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Moldova s turmoil revives Cold War rivalry

On one of the main streets in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, stands a gleaming new office building, draped with the flags of many nations and emblazoned with a word that for decades here meant 'enemy'.

   A Victory Day parade in Tiraspol. Many are hostile to the idea of Nato

The word is Nato. Filled with brochures and leaflets, the Nato Information and Document Centre promotes the Western military alliance in officially neutral Moldova ­ once part of the USSR.

It opened less than one month ago.

"We are only here to inform the Moldovans about Nato," said the centre's Ion Rotari. But recalling repeated recent Nato exercises in Moldova, he admitted: "You can imagine how that annoys the Russians".

Just 30 miles away, those Russians - troops and heavy equipment - are still based in Moldova.

advertisementBetween them and Nato, East and West are now renewing the superpower tensions of the Cold War on the stage of a tiny, impoverished republic.

The Russian troops are not officially on active duty. Rather they are in Moldova as peacekeepers ­ marking the frontier where a separatist conflict split the country in 1992.

But since then, Chisinau's authority has only extended as far as the western bank of the Dniester river.

On the eastern bank stands the self-declared republic of Trans-Dniester, complete with its own government, army, currency and capital ­ Tiraspol - but unrecognised by any other state.

Since the shooting stopped 15 years ago, Trans-Dniester has often been written off as an obscure dispute in a forlorn part of the world.

Now though, it has become a significant chip in the game of global geo-politics ­ a marker of the power balance between the West and a more assertive Russia.

"The Trans-Dniester conflict is about whether Moldova falls under the Western influence of Nato or the Eastern influence of Russia," said Eugen Revenco, a foreign policy analyst in Chisinau.

"Through Trans-Dniester, Russia has an influence in Moldova, and through Moldova, the Balkans."

Russia has already begun wielding that Balkan influence in the current dispute over independence for the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, which is widely backed in Washington and the EU.

Russian nationalists argue that if Kosovo, with is formidable Nato bases, is allowed to split away from Russian ally Serbia, then Trans-Dniester, with its Russian army presence, should be allowed to split officially from Moldova.

In the Nato building in Chisinau, Ion Rotari insists that his office is not interested in a Cold War style showdown. But he admits that some Moldovans see the Nato presence that way.

"Old people are hostile just to the idea of Nato," he said. "They grew up in the Soviet era and come in here looking for weapons and spying equipment.

"They still live with a Warsaw Pact mentality."

It is in Trans-Dniester, however, that the Soviet era truly lives on.

Effectively cut-off since 1993, the territory, with its population of about 700,000, remains frozen in time, an almost perfect remnant of the old USSR.

Where the golden arches of McDonalds fast food restaurants now illuminate the Chisinau skyline, it is still golden hammers and sickles that sparkle under the winter sun in Tiraspol.

Statues of Lenin still stare out into the distance in front of the House of Soviets and the Supreme Council of Trans-Dniester, and an old T-54 tank honours the city's Soviet liberators of World War Two.

Tiraspol's main street even features a dedication to the city's citizens "who will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Great October Socialist Revolution in 2017".

Its timewarp factor tempts occasional tourists to brave the frosty reception of Trans-Dniester's home-grown border patrols.

But for most citizens of this diplomatic twilight zone, life is hard.

"People who have only Trans-Dniestrian passports are completely isolated, they can't go anywhere," said a local journalist, who like many, is afraid to speak out openly.

"They are tired, they want to have a clear legal status ­ whether that is united with Russia, or with Moldova."

Making a living is also tough. In a land where smuggling is rife and a handful of shiny new German sportsters mingle with mostly Soviet vintage cars, much of the wealth seems to be concentrated in the hands of a few.

"There are almost no job opportunities in TD," said a local student, Nelli.

But with the December deadline for Kosovo's independence decision fast approaching, Trans-Dniester now represents more than an underworld haven for nefarious elites.

"This region ­ Moldova and Trans-Dniester ­ has become the heart of a conflict of interests," said the Trans-Dniestrian journalist.

"Trans-Dniester is more likely to turn to Russia. Moldova turns more easily to the West. This, in one country, is a geo-political spilt between two civilisations."

Source: Telegraph

By Harry de Quetteville in Tiraspol


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