CHISINAU, March 24, 2006 (RFE/RL)-- Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin today said Russian troops stationed in separatist Transdniester have been illegally occupying Moldova's territory.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Voronin criticized Russia's failure to live up to its international commitments and withdraw from Transdniester.
Russia still has some 1,500 troops in Transdniester who it says are necessary to guard large arms stockpiles dating back to the Soviet-era.
Voronin said Russia should have already withdrawn troops and weapons from Transdniester under international agreements with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"Since January 1, 2002, the Russian Federation illegitimately and against all international norms has been occupying our country's territory,” he said.
"Until January 1, 2002, the OSCE Istanbul summit's decision [regarding the withdrawal of Russian arms and troops from Transdniester] was still valid, since the deadline [for withdrawal] had been extended at a 2001 OSCE summit [from December 31, 2001, to December 31, 2002]. But until today, neither the troops nor the weapons have been evacuated, and this is a very serious violation of international agreements."
Rejecting Assertions Of Humanitarian Crisis
Voronin's statement came after Russia's ambassador to Chisinau, Nikolai Ryabov, this week vehemently criticized Moldova's current pro-Western stance, saying that the ex-Soviet republic is part of Russia's "legitimate sphere of influence."
Ryabov's statements triggered a wave of outrage in Chisinau.
Voronin also rejected claims that customs regulations introduced recently by Ukraine at its border with Transniester are threatening a humanitarian crisis in the breakaway region.He said the new rules -- under which Ukrainian officials demand that Moldovan authorities clear all Transdniestrian shipments -- only have to do with Transdniester's exports.
"We, Moldovans, together with Ukrainian customs officials control the exports from Transdniester and not the imports," he said. "That's why this myth of a humanitarian blockade and a humanitarian catastrophe, which the Russian and Transdniestrian officials are talking about, is not true, because we say, look, you can import what you need as much as you need. Nobody imposed restrictions on you."
Accusations Of Russian Scheming
Voronin has recently told the Moldovan media that Transdniester is making an estimated $2 billion out of smuggling. Today he reiterated that Moldova is collecting daily evidence of such instances. "About smuggling from Transdniester to Moldova, we have daily evidence: tens of trucks loaded with all sorts of merchandise, and [we have proof of] situations of money [transfers to] of foreign banks, and there are many other things which we are discovering and investigating on a daily basis."
Voronin said the customs issue is simply being blown out of proportion in order to hamper the negotiations process regarding the status of Transdniester. The negotiations have been in impasse for years, despite a recent more vigorous involvement of the European Union and the United States.
The Moldovan president accused Russia of attempting to impose a solution to the dispute tailored on other cases, such as Kosovo's. "They [Russia] are scheming to connect the Transdniester conflict, the problems with our country's [territorial] integrity with the situation in Kosovo -- if a special status is decided for Kosovo they want to use it as an example and a basis for a new status of Transdniester and for declaring its independence."
Praise For Ukraine
The European Union's envoy to Moldova, Adriaan Jacobovits de Szeged, said on March 23 that invitations for a new round of negotiations on April 5-6 have already been sent to all the parties in the so-called "5+2" process, which involves Moldova and Transdniester as well as Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, while the United States and the EU have observer status.
Voronin said that Moldova from now on will focus only on the issue of preserving its territorial integrity. "At the next round of negotiations, we must insist that negotiations deal only with the key issue: the status of Transdniester," he said. "Otherwise, we will get bogged down for many years to come, as has happened until now, discussing unimportant things instead of the main issue: the [territorial] integrity of the Republic of Moldova."
Voronin also praised Ukraine for taking the step to introduce the new customs regulations and he acknowledged the EU's support in the process. "Ukraine has been suffering economically maybe more [than Moldova] because of the illicit traffic with all sorts of merchandise, including weapons, which takes place along the 464 kilometers of border that are not under Moldova's control, and which, until recently hadn't been seriously monitored by Ukraine either. It is obvious that without the support of our friends from the European Union and other countries, this cooperation at the border would not have been possible."
RFE/RL asked Voronin whether he is worried that Ukraine's parliamentary elections on March 26 could lead to a reversal of the customs regulations. Voronin said he is confident that would not happen.
"I don't think this will happen, because, indeed, these are parliamentary elections, while President [Viktor] Yushchenko has been elected, too, and will be in office for at least three more years.
"This is one [reason]," he said. "The other one is that such decisions are made by President Yushchenko through special measures. Then, whatever the new parliament will look like, it will understand the necessity of securing its borders. Every country needs secure frontiers, because otherwise it cannot develop successfully."