18th Apr 2019

Moldova rebel free to enter EU

  • Tiraspol: Western visitors describe the rebel capital as a "timewarp" to Soviet days even by comparison with Moldova proper, Europe's poorest country (Photo: Minamie's Photo)

The EU has quietly suspended a visa ban on rebel leaders in Moldova in the hope of reviving peace talks on one of Europe's Cold War-era conflicts.

The decision, taken by foreign ministers on Monday (22 February), allows 16 people from the de facto government of the breakaway Transniestria region to enter the EU for a trial period of six months.

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It covers rebel leader Igor Smirnov, a 65-year-old Russian former baker, who moved to Transniestria in 1987 and led separatists in a bloody war of independence in the early 1990s.

It also includes Vladimir Antufeyev, a former Soviet police chief who runs Transniestria's secret service. Mr Antufeyev is widely believed to be the power behind the throne in Tiraspol and to take orders from Moscow.

Moldova's new pro-EU government coalition asked Brussels to make the visa move. The EU's delegation in Chisinau backed the idea, even recommending that EU ministers lift the sanctions permanently as one option.

"The government is trying to re-energise the conflict settlement process and has proposed this gesture of goodwill to the Transnistrian side. But equally important is to beef up Moldova's attractiveness for the residents of the secessionist regions," Nicu Popescu, a senior aide to Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat told EUobserver.

EU diplomats are to hold talks with the rebel leaders in the coming days and have scheduled an informal meeting for 1 March in Vienna of the "5+2" conflict resolution group, which comprises Moldova, Transniestria, Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, as well as the EU and US as observers.

The 5+2 group last met informally at expert-level in late 2009 but has not met at top level since 2006.

If the rebels nix the diplomatic agenda, obstruct people from crossing the Transniestria border or block teaching of the Moldovan language, the EU visa door is likely to slam shut again in September.

But any final peace deal will also depend on Russia, which maintains around 1,300 soldiers and a huge arms dump in the territory. Mr Smirnov recently offered Russia the chance to install a new missile base on his turf.

The Transniestria conflict claimed around 1,000 lives when it erupted. But the last shots were fired in July 1992. The Smirnov regime, which rules over half a million people, today lives off steel and vodka exports as well as alleged smuggling of guns, drugs and people.

The EU has recently also removed travel bans on officials in Belarus and Uzbekistan in the hope of improving ties with the authoritarian governments in both countries.

In the case of Belarus, it drew the line at a group of four men directly implicated in the disappearances of opposition activists in 1999 and 2000, and a woman suspected of rigging elections, who remain persona non grata.

Correction: Mr Smirnov was in the original version of this story referred to by the nickname 'Santa Claus.' It later transpired that he does not go by such a nickname

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