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By Tatiana Darie. 

Moldovans worry that a Russian effort to annex Transdniestria could turn a frozen conflict hot.

The world’s attention may be fixed on the struggle for eastern Ukraine, but across the country’s western frontier anxiety is growing in Moldova that Russia may move to annex parts of that country next.

The alarm was sounded by U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander, when he warned that Russia’s estimated 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border could easily traverse Ukraine to occupy the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestria, an enclave of about 500,000 ethnic Russians. Russian troops entering its territory would be nothing new for Moldova. About 2,500 have been stationed there for have for more than two decades.

That’s because Transdniestria, a stretch of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine declared independence from Moldova in 1990 and broke away after a brief war two years later. For over 20 years, the breakaway region has been a “frozen conflict” with no progress in talks over its political status. Neither Moldova nor the international community recognizes the independence of the region. The two sides of the country are deeply divided. A referendum held in September 2006 in the mainly Russian-speaking region resulted in more than 97 percent of the votes in favor of joining Russia.

As Moldovan officials aim to take a step closer to the European Union and sign an association agreement later this year – a deal similar to the one former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected – the ‘frozen conflict’ could heat up.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, has already warned that Transdniestria will not move closer to Brussels. Meanwhile, Transdniestrian officials were recently quoted as calling on Moscow to officially absorb the region into Russia.

Tensions were heightened when Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an end to what he described as an economic “blockade” of Transdniestria by Ukraine in a March 31 phone conversation with the German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The new authorities in Ukraine are pushing Transdniestria into isolation and this may force Russia to act, though it’s not clear how,” Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy told Bloomberg News. “This is a very dangerous situation.”

Indeed Moldova’s Prime Minister Iurie Leanca, recently warned that separatism was becoming “contagious,” according to Reuters. Crimea’s separation has spurred concerns about not only Transdniestria but Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova home to about 150,000 Turkic people. In a referendum in February, an overwhelming majority of voters expressed their desire to join a Russian-led customs union.

Not everybody is convinced the Crimean scenario will repeat itself in Moldova. Ion Sturza, a former prime minister, said during a talk show on Moldovan television that he was convinced Russia will not annex Transdniestria or Gagauzia because Russia does not directly border either territory. In a separate interview with Romanian newspaper Adevarul he added that any further action beyond Crimea would reinforce the idea that Russia is looking to expand its borders, drawing a tougher response from the international community.

If Putin does make a move for Moldova’s breakaway region, one thing is certain: the country will be looking to Europe and the U.S. for help.

“We follow developments, we have certain contingency plans, but there’s nothing we could do to resist an outside attack,” said Leanca, the country’s prime minister, according to Reuters. “I just hope a reasonable approach will prevail.”

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