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Moldova: Caught Between A Hammer And A Sickle As Anti-Communist Protests Continue

Opposition-led demonstrators are protesting for a fourth day in Chisinau against a Russian-backed plan to resolve Moldova's long-running dispute with the separatist Transdniester region. Protesters continue to call for the Communist government's resignation despite President Vladimir Voronin's last-minute refusal to sign the plan, which was also criticized by the international community for its lack of coherence and consistency.

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of protesters gathered for the fourth day today outside the residence of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, calling for the resignation of the government.

The protests were triggered by a Moscow-sponsored plan to settle the dispute between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniester, but continued even after Voronin unexpectedly changed his mind on 25 November and refused to sign the document.

Demonstrators say the plan would mean the end of Moldova's independence. They are also calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transdniester and the resignation of Voronin and his government, whom they see as Moscow's puppets.

Police attacked demonstrators on 26 November with truncheons outside the presidential palace, beating two prominent opposition deputies. Opposition Christian Democratic leader Iurie Rosca today told RFE/RL that the authorities have begun a criminal investigation against opposition members who organized the protests.

But Rosca says the protests will continue, despite attempts by security forces to prevent students from joining the march.

"Our protest will continue here in the center of the capital. All schools and universities have been blocked by police and security agents who are trying to intimidate the students and prevent them from joining us here. But I hope that this day will turn into a new success for the opposition, which is protesting against the abuses committed by the Voronin regime and against the Russian plan to federalize Moldova," Rosca said.

On 17 November, Russia unexpectedly announced a plan to turn Moldova into a demilitarized federation. The proposal would grant secessionist pro-Moscow Transdniester a large degree of autonomy under the supervision of Russian troops already in the region.

The plan -- the brainchild of Dmitri Kozak, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- was swiftly accepted by Voronin and Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov.

But on 25 November, Voronin suddenly changed his mind, forcing Putin to cancel a trip to Chisinau on short notice and causing a furious Kozak to leave Moldova in a whirlwind.

Analysts initially believed Voronin's decision was influenced by the thousands of protesters who were already on the streets. It later turned out, however, that Voronin had been pressured into rejecting the plan by Western diplomats, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which -- along with Russia and Ukraine -- is part of a mediation team on Transdniester.

In a television interview on 26 November, Voronin said he had rejected the plan because of last-minute changes by Russia that would have amounted to official recognition of Transdniester's independence. He also said he had changed his mind after Smirnov requested that the 2,000 Russian troops based in Transdniester stay on as "guarantors" of the deal for the next 30 years.

Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the current OSCE chairman, said the 55-member bloc does not endorse the deal. The OSCE spokesman in Moldova, Claus Neukirch, told RFE/RL today, "The OSCE chairman in office has declared that there is no consensus in the OSCE to support this document because several participating states had serious reservations with regard to some points in the memorandum and, first of all, with regard to the division of powers between the central and regional authorities; with regard to the de facto veto right of Transdniester in the senate; and also because of the absence of satisfactory international security guarantees."

Furthermore, the head of the U.S. delegation at the OSCE, Stephan Minikes, expressed American opposition to the plan. Minikes said Russia should drop its proposal and agree to resume previous negotiations involving the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Transdniester. He said the U.S. will press for this at a meeting of OSCE foreign ministers next week in the Dutch city of Maastricht.

But the government in Chisinau has not dropped the Kozak plan completely. The Communist-dominated parliament yesterday began a debate on the proposal in the absence of opposition deputies, who had left the building after the Communists refused to allow a live broadcast of the discussion.

Russian-speaking Transdniester broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears that the ethnic Romanian majority of the country would seek reunification with Bucharest. The two sides fought a short war in 1992, quelled by Russian troops that intervened on the side of the separatists.

Analysts agree a durable settlement of the conflict depends directly on Russia's military withdrawal from the region.

Under a 1999 OSCE-supervised agreement, Moscow pledged to withdraw its troops and military equipment by the end of last year. But Russia failed to fulfill its obligation and was granted a one-year extension, which expires next month.

The withdrawal still remains in its incipient stage, and Russia is likely to ask for a further extension at the OSCE's meeting in Maastricht.

Observers say the hastily assembled Russian peace plan may have been an attempt to show the OSCE that an extension of Moscow's military presence in the region would have a beneficial role.

OSCE's Claus Neukirch told RFE/RL there are indications Russia could ask for a six-month extension.

"We will see whether there will be a new term set in Maastricht. There have been news from the Russian side that they think they would be able to complete the withdrawal of the ammunition within the first half year of 2004, so that could lead to some conclusions on which kind of decisions could be made in Maastricht. But it's premature to say that from Moldova at the moment," Neukirch said.

Russia, however, has displayed little willingness to retreat militarily from the region at a moment when NATO is expanding eastward. In this respect, the outcome of the Maastricht meeting could be crucial both for the future of Moldova and for the political survival of its Communist government.