Page last updated at 23:42 GMT, Sunday, 14 September 2008 00:42 UK

Stirrings in Trans-Dniester

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Trans-Dniester

As a top Nato delegation goes to Georgia to show Western support after Russia's military intervention, another tiny former Soviet republic with a separatist conflict is watching closely.

Posters of Che Guevara in Tiraspol, next to those of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev
Posters of Russian leaders and Che Guevara adorn central Tiraspol

Moldova, sandwiched between Nato and EU member Romania and Ukraine, which also wants to join the Western clubs, has a long-running conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in Trans-Dniester, a sliver of land on its eastern border.

This month, Trans-Dniester marked 18 years since it declared independence with a Soviet-style military parade. For over an hour, soldiers marched in tight formation through the capital Tiraspol.

Like Georgia's rebel regions, Trans-Dniester broke away from Moldova as the Soviet Union collapsed and one-third of its people hold Russian passports.

Moscow stepped in to halt a civil war in 1992, leaving behind more than 1,000 troops to keep the peace and one of the biggest arms stockpiles in Europe.

On the way to Tiraspol, I went through a checkpoint manned by Russian soldiers with guns and a camouflaged tank.

Loyalty to Moscow

But the leader of Trans-Dniester's parliament, Yevgeny Shevchuk, told me war was still possible.

"I don't rule out such a development because the deep differences that led to the conflict haven't been solved," Mr Shevchuk said.

The flags (from left) of Russia, Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on display in Tiraspol
Tiraspol is decorated with the flags of Georgia's breakaway regions

"The peacekeepers have proved that they won't allow such military action but at the same time we can't exclude that the conflict could once again reach a military phase."

To ease such fears, Moldova has pledged not to join Nato.

The country, where most people speak Romanian, has also offered Russian-speakers in Trans-Dniester broad autonomy.

But the separatists have taken heart from Moscow's recognition of Georgia's rebel regions.

In the centre of Tiraspol, a huge billboard has gone up, showing the leaders of Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia and Abkhazia smiling next to a Russian flag and an inscription that says "Together we are strong".

Just across the road, a youth organisation proudly displays posters of Che Guevara next to those of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev.

Russia may be 700km (435 miles) away, but its powerful presence is strongly felt in Trans-Dniester.

For us, a local man told me under the gaze of a huge red granite statue of Lenin, "Russia is like a parent or a big brother".

Diplomatic moves

The Kremlin may use Trans-Dniester to improve its tarnished reputation.

Having waged war on Georgia, Mr Medvedev appears willing to broker peace in Moldova.

In recent weeks, the Russian president has held separate meetings with the leaders of Moldova and Trans-Dniester and may soon host a face-to-face meeting between them.

But Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan insists his country will not sign any separate deal with Moscow.

"This problem should be settled together with Moscow, but only in an international framework," he told me.

"We won't sign a single document that would exclude the US, the EU and our neighbour Ukraine."

Border concerns

Europe is nervously watching its eastern border.

EU border monitors
The boundary line appears easy to cross unchecked

With Trans-Dniester in a legal limbo, hundreds of EU monitors are helping to crack down on smuggling and organised crime.

Tomasz Ciukaj, a Polish customs officer, showed me how easy it was to bypass any controls on the dirt tracks and wild undergrowth that mark the boundary line between Trans-Dniester and the rest of Moldova.

The recent seizure of 200kg (440lb) of heroin by Moldovan police, he said, "clearly indicates that Trans-Dniester can be considered as a weak point".

As the poorest country in Europe, Moldova would like a clear path to EU membership.

But that is nowhere in sight, leaving the country vulnerable to Russian pressure.

Andrei Popov, the head of the Moldovan Foreign Policy Association, fears that any settlement now would be done on Moscow's terms.

Russia, he says, "is not in a mood to give up".

"Russia is in a mood to take back," he argues.

"And from this point of view, I don't see Russia giving up its old-standing policy of controlling Moldova through Trans-Dniester."

And as long as Russia keeps its military on Europe's doorstep, the hope to regain its old sphere of influence will only grow stronger.

Russia: Potential flashpoints
08 Sep 08 |  Special Reports
Regions and territories: Trans-Dniester
23 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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