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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 17:12 GMT
War of words escalates in Moldova
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By the BBC's Sarah Rainsford in Moldova

It is 10 years since fierce fighting tore through the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, as Russian speaking separatists in the Transdnistria region resisted what they saw as an attempt to unite with Romania.

Since then, the two sides have maintained an awkward truce. But relations began to deteriorate last year, when the communists took power in Moldova, and began talking tough on Transdnistria.

Now the authorities there say they are being strangled into submission by an economic blockade imposed from Chisinau.

PMR sign
The adopted sign for the "republic" of Transdnistria

A heavily-guarded border separates Moldova proper from its breakaway region of Transdnistria.

A few lone figures work the fields; a handful of goats graze quietly by the roadside. It is hard to believe that 10 years ago, hundreds of people died fighting a bitter separatist war here.

It is in the regional capital, Tiraspol, that the differences become clear.

Limbo land

A huge statue of Lenin towers over the main square.

Transdnistria today has its own currency. The language on the streets is Russian. There are very few adverts and there has been scarcely any privatisation.

This breakaway statelet, recognised by no-one, exists in a sort of limbo.

Woman pavement trader - selling her possessions
People resort to selling their possessions on the street

Negotiations with Chisinau over the region's status have dragged on for a decade with little sign of resolution.

The dynamic changed when the communists came to power in Moldova last year.

Revelling in its cosy new relations with Moscow, Chisinau appears to have decided enough is enough.

"Our relations are getting worse and worse," Transdnistria's Foreign Minister, Valery Litskai complains.

"When the communists took office we were optimistic, we thought we could work with them. But President Voronin does not want to talk, he wants to dictate."

The latest in a long line of angry rows has erupted over customs.

After joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) last year, Chisinau introduced a new customs stamp but chose not to issue it to Transdnistria.

My pension is only enough to cover my bills

Lena, busker

The region is home to much of Moldova's heavy industry, and was once the country's economic engine.

Since breaking away from Chisinau, local businesses have established lucrative foreign contracts. Withdrawing the customs stamp is causing them serious headaches.

Velor Ordin is director of TiroTex textiles factory. Like many people here he refers to this move by Chisinau as an economic blockade. He says he has lost $100,000 dollars already, and warns of worse to come.

"Our business is at the mercy of political whim," Mr Ordin complains.

"Politicians can decide not to give us the documents we need, and our business will simply stop. That means 9,000 staff without a wage."

Statue of Lenin
Symbols from the past are dotted all over town

In fact though it suits the politicians to phrase it as such, the blockade is nowhere near total.

The border with friendly Ukraine remains open, and Tiraspol directors are mostly managing to get by in Chisinau, using their old networks.

The customs dispute may have added to Transdnistria's woes, but life in this region has been getting tougher for years.

Daily struggle

Just a few miles outside the capital, life in the village of Kitskany is a daily struggle.

The buildings at the collective farm are crumbling, ancient machinery lies rusting in the courtyard. People farm here with the most basic of technology.

The land is still state-owned, and there is no money for improvements.

Most people have not been paid for months or even years.

horses and cart
Collective farmers still rely on basic horse power

Straining under the weight, 18-year-old Sasha shovels manure onto a wooden cart. He says he's resigned to a life without cash.

"It's not just me, nobody here has any money," he says.

"This isn't living, it's existing. Struggling. They promise they'll pay us, but I'm not so sure."

Back in town, a busker squeezes out a mournful melody on her accordion. The pavements are lined with people selling their possessions to make ends meet.

"My pension is only enough to cover my bills," Lena confides. "But I have to eat! So I'm selling my clothes, anything I've got."

Though they are poor, the Transdnistrians are proud. The street traders blame Moldova for all their ills and profess strong support for President Igor Smirnov and his hard line in negotiations.

Acrimonious relations

But 10 years on, and no nearer to resolution, suspicion is growing in some circles that perhaps this permanent chaos is convenient for some.

The head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission in Moldova, David Swartz, says the stand-off is certainly not ideological.

David Swartz, OSCE mission head in Moldova
David Swartz: "Always ways to solve problems."

"It's probably economic, and power more than anything else. The Smirnov empire in Transdnistria wants to maintain itself," he says.

"There's always ways to solve problems if there's the will to do so. At today's date I'm not sure I see the will."

The economic blockade may exist in name only so far. But Chisinau is flexing its muscle, and the threat for the future is clear. Relations across the river Dnestr have not been this acrimonious for years.

The chances of seeing tanks back in the streets again are still slim, but the war of words is escalating - and once again it's not the politicians who are suffering.

See also:

12 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Moldova
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