CHISINAU Moldova is blocking moves by Russia to expand its formal presence in the separatist Moldovan region of Transdniestria until Moscow pulls out its 2,500 troops and an end is negotiated to a 20-year-old dispute over the territory.
Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti turned down a Russian proposal to open a consulate in the rebel enclave after an envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Moldova's energy policy and its rapprochement with the European Union.
The small former Soviet republic of 3.5 million, one of Europe's poorest countries, is heavily in debt to Moscow for cheap gas imports that help keep its economy afloat.
But, with an eye to future possible membership of the European Union, it has also decided to join Europe's energy pact and adopt European energy liberalization measures, something which Moscow opposes.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, returned to this theme during a trip to Moldova on Friday, urging the country's pro-Europe government to pull back from the EU's so-called Third Energy Package.
This agreement would clip the wings of Russian gas giant Gazprom by imposing limits on the ownership of EU pipeline infrastructure by gas suppliers and calling for the "unbundling" of over-concentrated ownership.
Rogozin also said he had agreed in principle with the Moldovan government to open a general consulate in Transdniestria, an internationally-unrecognized separatist region of Moldova which broke with the central government after a brief war in 1992.
But this was over-ruled almost immediately by Timofti, a jurist who was elected president of Moldova in March.
"Moldova will not give its agreement to Russia to open its general consulate in Tiraspol until the Russian army has been withdrawn from Transdniestria and the Transdniestrian problem has been resolved," Timofti told journalists.
"In the present situation, when the Moldovan authorities are not in control of the territory of Transdniestria, where a separatist regime is operating, and when, on the left bank of the Dniester there is ... the army of a foreign state, we can not guarantee the security of the work of a consulate from any country," he added.
Moldovan authorities fear allowing Russia a full consulate in Transdniestria would be a step towards Moscow recognizing the territory's self-declared independence.
Russia, for its part, appears to be using the issue of cheap gas to secure concessions from Moldova whose pro-West push is not to Moscow's liking.
The Russian-speaking region of Transdniestria, which has a long border with Ukraine but none with Russia, has a population of about 500,000 people, about a fifth of whom have Russian citizenship.
Since the war, Russia has been the backbone of a 1,200-strong peacekeeping force and also keeps about the same number of Russian troops there to guard weapons and ammunition stockpiles.
But the international status of the territory remains undecided and Transdniestria hangs in limbo from day to day, bedeviling Moldova's push for European integration.
Without any change of policy by Russia, one of the main parties in international talks on Transdniestria, the enclave's status is not likely to be solved soon and Moldova's westward drive remains problematical.
International talks on region, which resumed after a break of more than five years, focus only on practical issues such as transport and travel links and do not tackle the crucial question of its status.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Heavens)