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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Moldova > EU must tackle Moldova’s frozen war

EU must tackle Moldova’s frozen war

Nicholas Whyte, European Voice  |   18 Jun 2004

MOLDOVA is soon to become one of the EU’s newest neighbours, so anything Brussels can do now to help advance peace in Moldova’s tense ‘frozen war’ and diminish its role as a major centre for organized crime will bring long-term benefitsto Europe.

With the expected entry of Romania into the Union in 2007, the EU will share a long frontier with Moldova and will thus come to share many of that troubled country’s problems.

Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and it suffers from an uneasy sense of identity and uncertain borders. A civil war in the early 1990s left the post-Soviet state divided in two, with only the government in Chisinau recognized internationally. The unrecognized separatist region of Transdniestria has essentially been a mafia-run fiefdom able to survive thanks only to criminal profits and support from certain circles in Russia and Ukraine.

The frozen conflict has allowed Transdniestria to thrive as a safe haven for criminals and an entrepôt for trafficking of all kinds. Transdniestrian authorities not only profit from trade in standard goods such as fuel, cigarettes and liquor, but also from trafficking in arms, drugs and human beings. One of the major routes for trafficking in human beings to Russia and Arab countries goes via the Transdniestrian “capital”, Tiraspol, and the Ukrainian port of Odessa. In addition, the region is a prime location for money laundering and arms production, notably small arms and grenade launchers, for illegal export. Fire arms produced in and trafficked from Transdniestria are said to lack serial numbers, making them ideal for organized crime.

In the current situation, such activities can be conducted in and from Transdniestria very easily and with impunity. International law enforcement bodies are not allowed there and international governmental and non-governmental organizations are unable to operate normally. It is difficult to provide training for officials or expertise on legislation, awareness-raising campaigns and witness protection programmes related to trafficking issues when the authorities are not recognized internationally and are resistant to international pressure and intervention.

In short, Transdniestria is a one-stop shop for criminal goods and services of every possible description. Not exactly the ideal new neighbour.

Indeed, it is precisely this criminal side that is most worrying for Europe; it is certainly more worrying than the threat of the frozen conflict hotting up again. But, of course, it is exactly the frozen nature of this conflict that allows the criminal status quo to continue, so tackling the criminal threat posed by the EU’s soon-to-be new neighbour means findinga permanent resolution.

The civil war in Moldova was relatively mild by post-Soviet standards when you consider the Georgian civil war, the Armenian/Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh, or the decade of implosion in Chechnya. But this does not make a long-term solution any easier to find. Despite its impending move into the neighbourhood, the EU has not done all it can.

To be fair to Brussels, the EU has not even been included when it logically ought to have been. The Union is formally absent from the peace process, where the mediators are the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Ukraine and Russia. Moldovan authorities also recently ignored Brussels in the preparation of a new peace plan, for which they consulted widely in Washington and Moscow. Chisinau’s expressed wish “to draw the EU closer to the resolution of the Transdniestrian conflict” seems hollow to those in Brussels who are clearly annoyed at being overlooked.

Rather than simply complain about being left out, however, the EU needs to make a concerted push to demonstrate its strong desire to see this problem resolved and its ambition to get involved actively. The first step would be to open a full European Commission delegation office in Moldova. And within the new European Neighbourhood Policy, which has raised expectations in Moldova, the EU also needs to set out clear benchmarks for the country – worked out in close cooperation with the OSCE and the Council of Europe – for development of democracy, rule of law and human rights, including specific benchmarks to be met in Transdniestria.

Brussels and the member states must be prepared to target the Transdniestrian leadership with further sanctions if the negotiation process remains blocked, or Transdniestria fails to meet the benchmarks in the Action Plan, and urge Russia to join such measures and refrain from helping the Transdniestrian regime consolidate its power.

The EU has a clear interest in helping to clean up the serious problems caused by poverty and endemic crime in Moldova, as both threaten to bring even greater problems when the Union shares a long border with the country in perhaps less than three-years’ time. The EU also has something to offer: the unfortunate irony of this whole situation is that the technical points currently disputed in the Moldovan peace talks are issues such as control of customs and trade arrangements – the very subjects at the core of the EU and issues Brussels could apply vast experience to.

Nicholas Whyte is the Europe programme director for the International Crisis Group

 
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