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Moldova/Romania: Presidents Voronin, Iliescu Vow 'Pragmatic' Bilateral Relations

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and his Romanian counterpart Ion Iliescu are vowing to put aside any political differences in favor of fostering what they call "pragmatic" ties. At a meeting this week in Bucharest, the two said they would work toward improving economic relations. But RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports Moldova's increasingly close ties to Moscow, lingering problems in the breakaway Transdniester region, and a new passport regime introduced by Romania all complicate the relationship.

Prague, 2 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Voronin, Moldova's new communist president, held talks yesterday (Tuesday) in Bucharest with Romanian President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Iliescu and Voronin looked at ways to boost economic ties between the two countries. They also discussed the situation in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region and the new passport regime at Romania's border with Moldova.

Voronin's trip to Romania was his second official visit abroad since he was elected president by Moldova's Communist-dominated parliament less than a month ago (April 4). Two weeks ago, Voronin traveled to Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials.

Romania and Moldova have had what they call a "privileged" relationship ever since Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union 10 years ago. Up until World War II, Moldova had been part of Romania, and some 65 percent of its 4.5 million inhabitants speak Romanian.

But in recent years Moldova has moved politically and economically closer to Moscow, especially after pro-Russian communists won a sweeping victory in general elections earlier this year, winning 71 mandates in Moldova's 101-seat parliament. Since his election, Voronin has pledged to tighten economic and political relations with Russia and to pursue eventual membership in the Russia-Belarus Union.

Romanian President Iliescu -- himself an ex-communist -- said yesterday after meeting with Voronin that relations between Romania and Moldova must become "pragmatic," regardless of any ideological differences.

"We want to ignore normal political and ideological differences. What I appreciated in some of Mr. Voronin's declarations, and what I myself want to highlight, is the need for pragmatic, practical relations between our countries -- relations which must not diminish in the near future."

Romania and Moldova are among Europe's poorest countries, with average monthly incomes of $100 and $30 respectively. Yesterday the two leaders pledged to increase economic cooperation and said they would soon produce a program to improve bilateral relations.

Romania earlier this year (February) announced it was backing Moldova's bid to become a member of the European Union's Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, and Iliescu yesterday reaffirmed his country's support for Moldova's admission to the pact. Voronin said he was "very satisfied" with his talks with Iliescu.

"I am very pleased with the results of my visit to Romania. We agreed to cooperate within international organizations and we already have Romania's support for our becoming a member of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe."

The two leaders also said they discussed the situation in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region.

The Russian-speaking region broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Moldovans would seek reunification with their ethnic kin in neighboring Romania. Fighting broke out between Moldova and Transdniester in 1992, leaving several hundred people dead. The fighting ended with a Russia-mediated ceasefire, but a final settlement on the region has yet to be reached. Transdniester leaders want independence, while Moldovan officials say they are only ready to grant the breakaway region autonomy within the Moldovan state. Some 2,500 Russian troops are still deployed in Transdniester, and a huge Soviet-era arms arsenal is stockpiled in the region.

A key aspect of the Transdniester dispute involves Moldovan nationalist Ilie Ilascu, who has been held on death row in the breakaway region since 1992 for his alleged involvement in a terrorist act. Ilascu has since acquired Romanian citizenship and was even elected to Romania's parliament last year. His release has become a hot topic in Transdniester negotiations.

Neither Voronin nor Iliescu gave specific details about their Transdniester talks. But Iliescu said Voronin had praised Russia's commitment to settling the dispute and said he was optimistic that a solution may soon be found:

"[President Voronin] received favorably Russia's interest toward a solution. There is hope that Ilascu will be released -- and that is one important step. They are also seeking an overall solution for the Transdniester problem."

The two leaders also discussed Romania's plan, announced last month, to introduce passport controls for Moldovan and Ukrainian citizens. The measure comes as part of Romania's efforts to secure its eastern borders and have its own visa requirements to the EU lifted. Moldovans, who currently need only an identification card to cross the border, will need a passport to enter Romania as of July 1. But Moldovan officials have said the cost for issuing new passports -- estimated at some $2.5 million -- is too high for the country's budget.

Iliescu said yesterday that Romania has agreed to provide half of the amount, while funding for the remaining half might come from the Stability Pact. Iliescu said passport controls will not limit Moldovan and Ukrainian citizens' access to Romania, but will bar them from entering the EU once Romania's own travel restrictions are lifted by the 15-nation bloc. He said passport restrictions were necessary to limit illegal immigration -- as well as drug trafficking and arms smuggling -- from Transdniester into Europe:

"Moldovans will be free to travel to and from Romania -- but without access to [the] Schengen [agreement] space. This will be the case for both Moldova and Ukraine. But Moldova has a much more difficult situation on its border with the Transdniester zone. Transdniester has become a hub for arms and drugs trafficking, and for other things."

Voronin yesterday dismissed criticism that his announced intention to bring Moldova closer to Russia and Belarus was meant to reduce traditional ties with Romania. The Moldovan leader said he discussed with Iliescu ways to improve economic relations between the two countries once Moldova is admitted to the Stability Pact -- such as building a new railway between Moldova and Romania and connecting the two countries' power grids.

But Voronin said that since his government's top priority is to fight growing poverty in the country, it will seek useful cooperation with as many countries and organizations as possible:

"Regarding our orientation toward the Commonwealth of Independent States: Unfortunately, our country is small and poor. We will go wherever our country's interests are, where it is more convenient for us. We will cooperate with all countries and international organizations in this direction."

Despite all the past talk about a privileged relationship, Romania and Moldova have yet to sign a bilateral treaty. Notably, this issue was not discussed during Voronin's visit.

But Voronin said high-level contacts with Romania will continue. Upon his return to Chisinau, he said Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana -- who is also the current OSCE chairman -- will "soon" go to Moldova to prepare for a visit by Iliescu.