Europe's rogue state
Our correspondent explores Transdniestria
IN THEORY, Transdniestria is scary. It is the sort of place where thugs in leather jackets tote their guns in restaurants, a place where anything can be smuggled, laundered, bought or disposed of. Bad things can happen to the unwary or unlucky Westerner, and if they do, nobody will help you. Chisinau-based diplomats shun the illegal, unrecognised “Transdniestrian Moldovan Republic”.
The place is run by a Ministry of State Security—”MGB”, for its Russian initials—which has close and unexplained ties to powerful people in Moscow. That outfit is run by Vladimir Antufeyev, who—in the eyes of his enemies at least—is a villain straight out of a James Bond film. He is physically imposing, brainy, ruthless and has a suitably chequered background. He arrived here years ago under an assumed name, having staged an unsuccessful putsch in Latvia.
Driving from Chisinau to the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, takes about 40 minutes. The “border” is the ceasefire line left over from a short, fierce, pointless war in 1992 between swaggering ethno-nationalist Moldovans and diehard Soviet loyalists, which left the latter in charge of Transdniestria. You pass Moldovan customs officers, then Russian peace-keepers, then Transdniestrian customs, then the border control.
The checks are cursory. If your papers are in order, everything is OK. But what does it cost to get the right papers? One aim of this trip has been to see what the market is in forged or corruptly-obtained passports. A few years back your correspondent failed to take the chance, in the bazaar in Faizabad, of buying a spanking new Afghan passport for just $40, and has regretted it ever since.
So far, on this trip, the quest for a passport has been fruitless. In Bucharest they are said to be on sale in Moldova, no problem. Moldovans say that the trade there has dried up, but you can buy any documents you want in Transdniestria, no problem. But even the sleaziest looking taxi drivers and the barmen in the deepest dives of Tiraspol look shocked at the idea. Odessa in next-door Ukraine, they say, is the place for all kinds of papers, legal and illegal.
For a place that bangs on endlessly about its statehood, Transdniestria is pretty feeble when it comes to the details. The first stop is the foreign ministry. In most countries, the foreign ministry is a landmark. This one is tucked away in a backstreet. It lacks a national flag, a sign, and even a door bell.
Banging on what looks like a garage door produces reluctant admission that this is the foreign ministry, and eventually access to a dusty car park that leads on to a nondescript villa. Inside, it all seems unfinished. Bare wires dangle from the ceilings, some with lightbulbs, some without. It smells cold, damp and lifeless. “Have you just moved in?” “No, a couple of years ago” comes the answer.
The main road, October 25th St, tells you much of what you need to know. The most common shop signs are for money exchange—reflecting the inflow of remittances from émigrés that keep both Transdniestria and Moldova afloat. Transdniestrian roubles are dingy, scruffy scraps of paper, which manage to make even Moldova’s tatty currency, the lei, look respectable. The coins are tiny discs of aluminium.
A hugely ornate new bank building shows the profits you can make from shovelling money into, and around, a place where international financial controls don’t bite. A short way away is the headquarters of the MGB. Across the road is a fast-food joint that, oddly, is owned by the son of a senior Moldovan politician. The two sides may hate each other on one level, but on another their interests overlap in the most curious ways.