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Polls certain to confirm one-man rule in Transnistria

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dpa German Press Agency
Published: Monday December 4, 2006

Moscow/Chisinau- Igor Smirnov has effectively created his own country - the president of the breakaway eastern Moldovan region of Transnistria is likely to be confirmed in office once more in elections on Sunday. The voting procedure in this narrow strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine has, however, little in common with free and fair elections elsewhere. The only serious challenger to Smirnov's rule has been forced to withdraw.

Smirnov, a welder by training who likes to see himself photographed in true Soviet style as a benevolent ruler against an azure-blue backdrop, has ruled over this pro-Russian region for the past 16 years.

In a civil war in 1992 he broke away from the Moldovan government in Chisinau to set up the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic. Talks aimed at ending the conflict have been stalled for years.

Since then Transnistria has attempted to portray itself as a genuine independent state, with a president and a parliament, although international recognition has eluded it. The region even has its own currency.

The population is divided into roughly equal thirds of Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians.

In September, the Transnistrian leadership in the nominal capital Tiraspol exacerbated relations with Chisinau by holding a referendum, in which 97 per cent of the 500,000 Transnistrians, urged on by Smirnov's publicity, backed independence followed by unification with Russia.

The ongoing talks between Serbia and the United Nations over the future status of Kosovo have also cast their shadow over this region. Should Kosovo gain independence from Serbia, Smirnov is certain to cite this as a precedent for his separatist republic.

His patron Russia also highlights the parallels in the two conflicts.

Claus Neukirch of the Chisinau mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rejects this. In the case of Transnistria there has been no ethnic cleansing or ethnic conflict, by contrast with Kosovo, he says.

Moldovan political scientist Arcadie Barbarosie adds: "Russian is spoken even in the Moldovan parliament."

In his view, the Transnistrian leadership is much more interested in the power and money it controls - the breakaway region is a smuggler's paradise, and Smirnov can only lose through reunification with Moldova.

"Moscow is playing an essential role in maintaining this regime," Barbarosie says. The military support for the political leadership in Tiraspol is provided by Russian troops, the remains of the 14th Army which is still guarding a huge munitions dump.

Moscow is also lending economic support to Tiraspol. The region owes Gazprom around 1 billion dollars, but the usually aggressively competitive management of the state-owned Russian gas monopoly seems content to wait.

Smirnov is regarded as maintaining Russian economic interests in Transnistria.

Barbarosie notes with irritation that: "At the same time Moscow wants to act as honest broker."

On Sunday when Smirnov intends to have himself confirmed in office, the OSCE will not be sending any election monitors, as they would merely be seen as conferring a semblance of democratic legitimacy on the authoritarian regime.

"While officers of the region's security services stand in and around the polling stations, we can't talk about a free and democratic process," Neukirch says.

The OSCE representative nevertheless remains hopeful that Chisinau and Tiraspol will be able to find their way back to the negotiating table once the elections are over.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency