Ernest Vardanean, a 33-year-old stringer for the Transdniester news agency Novy Region 2, is accused of spying for Moldova and could be sentenced to between 12 and 20 years in prison if found guilty. The Moldovan government, the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have urged authorities in Tiraspol to release Vardanean from detention and to ensure he receives a fair trial. Numerous human rights and journalists’ associations, including Reporters Without Borders, have also condemned his arrest.
While a small group of Internet bloggers and human rights activists picketed the Russian Embassy in Yerevan today, a television channel in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniester has aired a video showing a jailed local journalist confessing to spying.
The journalist, Ernest Vardanean, has been held in a Tiraspol jail since April 7, on charges of espionage and high treason. The Armenian-born journalist, known for his critical stance on Transdniester’s self-proclaimed government, faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty. In the video, Vardanean says he had been asked by the Moldovan Information and Security Service to spy on Transdniestrians and foreign diplomats in Moldova.
Vardanean’s case underscores the legal limbo faced by people who run afoul of the authorities in Transdniester and other breakaway territories in the former communist bloc.
The international community has urged separatist authorities in Tiraspol to release Vardanean and ensure he receives a fair trial. But officials in Tiraspol seem intent on building a case against Vardanean. In a 10-minute videotape (watch above) aired May 11 on Transdniester’s government-funded television, a somber Vardanean said he had been spying for Moldova since 2001. He said he was recruited by the country’s security services when he was still a university student in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau.
“I was made to understand quite clearly that my studies, the studies of my future wife, and our life in general could suffer if I refrained from further cooperating with Moldova’s secret services,” Vardanean said in the videotape.
Vardanean went on to admit he had made a “terrible mistake” by accepting to spy on Transdniester, where he has been living with his wife and two children. His televised confession was part of a lengthy television report featuring a number of local officials, including Vladimir Antyufeyev, Transdniester’s minister of state security. Antyufeyev rejected accusations that Tiraspol was punishing Vardanean for his critical reporting.
Waving various documents allegedly incriminating Vardanean, Antyufeyev insisted Transdniester had hard proof the journalist was a threat to the security of the region, which is mainly populated by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians and is politically loyal to Moscow.
“We have no complaints whatsoever against Vardanean with regard to his journalist activities,” Antyufeyev said.
“We have state security complaints against him with regard to the criminal activities in which he engaged, as a citizen of Transdniester, to the benefit of another state and other security services. He cooperated with these services and pledged to work to the detriment of Transdniester’s people and government.”
Antyufeyev said Vardanean had asked for a private audience with him, during which he had asked him to arrange the televised confession.
Another official with Transdniester’s Ministry of State Security, Vladimir Bordorian, said Moldova’s secret services had recruited the journalist as part of its campaign to “destroy the statehood of Transdniester.” Bordorian said Vardanean was not an isolated case. Moldova’s Information and Security Service, he said, routinely targeted Transdniestrian nationals studying in Moldova, “zombifying” them into becoming informers and later infiltrating Transdniester’s media, nongovernmental organizations, and political parties.
He warned that Moldovan secret services were also active at checkpoints on the de facto border between Moldova and the separatist region. “Security service agents dressed as police officers make contact with our citizens and carry out their illegal actions against them. The main task of these checkpoints is to pick, from the stream of arriving Transdniester residents, those who could be information sources,” Bordorian said.
The May 11 television report sparked dismay and incredulity among supporters of Vardanean, who view it as a warning against nongovernmental organizations and independent journalists in Transdniester. (At the time of his arrest, Vardanean was scheduled to begin writing a blog for RFE/RL’s Moldova Service.)
Vardanean’s wife, Irina, told RFE/RL that she believed her husband’s alleged confession had been obtained under pressure.
“I think the scenario was written for him — for me it’s obvious. No one knows him better than I and his close family, and it was clear from his body language that this was all unnatural, forced. He was nervous, and he was speaking in a manner that was not his own,” she said.
Moldova has also dismissed the charges against Vardanean as bogus.
Viktor Osipov, Moldova’s deputy prime minister in charge of solving the Transdniestrian conflict, told RFE/RL that “in reality, there are no secrets on the left bank of the Dniestr River that are not known by Moldova’s secret services. Such fabricated cases lack any substance, because Ernest Vardanean did not have access to any important data.”
Whether or not Vardanean ever spied on Transdniestrians, his case underscores the legal problems faced by people in Transdniester and other breakaway territories in the former communist bloc.
The Moldovan government, the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all thrown their weight behind Vardanean. But Transdniester — which declared independence from Moldova in 1990 and fought a brief war with Moldovan forces two years later — is not recognized internationally, and there may not be much they can to help him legally. Vardanean’s confession, regardless of the motives behind it, also bodes ill for journalists in both Transdniester and Moldova.
Elsa Vidal, the spokeswoman for Reporters Without Borders, said, “If what Vardanean says is true, it’s more than sad, because it casts a shadow on journalists in Moldova and Transdniester. It will cost a very high price for the whole journalistic profession there because it will raise suspicion. And if the confession was received upon pressure and threats, it’s even more shocking.”