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Explosive inheritance

Simion Ciochina/Robert Schwartz / nrtDecember 1, 2015

The breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria has probably the largest weapons depots in eastern Europe. There are concerns that the remainder of these arms stockpiles could be used in a future military conflict.

Image: Fotolia/Haramis Kalfar

The rather nondescript village of Cobasna is located around 200 kilometers from the border, which divides the Republic of Moldova from the separatist region of Transnistria. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Transnistria – the region on the other side of the Dnjestr River – declared its independence, but was not officially recognized by any other country. The former Soviet Republic of Moldova in fact lost control of the swath of land, but still considered it to be part of its sovereign territory.

A huge weapons depot is located in Cobasna under the control of Transnistrian forces and Russian peacekeeping troops, who have been stationed there since fighting broke out in 1992.

Although the Russian Federation committed itself at the OECD Summit in 1999 to withdrawing its forces from Transnistria, there are still around 1,500 Russian troops deployed there at the Cobasna depot. Weapons from the former Soviet 14th Army are still stockpiled there, including arms and ammunition stemming from the one-time "Brother States" of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Czechoslovakia.

Former Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta
Former Moldovan Defense Minister Vitalie MarinutaImage: DW

Mainly due to the Ukraine crisis there is growing concern in the Moldovan capital Chisinau that the weapons could be used in a military conflict. The former Moldovan Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta also sees other dangers. In an interview with DW, the general said that, according to his information, which has been confirmed by international organizations, there are still around 20,000 tons of ammunition for artillery and infantry as well as other military equipment stored there.

A study by the Moldovan Academy of Sciences has warned that the impact of an explosion of the depots would be "equivalent to the atomic bombs from Hiroshima and Nagasaki," said Marinuta. Because the expiration dates of the weapons have come and gone , the depot should be placed under international control as soon as possible, said the general. These controls were also important, he said, to prevent weapons getting into the hands of foreign fighters.

Illegal weapons trade

Transnistria has on many occasions been accused of being involved in trading with illegal weapons. Reporters of the investigative project RISE Moldova last year uncovered just how easy it was for someone to get hold of ammunition from Transnistria. The reporter said they were interested in purchasing weapons and were in possession of a grenade launchers with the corresponding ammunition. The traders had even promised to deliver any type of weapon they wanted. The whole "transaction" was carried out in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, which RISE Moldova said proved the inefficiency of the Moldovan security forces.

Political sceíntist Oazu Nantoi
Political scientist Oazu NantoiImage: DW/A. Scherle

The political scientist Oazu Nantoi from Chisinau believes that Transnistria is also able to produce weapons. In a DW interview he said that weapons from the separatist region had been brought in many stages into international circulation. In the early 1990s weapons were illegally shipped to the Balkans for use in the Yugoslavia wars. There had even been price lists for weapons and ammunition. "We can give no guarantee that the current situation with the Russian military on Moldovan territory, with paramilitary forces in Transnistria and the weapons depot in Cobasna, will not lead to a further destabilization of the region, " said Nantoi.

Separatism and terrorism

The region of Transnistria is not only a stomping ground for illegal weapons trade for interested groups, the former intelligence chief Valentin Dediu told DW: "We have information that a number of terrorist organizations have bought their weapons here. And if we put separatism and terrorism on the same level, we can maintain, that there are training camps for terror groups in Transnistria". According to Dediu, men from Transnistria took part in military action in the Ukraine and also in attacks in Odessa in 2014.

After the terror attacks in Paris the Moldovan security forces have been on high alert. A number of men were arrested who are suspected of taking part in conflicts in Donbass. Also last week members of a paramilitary group were arrested, who were supposed to have been planning a number of attacks in Moldova.

Moldau Valentin Dediu Ex-intelligence chief
Ex-intelligence chief Valentin DediuImage: DW/S. Ciochina

Maps showing possible targets and a number of weapons were seized. Also many trucks with military camouflage were discovered as they were being transported across the border between Transnistria and the Moldovan Republic. The Moldovan deputy Veaceslav Untila, Chairman of the parliamentary security committee in Chisinau, doesn’t rule out that new paramilitary structures similar to those on the Crimean peninsula could lead to unrest.

The precariousness of the situation in the Moldovan Republic is intensified by the political crisis. The pro-European alliance, tainted by corruption allegations, is not in a position to form a stable government. The pro-Russian parties want to force early elections. They are leading in all the current opinion polls and if they were to win an election they would tie the country more strongly to Moscow. That brings the danger of new flashpoints on the European Union’s eastern border that much closer.