Behind the counter there are three women around 50, tall, robust, the type of butcher counter woman and perfect house wife. They wear workers clothing. They can barely move among the things on display, between the wall with shelves and counter. A miniature surveillance camera records everything from a corner. Crowded there are feeders, telescopes, bows, bullets and other military accessories. Among them there are several gadgets, with no relation whatsoever with the specific of the little shop. We are in the only weapons shop in Transnistria, somewhere in Tiraspol, in the basement of a 4 floor apartment building. Anyone can see we are foreigners. “You can’t buy weapons, civilians are not allowed to wear weapons here” tell us almost in a choir the three women. Behind them there are some automatic weapons, from which anyone can recognize the AKM. They are replica weapon, you can’t use them and their price is up 400 Euros. We feel like dreaming: we are in the middle of a country storage house for weapons, and the only offer is toy-guns at a price at least twice as compared to the guns on the Transnistrian market. In the country there are tons of weapons and ammunition made by the Soviets and at least one out of five inhabitants has an illegally owned gun. Still, after all, the women don’t even smile!
We added several report and documents that were made public in Moldova or in Russia and we made up a list with all factories in Transnistria suspected of manufacturing weapons. We have got a list of 14 production units, each of them with a production section of weapons. This is the military industrial complex of the separatist republic. They are double activity production units: both military and civil production. They don’t all manufacture weapons; some of them manufacture just spare parts for weapons to be later on assembled in Russia or Transnistria. These factories had been being used since the Soviet Union for weapon manufacturing. Even the Tiraspol officials admit that they had been manufacturing weapons in all those years for internal need. Moreover, the officials state that the military industrial complex can be reactivated if the case. Still, the official Tiraspol version is that momentarily no weapon is being manufactured in the country. Helicopters engines, missile and grenades launchers, mines, different calibers automatic guns, Macarov and TT pistols, UZI and AKM – these are the types of weapons manufactured by the separatist military industrial complex. The Grad and Vasiliok missile launchers seem to be the local symbol and the only one recognized in the conflict international areas. So far no international organization had access to these factories, and no long term monitoring mission either. An important detail: the factories we are talking about benefit of almost free power (gas and electric), which leads to low production costs for the weapons.
- Litmash Kirov
- Zavod Metalo – izdeli
- The Pribor Factory (officially owned by the Russian factory of weapons Saliut – manufactures helicopters engines and even plane engines)
- Vehicle Construction Unit
- Mechanical Factory
- Pumps factory
- MMZ Metallurgic Factory
- Selihoztehnica Camenca
Let’s Go Hunting!
Map in hands, but carefully hidden under our clothes, and with a camera in a Sheriff bag, we started looking for every factory suspected of manufacturing weapons from Tiraspol, Bender, Dubasari and Rabnita. Each factory is in a advanced decay state and there are buildings and storage places scattered on large areas. Most of the cases, only the presence of workers shows that the buildings are not deserted. In all this grey and rusted scenery there is one thing that stands out with every factory suspected to manufacture weapons; there is a special production unit with a modern entrance. Gates are freshly painted, and there is everywhere the same blue plastic cupola. Everything is in absolute contrast with the rest of the complex. The access is granted by uniform wearing soldiers, thoroughly armed. There are also several surveillance cameras. Surveillance cameras are extremely rare in Transnistria, a waste land. Public institutions, banks, border points, military units – in all these sensitive points, there is no surveillance camera. We have observed video surveillance, obviously being shown off, only at the Tiraspol headquarters of Sheriff, which is near Electromash.
”They Have Produced and They Are Still Producing!”
“Transnistria has produced and is probably still producing weapons” declared this year to the French journalists from Canal + for a documentary on the weapon issue William Hill, the head of the OSCE in the region. The same documentary presents military experts of the Tiraspol regime that declare the republic to having been forced to manufacture weapons for its own necessities and that in case of danger they can restart production at any time. Even the state security minister, Antiufeev, has declared that the above mentioned factories have produced weapons at some point.
“Briefly, and once again, they have produced and they are still producing weapons. Nobody owns absolute conclusive material such as legal reports of some smuggled transport being caught at some border point on that day at that time” declared Ion Leahu, representative of the Control Unified Committee in Chisinau. His statement is one of the most authorized to be got and he gave us an interview in an office of the Moldavian secret service, SIS.
Colbasna – The Forbidden Area
Colbasna – The Forbidden Area
Storing weapons on the Transnistrian territory is made using the storage houses areas near Tiraspol and Colbasna, a small town near the Ukrainian border. The store house in Colbasna, belonging to the 14 th Army, is by far the most important. This lies on a surface of 132 hectares and in 1994 it stored (as stated by official documents) 45 tons of weapons, ammunition and military technique. In the store houses of the Russian army in Transnistria there were stored all ammunition of Eastern Germany and the communist block in 1990. At this time the storage house shelters around 20 thousand tons of weapons, after successive repatriations to Russia and after numerous legal or illicit transportations to separatists or to private buyers. The documents we researched and the information we collected in the field, made us believe that all transports to Russia were not of weapons and ammunition. They have been repatriating thousand of tons of military technique, meaning anything else but weapons and ammunition.
