Where Moscow's old elite struggles for survival

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The Independent Online
IN REPUBLICS that were once part of the Soviet empire, vicious conflicts are being fought between obscure groups. The cause of these conflicts is usually diagnosed as a resurgence of ethnic rivalries following the collapse of Communism.

Like all cliches, this one contains an element of truth. In this part of the world, ethnic loyalties are easily exploited by reviving dark historical memories. Yet the reality is more complex. These conflicts are not just unfinished business from the Tsarist period; they are also the product of Communism's death throes.

Consider the war in Moldavia, now known as Moldova, which is reported to have claimed hundreds of lives. Superficially, the fighting has occurred because ethnic Russians feel threatened by the sudden ascendance of ethnic Romanians, who make up the bulk of the population. Hence the unofficial breakaway Russian-led Transdniester Republic. Yet only a quarter of the 760,000 population of Transdniester are Russians. There are slightly more Ukrainians and many more Moldovans. Most ethnic Russians in Moldova live outside Transdniester.

What distinguishes the Russians of Transdniester is that they were the elite when Moldova was an outpost of Moscow's empire. They are the largest group in the local capital, Tiraspol, where their numbers are swelled by remnants of the former Soviet 14th Army. Not surprisingly, their leaders are drawn from the remnants of the old Communist apparatus.

They now find themselves abandoned by the imperial centre from which they once derived their authority, in a local culture that is increasingly Romanian rather than Slavic. When the old guard tried to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev a year ago they rejoiced, even as the Moldovan leadership refused to acknowledge the coup's legitimacy. Since Mr Gorbachev's restoration and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, their situation has deteriorated.

The Transdniester Russians are invoking the supposed threat to their ethnic identity as they seek to re-establish links with hardliners who have maintained their position in the Moscow power structure. Led by Alexander Rutskoi, vice-president of the Russian Federation, they are willing accomplices, for they too need a banner other than a return to Communism behind which to rally support. What better cause than the fate of 25 million Russians scattered around the old empire?

This is not an issue any politician in Moscow can ignore, including President Boris Yeltsin, for already there is evidence of discrimination against Russians in former Soviet republics such as Estonia. The armed forces of the Russian Federation, spread throughout the CIS, now define the security of these people as one of their prime responsibilities, justifying the delay in removing garrisons from the old empire.

President Yeltsin has promised to withdraw the Soviet 14th Army from the Transdniester Republic, but there is no timetable. Most of the conscript soldiers have faded away, leaving a substantial number of officers with access to large reserves of equipment and ammunition. They do not want to return to Russia because there is no accommodation there for them or their families. The Transdniester Republic is a much more attractive haven, and some units have already defected to its service.

The Transdniester regime claims that if it does not secede it will be swallowed up by a greater Romania. It is true that Moldovan independence has led to the ascendence of the Romanian language; it is also true that many in Romania like the idea of taking over Moldova, though this is not official policy. In Moldova there are supporters of a union with Romania, but the government has rejected it, not wishing to lose its power to another distant capital. Anyway, Romania is hardly in great shape at the moment. This is not like East Germans looking to the West.

To add to the confusion, there is the position of Ukraine, which fears the Russian military gaining a local stronghold. But it is aware, too, that the Ukrainians in Transdniester may feel more in common with the Russians there than with the Moldovans; for the region, once part of Ukraine, was attached arbitrarily by Stalin to Moldova, just as much of historic Moldova is now part of Ukraine.

The most straightforward solution would be for Transdniester to become an autonomous district within Moldova's current borders. That is the formula currently used to solve disputes over minority rights in the CIS, because it raises few awkward issues of principle. The Russian government, and in particular the soft-line foreign ministry, is prepared to allow this.

Pessimists wonder if rational solutions are available, especially given the destabilising influence of the 14th Army. There is a risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy, of Moldovans feeling so threatened by well-armed secessionists supported by Moscow that they become increasingly dependent on Romania. Ultra-nationalists in both the Romanian and Russian oppositions may use the issue to force their governments to toughen their stances. This will polarise matters further, with Ukraine torn by its fears of both Romanian and Russian assertiveness.

Ethnic differences need not be unmanageable; they become so when it suits local politicians to exploit them. This may become the tragedy of Moldova.

(Maps omitted)