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Moldova: Putin Cancels Trip To Chisinau As Moldovan, Transdniestrian Leaders Prepare To Sign Memorandum

By Eugen Tomiuc/Askold Krushelnycky

Russian President Vladimir Putin today canceled a visit to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. He was supposed to lend his authority to a ceremony in which Moldova's president and the leader of its breakaway Transdniester region are expected to sign a memorandum embracing controversial Russian proposals for a political settlement. Moldovan opposition parties have formed an alliance to spike the plans, however.

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova, with a population of 4.5 million, was born in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and has led a turbulent existence ever since.

In 1990, the Russian-speaking minority in then Soviet Moldova seceded and proclaimed independence under the name Transdniester. A short but bloody civil war ensued in 1992, which resulted in some 1,000 deaths. As a result of such tensions, Moldova's economy withered, and the country is now often called Europe's most impoverished nation.

For years, a tripartite group consisting of Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made half-hearted attempts to produce a formula to resolve the bitter divisions.

On 17 November, Moscow unexpectedly put forward a plan, or memorandum, that was swiftly accepted by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov.

The memorandum is known as the "Kozak plan," after Russian President Vladimir Putin's aide, Dmitrii Kozak, who put it together. It calls for Moldova to become what is called an asymmetrical federation, with Moldova, Transdniester, and the Gagauz-Yeri region -- a small Turkish minority -- becoming equal subjects.

The new federation would be demilitarized, and Russian would become a state language alongside Romanian. A new constitution would be put to a referendum next year, with elections in 2005.

But many Moldovans strongly doubt that Russia, which they blame for backing the separatists, sincerely wants now to heal the rift. Moldovan opposition groups, led by the Popular Party Christian Democratic and Our Moldova parliamentary parties, have organized an alliance to fight the Russian proposals, which they say threaten their country's independence.

The opposition promised to protest after Putin's office announced that he would come to Chisinau today to lend his prestige to a ceremony in which Voronin and Smirnov were expected to sign up to the Russian proposals.

Today, however, the Kremlin announced that Putin's visit is off. No reason was given for the cancellation. And it is unclear whether Voronin and Smirnov still intend to sign the memorandum today.

In the past, Moldovan governments have rejected plans more or less similar to the current Russian proposal. But Voronin, an ex-KGB general and a Transdniester native who speaks Romanian poorly, is more sympathetic to Moscow. Voronin asked Russia to draw up the current proposals last summer and says that history has given Moldova a "unique chance" to solve its problems.

However, the Moldovan opposition believes the proposals are a pretext for Russia to keep a military foothold in the region as NATO expands eastward. The plan provides for the 2,500 Russian troops in the region to stay on to assist in implementing the plan, since the new federation would have no army.

The opposition yesterday asked for Russia to immediately withdraw its soldiers. The head of the Popular Party Christian Democratic, Iurie Rosca, said the Russian plan "would destroy Moldova as a state" and allow "minorities to dictate their conditions to the majority of the population."

Moldovan political analyst Igor Munteanu say progress on the proposals has been so swift because they give the separatists everything they want. "The subjects of this so-called federation will keep control of their businesses, their current laws and institutions," he said. "Not only the Transdniester region but also Gagauzia could implement the same institutional format. Under these conditions, I don't see any reason why Igor Smirnov would oppose this plan, which actually fulfills all the demands and requests which he presented over the past several years."

Munteanu wants proof of Russia's willingness to withdraw its troops and thinks the plan's real aim could be to break up Moldova. "The [plan] generally represents a veiled form of the confederation proposed by the Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov and, in its most important parts, it promotes the existence of two federal subjects, Transdniester and Gagauzia, with a territory under federal control, that is without legal autonomous status, for the rest of Moldova," he said. "In the end, it gives the impression that the real plan of Kozak is the disintegration of the Moldovan state."

As a member of the tripartite mediation team, the OSCE has been overseeing a 1999 agreement between Moscow and Western powers to withdraw Russian troops and thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition from Transdniester.

Russia missed the original deadline for completing the withdrawal last year and was given a one-year extension. That expires next month, but Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov says his country needs a further six-month extension. Analysts say Moscow now is trying to rush its new plan before the OSCE's annual meeting in December to show the international community that it is actively involved in the mediation process.

But the OSCE's spokesman in Moldova, Klaus Neukirch, told RFE/RL the OSCE does not back the plan. "The OSCE does not endorse the Russian plan on Moldova," he said. "That means there is no consensus among OSCE participating states to support this proposal by the Russian Federation for resolving the Moldovan/Transdniestrian problem."

In a statement, OSCE Chairman in Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he spoke to Voronin by telephone yesterday and expressed "serious reservations" about the lack of clarity on the proposed division of powers between the central and regional authorities, the power of Transdniester to veto legislation until 2015, as well as other issues. OSCE spokesman Neukirch says those issues will be discussed at the meeting of OSCE foreign ministers on 1-2 December in Maastricht.

Neukirch says the OSCE is aware that the Moldovan opposition believes the delays are simply a ruse by Russia to stay in Moldova and that its proposals for a political settlement are part of the same scheme. "We have seen these positions voiced by several newspapers and political parties here in Moldova, and it is not at the moment a question of whether we believe or do not believe," he said. "We trust that the Russian Federation will ultimately adhere to its commitments."

The opposition, meanwhile, says it is preparing its own political proposals to present to international bodies.