Moldova – a New Center of Illegal Arms Trafficking in Europe?

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Christian RUSSU
It is possible that right now Moldova surpasses continental illegal arms trafficking from the Western Balkans. The “security hub” in Chisinau, developed by the EU to combat it, has been clearly not coping with its tasks so far
The conflict in Ukraine, together with a large-scale lend-lease of a wide range of weapons, has significantly changed the situation with illegal arms trafficking in Europe in just a year. International organizations such as the UN and the OSCE have yet to assess the impact of this war on the channels for the transport of weapons and ammunition. However, as we speak now the previous studies on this issue as of 2016-2017 (where the Western Balkans stood out) have lost their relevance. Moreover, Moldova in the new reality has already become a direction not only for the supply of military cargo in the interests of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but also for their illegal traffic in the opposite direction. When a stream of Ukrainian refugees poured into our country last year, it became clear that we would not be able to counteract separately cross-border crime, including illegal migration and illegal arms trafficking. Moldova, not being part of the EU law enforcement and border system, turned out to be a “weak link” in the face of the challenges and threats that arose due to the war in Ukraine. No wonder, the authorities urgently requested international support. Already on March 17, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) signed an agreement on operations in our country. It was supposed to help the Border Police not only to fight cross-border crime, but also to protect the state border. For the rapid deployment of the Frontex Mission, it was necessary to amend the relevant laws on the border, on the regime of weapons and ammunition for civilian use, on the procedure for the use of physical force, special means and firearms, on the regime of foreigner migration in the Republic of Moldova. As a result, the EU law enforcement and security structures have received unprecedented powers in a country that so far has only the status of an associated member:
  • operation within the border control system managed by the Border Police (coordination, supervision, information exchange, control of individuals, vehicles, goods and other property, law enforcement, etc.);
  • import, storage, carrying and use of lethal and non-lethal weapons on the territory of Moldova;
  • use of physical force, special means and firearms, which previously was exclusively within the competence of the Moldovan law enforcement agencies (with the exception of foreign intelligence personnel accompanying foreign delegations during visits to the country);
  • a special regime of entry/exit and stay in the Republic of Moldova.
At the end of, the Interpol General Secretariat sent in late March an Operations Support Group to Moldova as part of response to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. However, the assistance provided by the EU was clearly not enough. This was evidenced by the increased queues at the Moldovan-Romanian border (because of the need for the Romanian authorities to carefully filter traffic), sometimes even turning into protests. Therefore, after Moldova received the EU candidate country status, the authorities had formal grounds to demand even more resources to combat cross-border threats. During the session of the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council held on July 11, the Moldovan Interior Minister Ana Revenco signed an agreement on development of the EU hub for internal security and border management in Chisinau. This event was presented as an integration into the European security belt and the transition of Moldova from the status of a consumer state to a source of the continental security. It was planned that representatives of the security structures of all EU states and European departments would work for us focusing on countering drug and arms trafficking, human trafficking, illegal migration, radioactive substance trafficking and cybercrime. Since the creation of the security hub, several meetings of its participants have taken place, where Ana Revenko spoke about the significant successes of this structure. At the same time, official reports emphasized, among other things, that “the alarming number of recorded cross-border crimes confirms the validity of the work of this structure in Chisinau, and large volumes of seized drugs, weapons and ammunition or other substances should be subjected to certified laboratory tests as soon as possible to counter war crimes and organized crime.” Meanwhile, media regularly informs about attempts to move weapons and ammunition across the Moldovan border. I would like to believe that our valiant border guards, under the leadership of Rosian Vasiloi supported by the Frontex and other structures, stop such atrocities, if not a slight problem. Over the past few months, the foreign media has repeatedly published about the detention of contraband from Moldova. Traditionally, this most often concerns tobacco products, as well as illegal drugs and pharmaceutical products. This confirms that the holes on our borders are not packed off, and the uncontrolled Transnistrian border sector is not to be blamed, since it has been locked up for like a year now. By the way, the authorities sometimes acknowledged the growth of trafficking in people and weapons through our country and the inability to cope with this scourge, although such revelations caused obvious irritation among our partners and even led to scandals. Recall at least the unpleasant diplomatic incident with Kyiv due to the interview of ex-Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita to the Financial Times under the heading “Moldova’s PM calls for more EU help to curb Ukraine war smuggling.” According to Natalia Gavrilita, “We do not want to become a country where security threats grow, or there is increased . . . trafficking or illegal smuggling. Moldova needs EU support to not allow these trafficking networks to grow”. The Head of the SIS Alexandru Musteata also implicitly hinted at new challenges, telling journalists that the war in Ukraine not only instigated a refugee crisis, but also “increased the risk of growth in both goods and weapons illicit trafficking.” The insufficient number of the European structures already deployed in Moldova was also noted by the Head of the MFAEI Nicu Popescu. At the same time, Moldova requested to send to our country a “civilian mission to advise on the policy of common security and defense in order to increase the ability of our country to respond to current problems.” The other day, the Head of the Border Police Rosian Vasiloi reluctantly admitted on television that there are many investigations into the illegal trafficking of weapons from Ukraine to Moldova, while refusing to give details, including the origin of these weapons, allegedly so as not to harm the investigation. At the same time, both Ukrainian and Moldovan border guards detain arms dealers. According to him, just last week some individuals were captured in the Ukrainian regions near Moldova, trying to sell weapons. We can only guess how much such illegal traffic is carried out outside beyond the vision of our and Ukrainian border guards. Speaking to the press, Rosian Vasiloi mentioned that all EU law enforcement and border structures in Moldova this year are deployed precisely taking into account the existing negative experience of the EU with the Western Balkans and its constant flows of smuggled weapons for many years after the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Recently, European and Moldovan officials announced the consideration of a report on the activities of the Security Hub in Chisinau and plans for the near future. However, given the unofficial taboo on any information about arms trafficking from Ukraine, we can hardly expect that the public will be shared a detailed look at the number and types of weapons and ammunition seized. In the meantime, a deep ditch on the border between Moldova and Ukraine, which construction was started near Ocnita, clearly evidences serious problems with illegal traffic, including weapons smuggling.