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Ukraine: Presidents From Moscow, Kyiv, And Chisinau Discuss Transdniester Trafficking

The presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova met yesterday in the Ukrainian port of Odesa to discuss ways to fight widespread arms and drugs trafficking originating in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. The three leaders agreed to a meeting of their countries' top customs and border officials next week in Moldova to tackle the problem. Analysts say the new drive by Russia and Ukraine to curb the trafficking is spurred by the fact that weapons from Transdniester have reportedly ended up in the hands of international terrorist networks.

Prague, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Moldova met yesterday in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa to discuss measures to curb arms and drugs smuggling from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region and to find ways to improve economic cooperation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin agreed to call a meeting next week of the three countries' top customs and border officials to find ways to control the trafficking originating from Transdniester.

Kuchma said that Transdniester officials will also be invited to attend the meeting, scheduled to take place in Moldova's capital, Chisinau.

Arms smuggling and drug trafficking, as well as cigarette and gasoline smuggling, is rife in the region, with Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov's family allegedly controlling the illicit business.

Pro-Russian Transdniester -- a narrow stretch of land wedged between Moldova proper and Ukraine -- broke away in 1990 over fears that Moldova would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. Several hundred people were killed in the short but bloody war that ensued in the summer of 1992.

The conflict was quelled by Russian troops already stationed in the region, but the two sides have yet to reach a peace agreement. No country recognizes Transdniester's independence.

Talks between Moldova's pro-Russian Communist leadership and separatists broke down last year after Voronin refused to negotiate with what he called "the corrupt" Transdniester regime.

Russia still maintains some 2,500 troops in Transdniester, which is home to a huge Soviet-era arsenal estimated at some 50,000 weapons and 40,000 tons of ammunition.

Under a 1999 agreement with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia has pledged to withdraw its military personnel and equipment by the end of this year. But the operation so far appears to be well behind schedule, with Transdniester leaders vehemently opposing the withdrawal of the arms, which they say belong to the "Transdniestrian people."

Voronin recently said an estimated $2 billion in drugs and arms are being smuggled each year over Transdniester's border with Ukraine. A large part of the weapons smuggled from Transdniester is believed to come from Russian arms depots.

The Transdniester regime's alleged illicit activities -- which reportedly cost Moldova huge amounts of money in lost tax revenues -- have so far proceeded largely undisturbed, despite Chisinau's protests.

Alexander Rahr is a Russian affairs analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Rahr told RFE/RL that since fears have been expressed that weapons from Transdniester might end up in the hands of terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, both Moscow and Kyiv now want to solve the problem locally -- before the problems attract international attention.

"[Transdniester] may become also a target of some kind of activities to prevent weapons from the former Soviet Union which are stored there being smuggled into the hands of Al-Qaeda or other [terrorist] fighters. So I think that Russia and Ukraine are very worried that the [Transdniester] problem, which so far has been a very local problem, may become a spot of attention in world politics, like the north of Georgia today."

Rahr says arms and drugs smuggling is only part of the problem. He says Russia and Ukraine -- as guarantors of the settlement that put an end to the 1992 fighting between Transdniester and Moldova -- want to find an overall solution to the 12-year-old dispute.

Moldova's Communist president, Voronin, said yesterday in Odesa said that he, Putin, and Kuchma agreed on how the conflict should be resolved. Voronin said he is ready to grant Transdniester what he called "the widest autonomy within Moldova." But Transdniester leaders insist they want Moldova to become a union of two independent states.

At the same time, Moldova's Communist leadership is currently facing growing turmoil at home, where daily anti-Russian language and antigovernment protests have been taking place for almost two months now in Chisinau.

Russian affairs expert Rahr says yesterday's summit in Odesa also indicates that Moscow and Kyiv are worried that current domestic tensions in Moldova could destabilize the country, as well as the whole region.

"That all brings pressure on Russia and Ukraine to sit down and start to solve this smuggling and this unsolved problem of [Transdniester] urgently. They have to solve this problem, otherwise other forces, other institutions, other organizations are going to deal with this, and this is not in the interest of the neighboring republics of Russia and Ukraine today."

All three leaders yesterday appeared to send a public signal that they are determined to root out Transdniester's illegal activities. Kuchma said "less talk and more action is needed" and that next week's meeting in Chisinau with border experts is meant "to put a stop to arms and drug contraband."

But commentators say that even though Russia and Ukraine appear willing -- at the uppermost level -- to try to curb the illicit activities in Transdniester, interest groups exist in both countries that are likely to oppose such moves.

Rahr tells RFE/RL these groups are likely to have links to the military and the customs services.

"As for Russia and the Ukraine, it's true that some structures of the shadow economy with close links probably to the military, but also -- in what concerns Ukraine -- to the customs services, are trying to exploit the situation in their own interest. And it will be very difficult now, after those kinds of structures have been built in the past 10 years, to destroy them."

Apart from Transdniester, the three leaders yesterday said they discussed bilateral economic ties. Kuchma pledged to unite Moldovan and Ukrainian energy grids, while Putin said he agreed with Voronin on the need to slash costs for Russian energy by 20 percent.

In a separate meeting, Kuchma and Putin discussed Russian-Ukrainian cooperation in fields such as defense, high technology, taxation, and energy. The two leaders also discussed Ukraine's estimated $2 billion debt for natural gas deliveries from Russia.