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Moldova: Smirnov Re-Elected Leader Of Breakaway Transdniester

Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region re-elected hard-line separatist President Igor Smirnov for a third five-year term following elections yesterday. Smirnov said he is now ready to resume talks with Moldova's leadership to settle the decade-long dispute over the status of the breakaway region. But Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin dismissed the poll as illegitimate and urged the international community to sever all contacts with Transdniester.

Prague, 10 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester yesterday overwhelmingly voted to re-elect hard-line President Igor Smirnov for a third consecutive five-year term.

Electoral commission head Pyotr Denisenko said that initial results showed Smirnov had won some 80 percent of the vote, while the other two candidates -- parliament member Aleksandr Radchenko and Tom Zenovich, a former mayor of the town of Bendery -- took 4 and 7 percent of the vote, respectively.

Election officials said turnout was about 60 percent of the 400,000 voters in the self-proclaimed Transdniester republic, a narrow stretch of land of some 700,000 people on Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine.

Smirnov's victory, however, has not been recognized by anyone in the international community.

Moldova was the first state to declare the election illegal, with President Voronin saying yesterday evening the poll was not legitimate because no foreign observers had participated. Voronin urged the international community to sever all contacts with Transdniester.

Victor Doras, Voronin's main political adviser, called Smirnov's re-election "quite predictable." He said conditions for "free choice" have not yet been met in Transdniester.

Russia today followed suit, with Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov reportedly saying that Moscow does not recognize the election because the Transdniester republic -- which is not recognized by the international community -- is a "self-proclaimed territory."

Yesterday's poll was also marred by widespread reports of illegalities and violations. Matti Sidoroff, the representative for Moldova of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said the election was not "free."

But electoral commission head Denisenko dismissed the accusations, saying no violations were reported and independent observers' access was not forbidden: "Had there been any serious violations, they should have been examined in a meeting by the local electoral commission. Such meetings did not take place anywhere. That is why I believe that if there were any violations, they have been solved by those who brought them to attention. We did not set any limitations for observers, who are working according to their own plans. The only limitation we imposed was for [candidate Tom] Zenovich's observers, who are Russian citizens and who never lived in Transdniester."

Despite the absence of any official international monitors, some 40 envoys from the Russian and Ukrainian parliaments, and delegates from two Moldovan parties, were in the separatist region to observe the elections.

Representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, and the Georgian region of South Ossetia -- both separatist territories that are also unrecognized by the international community -- were present as well.

However, Zenovich, who with only 7 percent of the vote came a distant second to Smirnov, said he was convinced the election was a farce and the results had been altered: "Since the [Smirnov] regime repeatedly committed violations during the election campaign, and today we have further information about violations of the election code, I believe the regime will try to falsify the results of the poll."

The pro-Russian Transdniester region broke away from Moldova in 1990 -- a year before the then-Soviet republic declared independence from the USSR -- over fears that Moldovans would seek reunification with their ethnic kin in neighboring Romania.

Some 65 percent of Moldova's 4.5 million people speak Moldovan, which is virtually identical to Romanian. Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking minorities each make up about 15 percent of the country's population.

Moldova and Transdniester fought an inconclusive war in the summer of 1992, which was quelled by the intervention of Russian troops already stationed in the region. The conflict ended with a Russia-mediated settlement, but a final agreement on the region's political status has yet to be adopted. Little progress has been achieved since, despite a series of agreements under international mediation by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE.

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

Russia, which under a 1999 OSCE-mediated accord agreed to complete the withdrawal of its troops and arms from the region by the end of 2002, has begun removing military equipment from the region, but Smirnov has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the process.

Smirnov, a 60-year-old former factory manager, is widely seen as the main stumbling block to a settlement of the dispute. Smirnov and Moldovan President Voronin met several times this year, but failed to reach an agreement.

Since his accession to power in April, Moldova's Communist leader, who is pro-Russian and a Transdniester native himself, has vowed to make resolving the Transdniester dispute his top priority. But Voronin three months ago announced he will no longer negotiate with Smirnov, who he said has no real desire to see the dispute resolved.

Voronin has offered the region considerable autonomy, but Smirnov -- who has been Transdniester's president since 1991 -- wants Moldova to become a loose confederation of two sovereign and independent states, and has given his region the full trappings of statehood, including its own currency, parliament, and constitution.

Smirnov now says he is ready once again to talk to Moldovan officials, but Voronin is refusing a head-to-head meeting. Voronin, however, has signaled that he would favor a resumption of negotiations between the two sides' teams of technical experts.

Moldova and Russia on 5 November initialed a long-delayed bilateral treaty by which Moscow recognizes Moldova's territorial integrity and pledges to work toward resolving the Transdniester dispute.

Whether or not negotiations resume and to what extent they succeed now depend on whether Russia will respect the terms of the treaty. Although Moscow has never officially recognized the breakaway region, Smirnov still has many influential friends among Russia's political elite.