Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, cancelled a visit to Moldova yesterday after protesters there said his recent proposals to reunite their country, shattered by civil war, were a front for a military occupation.
Mr Putin was to attend a ceremony where Vladimir Voronin, Moldova's Communist President, and the leader of its rebel Trans Dniester region were to agree to the plan. Moldovan opposition parties claim Russia wants to solidify the rebel position and to keep an indefinite military presence in Moldova to counter concerns over Nato expansion.
President Voronin, an ethnic Russian, announced yesterday he was postponing signing any agreements until he held consultations with the opposition and international bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which does not back the proposals. A senior Russian presidential aide, Dmitry Kozak, who presented the Russian plan 10 days ago, called Voronin "politically irresponsible" for the decision.
Moldova, with a population of about four million, is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. A Russian-speaking minority, clustered around the river Dniester, fears ethnic Romanians, who form 65 per cent of the population, want to join Moldova to Romania.
The Dniester region broke away, sparking a short, brutal civil war in 1992. The rebels reportedly received weapons from Russian troops stationed on their sliver of territory and fought the poorly equipped Moldovan forces to a standstill. Previous Moldovan governments have asked Moscow to remove its forces.
The Russian plan calls for Moldova to become a federation with the Dniester enclave largely autonomous and Russian a state language alongside Romanian.Iurie Rosca, head of the Moldovan Christian Democratic party, said the plan would "destroy Moldova as a state". About a thousand protesters burnt Mr Putin's portrait outside the Russian embassy and demanded Mr Voronin's resignation yesterday.
The civil war left Moldova as Europe's poorest nation. It was once a supply base for the Soviet army and many of its weapons have been sold to gangsters and terrorists, possibly including al-Qa'ida.