Thursday, May 17, 2007

diary part four


The minister of fear

May 17th 2007

Our correspondent meets Transdniestria's chief spook

THE misnamed Hotel Druzhba (Friendship) used to be the only place to spend the night in Tiraspol. For connoisseurs of truly dismal Soviet-style rudeness, apathy, squalor and clashing shades of muddy pastel, it is still unmissable. As a place to stay, its noisy, draughty rooms, with their nylon sheets, uneven tiles, flimsy locks and eccentric plumbing, leave a lot to be desired.

Even Dmitri Soin, the chief Transdniestrian cheerleader and director of the magnificently named Che Guevara School of Political Leadership, shows visible relief that his foreign visitor’s enthusiasm for authentic local flavours does not stretch to the Druzhba. His youth movement, Proriv (Breakthrough), apes the pro-Western flagwavers of the “coloured revolutions” that toppled autocrats in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Proriv’s headquarters look flashy, with elegantly designed logos (featuring Mr Guevara) and lots of computers. But the aim is not to promote Western-style democracy, rather, its opposite: Proriv is much closer to the pro-Putin youth movements of Russia. The accent is on fun, and a positive and loyal portrayal of the motherland. Transdniestria is a modern, vibrant, multi-ethnic society, happily linked to dynamic, prosperous Russia. A much better bet than muddy Moldova.

The real prize is not meeting the pony-tailed, yoga-loving Mr Soin, but his boss, the Transdniestrian security chief Vladimir Antufeyev. How to reach him, in his secrecy-shrouded, fear-inducing ministry? Even the gutsiest independent journalists in Transdniestria do not have a phone number for his office. The so-called ministry of foreign affairs shows no inclination or capability to arrange a meeting. Time is running short.

The best approach is the simplest: go to the ministry of state security and ring the doorbell. It seems a trifle risky. This is not a building which outsiders normally enter willingly, especially Western journalists who write nasty things about gangster-ridden separatist enclaves. A friend cautions strongly against: it will be fruitless; the tea will contain polonium. A tiny spyhole opens, then a thick steel door; a soldier, in the uniform of the special forces, takes a proffered passport and visiting card.

Next stop is a long wait in a tiny, interrogation room, fitted out with a KGB version of IKEA furniture: flimsily constructed in pale plastic veneer. Steel shutters on the windows have slits for the muzzle of a gun, just in case.


Tough times in Tiraspol

Then General Antufeyev’s secretary appears, ideally cast for the role in elegantly cut battledress, fishnet stockings, high heels and scarlet lipstick. She beams. The minister is available in 40 minutes. The soldiers beam. If they had been hoping to be told to take this unwelcome visitor on a one-way trip to the dungeons, they don’t show it. Sadly, the canteen is not available, but an excellent café round the corner sells a passable borscht and dumplings. It is hard to imagine anywhere else in Europe where an impromptu request to meet the chief spook would meet such an accommodating and friendly reaction.

Face to face, General Antufeyev is charming and hospitable, not the sinister brute of popular repute. Coffee is offered at once; then a bottle of brandy as a souvenir. In crisp, vivid Russian he outlines his worldview: Transdniestria is a bastion against western hegemony; Moldova is intolerantly ethno-centric, pervaded by Romanian nationalism, and consequently unattractive to the liberty-loving Russophones of Transdniestria.

It is rather like talking to top Stasi people in East Berlin in 1988: the logic is fine and the brainpower impressive; but the assumptions are mistaken. In truth, Transdniestria is being squeezed: Russia is impatiently cutting back subsidies; Moldova, albeit slowly, is becoming more attractive. General Antufeyev will need all his wiles to survive.

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