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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: September 19, 2006

September 19, 2006, Volume 8, Number 32
INDEPENDENCE VOTES POPULAR IN THE KREMLIN. There are many reasons to expect Moscow's deteriorating ties with the West will continue their downward trend this autumn. But the key one may be growing differences over the breakaway regions of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia and their stated desire to proclaim independence from Moldova and Georgia.

The issue pushing the frozen conflicts to the fore are two independence referendums -- one in Transdniester on September 17, the second in South Ossetia on November 12.

Russia, which has acted as a long-term booster for the separatist regions, is looking at the plebescites in two ways: a chance to bring the regions into the Russian fold, and -- more importantly -- a way to begin a reconsolidation of the post-Soviet republics under the patronage of Moscow.

The West is steering clear of the votes. The Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe, the European Union, and the United States have all disavowed the referendums, saying that -- in support of the territorial integrity of Georgia and Moldova -- they will not recognize the results. Moscow, meanwhile, has stopped short of indicated whether it will recognize the ballots, but says it has long respected the "principle" of such referendums.

The situation in each of the three breakaway enclaves is different, but there is one thing they have in common. Since their formation in the wake of the Soviet collapse -- via armed conflicts aided, directly or otherwise, by the Kremlin -- they have all served Moscow as useful levers against Chisinau and Tbilisi.

In its support of Tiraspol, Sukhum(i), and Tskhinvali, Russia has aimed to keep restive Moldova and Georgia within its orbit. But that strategy has intensified over the past several years, as both Chisinau and Tbilisi made plain their aim of Euro-Atlantic integration and potential NATO and EU membership.

Now, for Moscow, the separatist regions can be used as more than just a thorn in the side of Moldova and Georgia. They are bona fide roadblocks on their path to Western integration. Both the NATO and the EU prohibit the accession of states with unsettled border or territorial disputes. Moscow, therefore, wants the conflicts to stay frozen as much as Chisinau and Tbilisi would like to see them thaw.

Russia has worked hard to cement its influence in the three breakaway regions, providing both military and economic support. First and foremost, Moscow has been very liberal in its provision of Russian passports to enclave residents. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, 85 percent of the population is estimated to hold Russian documents and receive the social benefits and pensions apportioned them as Russian citizens. That figure in Transdniester is considerably lower, but perhaps not for long. Russia's ambassador to Moldova, Nikolai Ryabov, this week announced a new fast-track process for receiving Russian passports had been launched in Tiraspol.

Until recently, Moscow's support of Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia shopped short of recognizing outright their "independence" from Moldova and Georgia. Moreover, the Kremlin on many occasions stressed its loyalty to the notion of territorial integrity. This stance clearly reflected Kremlin fears that a pro-separatist position would fuel independence ambitions in places where it is decidedly inconvenient for Moscow, most notably Chechnya.

But a significant shift in that policy could be seen this year. In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin linked the issue of unrecognized states to the anticipated resolution of the status of the Serbian province of Kosovo. "If someone believes that Kosovars can get full state independence," Putin said, "why should we refuse the same for the Abkhaz and South Ossetians?"

Since then, Putin has several times referred to Kosovo as a model for the frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. In doing so, Putin appears eager to mobilize the support of Spain, Turkey, China, India, and other countries with their own separatist difficulties.

Assuming sufficient turnout, the results of the Transdniester and South Ossetian referendums will be the same -- a resounding "yes" for independence, with an eye on eventual union with Russia. (Abkhazia, for its part, will not hold a similar plebiscite, but will pursue its own drive for independence based on the results of its 1994 referendum.)

But the results are largely meaningless. While Russian law provides for the adoption of foreign states into the federation, the provision applies only to regions subject to international law, which South Ossetia and Transdniester are not.

Why, then, are the referendums being held?

One reason is Moscow's desire to keep the conflicts simmering in order to hamper Georgian and Moldovan NATO and EU bids. But there is a second possible reason as well -- an ambition among Soviet nostalgists to set a precedent for reintegrating former Soviet territory with Russia, with the eventual aim of creating a new but familiar superstate -- a kind of USSR-2.

Economist Mikhail Delyagin, the director of the Moscow-based Globalization Institute, offered perhaps the best description of the concept in a commentary published on September 11 in "Nezavisimaya gazeta." The recognition of the breakaway regions, he wrote, "will launch a real, not fictitious, reintegration of the post-Soviet space."

