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Amid its own trouble with separatists, Moldova eyes Russia warily

Ukrainian border guards stand at a checkpoint at the border with Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, near Odessa, March 13, 2014.

Yevgeny Volokin/REUTERS

As Russia completes legal steps to annex Crimea, there is growing concern that a land-hungry Kremlin could look beyond Ukraine in a bid to intervene in other former Soviet states.

Moldova's president warned Moscow earlier this week against any attempt to annex his country's separatist Trans-Dniester region, and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden met with leaders of the Baltic states to assure them the United States would back the NATO members against any aggression from Russia.

On Thursday, Russia's lower house of parliament approved a treaty to absorb the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea into its territory after 96.8 per cent of Crimeans voted in favour of the move. Governments in both Ukraine and the West have denounced the referendum as illegitimate and refuse to recognize the results.

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At the same time, there are signs the separatist government in Trans-Dniester sees Russia's annexation of Crimea as an opportunity to push for a similar move of its own. The speaker of the Trans-Dniester parliament reportedly asked Moscow to annex its territory as well, sparking a swift response from Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti, who said it would be a "mistake" for Russia to agree to the request.

Trans-Dniester broke away from Moldova in 1990, and while it receives support from Moscow, it is not recognized as a country by those outside its borders. A 2006 referendum, which the Moldovan government denounced, saw 97.2 per cent of voters favour joining Russia.

Even before the crisis in Ukraine broke out, there was evidence of growing tension between Moldova and Russia. Moldova, a landlocked country nestled between Romania and Ukraine, signed an association agreement with the European Union in the fall, just as ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych spurned the EU in favour of a closer relationship with Russia.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Moldova's parliamentary speaker, Igor Corman, said his country doesn't want to cut links to Russia entirely, but added, "We are sure the European model is the best one." Mr. Corman was in Ottawa and Washington earlier this month to discuss his country's EU integration efforts.

Russia banned wine imports from Moldova in the fall, in a move widely regarded as retaliation for the country's focus on aligning more closely with Europe. The EU responded swiftly by liberalizing European access to the country's wines, sending a signal that it would stand by Moldova amid increased pressure from Russia.

Jeff Sahadeo, director of Carleton University's Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, said both Georgia and Moldova have forged ahead on EU integration in recent years, "and the Russians really have had a hard time in trying to combat it."

Mr. Corman said he understands Moscow's desire to maintain close ties with former Soviet states. "There's a competitiveness for two models of integration. We understand it. But again, our Russian partners should also understand that every country has the right to choose what is the best for their country."

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Russia's ambassador to Canada told reporters earlier this week that Russia and Crimea share deep historical roots and people in the region "want to return back home." Asked whether Russia might be eyeing other regions beyond Crimea, Georgiy Mamedov responded that it's not up to him to play an "irresponsible empire builder."

Ivan Katchanovski, who teaches political science at the University of Ottawa, said it is unlikely that Russia would attempt to annex Trans-Dniester under current circumstances because the region would become an isolated enclave that Russia could not protect militarily. However, in the event that other parts of southern Ukraine opted to join Russia, he said, annexation of Trans-Dniester could become more feasible.

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