According to election reports in Tiraspol, the declared capital of Trans-Dniester, 97.1 percent of referendum participants voted "yes" on Sunday to the suggestive referendum question posed by self-declared President Igor Smirnov: "Do you support a path of independence for the Moldovan Trans-Dniester Republic and its future accession to the Russian Federation?"
Some 78 percent of the approximately 550,000 residents in the Russian-speaking region located between the western border of Ukraine and the Dniester River turned out for the referendum.
Little recognition of independence
Trans-Dniester is still officially a part of Europe-oriented, Romanian-speaking Moldova. Prior to the referendum, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Moldova declared Trans-Dniester's proposed succession illegal and refused to recognize its independence.
"The referendum negates all the efforts of the Moldovan leadership to resolve the conflict," said Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin.
Trans-Dniester's leaders, on the other hand, said they were optimistic that the referendum results would strengthen their position in talks with the Moldovan government.
The tiny border region, which represents nearly one eighth of Moldova's territory but houses 40 percent of its industry, first declared its independence in 1990. Moldova has offered the separatist area autonomy but not independence.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, civil war broke out in Trans-Dniester. Russian soldiers intervened to stop the fighting and have been there ever since, despite protests from the Moldovan government.
EU mission to fight smuggling
As a border region, smuggling through Trans-Dniester has been one of the major concerns for both Moldova and the Ukraine but also for Europe as a whole. Spokespeople for the Ukrainian government have reported annual losses of some two billion dollars through smuggling across the disputed region.
Elites in Moldova and Ukraine benefit significantly from the illegal border trade, but the reform-oriented parties in Kiev Chisinau are out to change that -- and they asked the EU for help.
In response, the EU's Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) has been actively patrolling the border since March with around 100 officers.
Illegal trade of arms, drugs, humans -- and chickens
With some 20,000 tons of weapons and munitions being held in Trans-Dniester under the supervision of Russia soldiers, arms smuggling is common. Drugs and even humans are frequently trafficked across the border as well, but border patrols have discovered more chicken meat than anything else.
"The density of the border patrol team has been increased, but that doesn't mean that smuggling has stopped. The smugglers are opponents we have to take seriously and we often have to use weapons. They continually destroy our surveillance system during the night," said Vitale Povodin from the Ukrainian border police.
Russia has publicly expressed support for Trans-Dniester's annexation in the Russian Federation. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Sunday's referendum a "reaction to the blockade against Trans-Dniester, which the economy and the residents of the region suffer under," referring to recent border patrol efforts.
However, Moldova's Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said, "A family clan is ruling in Trans-Dniester." He added that President Igor Smirnov's younger son produces weapons and delivers them to all the crisis regions in the world. "This is dangerous not only for Moldova and Ukraine but also for Europe and the whole world."