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Monday, 2 September, 2002, 01:15 GMT 02:15 UK
Trans-Dniester marks 12 years alone
Trans-Dniestr leader Smirnov (L) and Moldovan President Voronin
Relations are strained between the two leaders
In a nearly-forgotten corner of the former Soviet Union, a region of Moldova sandwiched between the Dniester river and Ukraine is celebrating 12 years of unrecognised independence.

Despite economic hardship and diplomatic rejection, the self-proclaimed Dniester Moldovan Republic - recognised by the world as the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova - appears determined to preserve the traditions of its recent past.

The 1992 war is as sacred an event as the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45

Trans-Dniester's official newspaper
The Trans-Dniester region, with a population of less than a million mostly Russian and Ukrainian speakers, unilaterally declared independence from the then-Soviet republic of Moldova on 2 September 1990 as people became increasingly alarmed at the prospect of closer ties with Romania.

Fighting broke out in the turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with hundreds dying before the introduction of Russian peacekeepers in mid-1992.

The civil war against what the authorities in Trans-Dniester's capital, Tiraspol, refer to as nationalist Romanian aggression will again be the main theme of patriotic festivities.

Sacred war

The official mood is reflected in an editorial from the breakaway republic's main state newspaper, Pridnestroviye.

"For the Trans-Dniester republic, the 1992 war is as sacred an event as the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 was for the rest of the world."

But it is economic interests and political power rather than inter-ethnic hatred or ideological differences that keep tensions high and the country divided.

Map of Moldova
Moldovan news agency Basapress quotes Aleksandr Radchenko, a Trans-Dniester opposition leader, as saying that "many people want the conflict to last, as they receive various benefits, particularly financial benefits".

But Moldova, which has been rated the poorest country in Europe, needs Trans-Dniester's industrial capacity, while Tiraspol needs Chisinau's international recognition.

Shortly after being elected Moldovan president in February 2001, Communist leader Vladimir Voronin looked well placed to bridge the gap between the westwards-looking right bank and pro-Russian left bank.

Battle of wills

However, by September, President Voronin had become locked in a war of wills with perennial Trans-Dniester leader Igor Smirnov, which culminated in Moldova's cancellation of the breakaway republic's export rights.

Stability, including the political variety, is based on a stable economy

Trans-Dniestrian leader Smirnov
Appearing on Moldovan state television, Mr Voronin accused the Dniester authorities of state-sponsored smuggling, including illegal weapons sales.

"A mafia, a corrupt and bandit regime led by Smirnov, is now in power in the Dniester region," he said.

At a press conference summing up the state of the republic ahead of independence day, Mr Smirnov acknowledged that the blockade had hurt.

According to the statelet's official news agency, Olvia-Press, GDP has fallen by 13 per cent since 2001.

However, the Trans-Dniestrian leader said that isolation had led the region to understand how strong and independent it was economically.

"Stability, including the political variety, is based on a stable economy. We have this, and we can even be proud of this," Smirnov said.

Russian pressure

Nevertheless, the Trans-Dniester authorities have been under increasing pressure to seek concessions from Russia, hitherto their strongest supporter.

This forced them earlier in the summer to play their only trump card - they halted the OSCE-agreed withdrawal of Russian munitions stockpiled in the region since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In an Olvia-press report, Tiraspol's "foreign minister", Valeriy Litskay, is quoted as telling visiting US officials that "the withdrawal was suspended because Russia had not compensated Trans-Dniester for the withdrawn weapons, in violation of previous agreements".

A chance for reconciliation finally came in July this year, when the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine proposed a plan for the federalisation of Moldova, which the Moldovan authorities were quick to endorse.

"Moldova can get a fresh start and achieve genuine rather than apparent independence only through reunification," Voronin was shown saying on Moldova state television.

The republic is 12 years old - but what's ahead?

Official Olvia-Press news agency
However, as international negotiations continue, Mr Smirnov doesn't seem to be in a hurry to subordinate the region to Chisinau, even under a federal system.

In a statement published by Olvia-press, the Dniester leader claims over 100m dollars in damages from Moldova for losses suffered during the 1992 war and the recent economic blockade, while noting that the federalisation plan "still requires further development".

There are signs that Mr Smirnov may be willing to compromise on full independence, though.

In the independence day speech, he suggested that international recognition of Serbia and Montenegro could be the model for a settlement.

For the people of the unrecognised republic, however, uncertainty remains the only certainty.

The headline of an Olvia-press report probably best describes their feelings as another independence day approaches:

"The republic is 12 years old - but what's ahead?"

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

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