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Russia: Moldovan President Meets Putin In Moscow

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin -- on a two-day private visit to Russia -- met today with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two reportedly discussed ways of strengthening economic cooperation and the situation in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has ended a two-day private visit to Russia during which he held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top officials.

Few details of the talks were immediately available.

Kremlin press secretary Alexei Gromov said after the meeting that Putin and Voronin discussed economic and trade relations between Russia and Moldova as well as ways of improving cooperation in international affairs. Gromov said Putin's diplomatic adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, and Moldova's new foreign minister, Nicolae Dudau, appointed to the job on 31 August, were present.

The Moldovan Embassy in Moscow told RFE/RL the two leaders also discussed a new bilateral treaty as well as the current stage of negotiations on the status of the Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniester.

The status of Transdniester and the presence of Russian troops in the region are the main bones of contention between Russia and Moldova and the reason why the two have still not signed a basic treaty 10 years after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union.

Pro-Russian Transdniester -- a narrow strip of land along the left bank of the Dniester River -- seceded from Moldova in 1990 over fears that the then-Soviet republic would seek reunification with Romania. Moldova had been part of Romania before World War II.

Moldova subsequently declared independence in 1991, and the two sides fought a short but bloody war in 1992. The conflict was quelled by the Russian troops already stationed in the region, but a permanent settlement has yet to be reached.

Some 2,500 Russian troops are still massed in Transdniester and a huge arsenal of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition is stockpiled in the region.

Under an agreement signed at a 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia earlier this year began destroying weapons and ammunition deposited in the region. But the operation was suspended last week because of protests by Transdniester residents.

After the Communists' victory in parliamentary elections in February, Moldova has sought closer ties with Moscow and appeared more amenable to reaching a compromise on the Transdniester issue.

Moldova said it was ready to grant the pro-Russian enclave a large degree of autonomy, but negotiations stalled after the Transdniester leadership said it wanted Moldova to become a loose confederation of two independent states.

Voronin's latest trip to Moscow -- his third since he took office -- comes at a moment of renewed tension between Moldova and the Transdniester leadership.

Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov on 31 August canceled a meeting with Voronin after Moldova introduced a new customs stamp. The new stamps are to be applied at all Moldovan border crossings -- including those between Transdniester and Ukraine. However, in order to implement the measure Moldovan customs officers must be deployed on the Ukrainian side of the border with Transdniester -- known as a hub for illegal trade in arms and drugs. It is not yet clear whether Kyiv will agree to that.

Smirnov said by introducing the new stamp, Moldova was instituting an economic blockade against Transdniester and preventing the region's trade with neighboring Ukraine.

Moldova -- the poorest country in Europe, with almost 80 percent of its citizens living on less than one dollar per day -- argued that the measure to introduce new customs stamps was in accordance with the requirements of the World Trade Organization -- of which it became a member in July.

Moldova is also heavily dependent on Russian and Ukrainian energy imports, and owes Moscow some $600 million in unpaid gas and electricity bills. Today's talks are likely to have tackled the issue of Moldova's debt to Russia.

Voronin's visit also had a religious dimension. Voronin went to Russia at the invitation of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii II, who is celebrating 40 years at the helm of the Russian Orthodox Church.

A majority of Moldova's Orthodox clergy is subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church, but a dissident group within the church has pledged allegiance to Romania's Orthodox Church.

The European Court of Human Rights has requested that Moldova make a decision on the splinter group by 1 September, but the Moldovan government last week asked for a delay.

Voronin went to Moscow along with Metropolitan Vladimir, the head of Moldova's pro-Russian clergy. Analysts say this is likely an indicator that the Communist government is determined to support Vladimir against Moldova's pro-Romanian Orthodox branch.