Peacekeepers Guard Forgotten Transdnestr Base

ReutersA general driving in front of his troops in the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic on the 13th anniversary of its "independence."
COLBASNA, Moldova -- General Boris Sergeyev has an unenviable task, one which has given him an almost permanent headache for six years.

In the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic in Moldova, he is commander of Russian troops and charged with overseeing an uneasy peace between two sides in a conflict largely forgotten by the rest of the world.

He also has to remove thousands of tons of weapons from a Soviet-era military base in a corner of Transdnestr's countryside -- arms that are long past their sell-by date but could still fall into the wrong hands.

He wants clear orders, but political meddling means that he can rarely fulfill them if and when he gets them.

And despite the fact that life on the base is quiet for an experienced soldier, outside the noise of debate is deafening.

"Here there is a big responsibility for us: We represent Russia and guard a lot of weapons," Sergeyev said, sitting behind a giant desk overlooked by a youthful portrait of President Vladimir Putin.

"The order has been made to destroy or remove the arms, but because of reasons to do with the region we cannot at the moment complete it. We cannot carry out the weapons using our bare hands. We need rail wagons, platforms and trains."

Transdnestr, a Russian-speaking region in Romanian-speaking Moldova, declared independence before the fall of the Soviet Union but is not recognized by any country. Its hard-line, communist-inspired leaders want the Russians to stay, impeding its retreat, hopeful they will legitimize its self-styled identity as a separate state.

The West wants the Russians and their Soviet-era arms out. Moscow says the troops will leave but doubts remain over whether they will and thereby surrender its considerable influence in the region. Allegations of military corruption are rife.

For Sergeyev, it means no fun at all. "In the papers, they talk about arms getting into the hands of the Transdnestrians but that is rubbish," he said, his brow furrowing as he recalled the stories critical of the Russian troops' role.

Built to arm a southern front between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Colbasna base is home to the largest arsenal in Europe and a focus for what has largely become a game to establish influence in a changing Europe. It looks unimportant and could be mistaken for a walled-in collective farm. Stuck in a far corner of Transdnestr, rarely a sound can be heard on base except from the odd cock or goose.

Russian soldiers cut and remove long grass to keep the base tidy and reduce the fire risk. They grow cucumbers, tomatoes and apples in neat gardens dotted around the expanse. Children sit alongside officers on duty at checkpoints and a yellow school bus is often seen wending its way through the well-kept lanes. "It's so quiet here. On your second night, you are woken by the silence," said Andrei Terentyev, deputy commander of the 14th Army, surveying the sprawling base.

Guards surrounding the base are told to shoot and ask questions later if a stranger gets too close to the barbed wire. But nestled in rolling green hills, row upon row of 240-millimeter-caliber mortars, Scud-like rockets and grenades look dangerously accessible. Some sit in fields surrounded by lightning rods, their wooden boxes slowly rotting. Other arms are kept in low white sheds, hidden from prying eyes.

The Russian army had just begun repatriating weaponry when Transdnestr staged a referendum and proclaimed independence in 1990, fearful that it might one day be forced to rejoin Moldova and eventually be swallowed whole by Romania to the West.

War between newly independent Moldova and Transdnestr separatists killed hundreds of people and injured thousands in 1992, with pitched battles on both sides of the Dnestr River. Russia stepped in to separate the sides and now patrols a crossing near the river to stop any movement of weapons or drugs.

Moscow initially promised to pull out its troops -- between 1,400 and 1,600 remain -- along with what is left of the 40,000 tons of arms by the end of 2002, with the priority being to keep them out of militants' hands.

But after encountering problems, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which funds the withdrawal, extended the deadline until the end of this year. Time is running out.

"Sometime this month they should resume or else it will be physically impossible to get it all out," said William Hill, head of the OSCE mission to Moldova.

Russian officers say none of this is their fault. Sergeyev said the Transdnestr authorities have refused to help, citing Moscow's refusal to write off gas debts worth about $100 million and their hope that such a refusal will prompt Moldova to end an "economic war" against the region. And anyway, he reasons, why should they go?

"The peacekeepers should stay. There is no point sending more peacekeepers here. For what? To destabilize the situation," Sergeyev said, praising his men for a job well done. "And I will miss it if I have to go."