Experts on the ground say international news stories depicting Transdniester as a "black hole" seething with large-scale trafficking of arms, people, and drugs conceal a more complex reality.
No one seems able to substantiate the more serious charges. But few doubt that Tiraspol takes full advantage of its porous border with Ukraine. The money made by smuggling helps Tiraspol deflect pressure to resolve its conflict with Chisinau.
In an attempt to put a stop to this, the EU negotiated a two-year deal, starting on 1 December, allowing roving teams of customs and border-control experts to check borders in both countries.
At the opening ceremony at the Moldovan Palanca border post on 7 October, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner described the effort: "What we will do is deploy a number of mobile teams, consisting of approximately 50 border guards and customs officials from EU member states, to the most relevant locations along the entire border, including the Transdniestrian segment. These experts will make unannounced visits to any location on the Moldovan-Ukrainian frontier."
The EU teams will not operate on Transdniestrian territory.
The EU, Moldova, and Ukraine do not have identical agendas. Chisinau seeks leverage on Transdniester, claiming it sells large quantities of weapons and serves as a transit route for drugs.
"We are sure this will make it possible to stop all smuggling activities, including trafficking in human beings, drugs, and arms, which take place along the Transdniestrian segment of the Moldova-Ukraine border," Andrei Stratan, Moldova's foreign minister, claimed on 7 October.
Pressed for details, Stratan declined to elaborate. EU officials told RFE/RL that a team of EU experts touring Moldova and Ukraine for 10 days in August did not meet a single local official with specific knowledge of trafficking of such gravity.
Ukrainian officials told RFE/RL that they are aware of black marketeers smuggling meat, alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, and fruit. The few guns seized have been of Soviet or Russian manufacture. EU and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) experts claimed Transdniester is not on a major drug-trafficking route.
Most fraud perpetrated on the Transdniestrian border is thought to be transit-related: Consignments of goods arriving at the Ukrainian port of Odesa are declared as headed for Tiraspol and not taxed by Ukraine. Authorities in Tiraspol confirm receipt, but the goods are often diverted to Ukraine.
Drive Illegal Revenues Back Onto The Books
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU hopes the tightening of the border will divert the illegal revenues pocketed by Tiraspol into Moldova's coffers.
"What we can realistically deliver I think is, first, information on what is really going on there and this is very important," Ferrero-Waldner said. "Second, that more revenues go to the taxpayer and -- first to the [Chisinau] government, of course, and thus indirectly benefit the Moldovan people. Third, that the revenues of Transdniester are being reduced -- illegal revenues."
EU officials said they will support an undertaking by Ukraine in May to start blocking Transdniestrian exports that have not passed through Moldovan customs. This is expected to force Transdniestrian companies to register in Moldova.
Ferrero-Waldner stopped short of saying this strategy is designed to oust Tiraspol leader Igor Smirnov. EU officials admitted that they hope the pressure will force Tiraspol to make concessions, seek a settlement with Chisinau, and eventually hold free elections.
The EU has also become active in the mediation effort conducted by the OSCE. Together with the United States, the EU will attend the next Moldovan-Transdniestrian talks later this month as an observer. The OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine currently run the talks.
The EU's special representative to Moldova, Adrian Jacobovits de Szeged, told RFE/RL the EU backs an Ukrainian plan envisaging elections in Transdniester.
"I think one of the most important things that we have to achieve is what the Ukrainians call the democratization of Transdniester -- [that is,] that we come to have free and fair elections there in the way we understand in the West 'free and fair elections,'" Jacobovits de Szeged said. "And I think together with Ukraine, I hope with Russia, we have in our talks which we are having now, seven-sided talks with the United States present as well, to try and achieve that."
Jacobovits de Szeged said Tiraspol could not be a "convincing" interlocutor until it holds free elections.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has given the EU border mission his full backing. However, Ukrainian officials speaking to RFE/RL suggested a more specific agenda. The EU mission's limited budget of 8 million euros will only allow it to train and instruct Moldovan and Ukrainian personnel.
The deputy chief of Ukraine's southern border command, Major General Nikolai Babakov, told RFE/RL that he expects his officials to simply "exchange experiences" with EU experts. He said Ukraine is more interested in modern equipment for customs inspections and passport controls, as well as access to European information databases.
At the 7 October ceremony at Palanca, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk appeared to take a similar approach.
"We hope that the mission will not only conduct border monitoring, but also provide practical assistance in development of border infrastructure," Tarasyuk said.
An EU official told RFE/RL that equipment might eventually be donated to Ukraine. In the short run, however, the EU is more concerned with combating corruption in the ranks of Ukrainian officials -- said by one high-ranking Brussels expert to extend to the federal government in Kyiv.