Over tea and biscuits, EU plots to bring order to Moldova's frontier

The breakaway state of Transnistria is listed on no official map and is technically part of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. But, under the grip of a Soviet-school warlord, Igor Smirnoff, Transnistria has become what diplomats call a "black hole", suspected of organised drug and human trafficking and of supplying mortar tubes, small arms and sniper rifles to Africa, Abkhazia and Chechnya.

For more than a decade this narrow strip of land has been all but forgotten by the international community. But now the EU has plans to help clean up the 400km of remote border land and to bring order to the continent's most lawless and porous frontier.

Under an initiative known as the Neighbourhood Policy, the EU will send 65 staff to help monitor Moldovan and Ukrainian border guards at 38 crossing points.

The politics are complex. The Russian-speaking Transnistrian regime has tacit support from Moscow which (in defiance of international agreements) still has about 1,300 troops and an ammunition dump there. Transnistria's separatism resulted from fears among its Russian and Ukrainian-speaking majority that Moldova would unite with Romania (the language of the majority of Moldovans).

But, with Europe shifting its borders eastwards, Brussels can no longer ignore the problem. When Romania joins the EU in 2007-08, Moldova will border the EU and Ukraine already has a frontier with Poland which became an EU member last year. Hence the need for a Neighbourhood Policy for these countries.

As the European external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, says: "The [border] mission is important for the overall situation for Europe and the world. There is said to be smuggling of drugs, trafficking of people and arms, possibly nuclear material."

Over tea and biscuits in a prefabricated office at Ukraine's Palanca crossing to Moldova, Yuri Petrovich Gresko, admits the existence of the problem, if not the scale. "At any border crossing point you have smuggling. If I were to say there were no smuggling here, no one would believe me. There is always someone trying to smuggle something." At this check point, recorded cases in the past year include the arrest of one person trafficking six women, and seizures of soft drugs and six firearms.

But the problem may be bigger. The crossing has no X-ray scanners for cargo or computers. Immigration records of arrivals are entered laboriously by hand.

The Ukrainian city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, less than 50 miles away, is ranked by Interpol as a major conduit for heroin from Afghanistan, but the port records no recent seizures.

Border guards are poorly paid, and the temptation to take bribes is strong. Even Ukraine's Foreign Minister, Boris Tarasyuk, hints at the scale of corruption before his country's orange revolution, saying "the previous authorities in Ukraine actually established a chain of smuggling".

Because of doubts over the co-operation it will receive from the Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities, the EU has insisted on the so-called "Martini mandate" meaning that European border guards must be able to go - in the words of the old advert - any time, any place, anywhere to monitor what is going on.

Whatever the type and quantity of contraband, all agree that a parallel economy of some type sustains the Smirnoff regime.

Significantly Ukraine has agreed only to accept goods from Transnistria with official Moldovan certification. If this is enforced at the border Transnistrian companies will have more incentive to legitimise themselves with the Moldovan authorities and less reason to pay-off Smirnoff cronies.

Already there are signs of economic pressure on the Smirnoff regime. Mr Tarasyuk says that a Ukrainian crackdown at the border "has caused concern in Transnistria, especially among those who benefit from contraband".

The EU mission will tighten the screw: the Martini mandate might just prove the undoing of Smirnoff.

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