Hard Path Ahead to Solve Moldova Separatism
By REUTERS - April 21, 2008
TIRASPOL, Moldova (Reuters) - When the president of Moldova sat down with the leader of the separatist Transdniestria region, many hoped for a breakthrough in one of the former Soviet Union's seemingly endless "frozen conflicts."
The March 11 meeting was, after all, their first since 2001.
Both sides say the talks went well in a town on the edge of Transdniestria, a sliver of land abutting Ukraine.
Reality has since taken hold in Moldova, Europe's poorest country according to statistics. Entrenched positions 16 years after Russian troops ended a war suggest progress will be slow.
Some things have, however, clearly changed.
Moldova has improved poor relations with Moscow -- which has long backed the separatists. And Russia appears to be pressing for a solution -- officials say it was a call from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that kickstarted the talks.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, the only Communist leader in an ex-Soviet state, offers "the broadest possible autonomy" to Russian-speaking Transdniestria -- which enjoys no international recognition.
Igor Smirnov, self-styled president of Transdniestria, says he will settle only for independence. Other officials say Moldova should become a federation to put the region on a footing like Canada's province of Quebec or Spain's Catalonia.
"If Moldova were like Switzerland, we would join it tomorrow as a canton. But we have next to us a communist regime which does not want change," Valery Litskay, Trasndniestria's flamboyant "foreign minister," said in his wood-paneled office.
"Having the broadest possible autonomy is akin to being the world's biggest frog, which cannot be equal to an elephant. Even a one-tonne frog is still no elephant."
Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova, Litskay's more staid counterpart in talks, sounds more hopeful in public.
"Whatever you may feel, there is reality," he said. "We believe that building on the achievements of the past two years will produce a rapprochement and allow for a settlement."
Reporters grasping at any suggestion of progress saw Litskay chatting with Sova during a stroll in a Chisinau park last week. Officials said a meeting of a group of officials also went well.
Transdniestria's Slavs declared independence in 1990 in Soviet times on fears that majority Romanian-speakers might make Moldova part of Romania, as it was before World War Two.
That never happened. But since the war, Transdniestria has acted as an independent state, with 1,200 Russian troops staying to uphold the peace and guard 20,000 tonnes of munitions.
Referendums have produced votes over 90 percent in favor of independence and, however improbably, joining faraway Russia one day. The West rejects the votes as irrelevant and undemocratic.
The dispute -- in the heart of central Europe -- has proven as intractable as post-Soviet "frozen conflicts" between Georgia and Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But a Western diplomat said Russia had altered its tactics in Transdniestria for strategic reasons. A diplomatic success in Moldova, with participants urged on by Russia, would contrast sharply with an impasse in attempts at a settlement in Serbia's Kosovo province, whose independence was underpinned by the West.
Tiraspol, Transdniestria's regional "capital," sports crumbling Soviet-era apartment buildings, dotted with small shops, the odd modern restaurant or bank and a lively market.
Poverty and disillusion are widespread. Young people clamor for passports issued by relatively affluent Russia or Ukraine and many dream of heading off for better pay and prospects.
Denis Lukin, 23, earns the equivalent each month of $150 in a shop - rent takes up 80 percent and the rest is spent on food.
"It is unrealistic to consider any sort of life here," Lukin, 23, said in the main square by a statue of Alexander Suvorov, Russia's military genius who founded Tiraspol in 1792.
"The only thing to do is go far, far away."
Crossing the border into Transdniestria requires patience, with nervous officials consulting security bodies for clearance.
Making a telephone call to the region from Chisinau is all but impossible. Freight trains have long stopped running.
Mediation by the 56-nation Organisation For Security and Cooperation, along with Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States, has made little progress over the years.
Moldova rejected a Russian plan to create a federation in 2003 at the last minute and relations soured -- until recent months -- as it accused the Kremlin of abetting the separatists.
Separatist leaders say they have no notion who will take power when Voronin steps down next year after two terms.
They say Russia remains solid in backing their cause, contributing to the budget and offering monthly bonuses to pensioners otherwise receiving less than $100.
Breaching differences may prove difficult despite changes.
"We have witnessed destruction for five years. We haven't stood still like two bottles of beer in a fridge," Litskay said.
"We've grown apart. Our economy, communications, transport, education, culture. And the process is continuing. Attempts to bring us together will be more difficult than in 2003."