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Analysis: Mixed Signals In Transdniester

Transdniestrian separatist leader Igor Smirnov is accustomed to playing it both ways. On 5 August, he amply displayed the skills for which he has gained notoriety. First, the Transdniestrian "Defense Ministry" announced that it had taken the first steps toward mobilizing its reservists. According to an ITAR-TASS report, the urgent mobilization of the army, the special services, and "Interior Ministry" forces was under way and several thousand reservists were expected to report for duty within a few days. Regular units, the communique said, had already been placed on alert because of the growing threat of an attack from Moldova.

Indeed, the war hysteria launched by the separatists in the wake of the crisis triggered by their 15 July decision to close down schools teaching Moldovan (Romanian) with Latin script reached new proportions the day before, on 4 August. The media in Tiraspol, which is strictly supervised by the authorities, explained to readers and listeners that Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin vacationing in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary was a devious plan intended to hide Voronin's personal responsibility for the military "aggression" being cooked up in Moldova. For its part, the Moldovan Defense Ministry refused to comment on the Transdniestrian mobilization. It was no more in a position to comment on developments in the Transdniestrian Army than it was to comment on what went on in the Russian or the British armies, the ministry said.

As the day went on Transdniester appeared to show more muscle on 5 August. It made good on an earlier threat to reciprocate economic sanctions imposed by Moldova as of 1 August, and cut off some 55 Moldovan villages from electricity supplies on the left bank of the River Dniester. Reuters cited Vasile Gribnicea, press spokesman for the Moldovan Union Fenosa electricity distribution network, as saying that the Transdniestrian regional utility Dniester-Elektro has disconnected high-voltage transmission lines. "They gave no reason, but this is not an accident, it is a premeditated action," Gribnicea said. Using a bypass system, Moldovan power operator Moldelectrica restored supplies to some 30 villages the next day, but the rest are still cut off.

But Smirnov also had news on 5 August that appeared to point to an easing of tension. He announced that his administration had decided to lift a blockade on rail links to Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia, Flux Infotag and ITAR-TASS reported. The blockade was instituted in response to economic sanctions imposed by Moldova. In response, separatists stopped and held four freight trains at the Ribnita crossing for a "thorough customs check." They also announced that all Chisinau-bound trains arriving from Moscow, Kyiv, or other cities in the Commonwealth of Independent States would be stopped for similar checks at Bendery-Tighina. The next day the blocking of rail links was indeed expanded to that town, which is mostly under separatist control although is located on the left bank of the Dniester. Finally, on 4 August hundreds of ethnic Russian women created live rail blocks in Bendery-Tighina, calling their action a "desperate move" against the economic sanctions imposed on Transdniester by Moldova, Infotag reported. Transdniestrian militiamen earlier blocked rail traffic between the town and Chisinau by putting concrete blocks on the tracks. The women recalled that they had similarly blocked the rail link during the 1992 armed clashes and ITAR-TASS cited them as warning that "we can do it again." Indeed, as Infotag recalled on 2 August, the last time Tiraspol resorted to blocking the railway was during the armed conflict in the early 1990s.

So it must have been with some relief that some people living on either bank learned from Smirnov that the rail blockade would be lifted. What appears to be a concession, however, on closer examination turns out to be Tiraspol's successful employment of "salami tactics" against Moldova -- or even outright lies. Smirnov announced that the lifting of the blockade followed a decision by the Ukrainian government to allow Transdniestrian exports to transit Ukrainian territory despite lacking Moldovan export certificates. (The goods did not have export certificates because of Chisinau's sanctions.) "I am grateful to Ukraine for its decision to allow Transdniester to sell its goods abroad marked as 'Made in Transdniester' and without any Moldovan 'attributes,'" Infotag cited Smirnov as saying. In other words, Ukraine, a mediator alongside Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had undermined Chisinau's attempt to retaliate against the school closures. The Ukrainian authorities, however, denied Smirnov's version the next day. If the Ukrainian authorities were telling the truth (which is not certain), then Smirnov's yo-yoing was closer to juggling.

As if to confirm this interpretation of the day's events, Smirnov told journalists in Tiraspol that there are no prospects for negotiations with Chisinau and that Transdniester "is marching down the road" toward "an independent, sovereign state," Flux reported. He called on Russia to increase the number of peacekeepers in the region and said Tiraspol views Ukraine as a "strategic partner," but Kyiv must " clearly define where its interests lie" in the Transdniester conflict. Smirnov also said Tiraspol is not refusing to negotiate with Chisinau because, "one way or another, Transdniester must establish normal relations with its neighbor," according to Infotag. However, he added, "we must have solid guarantees that Chisinau would abandon the idea of an [economic] blockade and other destructive acts against Transdniester." Smirnov said it is enough for him if an agreement on settling the conflict is signed by Russia and Ukraine as mediators. "We do not need Voronin's signature, because we do not trust the Chisinau gentleman any more," he said. Also on 5 August, Transdniestrian "Justice Minister" Victor Balala told journalists in Tiraspol that Moldova's economic sanctions against Transdniester have buried any prospect of a federation between them, according to Infotag. The night settled in; undoubtedly the yo-yoing will continue.