Three EU-based firms are suspected of trying to smuggle arms to Belarus and Russia, in what might be the tip of a larger black market.
Czech firm Česká zbrojovka tried to export over 100 rifles and pistols via Moldova to Russia in 2020, according to a Moldovan document seen by EUobserver.
The shipment included ‘CZ TSR’-model sniper rifles, which can be used for sport or by special police.
Hungarian firm De Fango and Slovak firm XXeurope also tried to export hundreds of thousands of ammunition cartridges via Moldova to Belarus at about the same time, the document indicated.
The EU imposed arms embargoes on Belarus and Russia in 2011 and 2014.
And a Moldovan liaison officer shared the information – a 12-page PowerPoint presentation created by Moldovan law-enforcement authorities – with an EU diplomat in Chișinău in July to raise the alarm.
It also named Moldovan arms firm Cartuș, a Russian company called Alliance, and a Belarusian one called Outdoor Team in the alleged scheme to bypass EU sanctions.
“What are the documents required in EU countries to export [military items] to non-EU countries?”, the Moldovan document asked.
“Is circumventing [EU] embargoes by using states [Moldova] that have not ratified the embargo criminalised or entails only pecuniary liability?,” it also said.
Moldova’s foreign ministry confirmed one of the cases to EUobserver, saying: “The [Moldovan] government … stopped an attempt to export civilian ammunitions to Belarus”.
“They were confiscated and are currently being kept on the territory of the Republic of Moldova. The judiciary … has opened an investigation into the case, followed by several searches last week,” it said on Tuesday (5 October).
“The ammunitions were imported from Hungary, but originally produced in Finland and Switzerland,” Moldova added, widening the list of potential EU culprits.
Moldova was “open to collaboration with any EU institution or EU member state agency investigating this case,” the ministry told EUobserver.
“The [prime minister Natalia] Gavrilița-government … has made it a priority to fight against corruption and to clean state institutions,” it also said.
Slovakia corroborated fishy goings on at XXeurope.
“We can confirm that XXeurope applied for an export licence for ammunition with a declared end-user in Moldova (for the civilian market) in April 2020. After thorough examination of the application, the Slovak MFA [ministry of foreign affairs] decided not to grant a permission for export,” it said.
“Slovakia applies strict control in arms exports,” it added.
“Czechia also fully implements all EU or UN arms embargoes,” its foreign ministry told EUobserver.
The Hungarian foreign ministry said it “complies … with the rules on arms embargo and other restrictive measures adopted by the United Nations or the European Union”.
Czech firm Česká zbrojovka told EUobserver after this story was already published “it has not supplied any of its products subject to international sanctions to either Russia or Belarus, while such sanctions have been in place” and “not authorised any of its customers or business partners to make any such sales”.
De Fango, the Hungarian arms company, told EUobserver it “does not supply goods to Russia and Belarus”.
“All deliveries by our company are carried out exclusively with the permission of the competent state authorities of Hungary, observing all Hungarian laws and EU laws,” it said.
XXeurope, the Slovak firm, which is located in Žilina in north-west Slovakia, did not list a phone number or email address.
Moldovan company Cartuș denied wrongdoing in a statement also sent after this article was published.
Belarusian firm Outdoor Team, which is located in an industrial estate outside Minsk, did not reply.
A man who answered when EUobserver phoned Russian firm Alliance in St Petersburg declined to identify himself. But he said: “We don’t have any interest to talk about this problematic [sic]. It’s too big emotion [sic]. We don’t need to talk with you. Good day. Excuse me”.
For its part, the EU foreign service recently asked Bratislava, Budapest, and Prague to shed light on the affair in the EU Council, where member states meet.
The European Commission and Europol, the joint EU police agency in The Hague, have also been seized of the Moldova re-export scheme, according to internal EU documents seen by EUobserver.
“Moldovan authorities made a presentation about possible cases of violation of arms embargoes on Russia and Belarus from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia,” a recent internal EU foreign-service email said, referring to Chișinău’s PowerPoint document.
“The alleged scheme involves manufacturers from these countries which exported weapons (pistols and rifles) or ammunitions to Moldova and then re-exported to Russia and Belarus,” the email added.
The EU foreign service declined to comment when asked if it was pursuing an investigation.
“In cases where the EEAS [EU External Action Service] hears about a potential case of violation of EU arms embargoes, it informs the relevant EU member state(s) and requests the necessary information in order to investigate the allegations and ensure implementation,” its spokesman said.
But the revelation of the Moldova scheme posed the question if there was a wider black market in EU arms to embargoed states.
And the EU foreign-service email highlighted a potential loophole in the arms-control regime.
“EU sanctions apply in the territory of the EU and third states [such as Moldova] cannot be found liable of violation of EU sanctions,” it said.
“In case of alignment of third countries on EU sanctions, it is for the third country to decide on the course of action under its own national law,” it added.
For the Czech foreign ministry, the existing rules worked fine.
“There is no loophole in EU arms embargoes – if any end-user in the third country re-exports arms to embargoed countries, then it constitutes a clear breach of EU law and it is subject to an investigation,” it told EUobserver.
But EU guns and riot-control equipment have turned up in Belarus before.
These included German-made pistols brandished by Belarusian police against pro-democracy protesters last September, according to German broadcaster ZDF.
And they included Czech-made stun grenades used against crowds last year, some of which caused serious injuries, according to US think-tank the Atlantic Council.
The EU also has arms embargoes on Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
But the Moldova-Belarus scheme showed that some of the EU measures were “just symbolic”, one EU security source commented.
“In general, the flow of arms and ammo to Belarus and Russia [from EU countries] is wider [than the Moldova scheme], including other military equipment,” the source said.
Sometimes, the devil was in the detail of individual EU arms bans, which contained derogations.
And for its part, the Czech Republic took an interest in tweaking EU rules on arms to Russia earlier this year.
“Coest discussed the CZ [Czech] proposal concerning a modification of the scope of the [Russia] arms embargo,” a memo dated 22 July from the EU Council’s Working Party on Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Coest) to its Working Party of Foreign Relations Counsellors (Relex), said.
But if anybody misbehaved, they should have known better, because another EU memo, dated 14 May 2019 and also seen by EUobserver, spelled out the details of the Russia and Belarus bans.
Some types of “civilian firearms” could be sold to Russia, the letter from Relex to the Council’s Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports said.
But nothing should be sold to Belarus because its EU sanctions included “restrictions on equipment used for internal repression,” while the EU sanctions on Russia did not, Relex said.
By Andrew Rettman