Arms traffickers exploit Central and Eastern European highways

Since the 'collapse of communism', a number of former Warsaw Pact states in Central and Eastern Europe as well as former Soviet republics such as Belarus and Ukraine have gained a reputation for becoming clearing houses for surplus arms and munitions.

Quantities of such arms and munitions often find their way to conflict-ridden states in Africa and Asia that are subject to various Western embargoes.

It is no secret that Ukraine under the former administration of Leonid Kuchma was more than active in the illicit arms trade. One need look no further than the investigations currently underway in which the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's office is examining illegal sales of Kh-55/AS-15 cruise missiles to China and Iran in 2001.

It is alleged that Ukraine sold arms to any state or non-state actors who expressed a willingness to pay in hard currency. Apart from surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile technology, Ukraine also exported much more inconspicuous, and for that reason perhaps even more dangerous Strela and Igla manportable air-defence systems (MANPADS); or shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems of Russian design to a number of foreign clients. These are particularly dangerous since they could be used by terrorist groups to attack commercial airliners.

Ukraine also exported tanks, armoured vehicles, radar technology as well as small arms and ammunition.

To the north, neighbouring Belarus has also exported a variety of weapons systems, including armoured vehicles, as well components for radar and missile systems. The country has over the years developed a competent electronics industry base, including an impressive computer science capability that supplied everything from 'white goods' such as refrigerators for the civilian market to ballistic missile components and radar software to the former Soviet armed forces.

Belarussian analysts have alleged that the country has supplied advanced weapons, such as SAM systems and air-defence radars, to a number of African states under UN and other Western embargoes, as well as military 'advisers' to man and operate them. Reports have also alleged that Belarus has been used by Russia and Ukraine (under Kuchma) for the final assembly and export of various weapons systems that could not otherwise pass Western scrutiny if exported from their countries of origin.

What is perhaps more disturbing is that countries outside of the former Soviet Union, who were once part of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, continue to quietly sell arms and ammunition despite joining Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union (EU). Countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania have often been implicated in arms scandals involving shipments of illicit arms and ammunition to warring countries in the developing world.

Safe havens

One of the primary reasons for such activities is the fact that most, if not all, of these countries offer a safe haven to organised crime and corruption.

Former Warsaw Pact states such as the Czech Republic were forced to reduce their militaries following the end of the Cold War, especially after joining NATO when many states chose to opt for Western-style all-volunteer professional armed forces. During the transformation process the countries were faced with the mammoth task of discarding millions of tons of unwanted, ageing and increasingly unstable munitions. Given the prohibitive costs associated with proper disposal, especially at a time of shrinking defence budgets and fragile transformation economies, a number of states, including the Czech Republic, have opted to simply donate the munitions to anyone interested in taking them who does not fall under a Western-imposed arms embargo.

It should be noted that there is a large surplus of ammunition on the world market with potential customers only willing to assume possession if the state of origin will foot the bill for transporting the merchandise. Given their geographic locations and often corrupt political climate, the Czech Republic and Slovakia continue to act as transhipment points for surplus arms and munitions either heading into warring states in the Caucasus, Central Asia or Africa. One could easily lose track while attempting to count the number of incidents when Czech or Slovak arms exporting companies have been involved in illegal sales of weapons and ammunition to states that come under either UN, EU or US embargoes.

As security analysts and non-governmental watchdog groups, such as Berlin-based Transparency International, have alleged, surplus arms and munitions exported by Czech or Slovak export companies often end up in third countries where they mysteriously turn up after being officially sold to prospective buyers who hold an end-user certificate. Such analysts have repeatedly argued that the Czech and Slovak governments lack the necessary political will to properly enforce that surplus arms and munitions stay in the countries to which they are initially sold.

A typical scenario involving the illegal sale of surplus weapons or munitions from, for example, the Czech Republic or Slovakia is that the weapons are flown to, again, for example, Bulgaria or Azerbaijan with false papers indicating that the goods are pharmaceutical products, and are then re-shipped to the actual end-user client with local customs officials being adequately compensated to ensure that the merchandise reaches the customer.

In fairness it should be noted that the arms business is not solely the domain of former Central and Eastern European intelligence officers who have entered the private sector. Western governments have also opted to take advantage of the Central and Eastern European arms-trafficking highway either as a dumping ground for their surplus ammunition, or as a source for countries that are building up their military capability.

In October 2002, the US government paid for the transport of approximately one million rounds of surplus Czech Army small-arms ammunition donated by the Czech government. The ammunition was placed aboard a freight train in the Czech Republic, from where it travelled to Romania, was transferred to a ship and sent to Georgia, where the US government handed it over to elements of the Georgian Army that it had trained in order to defend its interests in the Caucasus.

Similar arrangements have been reached between the US government and the Czech Republic and Slovakia recently when small-arms ammunition has been shipped to the fledgling US-trained Afghan National Army (ANA).

A more interesting case occurred following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the full consent of the Slovak Ministry of Defence (MoD), discreetly transported a shipment of Russian-designed AK-47 assault rifles and other small arms to equip US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces operating covertly in Afghanistan prior to the official US-led invasion as well as to elements of the Northern Alliance fighting against the former Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda terrorist network. The weapons obtained in a Central Asian state where shipped via Slovakia to help mask their origin.

While it can be argued that the US government took advantage of Slovakia's relatively low international profile to transport arms to friendly forces in its international 'war against terror', it helps illustrate the fact that countries in Central and Eastern Europe are ideally poised to handle such transactions.

Other concerns have arisen when the Czech MoD announced during the first quarter of 2004 that it would dispose of massive quantities of surplus Czech Army munitions by selecting a limited number of private companies to conduct the operation. Critics of the arrangement argued that no law prevented the Czech companies from disassembling the munitions and then reselling the explosive elements illegally to embargoed countries in the developing world. Once again the concern is that profit will supercede ethics.

Jiri Kominek is an independent journalist and consultant based in Prague, specialising in defence and security matters. He has also covered economic and business developments, reporting from Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia. He may be reached at

Explore our related content