results

Perhaps more important than the result is the question of recognition. As Transdniester is not an internationally recognized entity, the result is not legally binding.

Crucially, Russia has said it will recognize the results of the poll. Duma Vice Speaker Sergei Baburin said today the Duma must call on the government to formally recognize the Transdniester Republic. He said that Russia, by ignoring what he described as "the will of our compatriots," would commit a "historical error."

Such reactions are not surprising, given Russia's stake in the region.

A short but bloody war between Russian secessionists and Moldova in 1992 left some 1,000 people dead. The fighting was halted by Russian troops stationed in Transdniester. Now, some 1,200 Russian troops remain.

Russian-speaking Transdniester receives strong, although unofficial support from Russia.

'Frozen Conflicts'

But critics say Russia's recognition of the referendum could have a knock-on effect for other "frozen conflicts" in the region.

Georgia's pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia will also hold a referendum on independence in November.

Russia, critics say, see such referendums as a chance to bring the region closer into the Russian fold.

And if not a case of Russian revanchism, critics say keeping "frozen conflicts" such as Transdniester or Abkhazia unresolved can hamper Moldova or Georgia's EU or NATO bids.

Author and journalist Tom de Waal thinks the referendums are more about public relations: "No one recognizes these referendums; they don't have any international observers. So I think it's more about PR, it's about domestic politics, it's about showing you're strong to your domestic voters. It doesn't really have much international impact."

Regardless of Russian intentions, Transdniester's separatists believe the referendum result will bolster their case in OSCE-mediated talks.

And, in Smirnov's opinion, Transdniester's independence was established a long time ago.

"This referendum is always described as being about independence. But our independence was already established in the 1991 and 1995 referendums, when the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic was created," Smirnov said. "The regions of Transdniester went of their own free will to determine the jurisdiction of the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic. Those public constitutional referendums confirmed the Transdniestrian Moldovan republic as an independent, democratic state."

It's unlikely many outside Transdniester or Russia will agree with Mr. Smirnov's words. But if the "frozen conflicts" continue to heat up, more people may well have to take notice of what he is saying.

(RFE/RL's Romanian-Moldovan Service contributed to this story.)