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Transdniester: Separatists Obstruct Russian Arms Destruction

Prague, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says officials in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester have refused the installation of a detonation chamber provided by the OSCE to help Russia meet its pledge to destroy some 24,000 tons of ammunition by the end of the year.

The OSCE Mission in Chisinau said the U.S.-made detonation chamber arrived in Moldova on 13 April. But Transdniester leaders said they will not allow the chamber to enter Transdniester because Russia has so far failed to agree to pay them "compensation" for removing the ammunition, which they deem "the property of the Transdniestrian people."

Under a 1999 OSCE agreement signed in Istanbul, Moscow pledged to withdraw its troops and military equipment from Transdniester by the end of this year. Russia in 1999 had an estimated 2,500 troops, 50,000 weapons, and 40,000 tons of ammunition in several Soviet-era military bases throughout the separatist region.

So far, Russia has completed the destruction of more than 360 pieces of heavy weaponry and has removed three trainloads of ammunition from its largest military depot in Colbasna. But much of the ammunition is old -- dating from Soviet times -- and experts say it must be destroyed on the spot.

Matti Sidoroff, a spokesman for the OSCE Mission in Moldova, told RFE/RL that obstruction by separatists could endanger the completion of the whole process.

"It's 24,000 tons which have to be destroyed, and the time is getting short. It's not impossible [for Russia] to meet the deadline, though. But these kinds of obstacles like the Transdniestrians are now putting on us and this project, they are not welcome," Sidoroff said.

Russian-speaking Transdniester -- a narrow strip of land situated along the Dniester River between Moldova and Ukraine -- broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears that Moldova would seek reunification with neighboring Romania, which it had been part of until World War II.

In 1992, Moldova and Transdniester fought a short war that ended with a Russian-mediated truce enforced by Russian troops stationed in the separatist region since Soviet times. But little progress on Transdniester's status has been achieved, despite a series of agreements under international mediation by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE.

Separatists want independence and closer ties with Russia, while Moldova says it will only grant them substantial autonomy. No country has recognized the self-proclaimed Transdniester Republic.

Russia has repeatedly argued that its troops are necessary in Transdniester to guard the huge arsenals, which it says could otherwise end up in unsafe hands. But OSCE and other international organizations have insisted that Russia remove both its troops and weapons from Transdniester in order to help stabilize the region.

The OSCE now says it provided the detonation chamber to help Russia meet its pledge by the end-of-the-year deadline. On 15 April, the head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, David Swartz, hailed the arrival of the chamber in Moldova as "an historic moment" and said the OSCE was ready to begin ammunition destruction in Colbasna immediately.

OSCE spokesman Sidoroff says Transdniester officials have constantly prevented access to Colbasna not only by outsiders, but by Russian military officials, as well.

"We have been denied access to Colbasna military arms depot practically all the time. Even the Russians, who are the masters of that depot, have been prevented sometimes from entering the place. So this has been Transdniester's policy very consistently," Sidoroff said.

Reports say Transdniester has become a hub for organized crime, with drugs and human trafficking, as well as arms smuggling, as its main sources of income. Separatist leader Igor Smirnov's family and his associates are said to control most of the region's illegal activities. More recently, fears have arisen that weapons stocked in the region could end up in the hands of international terrorist organizations.

It was initially reported that Transdniester officials agreed to the destruction of arms and ammunition only after Moscow had reportedly accepted as compensation a $100 million reduction in the region's natural-gas debt. But now unconfirmed reports say the amounts claimed by separatists could be higher, although no official figure was ever made available.

Sidoroff told RFE/RL that, "We have heard different figures. About two, three years ago, the price was about $3 billion...[I] understand that now the price is smaller, but I cannot tell the exact figure."

Sidoroff said the OSCE considers it Russia's obligation to fulfill its pledge to destroy its weapons and ammunition and, subsequently, to withdraw its troops. Sidoroff pointed out that the cost of the whole process of arms destruction is around $40 million. He says the OSCE has already collected $24 million in a voluntary fund to help Russia complete the process.

But analysts say Russia will have to prove it is committed to fulfilling its 1999 pledge. Moscow's first step, they say, should be to put an end to the Transdniester leadership's attempts to obstruct the arms destruction.