Sunday, January 18, 2004

TIRASPOL, Moldova — The deal involved Europe’s biggest Soviet army weapons cache, Russia’s prime minister and the leader of a separatist enclave in Moldova known as a gunrunner’s haven.

As described in a confidential 1998 agreement obtained by the Associated Press, Russia and Transnistria would share profits from the sale of 40,000 tons of “unnecessary” arms and ammunition stored in a weapons depot in the breakaway region.

The transaction is only one piece of an arms-dealing puzzle in Transnistria, where the decade-old depot also contained hundreds of portable surface-to-air missiles until last month, when Russia announced it had withdrawn them, amid concerns that they could end up in terrorist hands.

A former Moldovan official said Transnistria, a region the size of Rhode Island, also was a repository of rocket-mounted “dirty bombs” — warheads designed to scatter deadly radioactive material — that now are missing.

That widely publicized contention remains unresolved, with officials not even sure that the dirty bombs ever existed.

But an AP investigation involving interviews with a dozen officials and experts strengthened suspicions that Transnistria is a hotbed of unregulated weapons transactions, legal and illegal.

Moldova’s western neighbor, Romania, shares that view. Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said Transnistria is a “black hole of transborder organized crime, including drug smuggling, human trafficking and arms smuggling.”

Weapons from Transnistria have turned up in Russia’s restive Chechnya, in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region and in the hands of insurgents in Africa, said a minister of another country in the region. The official spoke on the condition that he not be named.

Experts say just about every sort of weapon is available in Transnistria.

“If I were in search of most commodities related to weaponry … this would be the place to go,” said William C. Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California. “Even if I did not find the weaponry, I would find the individuals who could get me that weaponry.”

Reportedly available are arms and ammunition, including tens of thousands of assault rifles and other small arms and weaponry attractive to terrorists, from the huge Soviet army depository near the northern town of Kolbasna that is guarded by some of the 2,000 Russian soldiers in the enclave as peacekeepers.

Additionally, at least six factories are thought to be churning out grenades and rocket launchers, Makarov pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortar tubes and other relatively low-tech weapons under contract to the Russian military — and possibly skimming off surplus production to sell to arms dealers, diplomats in the region said. Some, such as the Tochlitmash and Elektromash factories in Tiraspol, are thought to be dual-use plants, with civilian and secret military-production lines.

Ruslan Slobodeniuk, whose business card identifies him as Transnistria’s “deputy foreign minister,” said Elektromash, a Soviet-era factory in Tiraspol, makes only transformers.

“We are ready to show our factories to journalists,” he said, but authorities did not respond to a request for a tour of Elektromash.

The 1998 arms agreement between Russia and Transnistria involved the Soviet army repository — 40,000 tons of ordnance, arms and ammunition that were dumped in this remote speck of southeastern Europe in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union broke up and Moldova became independent.

The negotiators: Viktor Chernomyrdin, then prime minister of Russia, and Igor Smirnov, self-appointed president of separatist Transnistria.

Moscow and Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria, would split profits from the sale of “unnecessary weapons, ammunition, military assets and materials,” according to the 1998 agreement that bears their signatures.

There seems to be no public record of the deal, but Russian and Western officials confirmed its existence in a one-page memo on what to do with Europe’s biggest Soviet army weapons cache. It was superseded a year later by a pact providing for a full withdrawal to Russia of all military equipment.

One Russian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his understanding was that the deal never was finalized. But Western diplomats are skeptical, saying nobody ever will know how much of what was sold, to whom or at what price in that one-year window, or what criteria was used to determine what was “unnecessary.”

Mr. Smirnov has answered to no one since Transnistria broke away from Moldova in 1992 after a brief war with Moldovans brought on by fears that Moldova would seek reunification with Romania.

Situated between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova was part of Romania until 1940; most of its people speak Romanian or Ukrainian. Transnistria, however, never was part of Romania and is mainly Russian-speaking.

