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Analysis & Opinion
18.08.10 Rogue Espionage
By Tom Balmforth

A Romanian diplomat on Monday became the latest to be embroiled in the frenzy of spy busts this summer when Russian FSB agents accused him of stealing Russian military secrets relating to the rogue Moldovan region of Transdnestr. Gabriel Grecu has now been expelled and Bucharest responded tit-for-tat. With the approach of a possible resolution on Moldova’s sixteen month political crisis, regional players like Russia and Romania are taking more of an interest in the region. But while Romania has every reason to be gathering military intelligence on Transdnestr, its role as a haven for money laundering is just as much of a threat to national security.

Gabriel Grecu, a Romanian diplomat, added his name to the slew of spy scandals this summer after he was caught “red handed” receiving “secret intelligence of a military nature from a Russian citizen” in a supermarket in central Moscow.

Footage published by RIA Novosti shows a man enter a busy shop and put a black plastic bag in a locker. Grecu then comes to the same locker and retrieves the plastic bag, which is supposed to contain a “flash card with classified materials,” RIA Novosti reports. After arresting Grecu on the spot, FSB officers say they then found other spy gadgets on him. “Espionage equipment seized from the agent fully reveals his hostile activities against Russia,” reads a statement from the FSB. He was given 48 hours to leave the country, and the Russian Foreign Ministry has lodged an official complaint with its Romanian counterpart, an FSB statement said.

The spy spat will do little to improve Romania-Russia relations which soured when Bucharest joined NATO in 2004, particularly as Romania backs the pro-European integration elements in Moldova’s fractious ruling coalition.

Officially, Grecu was working undercover as first secretary in the Romanian embassy’s political department.

Romania’s Foreign Ministry originally declined to comment on the scandal, but then responded tit-for-tat Tuesday with the expulsion of a Russian diplomat based in Bucharest, after slamming Russia’s conduct. “The Romanian Foreign Ministry condemns the severe breach by Russian authorities of the 1961 Vienna Convention regarding diplomatic relations,” AFP news agency quoted Bucharest as saying.

The same day, the FSB came out with a new statement claiming that Grecu was collecting Russian military intelligence on Moldova and Transdnestr, the breakaway sliver of territory east of the river Dnestr, where Russian “peacekeepers” have been stationed since a ceasefire in the 1992 separatist conflict.

The FSB statement on Tuesday recounts how Dinu Pistolya, Grecu’s predecessor as first secretary, was under FSB surveillance when he began to confidentially contact “M,” a Russian citizen, in order to gather analysis and information on Moldova and Transdnestr in 2008. He was also tasked with finding out “defining and compromising facts on the highest official posts and the leading politicians in the unrecognized republic.”

When Pistolya left and Grecu arrived in December 2008, Grecu eventually started “encouraging” “M” to “commit state betrayal,” by asking him for state secrets. Finally “M” informed the FSB, the security services’ statement reads. The FSB then concluded that “significant damage to Russia’s security interests could have been done if [the intelligence] was handed over to foreign secret services,” and so they acted.

The feeling in Bucharest is that Grecu’s expulsion was motivated by hardnosed Russian politicians seeking to discredit Romania in Moldova – and this was spurred on by the approach of Moldova’s referendum on amending its troublesome Constitution, which is scheduled for September 5, Moskovsky Komsomolets news daily suggested today.

Moldova’s inability to elect a president since April 2009 has created instability in a country where the economic crisis resonated deeply. Today’s ruling coalition – a fragile marriage of convenience between four ideologically disparate parties – has championed changing the Constitution to ease presidential election legislation through a countrywide referendum.
It could mean Moldova will soon undergo substantial political change, but it is far from clear which party or parties will come out on top. The Communist Party remains the most popular single party, and beyond that, center-right Prime Minister Vlad Filat and center-right Marian Lupu look the strongest candidates. If a coalition is necessary, it is unclear of what political complexion it would be.

Meanwhile there are a number of explosive issues in Moldovan politics such as the longstanding (however unrealistic) proposal currently championed by right-ring Acting President Mikhai Ghimpu to unite Moldova with Romania – an idea anathema to Russia and also one of the causal reasons for Transdnestr’s drive for independence. The allure of the EU is clear for Moldovans, although many of them have achieved this goal simply by acquiring Romanian passports, which are easy to obtain.

Nevertheless, the political uncertainty in Moldova could be upping the levels of espionage (including counterespionage) activity in the breakaway region on the left bank of the Dnestr. Earlier in the year a Moldovan journalist, Ernest Vardanean, was arrested and on May 13 confessed that he had been working for the Moldovan Secret Intelligence Service since 2001, although he claims that he was coerced into confessing.

Romania itself has a host of reasons to be spying in Transdnestr. “The key question in the intelligence world is whether XYZ is a threat to ABC's national security. Threats come in all forms. The fact that there are Russian troops in Moldova leads to the question of what kind of 'conventional' threat it poses to Romania's national security,” said Asher Pirt, a Transdnestr specialist.

And considering Russia has a military base and private airport in Transdestr and can therefore hypothetically move troops and equipment in and out of the country, intelligence of “a military nature” is crucial for Romania. When in February this year the United States proposed installing Patriot interceptor missiles in Romania, Transdnestr’s hotheaded President Igor Smirnov suggested Moscow respond by putting Iskander ballistic missiles in the breakaway region in riposte. The latter comment was never followed up, and was politely played down by Smirnov’s administration afterward, but Romania’s military interest in the unrecognized sliver of land is clear.

But the threat posed by the unrecognized republic’s role as a haven for economic crimes is just as big an issue for Romanian national security. “What threats in terms of economic and social security does Romania face from Transdnestr? In that sense the de facto state is used as a platform for economic crime and a haven for criminal activity. It is clear that Transdnestr is not an illegal arms manufacturing centre, but its banks could be involved in money laundering and therefore pose a significant threat to Romanian security,” said Pirt.
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