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Moldova: Russia Begins Destruction Of Arms In Transdniester

Russia yesterday began the partial destruction of its Soviet-era arsenal based in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. The destruction -- supervised by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- is part of an agreement signed by Moscow at a 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. Under the agreement, Russia must destroy or withdraw its heavy weapons from the region by the end of the year. But RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports there are doubts that Moscow will be able to fulfill its commitment.

Prague, 3 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's military began to destroy its large Soviet-era arsenal stationed in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester on 2 July.

The much-publicized operation began at a Russian military facility near the Transdniester capital of Tiraspol in the presence of OSCE military monitors, Russian diplomats and a host of Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Transdniester journalists. Russian troops then began destroying the first 10 of more than 100 T-64 tanks. Russian military officials told RFE/RL the Soviet-era tanks have been out of use for the past 10 years and were impossible to transport back to Russia.

At a 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, Russia signed the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, under which it pledged to withdraw its 2,500 troops, 50,000 weapons, and 40,000 tons of ammunition from Transdniester by 2002. The agreement provided for the complete withdrawal or destruction of all the Russian heavy weapons in the region by the end of this year.

Vladimir Kuraev, a diplomat with the Russian Embassy in Moldova, told RFE/RL the destruction of the tanks was an important step toward fulfilling the commitments made by Russia at the 1999 summit.

"Today we made an important first step toward fulfilling the agreement signed by the Russian Federation with the OSCE and the Transdniester side on the destruction of military equipment, arms, and munitions which cannot be transported to Russia. The destruction of all this equipment is in accordance with the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe."

The Russian arsenal in the Transdniester belongs to the former 14th Soviet Army -- later the Russian Army -- which has been deployed in the region for decades. The 14th Army -- which several years ago changed its name to the Transdniester Operative Group of Russian Troops -- still has some 2,500 troops in the region.

Besides tanks, Russia still keeps some 214 armored vehicles, seven helicopters, and 125 artillery pieces in Transdniester. Much of the 50,000 total armaments -- as well as the estimated 40,000 tons of ammunition -- were produced before World War II.

According to Russian estimates, some 2,500 train-carloads of ammunition -- as well as 525 train-carloads of mortars and shells, and some 90 train-carloads of rockets -- are being kept in the open in large ammunition depots located near the Transdniester village of Colbasna.

Moldovan and international officials have repeatedly expressed fears that the ammunition stockpiled at Colbasna is a hazard to the people in the area as well as to the environment.

But Transdniester officials have consistently opposed the destruction of the arms and munitions stockpiled there, as well as the withdrawal of the Russian troops.

Russian-speaking Transdniester broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears the Soviet republic would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. In 1992, Moldova and Transdniester fought a short but bloody war that ended with a Russia-mediated settlement enforced by the Russian troops already stationed in the region.

Transdniester officials have said the stockpiled arsenal "rightfully belongs" to what they call "the people of Transdniester." But recently, the breakaway region's leaders -- confronted with mounting poverty in Transdniester -- have softened their position. They now appear ready to agree with the arms and ammunition destruction in exchange for financial compensation.

Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov two weeks ago accepted an OSCE-brokered agreement to destroy the equipment and munitions, provided the breakaway region will be allowed to use the scrap metal. Under the agreement, the OSCE will also finance the construction of a plant that will convert unused arms into scrap metal.

Russian officials yesterday also said that the metal resulting from the destruction of tanks -- some 40 tons per unit -- will also be used as scrap metal in a local steel smelter.

In addition, some media reports say Moscow may agree to erase a part of Transdniester's gas debts to Russia in exchange for Tiraspol's cooperation in destroying the arsenal.

Russian diplomat Kuraev said yesterday that Russia will respect the OSCE deadline to destroy or remove the heavy armament from the Transdniester. Kuraev said that Moscow has thus proved its commitment toward the 1999 agreements.

But despite Kuraev's upbeat remarks, Russia's efforts may not prove enough. Even if Moscow destroys or removes all heavy weapons from Transdniester by December's deadline, it will have only one year left to scrap 40,000 tons of ammunition and withdraw some 2,500 troops.

And even though they gave half-hearted consent to the weapons' destruction in return for financial gain, leaders in the breakaway region have fiercely opposed the evacuation of Russian troops. Transdniester officials have said the Russian presence is their ultimate security guarantee in the ongoing dispute with Moldova, but Moscow has for years officially maintained that the troops were needed primarily to protect the military arsenal.

However, if the weapons and ammunition destruction continues, analysts say, Moscow could cite the opposition of the Transdniester locals as a reason to backtrack on the withdrawal of its troops from the region.

Such a precedent already exists: last week, Russia suspended the evacuation of its Gudauta military base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, citing opposition by the pro-Russian local population.