Long-Entrenched Transdnestr Positions Shift

ReutersResidents passing by a Soviet-style billboard bearing the photographs of "Honorary Citizens of the City of Tiraspol."
TIRASPOL, Moldova When the president of Moldova sat down with the leader of the separatist Transdnestr 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, in a town on the edge of Transdnestr, a sliver of land abutting Ukraine, went well.

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 its 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 kick-started the talks.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, the only Communist leader in an ex-Soviet state, offers "the broadest possible autonomy" to Russian-speaking Transdnestr which enjoys no international recognition.

Igor Smirnov, self-styled president of Transdnestr, 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 that does not want change," Valery Litskay, Transdnestr'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-ton frog is still no elephant."

Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova, Litskay's more staid counterpart in the talks, sounded 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.

Transdnestr's Slavs declared independence in 1990 because of fears that Moldova's majority Romanian-speakers might make Moldova part of Romania, as before World War II.

That never happened. But since the war, Transdnestr has acted as an independent state with 1,200 Russian troops staying to uphold the peace and guard 20,000 tons of munitions.

In referendums, over 90 percent of Transdnestr's population has voted in favor of independence and, however improbably, in favor of 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 Transdnestr 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 supported by the West.

Tiraspol, Transdnestr's regional "capital," sports crumbling Soviet-era apartment buildings, dotted with small shops and the odd modern restaurant or bank.

Poverty and disillusion are widespread. Young people clamor for passports issued by relatively affluent Russia or Ukraine and many dream of leaving for better pay and prospects.

Denis Lukin, 23, earns the equivalent of $150 each month in a store rent takes up 80 percent of his income 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 Transdnestr 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 stopped running long ago.

Mediation by the 56-nation Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe, along with Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States, has made little progress over the years.

Separatist leaders say they have no idea who will take power when Voronin steps down next year after two terms.

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."