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Russia Intervenes in Dnestr Dispute

Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to work towards a resolution of Moldova's separatist conflict.
By Marian Chiriac

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is to head a new commission aimed at resolving the long-running dispute between Moldova and its breakaway Dnestr region.


Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the new initiative during a visit to the tiny republic on June 17."It is in Russia's national interests for Moldova to develop dynamically as an independent, sovereign state with its territory intact," said Putin.


Putin, eager to rebuild ties with the former Soviet republics, said the Moldovan government had asked Russia to "increase her efforts" in resolving the ten-year dispute over Dnestr's status. The Russian president added, however, that a solution would only be found if the interests of all people in the region were respected.


The Kremlin leader declined a private meeting with Dnestr's separatist leader, Igor Smirnov - sending a clear signal that Moscow seeks a solution which stops short of independence for the breakaway region.


Dnestr, which borders the Ukraine, has a population of around 600,000, just over half of whom are Slav (Russian and Ukrainian). In 1990, the region unilaterally declared itself independent amidst fears that Moldova's ethnic Romanian majority would seek to merge with Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Seven hundred people died during the ensuing conflict, which raged until 1992. Only the intervention of Russian troops, still stationed in Moldova, brought the fighting to an end.


Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE have all acted as intermediaries between the two sides. In 1997, years of negotiations between Moldova and the breakaway region finally produced a "memorandum of understanding".


Dnestr still has its own currency, constitution and armed forces, however, and still demands recognition as a separate state.


Moscow has around 2,500 troops stationed in Dnestr as well as a large number of Soviet era weapons and munitions. At the OSCE summit in Istanbul in December 1999, Russia agreed to end its military presence in the region by the end of 2002, but a timetable for the withdrawal has yet to be established.


The OSCE has set aside $30 million to help finance the military pullout. Plans to deploy an OSCE peacekeeping force have, however, met with considerable resistance from Dnestr's leaders who have called instead for a NATO-led force.


"People in Dnestr are well aware that the NATO option is not acceptable, especially after what happened in Kosovo," said Vladimir Atamanyuk, Moldova's vice-president.


Putin made no direct references to Russian troop withdrawals during the visit, saying simply Moscow respects the decisions of international organisations and Moldovan territorial integrity. The Kremlin leader said he had agreed with his Moldovan counterpart, Petru Lucinschi, to begin work on a bilateral treaty.


Luchinschi said Putin had assured him Moscow "does not intend to keep Moldova on a short leash."


With presidential elections scheduled for later this year, Putin's visit could well bolster Lucinschi's standing among the republic's large number of Russian voters.


Many Moldovan officials, however, were less enthusiastic about the Russian leader's visit. They remain sceptical that Russia's new president will honour the Istanbul agreement and remove Russian troops from Moldova.


"The Dnestr conflict was an opportunity for Russia to prolong its military presence in this region, an area which acts as a bridge between Russia and south-east Europe," one local politician said.


Russia's continued military presence enables Moscow to exert tangible influence on Moldovan politics particularly over issues such as integration into the Commonwealth of Independent States and co-operation with NATO, the politician said.


Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.


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