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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Separatists seize contested port

Kyiv Post: A port on the Dniester River in a village of a little over 5,000 inhabitants has become the center of the latest flare-up in the long-running dispute between Moldova and the self-proclaimed Transdniester Moldovan Republic (TMR), which lies along Ukraine’s southwestern border.

According to Tudor Serbov, the head of the village of Varnita, which is located in the jurisdiction of Moldova proper, a group of more than 90 Transdniester policemen and around 30 others dressed in civilian clothes seized the village cargo port at midday on April 21, forcing nearly 20 of its employees to leave. Serbov told the Post on April 26 that the Transdniester police occupied the port until late in the evening, when they made off with a barge, a towboat and dredger, which had been docked at the port.

At the moment, said Serbov, the port is surrounded by a peacekeeping force consisting of Russian, Moldovan and Transdniester military units, while negotiations on the port’s further status continue.

Transdniester, which boasts a larger Russian-speaking population than Moldova proper, fought a war of secession with the government of Chisinau between 1991 and 1992, raising tensions between Bucharest and Moscow and leaving the country divided ever since.

The port in Varnita is very close to the southern Transdniester town of Bendery and is considered disputed territory. On some Transdniester maps, Varnita is shown as part of the self-proclaimed republic’s territory.

Serbov said that the port, which had been in disrepair for nearly 15 years, was put back into operation in 2005, when the village council managed to find a Moldovan investor to finance the work.

Ivan Lyakhu, a member of the Moldovan delegation holding talks with Transdniester officials to solve the conflict, does not rule out that the raid on the port was a rehearsal for a planned military assault. Chisinau, which has been courting the West since Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin fell out with Russian President Vladimir Putin a few years ago, considers Tiraspol leaders a criminal regime set up to facilitate smuggling through Southwest Europe.

“They acted in a very bold manner, attacking the port simultaneously from two directions, by land and water, and ignoring the nearby presence of peacekeeping forces [stationed in Bendery],” Lyakhu said.

Among other possible explanations for the actions of the Transdniester police, Lyakhu includes the desire to recapture territory they consider their own. The Transdniester side’s main demand in the negotiations is to establish its own security at the port. Official statements from Tiraspol have tended to play down the raid, referring to it as a “property dispute.”

Transdniester’s Pridnestrovie News Agency reported on April 22 that the issue at hand regarding the Varnita cargo port was that during Soviet times it was part of the Bendery river port, which is now under the jurisdiction of TMR. The report cites Bendery police chief Vadim Krasnoselsky as saying that some of the Bendery river port was illegally leased out to the Varnita port, the jurisdiction of which is unclear.

“This land is up in the air. It is legally no one’s,” he was quoted as saying.

In the meantime, the incident has raised grave concerns at the OSCE’s Mission to Moldova.

“This incident could have led to a direct confrontation between Moldova and the Transdniester police,” reads an April 25 statement by the OSCE, which praises the Moldovan side for showing restraint and preventing a renewal of hostilities between the two sides.

The United States Embassy in Chisinau called the raid "an unjustified and aggressive act that could have had extremely dangerous consequences."

The self-proclaimed republic, which enjoys official support from the Kremlin, reminded the outside world of its existence most recently in March, when the pro-Western Kyiv and Chisinau agreed to step up efforts to counter smuggling, under continuing pressure from the EU. Ukraine, one of five guarantor states (along with the OSCE and Russia) in the more than decade-long conflict, agreed to only accept goods from Moldova stamped by officials loyal to Chisinau.

In practice, this meant that Transdniester businesses had to register in Moldova to be allowed to export.

Most of Moldova’s lucrative industry, like the Rybnitsa steel mill, is located in Transdniester, whose cause is increasingly championed by Moscow.

The United States and EU praised the new customs rules as a serious blow to smuggling, while Moscow and Tiraspol have called it an economic blockade.
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