There are not many borders in Europe where the cops sell ecstasy. There are also not many countries in Europe currently boasting one hundred per-cent employment. In Transnistria they have it all sorted. The only problem is the country doesn’t officially exist.
Also, you don’t get to keep the pills. It’s a clever recycling initiative. Anyone thick enough to purchase drugs from the man with the gun in the uniform, will subsequently be greeted by another man with a gun in a uniform about ten miles down the road. The yokes are found, the bribe is paid, and the merchandise whisked back to the border for the next eejit’s misfortune.
It’s highly symbolic as the outsider’s entrance into this murky, but fascinating, little corner of Europe.
A breakaway, separatist territory in the east of Moldova, Transnistria is a thin sliver of land bordering Ukraine, separated from the rest of Moldova by the Dniester river. Michael Palin went there and had the craic, but he was from the BBC and had a big camera crew, so he only saw the marching bands and didn’t get offered any pills. He doesn’t look like the type anyway.
I didn’t have a big camera crew or the BBC. I had a Lada with a cracked window, a chain-smoking driver, and a very bad hangover. I also had Franko, and he needed to vomit. We were much more Monty Python than Michael Palin.
As the Lada rattled towards the border I had all sorts of pre-conceived ideas as to what it would be like inside this murky micro-nation. The EU has called Transnistria “a black hole in which illegal trade in arms, the trafficking in human beings and the laundering of criminal finance was carried on”. The locals are subject to a night-time curfew. Would we even get in?
To have any chance of crossing the border you need a Russian speaker. Without this essential element you wont get offered the chance to buy the pills in the first place. You’ll be shaken down, turned around, and sent back to wherever you came from. But we were sorted – our Lada-driving chain-smoker spoke both Moldovan and Russian.
As we approached the border our driver stopped. He turned around, fag in mouth, and demanded we hand him over our passports and stay in the car. The Department of Foreign Affairs would definitely frown upon sitting in a Lada with no passport on the border of a country that doesn’t exist. With a cracked window and a severe hangover…
But not for the first time the Paddy passport worked its charm. Even the border guards in this shady non-existent country thought being Irish was hilarious, and they didn’t even know about that whole IMF thing. A Spud-Head victory. We were in.
Despite being repeatedly urged by NATO to withdraw from Transnistria, after crossing the border our chain smoking driver laughed as he pointed at the imposing Russian army base visible from the road into Tiraspol, the capital city. The Russians have permanently positioned an old Soviet tank – complete with hammer and sickle – facing across the Dniester, a symbolic message in case those bloody Moldovans get notions of reclaiming land still internationally recognised as theirs.
I spent the previous few nights in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and experienced the sparse aesthetic of Europe’s poorest per-capita country. So on my way into Tiraspol I expected more babushkas at bus stops and roads with no footpaths. Instead I got teenage skaters in baggy jeans and baseball caps, doing tricks in front of that Soviet tank.
But perhaps the most striking thing about Tiraspol is the huge billboards positioned all over the city, displaying the stern image of Putin’s watchful face – making sure the locals don’t get notions. Putin’s pissed on every lamppost in the city; firmly marked his territory in his strategic little enclave.
But despite the billboards, Transnistria is officially self-governed, with their own parliament, police and postal system.
They even designed their own flag and currency, and came up with a new national anthem. One can only imagine that particular meeting.
Fresh from months of war, bandaged and bedraggled in a bullet-riddled building, armed to the teeth with crayons and sketchpads. Pure Monty Python territory – a Credit Union poster competition for militant separatists. Accompanied on piano in the corner by a locked land-mine victim, bashing out the chords, trying to come up with a national anthem on the hoof. And if that went well, he’d probably have a lash at the Eurovision too.
But sadly for the piano-playing separatists, despite geographically being in Europe, Transnistria doesn’t qualify for the Eurovision. They don’t really qualify for anything. Transnistria’s political status remains up in the air. Internationally unrecognised, yet in effect an independent state. This sketchy political status has it’s definite benefits…..
It is widely alleged that the Russians now run all their dirty work through Transnistria. People trafficking, weapons and drugs, along with the disposal of nuclear waste. And why not; the place doesn’t even exist after all. It’s the perfect little set-up for keeping your hands clean. As long as you piss on all the lampposts.
But despite these dark allegations, the murky political set-up, and the very fact the state doesn’t officially exist, the quality of life for those baggy-jeaned skaters in front of that Soviet tank seemed so much higher than on the other side of the Dniestr river, on the grim streets of Chisinau. The conclusions drawn from this are confusing. How can the standard of living be higher in this shady banana republic, than in either of the two real countries that surround it?
Or maybe it’s all much simpler. Maybe that fag-smoking Lada-driver pulled a pure Palin on me too.