The area we are talking about is strongly armed, basically all local people in the region work as managers or technical personnel for the store houses. It is a closed area for foreigners. Moreover if you want to get to the storehouse, there are control mobile teams, organized by the separatist militia. You aren’t allowed to enter the area unless you have a defined purpose. Last year, even General Bernard Aussedat, a military expert of OSCE and coordinator of the inspections on armament was refused access in the area during an unannounced control in the area, recorded in the secret by the French journalists from Canal +. Theoretically, OSCE has the right to inspect any objective in Transnistria. Basically it is impossible to do so. The only ones allowed to inspect in the region are the Ukrainians and the Russians. Not even they inspected anything for a longer time.
Therefore not even the weapons’ storage conditions weren’t checked on. The local press issued some news on alleged explosions in the area, some of them making victims too. We are still talking about an old storage facility and the money to maintain such a facility is scarce.
Around the House
If you have 6 missiles made by the Soviets and they get from the Ukraine to Iran is it an illegal transaction?” rhetorically asks Oazu Nantoi, manager of the Public Policies Institute in Chisinau. “Weapon smuggling is very easy to do by train, by road to the harbors of Odessa and Ilichevsk”. Since March, all railway transports have been blocked, but small trains still go from the separatist republic to Odessa, passing by Pervomajsk and Colbasna. Not to mention the trucks transporting smuggled goods on secondary roads, between Tiraspol and the harbor of Ilichevsk. As stipulated by the Ukrainian secret services, corrupted clerks of the Ukrainian border control department assure “green light” to any truck with the Sheriff symbol on it.
The Three Ways
The letter Vasile Iakovlev, the “legal father” of Transnistria, sent to the Helsinki Committee in Moldova is relevant. The letter was confirmed by a phone conversation between Nantoi and Iakovlev. The latter was a member of the Chisinau parliament and, just like Smirnov; he left for Tiraspol to lay the foundations of the Transnistrian state. In ’97 he gets in the disgrace of the regime in Tiraspol so he disappears from the republic. The letter dates April 7, 1997 and talks about three major weapons trafficking channels. The first channel was open during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavian region, between ’94 -’95 and it was controlled by the Polish mafia. The second channel was made up by the metallurgical factory and the cement factory in Rabnita. This is backed up by the statement made by Ion Leahu, with the Controlled Unified Committee, “they use massive transports of cement and metal to mask the presence of the weapons”. At last, the third channel identified by the insider Iakovlev is the sea way. “With the help of the Odessa authorities, the charger of death was transported by trucks to the harbor and then it was loaded on Ukrainian ships belonging to the company Ascoflot.” We have identified the shipping company Ascoflot as being registered in Chisinau but having a permanent working point in the harbor of Ilichevsk. The name of the company is mentioned in a report made by the Chisinau Court, issued after Iakovlev’s letter. They mention there that since being registered in ’93, the company declared no income, and paid no taxes to the public budget. The Court’s report mentions only the income made abroad by exploiting 6 cargo ships. It was one million two hundred dollars for shipping, money that they cashed through off shore companies: Ascoflot Shipping from Panama and from the Bagame Islands.
In the Air
Finally, the weapons smuggling channel mostly used seem to be the air transport. Transnistria has no acknowledged air space, therefore any flight should be illegal. Still, in a map book issued in English, the domestic air transport company Tiras Avia is being advertised and they say the company plans to open two international airports in Tiraspol and Camenca. This very moment, there is permission only for flights made by the Russian army. According to an agreement concluded in 1994, the Russian army has the right to make two flights every week using the Tiraspol airport, with the declared purpose of delivering mail. In Russia, the plane lands on a military basis near Moscow. “Unfortunately, Moscow doesn’t control well the air space. Many sources informed us that that plane could also be capable of transporting tanks” declares Stefan Uratu from the Moldova Helsinki Committee. The Transnistrian air space isn’t monitored indeed; no one wants to know what planes flight, in what directions and how often. Moldavian officials claim that smuggling planes fly low altitudes when in the Transnistrian air space, so that they couldn’t be detected by the radar. The fact is that not even Russian military planes are being monitored. Ion Leahu explains us “the general headquarters of the army monitored the flights and they were the authorized institution to authorize landing or taking off the airport as well as investing the ciphering identification system. All problems began in 2000. The Transnistrians wouldn’t accept the Moldavians going for checking at landing and at taking off. The Moldavian soldiers were taken into custody, imprisoned and interrogated for 12 hours and after that they were forbidden to go there anymore. The reason was that they were forbidden to fly from then on.” Is Leahu again who explains that not even 2000 checking didn’t respect any international agreements either. “Moldavian controllers received written information about the goods and they had no access to the plane and they didn’t assist at its taking off either.”
If they manufactured weapons here, there had to be some complicity with Moldova or with the Ukraine. To be able to export them” declared a laughing MGB officer Dmitri Soin, in Tiraspol. A correct point of view, considering the ease accompanying any weapons transport out of Transnistria and to Russia, the Ukraine and Moldova. Further on they are exported as Russian weapons. This makes us take a closer look to some situations encountered in Moldova and the Ukraine, with respect to international trafficking with weapons of unknown origin.
