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Moldova: Transdniester Negotiations Suspended Over Customs Stamps

Negotiations between Moldova and its pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniester broke down yesterday after separatists announced they had suspended talks because of Moldova's decision to introduce new customs stamps. Transdniester leaders say Moldova's attempts to introduce stamps at border crossings with Ukraine amount to an economic blockade. But Moldova argues the new stamps are necessary to bring its rules into line with the World Trade Organization.

Prague, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Talks between Moldova and Transdniester on the status of the breakaway region broke down yesterday after separatists protested what they called a "customs blockade" of the region.

Transdniester's parliament -- the Supreme Soviet -- voted on 5 September to suspend negotiations after Moldova announced earlier this month (1 September) it was introducing new customs stamps at all of its border crossings -- including those with Ukraine that are under Transdniester's control.

Transdniester's leaders say Moldova's decision to introduce the stamps is a violation of a bilateral memorandum signed in 1997. They are calling on Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- the guarantors of the memorandum -- to help resolve the dispute. Officials in Transdniester say that, in the meantime, they will continue to use the old customs stamps.

Moldova -- which earlier this year (26 July) became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) -- says the measure is necessary to bring its customs structures into line with WTO standards. Arguably the poorest country in Europe, Moldova was only the sixth former Soviet republic to join the WTO, ahead of larger and richer countries like Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

Moldova's decision to introduce the new customs stamps had come under fire from Transdniester even before its parliament officially decided to suspend status talks. Separatist leader Igor Smirnov canceled a meeting on 31 August with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, accusing him of trying to impose an economic blockade on Transdniester.

Pro-Russian Transdniester -- a narrow stretch of land along the left bank of the Dniester river -- broke away from Moldova in 1990 over concern that Moldova would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. Moldova was part of Romania before World War II and about two-thirds of Moldova's 4.5 million people speak Romanian.

Transdniester subsequently declared its independence, but it was not recognized by anybody. The two sides fought a short war in 1992 that ended when Russian troops were deployed in the region. Despite mediation attempts by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, a final agreement on the status of Transdniester has yet to be achieved.

President Vladimir Voronin -- a pro-Russian communist -- said when he came to power in April that his top priority would be to resolve the Transdniestrian dispute. But little has been achieved so far, as Transdniestrian leaders insist they want Moldova to become a confederation of two independent states.

Over the past decade, Transdniester has become a hub for smuggling cigarettes, arms, illegal drugs, and human beings. The value of the illicit trade has been estimated at as much as $1 billion annually.

Analysts say Transdniester's leaders have no interest in solving the problems since the illegal trade is so lucrative.

But Voronin -- who earlier this week met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow -- refused to cave in to separatist pressure. Voronin yesterday launched a televised appeal to the people of Transdniester explaining Moldova's decision to introduce new customs stamps and urging them not to allow what he called "corrupt officials" to manipulate them.

Voronin, himself a Transdniester native, said conditions are favorable for a political solution to the conflict and that the new customs stamps do not constitute an economic blockade but an attempt to fight crime.

He went on to tell his audience that it is criminal organizations in Transdniester that are interested in maintaining the situation:

"The years of confrontation have created another monster -- corruption and crime -- which turned Transdniester into a black hole of Europe and of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The absence of a guaranteed customs control at Moldova's eastern border has turned Transdniester into a shelter for criminal groups that launder and transfer millions of dollars into foreign bank accounts. It is these groups that have become the main sponsors of those who oppose a united Moldova."

Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev also sharply criticized Transdniester's leaders, warning them that "their days are numbered."

Tarlev said Transdniestrian companies that are engaged in legal activities have already started to conform to the new customs procedures. He added that only criminals appear interested in opposing the new customs stamps.

But Moldova will need Ukraine's support to implement the measures, since Moldovan customs officers will have to be deployed on the Ukrainian side of the border controlled by separatists.

Almost half of Moldova's 940-kilometer border with Ukraine is under Transdniester's control -- including 12 border crossings where Moldovan officials have no access.

A Moldovan delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Dumitru Todoroglu was sent to Kyiv earlier this week to negotiate the deployment, but no official result has been announced.

Tarlev said Moldova will not renounce plans to place customs officials on the Ukrainian side of the border despite a failed attempt on 1 September.

Moldova has normal relations with Ukraine. The two sides this year signed a border treaty under which Moldova agreed to cede an eight-kilometer stretch of highway connecting two parts of the Ukrainian border in exchange for a 200-meter-long portion along the banks of the Danube.

Prime Minister Tarlev said the existence of a border treaty between the two countries -- although not yet ratified by Moldova's parliament -- will help Chisinau implement the new measure. He said Moldova is determined to resolve the current situation:

"Our country has one border [with Ukraine], and it is obvious that one country cannot have two customs departments. Once and for all, we must respect ourselves and put an end [to all this]."

But it is unclear whether Kyiv -- which is not a member of the WTO -- will agree to help Moldova introduce controls at Ukrainian border crossings with Transdniester. A third of Transdniester's population is Ukrainian, and the separatist leadership appears to enjoy good relations with Kyiv.