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Moldova: Release Of Transdniester Prisoner Fails To Ease Tensions With Romania

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Officials in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have released Ilie Ilascu, who spent nine years in prison on charges of pro-Romanian terrorist acts but was regarded as a political prisoner in Romania. While still in prison last year, Ilascu acquired Romanian citizenship and was elected a senator to the parliament in Bucharest. Officials in Bucharest hailed his release as a victory for Romania. But some analysts say that it was actually due to Moscow's intervention, and strengthened the separatists' position and Russia's influence in the region.

Prague, 17 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region earlier this month (May 5) released Ilie Ilascu after nine years in jail for alleged terrorist acts.

Ilascu's release came as a surprise even though Moldova's new communist president, Vladimir Voronin, had said after his election last month (April 4) that resolving the conflict between Moldova and pro-Russian Transdniester, as well as freeing Ilascu, were among his top priorities.

Ilascu and several other pro-Romanian political activists were arrested in Transdniester's capital Tiraspol during the 1992 armed conflict between Moldovan security forces and pro-Russian separatist militias. He was sentenced to death a year later by a self-styled court in Tiraspol after being convicted of terrorist acts, but his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Ilascu was twice elected to Moldova's parliament while in prison.

Despite protests from Romanian politicians, human-rights groups, and international organizations, the Moldovan government made no move to release Ilascu. It was only after the pro-Russian Communists' accession to power in Moldova earlier this year (February) and the election of Voronin that he was finally freed.

Immediately after his release, Ilascu met with Voronin in Moldova's capital Chisinau. Ilascu said that he had been told that three other prisoners (Alexandru Lesco, Andrei Ivantoc, and Tudor Popa), who had been sentenced to jail terms along with him and who were still in prison, would be released shortly.

Later, in an interview with RFE/RL, Ilascu said that Transdniester's security chief, Vladimir Antyufeyev-Shevtsov, had told him prior to his release that he had to observe several conditions, including withdrawing his legal action against Russia and Moldova at the European Court of Human Rights.

"[Antyufeyev-Shevtsov] told me the conditions under which I could be released: First, not to seek revenge. Second, not to lay hands on a weapon ever again. Third, not to take legal action against anyone, including those from [Moldova's capital] Chisinau who contributed to my arrest. And fourth, to withdraw my suit from [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg. I, of course, said I will not observe any condition."

Ilascu was one of the central figures in the short but bloody 1992 war between the new Moldovan state and its eastern, Russian-speaking Transdniester region. The conflict left several hundred people dead and ended with a Russia-mediated settlement.

A narrow stretch of land along the left bank of the Dniester River (Nistru, in Romanian), Transdniester had effectively broken away from Moldova in 1990, a year before the then-Soviet republic declared independence from the USSR. At the time, many in Transdniester feared that Moldova would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. Moldova was part of Romania until World War II, and almost two-thirds (65 percent) of its 4.5 million people speak Romanian.

As a militant supporter of Moldova's reunification with Romania in Transdniester, Ilascu had long been at loggerheads with the local pro-Moscow leadership. He was arrested in June 1992, shortly after the war broke out, and charged with, among other things, the killings of pro-Russian officials. Ilascu was reportedly tortured and subjected to mock executions before his death sentence was commuted to life by separatist leader Igor Smirnov.

Ilascu told RFE/RL that he was detained with the tacit consent of Moldova's central leadership, which had never shown enthusiasm for reunification with Romania. Ilascu says he thinks it was Romania -- which currently holds the rotating presidency of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) -- that finally secured his release. "I could have been released as early as 1992 or 1993, but [first Moldovan President Mircea] Snegur categorically did not want it. [Petru] Lucinschi [president between 1996-2001] categorically did not want it, either. But now, a new situation has been created -- and not by [President] Voronin. It was kept secret, but I can now declare that I am free due to the Romanian leadership's efforts."

But the day after Ilascu's release, Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicolae Cernomaz was quoted as saying he was set free only after Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's intervention. Some analysts also say that it was Russia, rather than Romania, that played the decisive role in procuring Ilascu's release.

Moldovan affairs analyst Charles King of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says that Romania probably did not play any role in the decision.

"I would be very surprised if Romania had any influence whatsoever in Ilascu's release. I would be very surprised if the Transdniestrians -- after decrying what they call Romanian 'fascism' and the desire for Moldova to reunite with Romania, in their view -- I would be very surprised if the Transdniestrians listened to anything Romania had to say, whether they chair the OSCE or not. But I think in trying to explain the release, we really have to look to Moscow rather than to Bucharest." Last year, while still in prison, Ilascu acquired Romanian citizenship and was elected to Romania's Senate. Right after his release, he left Moldova and took up his parliamentary seat in Bucharest, where he was given a hero's welcome by fellow legislators as well as by Romanian President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.

But Ilascu says he will not become actively involved in Romanian politics, which he considers "rather dirty." He also says, however, that he will remain a supporter of Moldova's reunification with Romania, which he still considers feasible:

"I am optimistic about what the press called the failed reunification [of Moldova with Romania]. Nothing is lost."

But U.S. analyst King thinks that, with his release, Ilascu's role may have come to an end. Paradoxically, King says, Ilascu was more useful for both Moldova and Romania while he was in prison. "I think it's sort of sad to say, but Ilascu was probably of most use to the central Moldovan government as well as to the Romanian government while he was still a prisoner. That is, he was a kind of martyr, a symbol of the Romanian national cause in the way in which he was trampled on in Transnistria [Transdniester, in Romanian], and more broadly a symbol of human rights." Ilascu is also a member of Romania's delegation to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, where he will travel early next month. But he was elected senator as a candidate for the Greater Romania Party, or PRM, whose leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, is notorious for his anti-Hungarian, anti-Semitic, and anti-Roma stance. The PRM is also known to include many former members of Romania's communist secret police, the Securitate.

King says that, because of his association with the ultranationalists, Ilascu will lose credibility on the international scene. "Moreover, his association with a party and individuals who in no sense represent the European vocation of Romania is going to, I think, diminish further his image in the eyes of the international community."

Although Ilascu is out of prison, a final settlement of Transdniester's political status is still far off. Little has been achieved by international mediation under OSCE auspices, and Russia still keeps some 2,500 troops and 40,000 tons of ammunition in the region.

Moldova says it will only grant the breakaway region autonomous status, while the Transdniester leadership wants a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states.

King says that Ilascu's release may actually strengthen Transdniester's position on independence from Moldova. "I think the release of Ilascu probably in fact strengthens the statehood of Transnistria. Smirnov has now shown himself to be a magnanimous leader with whom one can negotiate. It's clear he is the one who controls the levers of justice -- such as they are in Transnistria -- and I think, if anything, this strengthens the sense of statehood and independence the Transdniestrians have long claimed."

In Tiraspol yesterday (Wednesday), Transdniester leader Smirnov and Moldovan President Voronin signed a number of cooperation agreements, including recognition of each other's official documents -- a tentative first step towards larger autonomy for the breakaway region.

But bilateral relations remain tense. Smirnov said he will not release the other three Moldovan prisoners unless Moldova apologizes for what he called "the 1992 aggression" against Transdniester and pays $77 million in war damages.

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