The Bout – Mutaliev Intermedium
The reports drawn up by the UN and Amnesty International bring clear proof with regard to the involvement of two Moldavian companies into the cross border weapons transportation, in areas of conflicts from Africa. The two companies, Aerocom and Jet Line, are registered in Chisinau since 1997, respectively 2000, but they are controlled by Victor Bout. The air companies have the premises near the international airport in Chisinau. International reports mention that the regions where these two companies shipped weapons are beyond the African space, and they also include Iraq and Afghanistan. As mentioned in the Chisinau trade register, the two companies also own an air travel insurance company, Afes M and shares in two banks: Victoriabank and Investprivatbank. (T he associates with Victoriabank are also related to Moldinkombank, also based in Chisinau, where the Cuciurgan power station also owns shares) One of the owners of Afes M is the older company Renan, controlled by the Chechen brothers Moutaliev, old comrades in arms of Victor Bout.
According to the international press, the British secret service researched into Bout’s travels to Transnistria. From all the information gathered on the filed, it came out that planes belonging to both companies Aerocom and Jet Line stopped in Tiraspol and in the area around Odessa for technical reasons. The stopovers were always used as a pretext for loading or unloading weapons in areas under embargo.
It was already proved that Renan participated into several illegal transports to the African countries between 2000 and 2002. Moreover the Renan company is also involved in weapons trafficking to Iraq. In Baghdad, reporters of the German magazine Stern have discovered in 2003 several documents that certified weapons trafficking to Iraq using companies from Syria. SES International Corporation is the Syrian company who brought to Iraq a whole production line for Kalashnikov ammunition, previously bought from Balcombe Investments from Moldova for 8.7 million dollars. Balcombe is owned by the Mutaliev brothers and the Renan company. It is highly possible that these equipment came from Transnistria, especially that president Voronin declared at the end of the year 2005 that he owned documents from Baghdad certifying the separatists export to Iraq for an entire production line of ammunition. Despite the fact that he promised more details after the secret service was to further investigate the documents, the authorities from Chisinau have never stated anything on the matter.
The Zhukov – Angert Intermedium
Between ‘94 and ’95, several weapons shipping broke the embargo imposed to the former Yugoslavian countries. Large transports of weapons of Sovietic origin were sold in the region. In all this smuggling cases we singled out a transport organized in Odessa, stopped by the Italian police in the Otrento Channel, near Venice. The Croatian ship Jadran Express was heading to Croatia carrying an impressive loading of Sovietic origin weapons. The end user certificate was a fake and was made in Nigeria. They declared that all the weapons were coming from Belarus and from the Ukraine, but this was never proved. The Italian investigation had some results only after 6 years, when the Moscow originated Alexander Zhukov was arrested. They have discovered that the payment for the loading was made to Sintez, a holding registered in Switzerland and in the UK, and managed by Zhukov together with several Russian partners. In this business venture there is also involved Alexander Angert, a mafia godfather from Odessa, also nicknamed Angel. Among Zhukov and Angert‘s business partners one could also find Leonid Minin. He was also arrested in Italy because he was involved in the weapons versus diamonds trafficking to Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The Caucasus Intermedium
The reports drawn by the Moldavian Secret Service (SIS) mention weapons trafficking from Transnistria to areas of conflict in Caucasus. Even if it would be hard to believe, the information gathered on the field support the idea that the separatists supplied armament to the rebels from Chechnya, Abkhazia and Osetsia. The weapons were used against Russian soldiers. All operations were made with the acknowledgements and the support of Russia who needed some cover. In 1997, after an operation in Chechnya of the Russian army, a feature report was shot and then broadcasted by the Russian television RTV. Among the weapons confiscated from the rebels, there stood out the missile launchers Vasiliok, exclusively manufactured in the Rabnita factory. Such missile launchers were also confiscated from the Chechens in 2002 and 2004.
During the last 10 years, there were many news regarding Bulgarian companies selling weapons to the Caucasus republics. The name mentioned most often is the one of V. Podolean. Through a company registered in Dubrich, Bulgaria, he smuggled the separatists’ weapons. Among the people accusing him of that, there is also General Alexander Lebed, former leader of the 14 th Army and one of the founders of Transnistria, Vasile Iakovlev.
Cover for Mother Russia?
Military experts from Moldova have launched a surprising hypothesis. There are signals that Russian groups of interests sold their own weapons through Transnistria, so that the origin of the smuggled weapons could be lost. This strategy was used in special cases, as the one of the Caucasus conflict. But there are no documents whatsoever to support this theory.
The project "Transdniester - Revealing Europe's black hole" is an investigation of CRJI, financed by SCOOP in Danemark and SAS in Switzerland. The participants in this project are the following journalists: Vitalie Calugareanu (Chisinau), Vlad Lavrov (Kiev), Igor Boldyrev (Odessa), Alexander Bratersky (Moscova) and foto Robert Ghement.
by ªtefan Cândea and Sorin Ozon, RCJI