A MULTI-LAYERED power struggle is threatening more instability in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where hundreds of people were killed in a brief war in 1992. The contest involves Moldova's ethnic Romanian leaders, Russian separatists, an army general considered Russia's most popular commander, and civilian and military officials in Moscow.
The outcome of the struggle should throw much light on Russia's attitude to its 'near abroad', the republics that took advantage of the Soviet Union's collapse to declare independence. Russia has reasserted its influence over these republics and seems keen to retain leverage over Moldova because it borders Ukraine, Russia's most powerful neighbour.
The latest trouble started last Wednesday, when Russia agreed with Moldova to pull out its 14th Army over three years from eastern Moldova. This is the region on the Dnestr river's left bank where Russian separatists formed a rebel state in 1991 called the Dnestr Republic. The Dnestr leadership, dominated by former Communists and Russian nationalists, denounced the accord and demanded a separate currency, flag, parliament, legal system and armed forces.
Last Sunday the 14th Army's commander, General Alexander Lebed, also attacked the withdrawal agreement. His motives were more complicated. Although the 14th Army's presence has kept the Dnestr Republic in existence, General Lebed is no friend to the Dnestr leaders, whom he has castigated as corrupt and incompetent. He seems more concerned that Russia will lose military influence in a strategic area bordering south- western Ukraine. The general was angered by a separate decision, announced in Moscow, to reduce the 14th Army to the level of a division by disbanding its headquarters staff of more than 200 officers.
General Lebed predicted chaos in Moldova if his army was cut down and withdrawn, since Moldovan leaders have not reached a political settlement with their Dnestr Republic enemies.
The Dnestr leadership says it intends to inherit the 14th Army's vast stocks of weaponry - estimated to include 122 tanks, 300 armoured personnel carriers, 450,000 automatic weapons and huge amounts of ammunition.
Some Russian commentators interpreted the decisions on the 14th Army as a sign that Moscow wants to get rid of General Lebed. According to polls conducted among servicemen and military cadets, he is Russia's favourite general, far more popular than the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev.
Many Russians foresee a career in politics for General Lebed, including a run for the presidency in 1996. He said recently that Russia needed a strong leader and praised Augusto Pinochet for restoring pride to Chile's armed forces.
If President Boris Yeltsin fears the general's ambitions, he did not show it on Monday, when he praised him for ending violence in the Dnestr region. General Lebed supported Mr Yeltsin against the coup plotters of August 1991 and the men who led the uprising in Moscow last October.
But it seems improbable that Mr Yeltsin's foes will drop the idea of using the Dnestr Republic as a base to restore a Soviet-style system. The conservative newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya has called the region 'an island of Soviet power' and 'a frontier of Russia'.
(Photograph and map omitted)
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