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Moldova: Back In The Kremlin's Shadow

By Valentina Ursu and Brian Whitmore Voronin (right) and Putin (ITAR-TASS) CHISINAU -- One way of looking at the recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Russia and Moldova is that Moscow is proposing a straightforward and mutually beneficial deal: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.A less benevolent interpretation is that the Kremlin is making Chisinau an offer it can't refuse.

Whichever is correct, the result is the same: Moldova appears poised to move back into Russia's orbit after flirting with the West for the past several years.

In a striking policy shift, Moscow has indicated that it will throw its considerable weight behind resolving the conflict over the breakaway region of Transdniester in a way that preserves Moldova's territorial integrity. Russia has also indicated that it would be willing to withdraw some 1,500 troops from Transdniester.

In exchange, the Kremlin is asking Chisinau to forswear any aspirations to join NATO. Russia is also asking Moldova to leave GUAM, an alliance with Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan designed to counter Moscow's influence in the region.

During a visit to Moscow this week, Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan denied that Chisinau was caving in to Russian pressure.

"We are not surrendering.," Stratan told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on May 29. "We want this problem to be solved in Moldova's interests, we want to reestablish justice [in Transdniester], and we want to reintegrate Moldova's territory and reunite its citizens who live on the left and right banks of the Dniester River. We discussed this subject with our colleagues from Washington, we have discussed it in Brussels, and we have also discussed it with our colleagues in Moscow."

A Different Approach

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has used so-called frozen conflicts in pro-Moscow enclaves like Transdniester and in Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions to maintain leverage over its former vassals.

In Georgia, which is much firmer in its determination to leave Russia's sphere of influence and join the West, Moscow has used its proxies in these regions to sow instability and frustrate Tbilisi's desire to join NATO.

Analysts say the Kremlin appears to have settled on a different approach when it comes to Moldova.

"As far as Moldova goes, Russia has a choice," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs." "It can count on a final break between Chisinau and Transdniester. This would mean acquiring yet another enclave similar to Kaliningrad. It would be unclear what Russia would do with this. Russia doesn't border Transdniester; it borders Ukraine. Or it can seek an agreement where Moldova could continue its pro-European course, but would not join NATO."

Such a strategy is more likely to work in Moldova, which has been less determined than Georgia to charge head-first into the West's sphere of influence and more open to reaching an accommodation with Moscow.

"Tbilisi doesn't hide its orientation, which is in opposition to Russia. Chisinau [on the other hand] does not aspire to join NATO and is trying to establish better relations with Russia in some way," Lukyanov says.

Diplomatic Flurry

The emerging deal between Russia and Moldova comes after a flurry of diplomatic activity and official visits between the two countries.

Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov was in Chisinau on May 19-20. On May 22, Moldova's parliament approved a national security strategy that reaffirmed the country's neutral status -- apparently foreclosing any future NATO bid.

President Vladimir Voronin signed the strategy into law on May 26, just before traveling to Brussels for a lackluster meeting with EU officials, where the Moldovan leader was urged to speed up the pace of reforms.

The EU this week also included Moldova -- together with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine -- in its newly established Eastern Partnership program. The program provides a forum for discussing such issues as visa, trade, and strategic partnership agreements with Brussels.

More eyes, however, may have been on Foreign Minister Stratan's trip to Moscow this week -- as well as the visit by Aleksei Ostrovsky, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Committee for CIS Affairs, to Chisinau and the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol.

Friendly 'Neutrality'

In Chisinau, Ostrovsky praised Chisinau's commitment to "neutrality" and desire for better relations with Moscow.

"I think neutrality benefits Moldova and the Moldovan people," Ostrovsky said. "I am glad that Moldova's leadership, Vladimir Nikolayevich [Voronin] and others, understand that the country's interests lie in being close to Russia and in a partnership with the Russian Federation."

In Tiraspol, Ostrovsky informed Transdniester's de facto president, Igor Smirnov, that Russia was not prepared to recognize the province's independence.

He also stressed that Moscow wanted to Moldova to withdraw from its alliance with Georgia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan:

"We hope that Moldova will leave GUAM. We also think that Moldova's leadership -- unlike leaders in Georgia and Ukraine -- are acting in the interests of their own people," Ostrovsky said. "A majority of Moldovans are opposed to their country joining the North Atlantic alliance."

Valeriu Cater and Radu Benea of RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service contributed to this report from Chisinau