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Moldova: Will Dniester Shooting Incident Mark Turning Point In Relations Between Chisinau, Tiraspol?

The headquarters of the Transdniestrian government Moldova has lodged an official protest with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), accusing Russian peacekeeping troops of unprofessional conduct during an incident this week. Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova said Russian soldiers guarding a bridge 40 kilometers east of Chisinau fired in the air after demanding that three civilians who had been taking photographs hand over their film. The bridge over the Dniester River is near the unofficial boundary between Moldova and the breakaway region of Transdniester. The incident could impede a settlement of the Transdniester conflict, which was recently given a boost by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Prague, 22 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The shots were reportedly the first to be heard in the security zone since a short war fought by Transdniester and Moldova in 1992.

According to reports, a U.S. lawyer working in Moldova and two Moldovan lawyers stopped their car on a bridge across the Dniester River on the evening of 19 July, near a post of the Russian peacekeeping contingent.

The American took some photos of roadside warning posters. A Russian officer demanded that she destroy the film, reportedly claiming that taking photographs near military posts in the security zone is forbidden. An ensuing brawl attracted some 50 local residents to the bridge, causing a traffic blockade. The Russian officer then fired two bursts from his submachine gun into the air.

Moldovan Minister for Reintegration Vasile Sova was at the site of the incident shortly after it took place. He told journalists that the Russian soldiers "acted totally unprofessionally" and had provoked a "serious incident." He said the shooting testifies to a more serious problem.

"Developments taking place recently in the security zone unambiguously show that the situation there is practically not controlled by the Joint Control Commission and the joint peacekeeping forces under its supervision," Sova said.

Transdniester declared independence from Romanian-speaking Moldova in 1990. The two sides fought a short war in 1992 that left some 1,500 people dead.

The Joint Control Commission (JCC) and Transdniester's 220-kilometer-long security zone were established in 1992, following an agreement between Chisinau and Tiraspol on a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The JCC currently includes delegations from Chisinau and Tiraspol -- as well as from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE -- and supervises the practical implementation of that agreement.

Peace in the security zone has been maintained by Moldovan, Transdniestrian, and Russian forces. Russia has currently some 500 troops in Transdniester, which man two dozen checkpoints in the security zone and watch large stores of ammunition left there by Soviet troops.

Last month, Chisinau presented a list of proposals intended to stabilize the situation in the security zone. In particular, Chisinau suggested abolishing all customs and military checkpoints in the zone and removing other obstacles to the movement of goods and people between Moldova and the secessionist region.

Sova said the shooting incident makes the need for consultations to ameliorate the situation in the security zone even more urgent. However, holding such consultations may not be an easy task.

The problem is that Chisinau regards the authorities in Tiraspol as an illegitimate regime and is reluctant to conduct direct negotiations with them, preferring to talk about the Transdniester settlement with mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE.

Moldovan parliamentary deputy speaker Iurie Rosca suggested as much when he commented on the Transdniester conflict settlement for RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service earlier this month. "The Moldovan authorities do not want to negotiate with the criminals from Tiraspol because they represent the 'tools' of the Russian Federation in the region. Therefore, it's not rational for us to negotiate with the 'tools' but with the ones who 'handle' the tools -- meaning, with the administration of the Russian Federation," Rosca said. "The Republic of Moldova wants to discuss this with its partners from Moscow, even if this dialogue is a difficult one. To continue unfruitful discussions with Smirnov's separatists is also counterproductive and ridiculous for us. And I hope that that's something that will be understood more clearly also in other capitals of the world, not only in Moscow."

Such an attitude does not bode well for a plan for Transdniester proposed in April by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. His so-called seven-step plan includes the adoption of a law on autonomous status for Transdniester within the Republic of Moldova and the holding of democratic elections in Transdniester under international monitoring.

The Moldovan parliament endorsed the plan last month, but added one important condition -- that Russia withdraw its military contingent from Transdniester by 2006. Last week, support for the Yushchenko plan also came from Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov.

Chisinau even prepared a draft bill on Transdniester's autonomous status. But Chisinau drafted the bill without the participation of Transdniestrian representatives.

Transdniestrian Supreme Soviet speaker Grigori Marakuta told RFE/RL this week that the Transdniester settlement process cannot advance if Chisinau continues to avoid contacts with Tiraspol. "Things can be solved only when both sides are ready to talk. If Moldova negotiates only with Ukraine, and if Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin says that he will not negotiate with the leadership of the Transdniester Republic under any circumstances, there is no prospect [for a diplomatic solution]," Marakuta said.

Earlier this month, the Transdniestrian administration asked Moscow to increase its military contingent in the region to 2,400 soldiers, including a helicopter squadron. Tiraspol explained its request by pointing to Chisinau's alleged plans to prepare a "forcible solution" of the Transdniester conflict.

Thus, this week's shooting incident on the Dniester River could mark a turning point -- from a period of hope for a peaceful solution of the Transdniester conflict under the Yushchenko plan to a much bleaker future.

(RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service and Irena Chalupa of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)

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