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Moldova: Transdniester Leader Rejects Moldovan President's Offer Of Autonomy

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin met today in Chisinau with Igor Smirnov, the leader of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. The talks -- Voronin's third meeting with Smirnov since coming to power two months ago -- failed to ease tensions between the two sides, which have each accused the other of violating previous agreements designed to pave the way to a settlement of their nine-year-old dispute.

Prague, 20 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin met today in Chisinau with Igor Smirnov, leader of the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniester.

Voronin and Smirnov discussed a Moldovan proposal on Transdniester's future status, which would grant the region broad political and economic autonomy. The two leaders also touched on the lack of progress in implementing agreements they signed during their previous meeting last month (May 16).

Today's talks marked the third meeting between Voronin and Smirnov in just two months. But they appear to have come no closer to relieving the growing tensions between Moldova and its breakaway region.

Recently, Moldova has accused Transdniester of deliberately delaying in negotiations. In turn, officials in the breakaway region say the government in Chisinau has refused to grant them what they describe as equal political status.

The Russian-speaking Transdniester broke away from Moldova in 1990 because of fears the Soviet republic would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. Two years later, several hundred people were killed in fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Moldovan security forces. The conflict ended with a Russian-mediated settlement, but a final agreement on the region's political status still has yet to be agreed upon.

Moldova says it is ready to grant Transdniester a large degree of autonomy. But the separatist leadership says what it wants, instead, is a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states.

In a tense news conference following their meeting today, Smirnov said he had rejected Voronin's offer of political and economic autonomy. He said he had presented his own proposal on Transdniester's future status:

"We have, in turn, informed you about our vision regarding a common state. In regard to the first chapter of [Voronin's] draft plan, we have 11 objections, which indicate the violation of principles that should be the basis for a solution. The reality is ignored, as are previous agreements signed by former [Moldovan] presidents and prime ministers. All these objections have been presented in our proposal. The most important conclusion we reached [during the talks] based on the two documents -- the second one, containing our position -- is that two states are building a common state, on an equal basis."

Voronin declined to comment on Smirnov's proposal. But he did accuse the Transdniester leader of violating recently signed agreements.

Voronin told journalists that he was particularly unhappy with the decision made last week by officials in the breakaway region to issue their own passports. The move came shortly after the two leaders signed an accord last month providing for mutual recognition of official documents -- an agreement that did not, however, include the recognition of passports.

"We are categorically against the [Transdniestrian] passports. Moreover, we believe this is a political move by Mr. Smirnov, connected to the fact that two passports cannot exist -- not even in principle -- in a single state, if we want to build it."

Voronin, who was elected president more than two months ago (April 4) following a landslide communist victory in parliamentary elections earlier in the year (February), has vowed to make resolving the almost decade-long Transdniester dispute his top priority.

During his first months in office, Voronin signaled he was ready to make substantial concessions to Transdniester separatists. But the first two meetings between Voronin and Smirnov ended without any notable progress.

Today's meeting took place amid animosity sparked by yesterday's refusal by Transdniester officials to allow Voronin -- himself a native of the region -- to take part in a memorial service inside the separatist-controlled territory. The ceremony marked the nine years since the conflict erupted between the two sides.

The 1992 fighting was eventually stopped by Russian troops stationed in Transdniester. Some 2,500 Russian soldiers are still deployed in the region, and 40,000 tons of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition remain stockpiled there.

At an OSCE summit two years ago, Russia agreed to withdraw its troops and weapons from Transdniester by 2002, despite opposition from separatist officials. But so far only a minimal number of weapons have been removed from the region.

On 18 June, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Isakov said he had signed an agreement with Smirnov and an OSCE representative to destroy 250 tons of Soviet-era munitions stockpiled in Transdniester. Isakov said that the OSCE has agreed to provide funding for the construction of a facility which would turn unused weapons and ammunition into scrap metal.

Smirnov today refused to provide any details of the OSCE-mediated agreement. But Vasile Sturdza, Moldova's chief negotiator on the Transdniester issue, told RFE/RL that Chisinau welcomed Isakov's announcement:

"Every step made by the Transdniester authorities is greatly and positively appreciated, not only by us [Moldova], but also by international organizations and especially by the OSCE. Our position regarding last week's events, which resulted in the signing of these documents, is clear: [the agreements] are highly appreciated." Isakov said Russia will respect its promises made at the 1999 OSCE summit regarding the withdrawal of its troops and weapons from Transdniester. But he said the withdrawal will "take into account the situation in the area."

After today's difficult meeting between Voronin and Smirnov, however, there are few signs that the two sides have come any closer to a negotiated settlement of the Transdniester dispute.