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Putin’s Next Snack?

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For two decades, since a short war with Moldova ended in 1992, the self-declared republic of Transdniestria has been an unreconstructed vestige of the Soviet Union, a narrow slash of land stuck in a time warp. The flag boasts a wreath of agricultural plenty alongside a hammer and sickle. Hulking Soviet administrative buildings line the main street in the capital, Tiraspol.

Given events in neighboring Ukraine, the fate of this enclave of 500,000 people has new importance. During his annual telephone call-in chat with voters on April 17, President Vladimir Putin of Russia spoke of a looming ‘’blockade’’ against Transdniestria and hinted that Russia might defend the interests of Russian-speakers there, a threat he also has talked of to some Western leaders.

With strong pro-Russian sentiment and several thousand Russian troops on the ground, Transdniestria presents clear temptations. General Philip Breedlove of NATO has warned that Putin could send troops through southern Ukraine toward Transdniestria, or he could use the enclave as a staging-post to infiltrate anti-Kiev separatists into Odessa. He might also exploit Russian influence to put pressure on the Moldovan and Ukrainian governments.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin’s policy of protecting Russians and Russian-speakers in the former Soviet world were bound to reopen the issue of Transdniestria. In Soviet days the region was a military outpost and industrial base, home to many Russians and Ukrainians. Since then the local population, which feels closer to Moscow than to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, has voted in successive referenda to join Russia. In 2006 96 percent of voters backed the idea.

For Transdniestria, Putin’s defense of Crimea’s March vote to join Russia was an ‘’inspiration’’ that raises hopes, says former Foreign Minister Vladimir Yastrebchak, now a professor at Shevchenko Transdniestria State University. Transdniestria’s President Yevgeny Shevchuk talks of a ‘’civilized divorce’’ with Moldova and a ‘’prosperous and independent Transdniestria together with Russia.’’

Moscow has been keener to use Transdniestria as a tool for achieving other priorities than as its next expansionary prize, however. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeated his support of Moldova’s territorial integrity and of a negotiated solution. It seems that Russia would ‘’like to keep the status quo in place,’’ says Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center. That serves both to keep Moldova out of NATO and to position Russia as the most powerful arbiter of the territory’s future.

Transdniestria and Russia long have counted on the authorities in Kiev to allow Russian goods to flow in from Odessa, southeast of Tiraspol. Were a new government in Kiev to get tougher with Transdniestria, and thus with Moscow, that could end up as a blockade.

However, with pro-Russian protests flaring across southeastern Ukraine, including in Odessa, it is traffic the other way that is most affected. Ukrainian border guards are blocking men with Russian passports from entering, fearful that they may be provocateurs. Others who used to work in Ukraine now say that they fear the violence and chaos there. Either way, Transdniestria’s economy is suffering.

The pro-European government in Chisinau is preparing to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Closer ties would bring preferential tariffs for Moldovan goods. That could in theory benefit Transdniestria, but the deal comes with political and legal conditions that make this unlikely, if not impossible, says Sergei Shirokov, a Tiraspol-based political scientist. As he explains, moving closer to Europe at the expense of Russia ‘’contradicts the desires of the population.’’

Some Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, encourage intransigence in Tiraspol against the E.U. deal. The defeat or delay of Moldova’s integration with Europe would be another failure for the E.U.’s eastern partnership.

Eugene Carpov, Moldova’s deputy prime minister in charge of negotiations over Transdniestria, says that Russia is ‘’trying to determine the path by which Moldova’s government should develop.’’

One day Russia could offer Transdniestria back to Moldova in exchange for turning down Europe. If Russia took control of some or all of southeastern Ukraine, it could try to stitch in Transdniestria.

For now, though, all sides are waiting for Moldova’s general election in November. Polls suggest that the pro-Russian communists could come to power. If so, they may scuttle the deal with the E.U. on their own.

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