Officials in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have stopped Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin from traveling to the region, where he intended to visit its largest monastery. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc says the incident could endanger efforts to resolve a conflict that has festered for over a decade.
Prague, 15 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Two days ago, officials in the breakaway Transdniester region of Moldova prevented Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin from visiting Noul Neamt, the former Soviet republic's largest and oldest monastery.
Border guards at the Bender (Tighina, in Romanian) checkpoint, which marks the boundary between Transdniester and the rest of Moldova, told Voronin that the order to bar his entry had been given by what they called "a higher authority" in Tiraspol, the breakaway region's capital.
Voronin, a communist who took office last month, was accompanied by Vladimir, the Orthodox metropolitan of Moldova, and numerous journalists. He said he wanted to attend mass and hold talks with clergy at the monastery.
The incident occurred despite consultations on the visit between Moldova's security service and security officials in Tiraspol. Transdniester security chief Vladimir Antyufeyev yesterday (Monday) told local press that he had been informed earlier (May 11) that Voronin intended to visit the monastery.
But Antyufeyev said that he had told his Moldovan counterpart, Valeriu Pasat, that Voronin needed Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov's personal permission. He said Voronin had been aware he would not be allowed to visit the monastery.
But Voronin -- himself a Transdniester native who has traveled frequently to the region to visit his family -- reacted with surprise and outrage. Immediately after being turned back, he told RFE/RL that he found the incident difficult to explain and said unspecified forces were backing the Transdniester separatists.
"This is an unusual event and I cannot imagine how they [the Transdniester officials] will explain what is happening right now at the Bender border crossing -- and not only them, but also those behind them."
The incident occurred just before a new round of talks between Voronin and Smirnov, scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday) in Tiraspol. During their first meeting last month (April 9), Voronin and Smirnov agreed to hold regular monthly meetings in order to speed up negotiations toward resolving the 11-year-long dispute.
Today Voronin said that despite the incident, he was determined to go ahead with tomorrow's talks. But separatist officials have warned that after Voronin's attempt to cross into Transdniester the meeting might be canceled.
The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Transdniester region broke away from Moldova in 1990, a year before the then-Soviet republic declared independence from the USSR. Many in the region feared that Moldovans would seek reunification with their ethnic kin in neighboring Romania. Moldova was part of Romania until World War II and almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Moldova's 4.5 million people speak Romanian.
Armed conflict broke out two years later, and several hundred people died in seven months of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Moldovan security forces. The fighting ended in July 1992 with an accord mediated by Moscow.
Little progress on defining the status of the region has been achieved since, despite a series of minor agreements reached under international mediation by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.
Against Moldova's will, some 2,500 Russian troops are still deployed in Transdniester equipped with a large arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition. Officials from the breakaway region oppose both the troops' departure and the removal of the weapons. The Transdniester leadership wants Moldova to become a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states. Moldova says it will only grant the breakaway region autonomous status.
After his election by parliament six weeks ago (April 4), Voronin pledged to make resolving the Transdniester conflict his top priority. His pro-Russian Communist Party had won a sweeping victory in general elections two months before (February).
Earlier this month (May 5), Transdniester officials released Ilie Ilascu, a Moldovan political prisoner who had been sentenced to death for alleged terrorist acts some nine years earlier. The release of Ilascu -- who last year became a Romanian citizen and was elected a senator -- was seen as a conciliatory gesture after international pressure and Russia's direct intervention.
Adrian Severin, the Romanian chairman of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, says that Sunday's incident must not hamper efforts to reach a final agreement on Transdniester. In a public statement yesterday, Severin said more negotiations are necessary to resolve the dispute. "In this incident, I see only an expression of the [Transdniester] crisis we already are familiar with and which has not yet been solved by the Republic of Moldova. I do not think there is much to say about the episode itself. What we must really do is find the framework for debate and negotiation and the right solutions for solving the crisis."
But Sunday's incident also has religious implications. Metropolitan Vladimir, who accompanied Voronin, is the head of Moldova's Orthodox Church and former rector of the theological seminary at the Noul Neamt monastery.
The Russian Orthodox Church, to which the majority of Moldova's orthodox clergy is subordinate, relieved Vladimir of his position as rector four months ago (January) at what was said to be his own suggestion. Vladimir was replaced by Bishop Iustinian, the head of the Transdniester Orthodox church.
But monks at the monastery protested the decision, saying it would bring their monastery under the separatists' direct control. They asked that Iustinian be replaced by a cleric who was not subordinate to the Transdniestr church. Their protest prompted a raid on the monastery late last month by Transdniester police, which increased tensions between the Orthodox church in the breakaway region and the Moldovan church.
President Voronin himself said he favors restoring the post to Metropolitan Vladimir and the express purpose of his visit to the monastery was to find a solution to the rector problem. Voronin yesterday said he will ask Russia to mediate the religious dispute between Moldova and the Transdniester.
Voronin also said he will discuss the monastery dispute during his visit to Ukraine later this week (May 18) and at the summit meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) next month in Belarus.
Analysts say that tomorrow's meeting between Voronin and Smirnov -- if in fact it takes place -- is likely to be dominated by Sunday's incident and the new religious quarrel. The two contentious issues may therefore once again derail negotiations on an eventual solution to the Transdniester dispute.