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  • The Transnistrian Dilemma
  • Alex Kliment

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Figure 1.

It is a place where even quixotic Soviet-era weather experiments can become a major threat to regional security. In December 2003, reports surfaced that Alazan rockets—originally developed by Soviet scientists to pre-empt hailstorms through a type of cloud seeding but later fitted with radioactive material—had disappeared from the sprawling weapons stockpiles of the Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika (or Transdniester Moldovan Republic), the separatist enclave better known as Transnistria that stretches along Moldova's eastern border with Ukraine.

No discussion of contemporary global villainy is complete without mention of this breakaway region of the independent former Soviet republic of Moldova. Over the past decade, Rhode Island-sized Transnistria has emerged as a major source of legal and illegal weapons for conflict zones in the former Communist bloc and the Middle East and as a key transit point for narcotics, contraband, and human trafficking. International journalists [End Page 71] and diplomats have, though perhaps somewhat exaggeratedly, variously described Transnistria as a lawless weapons supermarket, a neo-Bolshevik autocracy, and a hive of local, Russian and Ukrainian organized crime syndicates.

Under Moscow's control since the late 18th century, the area rapidly Sovietized after the October Revolution of 1917. Following World War II, it became the military-industrial and economic heartland of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union came undone, Soviet elites in Transnistria declared independence amid fears that Romanian-speaking nationalists would seek to unite Moldova with neighboring Romania. Led by former factory manager Igor Smirnov and assisted by the Russian 14th Army, the Transnistrians trounced Moldovan forces in a brief civil war in June 1992; the secessionist enclave has maintained de facto independence ever since.

As the Soviet army withdrew from Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it deposited much of its equipment in Transnistrian weapons dumps along the way. A December 2003 Washington Post article reported that the Kolbasna facility—Europe's largest weapons storage facility—still contains some 50,000 tons of Soviet artillery shells, assault rifles, mines, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. While Russia, over Transnistrian opposition, has already withdrawn hundreds of boxcars full of arms and reduced its official troop presence to 1,500, Moscow recently opted out of the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreement on Conventional Forces in Europe that would have obliged Russia to continue removing its forces from Moldova and Transnistria.

Despite a lack of international recognition, Transnistria has developed a functioning government, competent law enforcement organs, an army, an education system, passports, and its own currency. Transnistrian power is concentrated around the Soviet-style regime of Smirnov and Sheriff, a tax-exempt holding company controlled indirectly by the Smirnov family that owns the majority of Transnistria's infrastructure, commerce and communications concerns. Sheriff reportedly profits handsomely from smuggling contraband and weapons across Transnistria's porous borders, and the absence of international recognition has meant the absence of incentives for Transnistria to follow international agreements on customs and weapons proliferation. Indeed, the many weapons that Transnistria stores, produces and sells present a significant threat to regional stability.

Transnistria also has considerable military-industrial and weapons-production expertise, owing to Soviet-era militarization, a large community of military pensioners, and a great number of local-born Russian officers who have melted into the unrecognized republic's security services, army and police. Industrial plants produce high-quality rolled steel and other exported industrial goods that also have more sinister uses. In a recent report, Ceslav Ciobanu, the former Moldovan ambassador to the United States, claims that Transnistrian arms factories and dual-use facilities produce multiple-rocket systems, mortars, anti-tank grenade launchers, [End Page 72] anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, and submachine guns. Iuri Pintea of the Chisnau-based Institute of Public Policy and Vladimir Orlov of the Moscow-based Center for Policy Studies have argued in separate reports that these arms flow as far as Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Israel, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as to the arsenals of Islamist groups in the Middle East. For terrorists, Orlov...