Why Crimea could become a new black hole of lawlessness in Europe

Back in the USSR – Transdniester is big on Soviet-era nosalgia

Compared to the cocaine cartels of Colombia or the heroin overlords of the Cosa Nostra, the Chicken Drumstick Mafia of Transdniester is not an outfit whose name creates fear around the world. So for the benefit of those who are not that clued in about international poultry smuggling, here are some basic facts.

Transdniester is a tiny pro-Russian breakaway republic sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. Like Crimea, many of its people want to become part of Russia rather than Europe – so much so that statues of Lenin and Soviet era hammer and sickles abound.

The really remarkable fact, though, is that according to Transdniester’s official import figures in 2006, each of its half-million citizens consumes an average of 140 kilos of chicken drumsticks every year. That’s the equivalent of about three trips to KFC every day.

Really? No, of course not. What the figures actually show is how Transdniester has become a world leader in smuggling, thanks to the fact that no-one in the wider world recognises its self-declared borders.

The trade in frozen chicken drumsticks, which are imported duty free and then smuggled out again at a vast mark-up, is just one of the many contraband scams that have seen it nicknamed the “black hole” of Europe since it broke away from Moldova in 1992. It’s also got a reputation as a weapons trafficking centre, which is rather worrying since there is a 40,000 tonne Soviet-era arms dump here.

Now, though, Transdniester may be about to get some competition for that “black hole” title, as Crimea threatens to recede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. A referendum is due on this for Saturday, although it hardly looks like being a free and fair poll.

Not only have “pro Russian” troops – ie Russians – been throwing a military blockade around the place, all kinds of Russian hardliners are coming in to persuade those who have yet to make up their mind. And as the BBC reported at the weekend, anyone who disagrees with them may get a whipping by Cossack militiamen.

Browbeaten – the referendum in Crimea may be less than free and fair

But with or without a “whipped” vote, the rest of the world is unlikely to recognise the referendum result, as America’s new ambassador to Kiev warned on Sunday, when he accused Russia of trying to change Crimea’s status “under the barrel of a gun”.

For die-hard Russian nationalists, of course, that will be worn as a badge of pride. But badges of pride are no substitute for proper passports: just ask the Transdniestrians, who have been issuing their own passports for two decades now, and still find that nobody accepts them.

Instead, far from becoming some new model statelet of the Russian motherland, the new Crimea will become another of the world’s “limbo” states, most of which are de facto magnets for lawlessness.

For example, it’s far from clear who will allow their ships to dock at Sevastopol if it becomes part of Russia again after an illegal referendum. Businesses in Crimea may find it difficult to find anyone willing to trade with them, especially if sanctions are in force. The murkiness of its disputed legal status will encourage smuggling. And just like northern Cyprus, few outside law enforcement agency will be willing to do extradition deals with the Crimean police, which will make it attractive for  organised crime.

Indeed, Crimeans who want to know what their country might end up might do well to take a visit to Transdniester, as I did in 2007. The parallels are fairly close:  it’s an area dominated by Russian-speakers, who fought a brief separatist war with Moldova after fearing that Moldovan nationalists – who speak a dialect of Romanian – would treat them as second class citizens.

But while it’s fascinating as a Communist-era  theme park – the main drag still has memorials to “workers’ heroes” from the local sewing machine factory – it’s also a carbon copy of all the bad bits of modern Russia.  The government, when I was there, was run as a virtual family fiefdom of crony capitalism by President Igor Smirnov, a Lenin lookalike. And as well as the bizarre chicken drumsticks racket, there were rumours of all sorts of other trafficking in weapons, drugs and stolen cars.

Indeed, I fear that the only difference between Transdniester and an illegally-seceded Crimea would be that the latter is much bigger, and therefore much more likely to be a source of trouble. Transdniester has only half a million people and is landlocked. Crimea has more than two million and also a major port, in an area already criss-crossed with smuggling routes from Asia.

Nobody recognises us, but we don’t care… Soviet-era iconography in Transdniester

Not that size will make any difference when it comes to gaining outside recognition. The international community may not be willing to intervene militarily in Crimea, but one thing it tends to stand firm on is refusing to recognise states that haven’t been created according to the rules. Quite apart from anything, it risks encouraging all manner of other separatist movements around the world, who will then also want their own passports, currencies, seats at the UN, and so on.

So my bet is that if Crimea does become part of Russia, it could become the deepest, darkest black hole Europe has seen for a while. Chicken drumstick, anyone?



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