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Ukraine/Moldova: Lack Of Action On Transdniester Affects Both Nations

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is in neighboring Moldova for a two-day official visit. Kuchma today met with his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin, and is holding talks with other top officials. Moldova, as well as European and international organizations, wants Kyiv to take firmer measures to curb the lucrative smuggling being done across Transdniester's border with Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the mediators in the dispute between Moldova and its breakaway region.

Prague, 13 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma today met in Chisinau with his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin.

Kuchma's two-day official visit to neighboring Moldova includes the signing of several bilateral agreements, as well as meetings with Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev and parliamentary speaker Eugenia Ostapciuc.

Voronin said after his meeting with Kuchma that relations between the two neighbors are excellent. "We have no outstanding issues with Ukraine, and we have the good intention of turning our bilateral relationship into a model for the whole of Europe," Voronin said.

Analysts agree the most important issue between Moldova and Ukraine remains the settlement of the dispute between Moldova and its breakaway Transdniester region. Ukraine is part of the tripartite mediating team in the dispute, along with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Kuchma told reporters that Ukraine wants a negotiated settlement of the dispute. "I understand that the Transdniester problem is important not only for Moldova, although we can say that it is the most important Moldovan grievance," he said. "It is indisputably important for Ukraine, too, for we are interested to have a stable state as a neighbor. The Ukrainian side has reiterated its firm principles on this issue -- no interference in [Moldova's] domestic affairs and respect for Moldova's territorial integrity, as well as the need to resolve the issue by negotiations."

Under a 1999 OSCE accord, Russia agreed to withdraw tens of thousands of tons of military equipment and 2,000 troops from Transdniester by the end of last year. But Moscow did not observe last year's deadline, which was extended until December of this year. So far, it appears that Moscow will fail again to meet the deadline.

Moldovan affairs analyst Vladimir Socor of the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS) says that neither Moldova nor Ukraine is happy with the prolonged presence of Russian troops in the region. Socor told RFE/RL that the Russian withdrawal from Transdniester is what he called a "test" for the embattled Kuchma, who is facing growing pressure at home from the opposition.

"The situation in Transdniester represents a test for the statesman which Ukrainian President [Leonid] Kuchma is, or wishes to be. I am sure that both Ukraine and President Kuchma do not want to perpetuate the Russian military presence in Transdniester, which represents a thorn in Ukraine's side," Socor said.

But Socor says Ukraine has no real weight in the mediation process. "Ukraine is just a spectator in the Transdniester negotiations," he said. "Ukraine was included in the so-called tripartite mediation mechanism at the initiative of Yevgenii Primakov when he was foreign minister of Russia. The aim was that this mechanism, categorically dominated by Russia, looks less Russian. Kyiv has neither the will nor the capacity to compete with Russia for political influence in Transdniester. Ukraine does not have this capacity."

Moldova says the least Ukraine could do to help settle the dispute is agree to step up controls at the border with Transdniester.

Transdniester, a narrow strip of land along the left bank of the river Dniester, is sandwiched between Moldova proper and Ukraine. Pro-Russian Transdniester separatists broke away from Romanian-speaking Moldova in 1990 over fears of possible reunification between Chisinau and Bucharest. The separatists have been constantly accused of the large-scale production and smuggling of drugs, arms, and human beings into Ukraine and Russia, which reportedly earns the separatist regime an estimated $1 billion annually in illicit revenue.

Furthermore, arms smuggled from Transdniester have reportedly ended up in the hands of international terrorist networks.

Moldovan officials, who have no control over the border posts between Transdniester and Ukraine, have long tried to persuade Kyiv to permit Moldovan customs officers to operate on the Ukrainian side of the border to stifle contraband. But Kyiv, despite initially accepting the proposal in September 2001, expelled the Moldovan officials after less than 24 hours.

Analyst Socor says some top Ukrainian officials, as well as local ones, have a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo. "First of all, Ukraine tolerates Transdniester's foreign trade," he said. "Ukraine agreed to impose strict controls on imports into Transdniester, but has left exports from Transdniestr completely free. Almost certainly, local officials and local trade interests along the border with Transdniester are benefiting from this trade. Some officials in Kyiv have attempted to curb the illegal trade on the border with Transdniester, but their efforts have been hampered by other officials in Kyiv, which means that some senior officials in [Ukrainian] President [Leonid] Kuchma's administration probably benefit from the illegal trade."

But international organizations have repeatedly warned Kyiv to act against the contraband if it wants better political and economic ties with the West.

Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has been eyeing membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as improved cooperation with an expanding European Union, in order to alleviate grave economic problems.

Socor says current Ukrainian policy on the border with Transdniester is benefiting a minority of corrupt Ukrainian officials, but works against Ukraine's national interests. "Both the European Union and the World Trade Organization demand that Ukraine curb this practice on the Transdniestrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border," he said. "Ukraine wants closer ties with the EU and also wants to become a member of the WTO, but the interests of this probably small number of corrupt officials run counter to Ukraine's national interests."

Among other issues on the agenda for Kuchma's visit, which ends tomorrow, are the situation of Moldovan property on Ukrainian territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as ways to step up economic cooperation between the two countries.

Chisinau has also said it wants to raise the question of Ukrainian barriers for Moldovan sugar and the transit of farming products across Ukrainian territory.

(RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau contributed to this report.)