Voters in Transdniestria, a rebellious Russian-speaking Balkan enclave, have challenged Europe's post-Soviet status quo by overwhelmingly supporting independence from Moldova and eventual unification with Russia.
While Sunday's referendum in the obscure, Rhode Island-sized territory of 550,000 was ignored by the European Union and bitterly denounced by Moldova, it resonated in Moscow, where many hope it may signal a wider process of reshaping the former Soviet space in Russia's favor. Two breakaway provinces in Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, are also petitioning Moscow for unification.
South Ossetia's own independence plebiscite is slated for Nov. 12. In Moscow, some nationalists hope that restive Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine's Crimea province, northern Kazakhstan, and other areas might eventually follow suit.
"The vote in Transdniestria shows that the situation following the breakup of the USSR, which left millions of Russian-speaking people outside the borders of Russia, is fraught with instability," says Yury Kvitsinsky, a Communist deputy of Russia's State Duma. "The Russian leadership will have to take account of this, and support the will of the people."
Officials in the republic's capital of Tiraspol said Monday that 97.1 percent of voters reaffirmed their 16-year-old bid for independence from ethnically Romanian Moldova and backed negotiations to join Russia. "Transdniestria's integration into Russia will proceed in several phases, and it may take 5 to 7 years," the Interfax news agency quoted the republic's foreign minister, Valery Litskai, as saying. "Russian society is now ready to expand beyond the ... borders it has been forced into," he added. "The expansion process has begun."
Mr. Litskai said plans are being drawn up to integrate Transdniestria into the ruble zone, merging with the Russian educational system and harmonizing legal codes.
About a third of Transdniestria's population are ethnic Russians, experts say. Another third are Ukrainians, while the rest are Moldovans, Bulgarians, and others. Thousands of residents, including President Igor Smirnov, have been granted Russian citizenship. "We were forced to introduce double and triple citizenship to allow our citizens to travel to see their relatives abroad," Mr. Smirnov told the Russian daily Kommersant.
Transdniestria, which occupies about 8 percent of Moldova but accounts for 40 percent of industrial production, declared independence in 1990. With the help of Russia's 14th Army, which is still based there, it defeated Moldovan forces in a 1992 war. No country has recognized it.
Critics say the territory is an authoritarian black hole and a haven for smugglers and organized criminals on the edge of Europe. After pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko came to power in Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" two years ago, he imposed tough customs controls on the border with Transdniestria. Russia, which sends assistance through Ukraine, has deplored these as an "economic embargo."
"The referendum ... conducted in conditions of political instability and economic blockade, expresses the public will and reflects the desire of the population to live in stability and predictability," Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, was quoted as saying by the official RIA-Novosti news agency Monday.
Russia has repeatedly warned that if the West grants independence to the Albanian-majority former Serbian province of Kosovo, seized by NATO in a 1999 war, it will be applied as a legal precedent to "frozen conflicts" around the former USSR. "Russia wants ... a universal principle put in place," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "Independence for Kosovo will create a basis for Russian recognition of Transdniestria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. These territories are very pro-Russian, and this process will not be easy to turn back once it begins."
Some Russian experts say Transdniestria's referendum is part of a backlash to the anti-Moscow "colored revolutions." "This is a triumph of democracy, even if it doesn't please some people," says Kirill Frolov, with the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.