He added: "The disintegration of the USSR turned us into a divided nation. This applies to not only Russians, but also Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Belarusians, and others. And we should recognize ourselves as being divided people moving toward reunion."

Other pundits find the idea appealing as well. The economic analytical site, for example, in August published a 25-page report proposing a possible course for Russia's policy goals through 2015.

They include the creation on the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States a state, or superstate, comprising a population of 300 million and based on a common market and currency.

Another similar project, published on, proposes the creation by 2014 of a new state, Eurasian Rus. It begins with the unification of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Armenia, all by 2008. By 2010, this hypothetical superstate will have grown to include Mongolia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Bulgaria. Four years later, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, North and South Korea, and all of Eastern Europe will have joined the club as well.

However fantastic such a project may seem, the breadth of its ambitions cannot be ignored, especially considering that Russia's leading Unified Russia has already labeled itself the party of "historical revanchism" with an eye to the 2007 parliamentary elections. (Victor Yassman)

WHO POISONED YUSHCHENKO? THE SEARCH CONTINUES. The case surrounding the apparent poisoning two years ago of Viktor Yushchenko remains shrouded in mystery -- so much so that even Yushchenko himself routinely uses cryptic language to describe it.

Speaking to journalists in Baku on September 8, the Ukrainian president stated the investigation into the alleged poisoning in September 2004 was "one step away from the active phase of solving this case."

Yushchenko's statement came as Ukraine's prosecutor-general, Oleksandr Medvedko, announced investigators had determined the time, place, and circumstances in which the poisoning attempt took place.

All that remains, apparently, is to find the individual, or individuals, responsible.

Austrian doctors responsible for examining Yushchenko several months after the poison was reportedly administered said the Ukrainian politician had ingested a concentrated dose of dioxin.

The powerful toxin caused bloating and pockmarks on Yushchenko's face, giving his skin a greenish hue and adding a macabre note to a tumultuous political season culminating in the mass Orange Revolution protests in December 2004.

Prosecutor-General Medvedko, confirming earlier allegations, said tests on the dioxins found in Yushchenko's blood showed they were highly purified and manufactured in either Russia, the United States, or Great Britain.

He declined to divulge other details. If investigators have in fact traced the time and place of the poisoning, it would mark a significant development in a seemingly stagnant case.

The mystery began on September 6, 2004.

Yushchenko, the pro-Western presidential candidate facing off against the Kremlin's preferred nominee, Viktor Yanukovych, became violently ill, suffering severe abdominal pain and facial lesions.

When he was rushed four days later to Vienna's Rudolfinerhaus clinic, his liver, pancreas, and intestines were swollen, and he was barely able to walk.

Doctors were initially baffled. But Yushchenko's supporters already had a theory: that the candidate had been poisoned during a dinner September 5 with Ihor Smeshko, the head of Ukraine's Security Service, at the summer home of Smeshko's deputy, Volodymyr Satsyuk.

Later that month, many were surprised to read a Rudolfinerhaus press release stating doctors did not believe Yushchenko had been poisoned.

But several days later, officials at the Vienna clinic publicly objected, insisting the press release was a forgery -- an episode that conjured up images of a Soviet-style disinformation campaign.

By December, doctors had confirmed that dioxin was behind Yushchenko's ailment, and that he had received the substance from a perpetrator who allegedly intended him harm.

Yushchenko's supporters immediately pointed to Yanukovych as the likely suspect, and accused Moscow of providing the dioxin.

The Yanukovych camp vigorously denied the charges. Some questioned whether there was in fact any real evidence to suggest Yushchenko had been poisoned.

At the peak of the Orange Revolution protests in December, Yushchenko announced he would soon have proof his opponents had attempted to assassinate him. The proof, however, never materialized.

Since then, an investigation by the Ukrainian Security Service and Prosecutor-General's Office has been under way. But no findings have been announced.

In the interim, many Ukrainian and Western observers have begun to express doubt the case would ever be solved.

Some questioned why it was taking so long to discover the truth -- especially when Yushchenko himself was offering frequent assurances a solution was around the corner. Was the investigation being blocked? Or have investigators simply been unable to build a solid case?

