Daniel Hamilton: Solving the Transnistrian problem

“Most people”, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’s burlesque propaganda website admits, “don’t know Transnistria exists”. For the sake of the survival of the Transnistrian regime, that’s probably a good thing.

Located on the left-bank of the River Dniester between Moldova to the west and the Ukraine to the east, the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica is one of the few remaining scars the Soviet Union left on South East Europe – a province suspended in a frozen conflict and stuck in a time warp where grand statues of Stalin and Lenin still dominate the skyline.

The province of Transnistria, much like the rest of the Republic of Moldova, is typical of many countries in South Eastern Europe for its rich ethnic mix, being home to diverse groups of Moldovans, Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz, ethnic Jews, Poles, Bulgarians and Roma. Across sovereign Moldova, Moldovans comprise around three quarters of the country’s 4.3 million citizens with ethnic Ukrainians and Russians making up much of the remainder – the bulk of who live in Transnistria.

Since 1956, Transnistria has been home to Russia’s 14th Army who has capitalized on its convenient strategic geographic position to garrison troops and stockpile munitions. The collapse of Soviet rule in Moldova had inspired hopes that such troops would depart the state’s newly-liberated territory. On August 27th 1991 the Moldovan Parliament – comprised of MPs from across the country’s territory – passed a declaration calling on Russia to “to terminate the illegal state of occupation and annexation and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from its national territory”.

Despite a binding agreement between Moldova’s Prime Minister Andrejz Sangheli and Russia’s Viktor Chernomyrdin signed on 21st October 1994 in which the Russian Federation pledged to “relocate troops to other sites” and guarantee “the political settlement of the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova”, the 14th Army remains in situ today.

It appears unlikely that Russian Government ever had any intention of honouring their word. More than two thousand troops Russian remain on Transnistrian soil; all but guaranteeing the survival of Smirnov’s government against all enemies, external or internal.

All Moldovan attempts to reclaim their sovereign territory have failed; the most notable being the littleknown ‘War of Transnistria’ between March and July 1992 where the 14th Army strongly backed the attempts of local ethnic Russian militias in their attempts to prevent the territory from integrating with the newly-sovereign Republic of Moldova.

Since August 27th 1991, Transnistria has operated separately from Moldova as the Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica – and as personal property of the family and friends of “President” Igor Smirnov. Smirnov (of which more later), who first came to Transnistria a few years before taking office as President in order to manage a large manufacturing firm on behalf of the USSR, is exactly the kind of jolly and cuddly-looking figurehead one has come to expect from authoritarian regimes over the years.

Today, the Russian Federation’s influence and grip on life in Transnistria is plain to see.

Only one a third of Transnistria’s forty-three Members of Parliament were actually born inside the province’s territory – the remainder originating from other disparate parts of the former USSR. President Smirnov himself hails from the town of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in Russian province of Kamchatka Krai, some 7,500 kilometres from the Presidential residence in Tiraspol. Tellingly, of the seventeen members of Transnistria’s government banned by the Council of Ministers from entering the European Union under Council Decision 2006/96/CFSP only three appear to be Moldovan citizens while fourteen are Russian nationals, many of whom are former KGB agents and Red Army commanders.

Clearly not untouched by Western public relations techniques, the Smirnov regime’s interactions with the outside world are largely limited to, an at times hilarious website lauding the province’s “free and fair” elections, the “rule of law” and a commitment to “minority ethnic rights”.

The reality is somewhat different.

In July 2004 the Transnistrian authorities forcibly closed four of the six schools in the province teaching the Moldovan language (a dialect of Romanian) using the Latin rather than Cyrillic alphabet. While these schools have now reopened, teachers and parents of children attending the schools have been subjected to continued harassment from the security services. Latin-script schools have no recourse to state education funding and qualifications obtained from them are not recognised by Transnistrian universities.

On an economic level, the overwhelming majority of Transnistria’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the Sheriff Company, a sinister outfit headed by a cabal of former special services chiefs and President Smirnov’s favourite sons which has been directly linked to smuggling, people trafficking and money laundering.

The Smirnov/Sheriff cabal takes full advantage of Transnistria’s status as a land-locked province, the country enjoying full use of the Port of Odessa on Ukraine’s south coast. In declaring the final destination of any imports handled to be Transnistria, goods passing Odessa are nominally still “in transit” and thus avoid inspection or scrutiny from Ukrainian customs officials.

