Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Category: Rogue States You Never Knew Existed

On the eastern shores of the Dniester River in Eastern Europe lies a little country that you're not likely to find in many atlases. Officially, its status as an independent state is recognised by nobody, and it is internationally regarded (when it is regarded at all) as a separatist enclave in the former Soviet republic of Moldova. However, it has its own President, its own currency and its own national anthem.

Transnistria seceded from Moldova right at the end of the Soviet era. When Moldova itself declared independence in 1992, it attempted to resume control of Transnistria. Then all hell broke loose. Transnistrian militiamen, with the support of Russian volunteers and Cossacks, along with the "unofficial" support of the Russian 14th Army, were eventually able to repel a 25- to 35-thousand-strong Moldavan force after a conflict estimated to have killed 1000 and wounded 3000. (By the way, the Russian 14th Army was under the leadership of former Russian Presidential candidate Alexander Lebed.) The subsequent ceasefire continues to this day.

Since then, Transnistria has become notorious (though I use that term advisedly: I've never heard of the place, and I consider myself a dab hand at the "People & Places" questions in Trivial Pursuit) as a haven for smuggling, people-trafficking and corruption. It is also claimed to have a dodgy human rights record. According to freelance journalist Patti McCracken, Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov runs a "mafia-style" authoritarian regime with his son Vladimir, with whom he also controls the Sheriff consortium which operates petrol stations, supermarkets, and a range of retail goods (including cigarettes). Furthermore:

Vladimir also directs customs, the inflow and outflow of goods, which includes a sizable weapons industry. There are an estimated 50,000 weapons and 40,000 tons of ammunition warehoused in Transnistria, supposedly watched over by 2,500 Russian troops. And the Washington Post reports that several large factories in the region are still covertly manufacturing arms. [. . .]

Many believe that a good number of those weapons are being passed along to terrorists via Vladimir's porous borders.
More ominously, these weapons may include "dirty bombs." CNN reported back in 2003 the disappearance of "38 Soviet-era missiles modified to carry radioactive material," alleging that they were being "sold on the black market to terrorists." In 2005, an arms dealer in Bender, Transnistria, offered to sell three Alazan rockets equipped with radioactive warheads to a (London) Times reporter posing as the representative of an Algerian militant group.

Transnistria. I know: it sounds made-up. Like something out of a Bond film, or perhaps Austin Powers. I wonder how many other little-known not-quite states there are out there.