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Moldova: Western Diplomats Say Reports Of Smuggling From Transdniester Likely Exaggerated

Western diplomats in Moldova and Ukraine say reports of massive arms and drug smuggling emanating from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region appear to be wildly exaggerated. Officials from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), say they have no evidence that the Tiraspol regime has ever trafficked arms or nuclear material. Much of the alarm is attributed to efforts by the Moldovan government to increase pressure on Transdniester. However, Western officials are quick to note that absence of evidence does not mean dangerous activities are not taking place. They say the climate of lawlessness in Transdniester alone constitutes a threat to stability in the region.

Chisinau, 11 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Despite Transdniester's notoriety as a haven for gunrunners and drug smugglers, hard evidence is hard to come by.

None of the many EU, OSCE, and Ukrainian officials interviewed by RFE/RL in Moldova and Ukraine said they have seen evidence that Tiraspol is involved in trafficking arms -- or nuclear material for dirty bombs.

Yet on 7 October, the charge was made by Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan. He spoke at the Palanca border post at a ceremony launching an EU border-assistance mission.

"The involvement of the EU in securing the Moldovan-Ukrainian border will ensure fighting the negative phenomena which take place at the border, such as smuggling, corruption, organized crime, trafficking in human beings, etc." Stratan said. "And this will create an environment of security and regional stability."

Stratan did not elaborate when pressed by RFE/RL.

OSCE officials interviewed by RFE/RL say such claims are exaggerated. An ambassador to Chisinau from a large EU member state told RFE/RL there is "not a shred of evidence" to back up the allegations. An EU official based in Brussels said an EU delegation that toured the Moldovan-Ukrainian border area for 10 days in August did not manage to unearth a single source claiming to have information about weapons smuggling.

On the second day of her visit to Moldova, the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, changed her speech at the Palanca event at the last minute to remove a paragraph emphasizing that Transdniester smuggles weapons.

Ferrero-Waldner later told RFE/RL her concerns about Transdniester are less specific and stem from the lawless and unpredictable nature of the Tiraspol regime.

"Wherever there is regional instability, of course, it can always radiate and reflect to other parts," Ferrero-Waldner said. "And, of course, it depends very often also on what type of goods are being smuggled, illegally transported, because it can be drugs. This, of course, is [something] that can destabilize Western societies. And at certain points, one also has spoken of the danger, at least -- the danger -- that also nuclear material could have been smuggled."

The commissioner said she has "never" seen any evidence for these charges, but said she has often heard suggestions to this effect.
A number of EU officials warn that the absence of evidence does not mean weapons smuggling does not take place.

A number of EU officials warn that the absence of evidence does not mean weapons smuggling does not take place. The EU's border monitoring mission in Moldova and Ukraine beginning on 1 December is expected to cast light on the issue in the course of its two-year mandate.

OSCE officials in Chisinau told RFE/RL that Transdniester's weapons industry is thought to be limited to manufacturing handguns for its 18,000-strong security force, as well as sniper rifles. An official said Tiraspol recently invited the OSCE to inspect any of its facilities -- but added that he is doubtful if such access will really be granted.

Bernhard Bogensperger, an EU official working in Kyiv, told RFE/RL that he thinks the ammunition and arms still kept in Transdniester by the Russian Army present a far greater threat.

"My personal opinion is that I think the higher risk is [from] the weapons and ammunition which remain from the Soviet period and are still stored in Transdniester," Bogensperger said.

Bogensperger cited reports from Chechnya saying that the Russian Army itself is involved in large-scale illegal weapons selling. He said illegal Russian exports from Transdniester would be impossible to detect, since Ukrainian border guards lack the necessary equipment.

Major General Nikolai Babachuk, deputy head of the Ukrainian southern border guard command, told RFE/RL of limited weapons seizures at the Transdniestrian border.

"In terms of weapons, we have seized grenades -- this year twice already at the Kuchurgan railway station in the corridors of passenger cars," Babachuk said. "And in a few cases, guns were seized, and ammunition -- about 50,000 units."

Babachuk said the weapons and ammunition were of Soviet or Russian manufacture. He said he considers the discoveries routine, since they are taking place in an area that had seen war not long ago and now suffers from high rates of crime.

Transdniester broke away from Moldova in 1990. The move triggered an armed conflict that killed more than 1,500 people.

According to statistics recounted by Babachuk, 66 guns have so far been confiscated this year at the Transdniestrian border.

Last year, Ukrainian border guards seized 38 kilograms of drugs, most of which Babachuk said were homegrown or homemade.

Western officials in Moldova rule out any significant Transdniestrian participation in drug smuggling. Nearby Odessa is said to be the main point of entry into Europe for Afghan heroin, but the transit route heads for Poland and bypasses Transdniester, while Romania is supplied via the Balkans.

See also:

Moldova: EU Launches First 'Neighborhood Policy' Border Mission In Post-Soviet Space

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