On an amusing note, the European Union Border Assistance Mission figures show that enough chicken meat is imported into Transnistria for each resident to consume an average of 90kg of the foodstuff each year. In Germany, the annual figure is 10kg per head. The reality for Moldova – Europe’s poorest country with average annual earnings of less than $US2000 – isn’t so funny. Figures estimate that the total financial cost of fraudulent imports passing through Transnistria each year is equivalent to double the country’s annual GDP.

The repeated efforts by the Governments of Moldova and Ukraine to tighten controls on goods either lost “in transit” or smuggled over Transnistria’s borders have failed, largely as a result of Russian-backed threats from Smirnov’s governments to cut off electricity supplies to its neighbouring regions. As the USSR’s former regional industrial heartland, Transnistria’s power plants produce more than ten times as much electricity as its own resident population is able to consume. One could not find a better microcosm of diplomatic realities of the global energy crisis than Transnistria’s (population: 500,000) ability to hold Moldova (population: 4.3 million) and Ukraine (population: 46 million) to ransom on this issue.

Media outlets are almost exclusively owned by Smirnov’s administration, the exceptions being those operated by Sheriff. According to a report from Reporters Without Borders it is forbidden to bring Moldovan newspapers into the province and the opposition Glas Naroda newspaper has been closed down for engaging “anti-state activity”.

Besides the suppression of the free media, widespread financial impropriety and the evils of people trafficking, the situation in Smirnov’s Transnistria has further implications for global and regional security. If the Putin and Medvedev Government is to gain the international credibility it evidently craves, it is on this issue that Russia must take immediate action.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet weapons stockpiles in Transnistria have been almost entirely neglected by Russian. No formal audits have been carried out by Russia to assess the types of amount of weapons stored in Transnistria and no real attempts been made to remove any remaining weapons from this South East European province. As a result of this, numerous Soviet weapons – from handguns to nuclear suitcase bombs – have simply gone missing from Transnistria.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 tonnes of Soviet-era weaponry remain in Transnistria at sites like the KolbasnaMilitary Depot which remain largely off-limits to international inspectors. Informal estimates from the organization suggest that explosives stored in Kolbasna alone have a force equivalent to twice that of the Hiroshima bomb.

In addition to the stockpiles of weaponry remaining in the territory, well-calibrated Soviet-era Transnistrian factories continue to churn out low-level assault rifles, mines and mortar bombs – chiefly for Russian clients. The Transnistrian authorities bitterly deny that arms are manufactured on their territory, going as far as to invite French television crews to scrupulously-organised tours of gargantuan factories “producing knives and forks”.

Weapons directly traced back to Transnistria have been found in use in Iraq, Afghanistan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, to name but a few of the global conflicts fuelled by Tiraspol. Little is known about how these weapons leave Transnistria although the OSCE has identified smuggling (uninspected) through the Ukrainian port of Odessa, across the 500km Transnistria border and by air from the former Soviet air base in Tiraspol as the most likely routes.

The lack of Russian action to stem the flow of these weapons is even more perplexing given the discovery that weaponry originating from the province has been used against the country’s own troops in Chechnya and the North Caucuses.

The reason for Russia’s continued presence on Transnistria can likely be linked back to power games reminiscent of the Soviet era.

Just as Russia’s intervention into South Ossetia ended the possibility of Georgian membership of NATO in the medium-to-long term, their ongoing presence in Transnistria ends any hopes the Moldovan government may have of moving towards eventual European Union membership which has been promised to all countries in South East Europe. More importantly to Russia, by ensuring the survival of a sympathetic pro-Kremlin “buffer zone” the prospect of Ukrainian EU membership is simply out of the question – a seemingly wise decision from Moscow’s perspective given that even elements of President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions have begun making decidedly pro-Brussels noises in recent times.

If Russia’s wish to come in from the cold and be taken seriously by the international community is genuine, the Kremlin must acquiesce to the demands of NATO demands for the country to “withdraw its illegal military presence [including munitions stockpiles] from the Transnistria region of Moldova”.

In helping the Russian Federation to achieve this treaty obligation, technical, economic and political support from the European Union, United States and the British Conservative-led government would surely be forthcoming.

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