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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Moldovan separatists vote on independence, Russia

TIRASPOL, Moldova (Reuters) - Ex-Soviet Moldova's separatist Dnestr region voted in a referendum on Sunday on whether to press forward with their self-styled independence declared 16 years ago and eventually join Russia.

There is little doubt voters in the Russian-speaking sliver of land bordering Ukraine will overwhelmingly back their hard-line leaders' call to underpin their independence in one of the "frozen conflicts" defying resolution in ex-Soviet states.

But just as no one recognizes independence of Dnestr, which has undergone little apparent change since the end of communism, no Western country will endorse the vote as legitimate.

Only Russia, which keeps 1,200 troops in the region, has called for the outcome to be heeded.

"I voted for statehood, for strategic partnership with Russia ... I think all our Dnestr people will vote the same way," Igor Smirnov, the breakaway region's president, said after casting his ballot in Tiraspol, Dnestr's main town.

He hoped the poll would be recognized by Moscow.

"Recognition or lack of it is a matter for every state," he said. "We would like it to be recognized."

Dnestr, like other breakaway areas in ex-Soviet states, has closely sought precedents in former Yugoslavia, where voters in Montenegro have opted for independence and talks in
Kosovo are likely to lead soon to a similar result.

A separatist region in Georgia, South Ossetia, plans a similar referendum in November. Both Moldova and Georgia accuse the Kremlin of abetting the separatists.

Dnestr's 390,000 voters, memories of a 1992 war with Moldova still fresh in their minds, are asked two questions: whether they back independence and attachment to Russia or whether they reject independence and want to integrate with Moldova.


"I was an orphan and was raised by a Russian soldier," Galina, 62, said amid brilliant sunshine by her polling station. "Russia is our only choice. I voted for it and I'm delighted."

In Soviet-era style, voters were offered cheap food and refreshment. The separatist green and red flag festooned Tiraspol's spotless main streets while loudspeakers blared classical and folk music, interspersed with announcements urging voters to come to polling stations before 8 p.m. (1700 GMT).

A turnout of 50 percent is required to validate the poll.

The dispute in Dnestr is born of ethnic differences and the recurring shifting of borders in central Europe.

Dnestr's Slav leaders declared independence in 1990 in response to suggestions that the Romanian-speaking majority in Moldova, then a Soviet republic and once part of Romania, would one day join again with their Romanian neighbors to the south.

A brief war between the two sides in 1992 was halted by Russian troops who remain despite promises to leave, guarding the bridge over the Dnestr River and 30 other crossing points. Tiny Moldova says that presence impedes international mediation.

The rest of tiny Moldova, on the opposite side of the Dnestr River, is ignoring the vote. Media said President Vladimir Voronin told officials at a meeting on Saturday to remain calm.

No Western observers were overseeing the vote, though a Russian delegation was present. The largest delegation of observers came from Kosovo.

"We are trying to duplicate the experience from Kosovo," Valery Litskai, Dnestr's self-styled foreign minister said on the eve of the vote. "We are looking at them and they are looking at us."
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