A member of the investigative team told RFE/RL that in such a high-profile matter as the Yushchenko poisoning, it is prudent to wait until the evidence is so watertight that there is no way the case can be thrown out of court.

But many of Yushchenko's supporters believe that with Yanukovych now in the prime minister's post it is unlikely the case will be solved soon -- if ever. (Roman Kupchinsky)

TRANSDNIESTRIANS SAY 'YES' TO INDEPENDENCE, UNION WITH RUSSIA. Preliminary results show voters in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have overwhelmingly voted in favor of maintaining independence, with a view to eventually joining Russia.

The head of the Transdniester Central Election Commission, Pyotr Denisenko, said that 97.1 percent of voters voted in favor of a course of independence with the ultimate goal of union with Russia.

Denisenko also said that almost 95 percent of the voters said "no" to reunification with Moldova.

RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service spoke to people on the streets of Tiraspol who favored a union with Russia.

"Only with Russia, because that's where our children's future is, where our future is," said one man.

"I want a happy future for my son and for his children. I see that in a union with Russia. My younger son was an officer, he died for Russia," one woman said. "After all, citizens of Russia are citizens of Transdniester. Russia is the only country that didn't abandon us at difficult times, in 1992, and during the first and second blockades. I'm sure they will recognize [this vote]."

The referendum consisted of two questions. One asked whether the voter supported the course of Transdniestrian independence -- with an eye to eventually joining the Russian Federation. And the second asked whether the voter would support giving up independence and joining Moldova.

The referendum was largely shunned by the international community. Western countries have all refused to recognize the referendum and called on Transdniester to return to negotiations with Chisinau. Moldova reiterated on September 18 that it does not recognize the poll. Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan said: "Yesterday will change nothing. The so-called referendum is a political farce of [Transdniester leader's Igor] Smirnov."

But Smirnov has played up Transdniester's democratic credentials: "It's not surprising that many [officials in the former] Soviet republics make such decisions on their own, without asking the public. Let's say, even Ukraine, Moldova say: 'We're joining NATO, the European Union,' without holding referendums. We're holding a referendum. And that for some reason meets with disapproval, especially from opponents of popular government, I would say."

Perhaps more important than the result is the question of recognition. As Transdniester is not an internationally recognized entity, the result is not legally binding.

Crucially, Russia has said it will recognize the results of the poll. Duma Vice Speaker Sergei Baburin said on September 18 the Duma must call on the government to formally recognize the Transdniester Republic. He said that Russia, by ignoring what he described as "the will of our compatriots," would commit a "historical error."

Such reactions are not surprising, given Russia's stake in the region.

A short but bloody war between Russian secessionists and Moldova in 1992 left some 1,000 people dead. The fighting was halted by Russian troops stationed in Transdniester. Now, some 1,200 Russian troops remain.

Russian-speaking Transdniester receives strong, although unofficial support from Russia.

But critics say Russia's recognition of the referendum could have a knock-on effect for other "frozen conflicts" in the region.

Georgia's pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia will also hold a referendum on independence in November.

Russia, critics say, see such referendums as a chance to bring the region closer into the Russian fold.

And if not a case of Russian revanchism, critics say keeping "frozen conflicts" such as Transdniester or Abkhazia unresolved can hamper Moldova or Georgia's EU or NATO bids.

Author and journalist Tom de Waal thinks the referendums are more about public relations: "No one recognizes these referendums; they don't have any international observers. So I think it's more about PR, it's about domestic politics, it's about showing you're strong to your domestic voters. It doesn't really have much international impact."

Regardless of Russian intentions, Transdniester's separatists believe the referendum result will bolster their case in OSCE-mediated talks.

And, in Smirnov's opinion, Transdniester's independence was established a long time ago.

"This referendum is always described as being about independence. But our independence was already established in the 1991 and 1995 referendums, when the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic was created," Smirnov said. "The regions of Transdniester went of their own free will to determine the jurisdiction of the Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic. Those public constitutional referendums confirmed the Transdniestrian Moldovan republic as an independent, democratic state."

It's unlikely many outside Transdniester or Russia will agree with Mr. Smirnov's words. But if the "frozen conflicts" continue to heat up, more people may well have to take notice of what he is saying. (RFE/RL's Central Newsroom, with contributions from RFE/RL's Romanian-Moldovan Service.)