TIRASPOL (Reuters) - Soldiers marched in neat formation while crowds sang boastful Soviet-era songs and waved flags under the steady gaze of a Lenin statue in central Tiraspol, capital of Moldova’s breakaway Transdniestria region.
It was a small affair — no tanks or spectacular fly-past by fighter jets — but what Transdniestria had to show, it showed off proudly at a parade on Tuesday to celebrate the day it declared independence in 1990.
People in this would-be state, a strip of land just 30 km (20 miles) wide and 200 km (120 miles) from north to south, have been heartened by Moscow’s recognition of secessionists from another ex-Soviet state, Georgia, following a brief war last month.
Russia sent in troops and tanks to repel a Georgian attempt to retake South Ossetia and has vowed to protect it and Abkhazia, a second breakaway province, from further attack.
“Just as they have recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we very, very much ask Medvedev, Putin, everyone in Moscow to recognize us,” Zinaida Ivanova, a pensioner attending the parade, said referring to Russia’s president and prime minister.
“We deserve it just as much.”
Like Georgia’s rebel regions, Transdniestria broke from Moldova — a country of 4.1 million squashed between Ukraine and EU-member Romania — in the early 1990s.
Populated by half a million Russian-speakers including 120,000 Russian citizens, Transdniestria feared Romania would merge with Moldova, whose people speak a variant of Romanian.
There followed a brief civil war that was halted by the intervention of Moscow’s forces and Russian peacekeepers remain in the zone to prevent any resumption of fighting.
While the conflict has remained frozen ever since, the outbreak of hostilities in Georgia has increased tensions in the unrelated Moldovan dispute.
Transdniestria last month broke off the first talks in seven years between the two sides until the Moldovan authorities denounced “Georgian aggression” in South Ossetia, a request Moldova ignored.
Igor Smirnov, Transdniestria’s self-styled president, called for Moldova’s President Vladimir Voronin to recognize the region’s independence.
“We cannot unite a society that is developing along different paths,” he told journalists on Sunday. “A generation has grown up in Moldova which knows nothing of Transdniestria and ours knows nothing of Moldova.”
Although Russia’s relations with the West have been badly damaged by the Georgia crisis, analysts suggest Moscow would like to show that it can broker a peaceful deal in one of the frozen conflicts left over from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russia is trying to forge a deal that would give Transdniestria broad autonomy but not independence, and Moldova has a good chance of thwarting the secessionist drive as it has been careful to pay attention to Russia’s interests.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Voronin he should avoid repeating Georgia’s mistake, a message received loud and clear by the Moldovan leader, who promised to exercise the “wisdom not to allow such things to be repeated in our country.”
Medvedev’s chief foreign policy adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, signaled on Tuesday that Moscow would encourage the separatists to strike a deal.
“Our position is to support the efforts of President Voronin in the Transdniestria peace process, and the readiness of Russia to offer help was recently expressed,” he said.
“To continue our efforts, we are preparing for a serious discussion with Smirnov in the next few days,” he said.
A Russian-brokered deal would only allow Transdniestria to leave Moldova should the former Soviet state decide to join with its ethnic kin in Romania.
Moldova’s government said on Monday the EU, the pan-European security body the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and the United States would meet next week to review the status of talks.
However, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Moscow has only deepened separatist ardor in Transdniestria.
“I would love for us to be an independent country and be closer to Russia, certainly closer than to Moldova,” music teacher Inna Medevedeva said in Tiraspol.
Despite the refusal of any capital to recognize it almost two decades after it broke away, Transdniestria has all the trappings of a functioning state — a president, government, parliament, army, central bank and a postal system.
The area, once dependent on heavy industry, is trying to regenerate. Banks, shops and new buildings are emerging in Tiraspol, though they have some way to go before they obscure the city’s distinctly grey Soviet look.
The region even has its own oligarchs — Ilia Kazmaly and Vladimir Gushan are owners of the Sheriff corporation which owns a soccer club with a flash new stadium, banks, a telephone network, supermarkets and wine producers.
In Moldova’s capital Chisinau, an hour’s drive the other side of the river Dniester, which gives the breakaway region its name, Moldovans’ fears of losing the region have risen in line with Transdniestrian hopes of independence.
“I think that Russia could absorb Transdniestria, it’s in their interest,” said Dina, a nurse. “But I wouldn’t like that — this is our soil,” she said, expressing the views of most.
Although Russia is separated from Transdniestria by eastern Ukraine, referendums in Transdniestria have produced large majorities in favor of not just splitting from Moldova but joining with Russia.
Others, such as university teacher Vasile Stati, remain hopeful.
“Russia has an excellent chance of showing its critics that it can not only split countries up but unite them,” he said.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Jon Boyle