A dark ambiance looms as a curfew reigns at Kurchugan’s check-point, 70 Km North-West of Odessa’s Ukrainian harbor. From this desolate border post between Ukraine and Moldova it is reaching a piece of history that seemed dead and buried; the Cold War. Officers remark that not so long ago almost 114 thousands tons of freight passed daily through the rail yard. Looking at the station now it looks as if it has been abandoned for years. Only the wind of the steppes blows on the track cut in half by a new invisible “Berlin’s wall”. The wall named Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica (Moldovan Republic of Transnistria).
A ghost state that doesn’t exist on any geographic map. It has a government, a flag and currency but isn’t recognised globally. It is controlled by a clan of Stalinist hierarchs and former staff members of KGB that in 1991 took advantage of the dissolution of URSS and of the Russian military support to auto-proclaim themselves independent from the rest of Moldova.
In 1992 an international ceasefire has stopped the blood-stained firefight with the central government of Chisinau (1.500 deads). Since then, Transnistria has become the last Soviet fiefdom on the planet. A residue of the past survived thanks to Moscow’s protection which uses it as strategic outpost in order to control the gas pipelines’ area in the post-communist Europe.
The veneer of “socialist democracy” that cloaks the Palace of the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) in the Tiraspol capital is just a cover. The mafia gang of Igor Smirnov have the power in reality. The President-dictator was able to turn the patch of land wedged between the East side of Dniestr river and the Ukrainian border into the biggest European “hub” of criminal traffic. A “tax free supermarket” that recycle money and goods and where anonymous investors (especially Russian, but also Western) become rich and supply weapons the terroristic organisations of half the world.
To this day, the frozen conflict between the official government of Chisinau and the “outlaw” one of Tiraspol seemed destined to end into the oblivion of International diplomacy. The peace negotiations carried out by OCSE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) went on for over 14 years without any success.
A little more than three months, instead, the situation has been completely reversed. Last April the President Smirnov has broken off negotiations and has announced for the next September a referendum with which Transnistria will decide to remain part of Moldova or definitively break away from it.
“A unilateral solution is unacceptable for the International Community“, comments on Klaus Neukirch, OCSE spokesman, “The integrity of the Moldovan State is a principle recognised by all, including Moscow“.
Smirnov’s decision came after Ukraine and Moldova, with the EU support, imposed a ban on illegal exports coming from the small Russian protectorate. A test of strength sufficient grounds to dig up the conflict from the sands of the status quo. Catapulting Transnistria in the middle of the geopolitical dispute that has been opposing the West and Russia in the European East since Yalta’s conference. This dispute has come by now to the day of reckoning considering that the enlargement to Bulgaria and Romania in 2007-2008 will bring the EU into direct contact with Moldovan border. In retaliation, the secessionist Republic has also blocked all East-West connection in his territory.
“To get around the ban, traffic between Moldova and Ukraine have been diverted to North and South through ‘regular’ borders between the two countries” explains Joachim Haack, foreman of those six officials who assist 160 Ukrainian room guards in Hurchugan. Russian response was swift to come President Vladimir Putin has called in Moscow a meetings marathon among his most loyal protectorates (besides Transnistria, the two enclaves not recognised of Caucaso, South Ossetia and Abkhazia) that on the 4th of July have subscribed a mutual collaboration pact.
At the beginning of the crisis that seems conjuring up the old opposition between “the blocs”, there is a new Ukrainian-Moldovan customs pact. The pact that has been signed at the end of 2005 under the impetus of Brussels and Washington and Moscow’s opposition, requires Ukrainian customs officials to reject goods without Moldovan official stamp coming from Transnistria. Since the Ukrainian border is the only outlet and enterprises that want to export don’t have any other choice than registering themselves in Chisinau and submit to the official authorities of Moldova.
The aim of the intervention is to progressively remove Transnistria’s economy from the absolute control of Smirnov in order to destroy the ropes of his power.
For years Ukrainian government have obeyed Moscow’s diktat closed its eyes on customs irregularities. The victory of the pro-European coalition of the President Viktor Yushenko in December 2004 has marked a change of course. This is the occasion that the EU is waiting for to implement its new “Neighborhood Policy” and unleash an unarmed war against what it considers an annoying plug in its future south-eastern flank.
At the end of November 2005, in anticipation of the forthcoming agreement, the European Commission set up a new task force in Odessa; code name is EUBAM (EU Border Assistance Mission).
From its headquarters, the mission coordinates 70 customs officers made available by 16 Member States (one from Italy) and second to Kurchugan, along the entire 405 Km cross between Ukraine and Transnistria: a new “iron curtain”. This separates them from the 1,500 men left in Smirnov’s dowry from the former Red Army to discourage any force action from Chisinau. The task of Euro-agents is to help the Moldovan and Ukrainian authorities fighting against smuggling at the border.
“From the beginning of the mission we have intercepted various trades, but above all about 80 thousand tons of chicken sold illegally from Transnistria to Ukraine, “explains Gianpiero Catozzi, administrator of EUBAM,” A business of 56 milion euros in just seven months!“.
The turning point, however, came on 3 March 2006, when the new customs regime came into force. The EU task force has thus come to assume a crucial task that has put it in direct collision with the Kremlin: make sure that the new rules are applied without giving up on insistent Russian pressures.
“The EU and US intervention in support of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border operation can not force Russia to give up its interests,” said Nikolai Ryabov, Russian ambassador to Moldova. Interests that are not only political but also economic. Since the late 1990s, the Russian energy giant Gazprom, in exchange for free gas supplies, has gained a large share of the Transnistria industry due to the privatization illegally launched by the separatist regime.
However, the EU is determined to go all the way. “We intend to contribute to the solution of a conflict that represents a potential risk to the eastern border of the European Union,” comments Ferenc Banfi, Head of EUBAM, “Respect for new customs rules is a key step towards Moldova’s territorial unification”. In order to strengthen controls, over the next three years the Euro-Agent network will be expanded and coordinated with other international crime-fighting agencies such as Interpol. “Overall staff will increase from 70 to 108 people,” says Catozzi.
Meanwhile the Olvia Press, the Tiraspol propaganda machine continues to show nationalism and square protest firing at zero against c.d. Embargo wanted by Western powers. On Smirnov’s official website there is even an invitation to pay international solidarity funds to alleviate the imaginary “humanitarian crisis” of which the population would be a victim, actually abandoned to the misery of the same regime (per capita income is among the Lowest in Europe). A farce supported by Moscow that offered its ally aid for more than 30 million euros and imposed on Russian customs the punitive boycott of products from Chisinau. However, resistance to what is actually a self-embargo is starting to fall as exports depend on 90% of Transnistrian GDP (official data from Tiraspol).
“Every week there are 4-5 new companies, so far we have counted about 180“, reveals Rosario De Blasio, expert of the anti-fraud center at Verona airport customs and the only Italian agent at EUBAM. The growing acceptance of the obligation to register is an implicit acknowledgment of Chisinau’s formal sovereignty over the area controlled by Tiraspol. According to international analysts, however, Russia will decide whether and when that sovereignty will be restored in the facts.