Snaking along the border between Moldova and Ukraine, the separatist enclave of Transnistria is known internationally as a virtual time capsule of the Soviet Union. However, after declaring independence from Moldova in 1990 and fighting a war with the Moldovan authorities, Transnistria has gained another reputation — that of a smuggling zone for alcohol and cigarettes.
“The elderly and the children would have to smoke eighty cigarettes day” to account for the sheer quantity of contraband, a Ukrainian official recently joked in an article for the Dzerkalo Tizhnya newspaper.
Moldova’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Alexei Tulbure, put it another way:
“Transnistria is a contraband pipeline that everyone uses — both people in [Transnistrian “capital”] Tiraspol and in [Moldovan capital] Chisinau,” he said. “And these shadowy schemes would not be possible without interested parties in the EU and in Moscow.”
But now Moldova and Ukraine believe they have dealt a major blow to smuggling. On July 17, the two countries opened a joint border checkpoint — and the Moldovan side of that checkpoint is in Transnistria. But this has sparked anger in Tiraspol and in Russia, the breakaway region’s patron.
The controversy is fairly simple: Around 70 percent of unrecognized Transnistria’s trade passes through the the Kuchurgan-Pervomaiskoye checkpoint. But now both Ukrainian and Moldovan border agents will monitor this checkpoint — and the two countries plan to open twelve more checkpoints in the future.
“Ukraine is ready to provide the maximum cooperation in re-establishing the Republic of Moldova’s full territorial sovereignty,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said during the ceremonial opening of the checkpoint.
The Transnistrian issue hits close to home for Ukraine, which is struggling to regain control over parts of its own territory that are currently occupied by Russia-backed separatists.
But the checkpoint’s creation has angered Russia for a specific reason: the separatist leadership in Tiraspol was not consulted. The Russian authorities have labeled the checkpoint a “provocation” and a “threat to stability.” The Russian parliament, the State Duma, also formally called the move a “blockade”.
Meanwhile, the “president” of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselsky, said that a “military component” of Moldova will now appear at the border. The Transnistrian leadership is displeased that the border decision was not made within the framework of the “5+2 format” — a series of negotiations involving Transnistria, Moldova, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.
“The president” of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselsky. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
But Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip denies that the checkpoint is a blockade.
“We clearly distinguish between the so-called leaders of the Transnistrian region and our citizens living in that region,” he said. “Maybe today’s decision does not please the leaders in Tiraspol, but our citizens like it.”
But there are also other factors explaining Moscow and Tiraspol’s reaction. According to Serhiy Herasymchuk, an expert at the Ukrainian Prism think tank, Russia would like to support Tiraspol, but it lacks the funds to do so. As a result, Transnistria must get by on its own funds and “by using these grey schemes for moving goods across the border,” he said.
Since it cannot help financially, Russia does not want to see these smuggling channels close.
The First Blockade
This isn’t the first time the Transnistrian “authorities” have accused Kyiv of blockading the country. In 2006, the Ukrainian government forbade border agents to service shipments of goods that had not been registered in Moldova.
Then, the Russian Foreign Ministry alleged that Ukraine was not “taking into account the realities” of the situation. The Tiraspol “government” subsequently stopped allowing shipments to transit through Transnistrian “territory” to Ukraine and Moldova. The then-“president” of the separatist region, Igor Smirnov, even threatened to leave the international negotiations to resolve the Transnistrian conflict.
Ultimately, however, the shipping dispute ended with Transnistrian firms registering in Moldova.
Drinking, Smoking, and Running Across the Border
Despite this, smuggling remains an enormous industry in Transnistria. According to a report by the EU border assistance mission to Moldova and Ukraine, in 2016, 1.32 billion cigarettes were transported into Transnistria for duty-free stores. Of these cigarettes, only half were registered as sold.
In 2015, Ukraine banned the transportation of goods subject to excise taxes into Transnistria: ethanol alcohol, alcoholic beverages, beer, tobacco products, oil products, liquefied gas, and cars. They can now only be brought into Transnistria from Moldovan territory.
1.32 billion cigarettes were transported into Transnistria for duty-free stores. Photo credit: sud.ua
According to Herasymchuk, illegal border crossings were also a serious problem. If a person was legally not allowed to leave Moldova, he could always sneak out through Transnistria, he said.
With the new border checkpoint, Herasymchuk believes residents of Transnistria with Russian or Ukrainian citizenship could encounter problems entering the region. They will now have to explain why they are entering Moldovan territory. But this might also motivate them to get Moldovan citizenship, he said.
The Checkpoint Effect
Formally, the new checkpoint changes nothing about efforts to resolve the Transnistrian “frozen conflict.” But former UN Ambassador Tulbure believes that it will lead Transnistria to take a more constructive approach to the negotiations.
These “very soft” border measures will “push Transnistria to bring its legislation into line with Moldovan and European law,” he said.
There are forces in Moldova that don’t want to see the Transnistrian quagmire resolved — namely, an influential businessman named Vladimir Plakhnotyuk. “But things are happening that are outside his control,” Tulbere said. This creates a window of opportunity to attempt to peacefully resolve the situation.
But Serhiy Herasymchuk disagrees.
“I think that Russia and Transnistria will now raise their bets and protest against the [new checkpoint],” he said. “But only in order to return to the negotiations with more room to maneuver.”
// By Yevgeny Savvateev, translated and adapted by Matthew Kupfer (@Matthew_Kupfer)