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Transdnestr Voters Tout Russia

TIRASPOL, Moldova -- Transdnestr voters praised Russia on Sunday, as they cast ballots in a referendum on whether to continue pursuing the breakaway region's goal of joining Russia.

The first of the Moldovan region's 390,000 registered voters began trickling to the 262 polling stations early Sunday as loudspeakers throughout the center of the main city, Tiraspol, blared Soviet-era music and reminders to vote.

They stood patiently behind registration tables set up by street -- Lenin Street, Marx Street -- and many clutched now-useless Soviet passports.

"Union with Russia would bring stability and give us something to look forward to tomorrow," said Natasha Solovyova, 20, as an orchestra warmed up to entertain voters at polling station No. 230.

"Moldova has given us nothing," said Valentina Starkova, 58, who cast her ballot with the hope of someday being part of Russia. "It is Russia that protected our right to live on our land, use our language and preserve our traditions."

The plebiscite's outcome will be determined by a simple majority of votes. Turnout reached 58.8 percent by mid-afternoon, clearing the 50 percent threshold required for the vote to be considered valid, the Central Election Commission said. Preliminary results were expected Monday.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, however, said the vote would be neither free nor fair, and should not be recognized. It refused to send observers. Critics warn the vote could set a precedent for pro-Russian separatists in other former Soviet republics. Moscow has supported the region's right to hold the plebiscite but has given no indication that it wants to absorb this economically depressed area that does not border Russia.

Transdnestr leader Igor Smirnov defended the vote. "Why aren't you surprised that many other former Soviet republics define their own future and don't ask their people -- such as Ukraine and Moldova, which declare 'We are going to NATO and the European Union' without even asking their voters," he said after casting his vote into a glass box.

The separatists here were inspired by Montenegro's May referendum, in which residents voted for independence from Serbia. But the Montenegro referendum was authorized by the central government. "The situation in Transdnestr shares no similarities ... with Montenegro," Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said Saturday.

(The Moscow Times 18.ix.06)

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