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Moldova: Negotiations Between President And Transdniester Leader Make Little Headway

Moldova's newly elected Communist president Vladimir Voronin yesterday met in Chisinau with Igor Smirnov, the leader of the breakaway Transdniester region. The meeting follows a pledge by the new Communist authorities to put a high priority on resolving the almost decade-long Transdniester dispute. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports:

Prague, 10 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Less than a week after being elected president by Moldova's parliament, Communist Vladimir Voronin yesterday (Monday) met with Igor Smirnov, the leader of the breakaway Transdniester region. The meeting was the president's first official act. He has pledged to make resolution of the Transdniester dispute a top priority. It also marked a fresh start in negotiations over the disputed territory. During the talks, Voronin and Smirnov agreed to resume regular monthly meetings -- a practice largely ignored by previous governments despite a common agreement to do so -- and instructed their negotiators to hold weekly talks in between. Moldova, confronted with growing poverty, has moved politically and economically closer to Russia in recent years. The trend became even stronger after elections this February in which Voronin's pro-Moscow Communists won 71 of the 101 parliamentary mandates. Following yesterday's talks, Voronin said he and Smirnov had agreed to uphold steps already taken in negotiations on the status of the Transdniester region and to recognize all documents already signed. But he said Moldova and the Transdniester region -- which rank among the poorest areas in the former Soviet Union -- are now more interested in tackling economic issues first. "During our face-to-face talks, we endorsed the entire negotiation process and all previously signed documents. But [now] we are starting by paying attention to the social and economic problems ... And [only] after that will we begin with [settling Transdniester's status]." Besides discussing procedural matters and economic issues, the meeting appears to have done little to advance the almost decade-long debate. Both Voronin and Smirnov said a meeting on Transdniester sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), scheduled for later this month in Bratislava, is unlikely to take place. The overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Transdniester region consists of a narrow stretch of land along the left bank of the Dniester River. The rest of Moldova lies mostly between Romania's eastern border and the Dniester's right bank. Some 65 percent of Moldova's 4.5 million inhabitants speak what is officially called Moldovan -- virtually the same as Romanian -- while the Russian and Ukrainian-speaking minorities each make up about 15 percent. The Transdniester region broke away from Moldova in 1990 -- a year before the then-Soviet republic declared independence from the USSR -- over fear that Moldovans would seek reunification with their ethnic kin in neighboring Romania. Moldova was part of Romania before World War Two. Armed conflict followed in 1992, and several hundred people died in seven months of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Moldovan security forces. Fighting ended in July 1992 with a Russia-mediated settlement. But little progress has been achieved since, despite a series of agreements under international mediation by Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. A final agreement on the region's political status has yet to be adopted. The Transdniester leadership wants Moldova to become a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states, while Moldova says it will only grant the breakaway region autonomous status. Some 2,500 Russian troops are still deployed in the Transdniester region, and a huge arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition are deposited there. Officials from the breakaway region oppose both the troops' departure and the removal of the weapons. At a 1999 OSCE summit, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops and weapons from Transdniester by 2002. So far, however, only a minimal amount of weaponry has been withdrawn. William Hill, the head of the OSCE mission in Moldova in charge of the troop and arms withdrawal, told RFE/RL that some 40,000 tons of ammunition and 50,000 weapons are still stockpiled in the region. Hill voiced concern at the slow pace of the withdrawal and accused Transdniester's inhabitants of obstructing the work of the OSCE mission. "It is clear that the Transdniester authorities are permanently opposed to the evaluation mission. Right now the obstacles are exclusively political." With both the parliament and the presidency under the Communists' firm control, the Transdniester conflict appears to have lost its momentum. Voronin -- himself a Transdniester native -- has pledged closer ties with Russia and said he was considering declaring Russian an official language along with Moldovan. He also said he is pursuing the country's admission into the Russia-Belarus Union. Surprisingly, the separatist officials do not seem particularly happy with the Moldovan government's new stance. Throughout the 1990s, the self-styled Dniester Republic became a haven for arms smuggling and gasoline and cigarette contraband, as well as a transit route for illegal immigrants and the sex trade. As Transdniester leaders used pro-Russia rhetoric in dealings with their Moldovan adversaries, their region was becoming a profitable hub of criminal activity that eventually managed to anger Russia itself. Boris Pastukhov, the deputy head of Russia's Transdniester mediation committee, last month (March 22) criticized the breakaway republic in unusually strong words, accusing its leaders of intentionally stalling in order to continue squeezing profits from the status quo. But Transdniester leader Smirnov, speaking after yesterday's meeting with Voronin, said his main rationale for foot-dragging was fear that Moldova's reunification with Romania might still take place. "Who says there won't be a union with Romania? Voronin is in power now, but he may not be tomorrow. The system should offer guarantees that such a thing [reunification] won't happen. How am I supposed to know? Maybe the union [with Romania] will happen in a hundred years, ha ha." (laughs sarcastically) But chances for a possible Moldova-Romania reunification appear to be slimmer than ever. Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday (Monday) congratulated Voronin on his victory and pledged Russia's support for Moldova's territorial integrity. News reports say that Voronin will make his first foreign trip to Russia next week (April 15-17), and will hold talks with Putin on the Transdniester conflict. With Voronin -- a former KGB general -- seeming to enjoy wide support in Moscow, analysts say Russia might eventually push towards settling the conflict on Moldova's terms. Regardless of which side Russia eventually sides with, however, it seems increasingly unlikely the conflict will not be solved at all without Moscow's mediation.

(Dan Ionescu of the Romanian-Moldovan Service also contributed to this report.)