No country recognizes the self-styled Transdniester Republic, which declared independence in 1990 over fears Moldova would seek reunification with Romania. The region receives strong albeit unofficial support from Russia, and many of its 660,000 citizens hold Russian passports.
Moldova and pro-Russian Transdniester engaged in a short but bloody conflict in the summer of 1992. The fighting left some 1,000 people dead and was halted by Russian troops stationed in the Transdniester.
Mediation attempts by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE over the years have failed to reconcile the two sides and an uneasy truce has been enforced by some 1,500 Russian troops still deployed in Transdniester.
The international community and Moldova's neighbors have reiterated that they do not recognize the 11 December elections and therefore will not send observers to the region's 278 polling stations.
The poll is taking place amid renewed international tensions after Russia earlier this week overtly refused to withdraw its
troops from Transdniester despite a pledge to do so under a 1999 agreement with the OSCE.
William Hill, the OSCE envoy to Moldova, said yesterday that the organization will ignore the elections.
"These elections are going ahead," he said. "But we will not take part, we're not observing them, and in this sense we don't recognize them. In accordance with our mandate we work in the Transdniester region and we will continue this work, but we will do nothing concerning the events of December 11 on the left bank [of the river Dniester] in the Transdniester
A total of 179 candidates are vying for the 43-seat unicameral Supreme Soviet under a first-past-the-post system, with a minimum of 25 percent turnout necessary for the election in each constituency to be validated.
The region's eligible population of some 418,000 voters has been electing a local parliament, or Supreme Soviet -- every five years in December since 1990. The last such election took place on 10 December 2000.
Transdniester is a narrow strip of land on the left bank of the Dniester River sandwiched between Moldova proper and Ukraine. Moldova says its complete lack of control over Transdniester's border with Ukraine has turned the region into a haven for arms and drugs smuggling as well as trafficking in human beings.
Transdniester's president, Igor Smirnov, has ruled the region rigidly for the past 15 years. Critics say his family and cronies control the region's most lucrative businesses -- smuggling and arms manufacturing -- which some Moldovan officials say reap a billion-dollar profit annually.
Analysts say that political opposition in the region is too feeble to pose any threat to Smirnov's grip on power. They say the Supreme Soviet, currently led by Smirnov's close friend and associate Grigoriy Marakutsa, will remain a mere rubber stamp for the president after the election.
One of the region's few opposition leaders, Andrei Safonov, editor of "Novaya Gazeta," told RFE/RL that although Transdniester is in need of a change, the players remain the same.
"The problem is that, after 15 years of virtual independence, it has become obvious that the direction of both Transdniester's domestic and foreign policy must be either modernized or changed. [But] out of a whole number of causes which should be discussed separately, several political groups are fighting for parliamentary mandates -- most influential among being the pro-presidential movement "Respublika," which supports [separatist leader] Igor Smirnov, as well as the Obnovlenyie [Renewal] movement, which is backed by the Sherif company [which is reportedly affiliated with Smirnov's son]."
Safonov said such groups have no real political platform -- only economic interests. He added that Smirnov's group has been seeking help from radical Russian political groups, who are driven also by the promise of economic profits in the region.
A potential threat to such profits, reportedly fuelled by rampant smuggling over Transdniester's border with Ukraine, is the newly inaugurated European Union operation to monitor the Ukrainian-Moldovan border.
The EU operation, inaugurated on 30 November, was initiated in response to calls from Moldova's President Vladimir Voronin.
Voronin, who had been seen in the past as close to Moscow, made a U-turn in 2004 when he called for Russian troops to leave Trasndniester and be replaced by Western peacekeepers.
Although a communist, Voronin and his party won reelection this year on a pro-Western, pro-reform ticket and has since tightened its links with its western and eastern neighbors -- EU candidate Romania and post-Orange Revolution Ukraine.
The three countries -- Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania -- are founding members of a newly launched regional grouping aimed at promoting democracy, called the Community of Democratic Choice, which also includes Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Georgia.
Analysts say that, with both Moldova and Ukraine getting closer to the West, pressure is mounting on the Transdniester, which find itself increasingly isolated despite its close ties with Moscow.
Usually, elections in Trandniester are only recognized by other separatist ex-Soviet regions such as Abkhazia or South Ossetia in Georgia.
Moldovan political analyst Igor Munteanu told RFE/RL that the separatists are in desperate need of recognition: "Without legitimacy, this [Transdniestrian] administration has no value. These are continued attempts to create the appearances of a quasilegitimacy through obscure institutions."
Munteanu says that in the presence of foreign troops and amid a frozen conflict with Moldova, these elections in Transdniester can be considered neither free, nor fair, let alone democratic.
(RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report.)
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