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In Moldova, a Summer of War and Frustration With AM-Moldova-Interview

July 11, 1992

KISHINEV, Moldova (AP) _ Once-tranquil summer nights are shattered by rocket attacks that destroy homes and uproot crops. The missiles kill civilians, as well as poorly trained soldiers, on both sides of the Dniester River.

Less than a year since its festive declaration of independence after decades of Kremlin rule, this largely agricultural nation is embroiled in a civil war with no end in sight.

About 600 people have been reported killed since March in battles between Moldovans and Russian-speaking separatists who proclaimed their own state in Trans-Dniester, on the east bank. Some believe the toll is higher.

President Mircea Snegur’s frustration was evident when he was asked, in an interview with The Associated Press, how long the war can last.

″Give me some advice,″ he said. ″Tell me what to do.″

As in the other ethnic conflicts troubling the former Soviet Union, there are no easy ways to undo decades of hostility generated by Soviet annexation and Russification.

The conflict in Moldova, on the southwestern edge of the former Soviet Union next to Romania, is one of the most serious because it threatens to draw Russia into open conflict with another former republic.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has threatened to send in Russian troops to quell the fighting, and military officials have acknowledged that some soldiers have, on their own initiative, fought with ethnic Russians in Moldova.

Moldova accuses the more than 5,000 troops of Russia’s 14th army of giving the separatists arms and assistance.

Although Yeltsin has promised to withdraw the army from Trans-Dniester, he also faces pressure from conservatives to defend the Russian population.

A major issue is the rights of ethnic Russians in parts of their former empire no longer under Moscow’s control. Russians were often disdained as colonizers by Moldovans, who are ethnic Romanians, and by residents of other non-Russian republics.

With the protective Kremlin umbrella gone, the Russians and Ukrainians who make up one-third of Moldova’s 4.2 million people say ethnic Romanians treat them as second-class citizens.

They object to a language-proficiency law that requires them to demonstrate fluency in Romanian by 1996 or lose their jobs. They also fear possible unification with Romania, which controlled most of Moldova between 1918 and 1940.

Ties between Romania and Moldova were virtually nonexistent under Soviet rule but are now tightening. Support for unification is high in Romania, although its leaders say the initiative must come from Moldova.

Snegur insists unification is not imminent and that ″two Romanian states are viable.″

He has the support of most Moldovans. He is their first elected leader in centuries.

″I have the right to consider myself a Moldovan,″ said Vladimir Tsaranov, an ethnic Romanian historian. ″How can I become a Romanian overnight? We have historically been influenced by the East, while (Romania) has been influenced by the West.″

Under Romanian rule, he said, ″half the population was illiterate and we were all second-class citizens.″

Anatol Raiu, a 35-year-old violinist, said he is a mixture of Gypsy, Russian and Romanian, ″and that adds up to Moldovan.″

″I don’t understand why there is all this hate,″ he said. ″I can’t believe there is war just down the road.″

Russians and Ukrainians predominate in Trans-Dniester, which was part of Ukraine and never ruled by Romania. Stalin incorporated it into Moldova to dilute the republic’s ethnic Romanian majority.

Slavs in Trans-Dniester formed an army in December to support their bid for independence.

More than 5,000 soldiers of Russia’s 14th Army are stationed in Trans- Dniester and Moldova accuses them of helping the separatists. President Boris Yeltsin of Russia has promised to withdraw the troops, but also is under pressure to defend the ethnic Russians.

Losing Trans-Dniester’s developed industrial base would greatly weaken Moldova’s already feeble economy.

In addition, some Moldovans fear concessions in Trans-Dniester would stir unrest at home: More than 1 million Russians and Ukrainians live on the western bank of the Dniester, in undisputed Moldovan territory.

About half of the Slavs west of the river are Russians and most arrived after the Soviet takeover in 1940, according to demographer Vladimir Solonari. Many say they want to leave, and many Moldovans would be happy to see them go.

Ivan Garayev, chairman of the Russian Cultural Center in Kishinev, said 5 percent of the Russians have left since 1989. His group tries to help them do so.

″Almost all would leave if they have housing and jobs in Russia,″ said Valentina Makarova, 61. She said she has seen ethnic Russians beaten and intimidated by Moldovans.

Fear and suspicion are mutual, fed by government-run media in both Kishinev and the separatist capital of Tiraspol. Newscasts on both sides call the other ″fascists″ who commit ″genocide.″

Petre Mihailov, 59, expressed a common view in Kishinev: ″The Russians are pigs.″

Moldovans believe the separatist leaders have bullied their own population into submission.

Anatoly Danilov, a 43-year-old ethnic Russian newspaper editor, said he was targeted for assassination by separatists for not supporting them and had to flee Trans-Dniester.

Moldovans appear split on how to proceed.

Alexandru Secreieru, a medical student in Kishinev, said he would fight to retake Trans-Dniester if called up, because ″it is our land.″

Others speak for peace.

″We should recognize their independence,″ said Vladimir Cebotari, a 36- year-old architect. ″I’m afraid of being drafted and having to kill people.″

Some soldiers on the front at Bendery, scene of the heaviest recent fighting, have less than two weeks of military training. They mobbed Western reporters, pleading for foreigners to halt the bloodshed.

″We can’t take on the Russians″ said Vitaly Aeleni, 19. ″They’re an empire. Why can’t the U.N. or the U.S. come and do something?″

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