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Russia: Putin Agrees To Strengthen Ties With Moldova

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Less than two weeks after his official election by parliament, Moldova's new Communist president, Vladimir Voronin, chose Moscow as his first foreign destination. The two-day visit, which ended today, was marked by pledges from both Voronin and Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve the protracted dispute over Moldova's separatist Transdniester region and strengthen Chisinau's ties with Moscow.

Moscow, 17 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin left Moscow this afternoon after a two-day visit to the Russian capital. Voronin, whose trip marked his first official foreign visit since his election by the Moldovan parliament earlier this month, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following talks, the two leaders said they may have moved closer to resolving the simmering 11-year dispute over Moldova's separatist Transdniester region.

Voronin's choice of Russia as his first foreign destination -- just two weeks after being elected by a Communist parliament -- is an apparent attempt to satisfy two of his key campaign promises. One is improving ties with Moscow. The other is resolving the disputed status of the Russian-speaking Transdniester region.

Calling Russia a "strategic" partner, Voronin confirmed his intention of moving closer to Moscow:

"Separately from Belarus and Russia, we have commercial and economic -- as well as political -- processes [of integration]. But now, the point is that we have begun the integration into the entity of Belarus-Russia, or Russia-Belarus."

Voronin's remarks echoed his pre-election vow to eventually integrate Moldova into the Russia-Belarus Union, a state partnership that has high ideological appeal for Moscow but little practical application.

He also met with representatives of the Russian gas company Gazprom over Chisinau's $700 million debt. Impoverished Moldova is largely dependent on Russian energy resources but has been unable to make its payments.

Russian media reports say that Voronin's openly pro-Moscow attitude has come as a relief to Russia, which is intent on rebuilding its influence within the CIS.

According to the Russian daily Vremya Novostey, Moscow may see Chisinau's vow of loyalty to Russia as a "nail in the coffin" of opposition to Russia from less friendly CIS neighbors like Azerbaijan and Georgia.

According to the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Voronin directly linked closer ties with Moscow to Moldova's main "task" of resolving the Transdniester conflict.

The Russian-speaking region -- located on a narrow strip of land on the left bank of the Dniester River -- has been in a tense standoff with Moldova since 1992, when fighting broke out over fears that Moldovans would reunite with their ethnic kin in neighboring Romania. Hundreds of people died in several months of fighting.

Voronin and Putin signed a joint statement urging "peaceful means" and "respect for the sovereignty and integrity of the Moldovan republic" in resolution of the conflict.

Putin expressed optimism that the dispute would soon be brought to an end:

"Russia, I repeat, is ready to guarantee that all sides participating in the settlement process will abide by the agreements which I believe could be reached in the near future."

Voronin said yesterday (Monday) that Moldova was ready to give Transdniester's pro-Russian leadership "any status with any measure of authority" as long as it was "within the framework of a unified Moldova." The Transdniester leadership has said it wants Moldova to become a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states.

Another aspect of the issue are the some 2,500 Russian troops still deployed in the Transdniester region, and the huge arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition deposited there.

When fighting broke out in 1992 between the Moldovan army and pro-Russian separatists, the Russians military used its 14th Army based in the region to act as neutral peacekeepers. The troops, however, intervened on the side of the separatists, spurring tension between Moscow and Chisinau.

Later, under the command of Russian General Aleksandr Lebed, the 14th Army began to denounce Transdniester's rampant corruption and smuggling -- as well as attempts by the separatists to take the tens of thousands of tons of ammunition and weapons stockpiled there by the Russians.

The dispute, which solidified one-time presidential hopeful Lebed's reputation as a tough corruption fighter, left the region in a dismal economic state. Earlier this month, both Moldovan and Transdniester leaders agreed to put economic and social issues at the forefront of discussions over the region's status.

Speaking at a news conference today, Voronin said Moldova has no further need for the Russian troops, but that they should stay until the weapons stockpile is dismantled:

"We can talk about the withdrawal of the [Russian] military only in the first stage, because this specific group of the Russian army now stationed in Transdniester is not even sufficient in number to guard these weapon depots."

Voronin added: "As long as there is a single bullet left in Transdniester, somebody has to watch over it. Otherwise, nobody knows whose hands the weapons will fall into."

The Moldovan president's remarks may force Russia to contradict its 1999 pledge to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to withdraw its troops. According to the pledge, Russian troops should be withdrawn and arsenals destroyed by December 2002. When it begins, a withdrawal will take hundreds of train loads and several months to complete.

Russian press reports have speculated that it may not be in Moscow's best interest to maintain troops in the Transdniester region. Yurii Golotyuk, a CIS analyst for Vremya Novostey, said Moscow had agreed to the Transdniester pullout in exchange for the OSCE's agreement to reconsider troop limitations in the North Caucasus. Russia has exceeded all its quotas in the area because of the war in Chechnya.