Tiraspol seems caught in a Soviet-era time warp. Some Transnistria soldiers sport fur hats with the Red Star emblem, and creaky Volga sedans vie for parking spots with Western cars on the cracked pavement lining ugly, prefab concrete apartment blocks in need of repair.

Business dealings by associates of Mr. Smirnov include smuggling of all kinds, including weapons by the truckload, diplomats say.

Though less than two hours by air from most European capitals and 50 miles by car to the southeast of Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, Transnistria is as inaccessible as some of the continent’s most-remote regions.

To the east lies a 250-mile border with Ukraine — unguarded fields broken by stretches of fir trees, laced with twisting dirt paths that can swallow a truck until it’s well on its way to nearby Odessa, the Black Sea gateway to hot spots in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Customs officials at the three major international crossing points are on the take, as are those at railway crossings, say diplomats in the region, all speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Oazu Nantoi, a well-connected former Moldovan government official in Chisinau, gives the example of a senior Ukrainian customs official in conversation with his Moldovan counterparts in 2001.

“After some quantity of vodka, the official said: ‘Guys, pay us $2 million a week, and we’ll close the borders [to illegal traffic]. All it takes is $2 million a week — cash,’” Mr. Nantoi said, quoting a Moldovan official present at the talks.

Almost as porous are the unofficial borders to Moldova, bordered to the west by Romania. Both are high on the list of Europe’s most-corrupt nations.

Illustrating the depth of the smuggling problem, even at controlled crossing points, a Moldovan examination two years ago of temporary customs stamps used by Transnistria turned up 350 counterfeit versions.

Vladimir Smirnov, son of the Transnistria leader, leads the breakaway region’s customs service. He is said to be the major silent partner in Sheriff, the enclave’s consortium with fingers in everything from the enclave’s mobile-phone network to gas stations, supermarkets and a still-growing gargantuan sports complex on Tiraspol’s outskirts that Western diplomats estimate already has cost $200 million — twice as much as Moldova’s annual budget.

Mr. Nantoi, who runs the nongovernmental Institute for Policy Studies in Chisinau, said dozens of dirty bombs formerly stored near Tiraspol military airport are missing.

He showed what he said was a Russian military document dated Oct. 18, 1994, urging “prohibition” of work with the warheads — 24 ready to use, 14 dismantled — because of radiation danger. Another document from May that year recorded the “burning and burying” of uniforms contaminated by radiation.

Mr. Nantoi said reports reached him in 1998 that Alazan rockets — short-range, inaccurate and normally used by the Soviets for weather experiments — had been fitted with warheads modified to carry radioactive material. The rockets and warheads since seem to have disappeared from storage.

“I could not discover what had happened to them,” Mr. Nantoi said.

Moldova’s government has declined comment.

Valery Litzkai, who acts as Transnistria’s “foreign minister,” described the reports of dirty bombs as a “smear campaign.”

“There are no weapons here,” he insisted.

Mr. Potter of the Monterey Institute said some former Soviet government officials think the documents could be authentic but consider it unlikely that Russian units would keep such crude weapons, “considering their access to much more sophisticated weaponry.”

Dismissing the dirty-bomb accusations as just one part of an anti-Transnistria campaign, Mr. Litzkai and other Transnistria officials say there have been no major finds of weapons in terrorist hands that can be proven to have come from their enclave.

Still, they cannot deny evidence of arms trading.

Moldovan police four years ago halted a truck leaving Transnistria. Inside were anti-aircraft missiles made in Russia, detonators and plastic explosives, members of Transnistria’s army — and Lt. Col. Vladimir Nemkov, a deputy commander of Russian peacekeepers in the enclave.

Although other officials denied the incident ever happened, Mr. Litzkai confirmed it, but suggested it was a setup.

Asked about Col. Nemkov’s whereabouts now, Mr. Litzkai shrugged, then said after a pause: “He disappeared.”

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