Nothing quiet on the eastern front

And this is the one-hundred-thousand-million-dollar-question: What and where and why is Transnistria? After having travelled that country for several years and then having talked about it at home and abroad to hundreds of people, I am sure: a percieved 98% of the west European population never heard of Transnistria.

And given it’s official names (Pridnestrovie, or PMR which stands for Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika) it’s even much less likely to find somebody to explain: oh yeah, isn’t that this internationally non-recognized renegade-state that split from the then newly formed Republic of Moldova during the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Isn’t that tiny country of half a million people and a size of 200 by 20 kilometres situated between Romania and the Ukraine with Odessa just a hundred kilometres away? Isn’t that country often called the black hole of Europe, traffickers in weapons, women, drugs and frozen chicken? It’s all that. Before I explain the story of the frozen chicken, we have to step a little closer. 

 

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And a little closer means actually to go there. Some facts before: this country has a president that is not allowed to enter the EU, it has a currency that is not convertible and thus not exchangeable outside Transnistria, it has a national anthem that is never played abroad, a passport with which one can’t travel with and a non-GSM-mobile-phone-network that makes it possible to jam Moldovas GSM-net while still be happy phoning.

No diplomatic support

Transnistria has won it’s independence after a war with Moldova in the early 1990ies. They have maintained that status on a military level with the help from Russian “peace keepers” and culturally by propaganda. It’s not unusual for former bloc-countries to squeeze a new identity through the torn iron curtain. In Transnistria the process is slower and has started later and contrary to other Eastern European countries, they are creating the identity of a mini-Soviet Union. So they are serious. And they don’t want tourists. 

The websites of numerous foreign ministries give a clear warning: Don’t travel to Transnistria, there is no diplomatic support, no embassy, this is a space not bound to international law. And if you go, then be careful. So this is the European North Korea. Must be hard to get into, difficult to be in it and an adventure to get out. 
Two main routes lead into Transnistria. On the official route one travels to Moldova’s capital city Chişinău. Take a bus from the central bus station in the direction to Bendery/Tighina or Tiraspol or grab a Taxi for about € 30,–. After about 70km the vehicle will stop, there is some sort of border. And it’s the easiest border I have ever crossed in Eastern Europe. Because it officially is no border at all. Moldova doesn’t recognize Transnistria, therefore they can’t have an official border crossing, therefore there can’t be a visa. There is no official Moldovan control, only a little hut with a Transnistrian border guard. You fill out an entry form, and don’t even pay the five Transnistrian Roubles (€ 0,50) or the equivalent in Moldovan Lei like until two years ago, get a stamp and get on. 
There is rip-off as everywhere in the region. Between Moldova and Romania you are likely to hear the famous where-is-your-currency declaration-form-scam that goes like: you are nearly never given a currency declaration form when entering the country. On your way out, the custom guard asks: “where is your currency declaration.” You answer that nobody gave you one. The guards says: “Oh that’s both a pity and your own problem. That’s going to cost you.”

Transit to Transnistria

As the clocks tick slower in Transnistria, the best I had heard was: “I collect coins, would you be so kind to help me with my collection, I am only collecting Euro-coins.” So whatever tales travellers tell in web-forums: I never paid, I never had a problem. 
On this official route it is not very likely to come across some contraband activity. However, on the other side of the country, where Transnistria borders the Ukraine, the situation appears to be different. Imagine the possibilities: you have an officially recognized country, included in international trade agreements and customs regulations. On the other side is a country without a strict use of both. So how can you utilize this? Easy. You are an Ukrainian trader, you buy goods like electronical devices, food, clothes or petrol that have Transnistria as destination and pass Ukraine as transit only (so without paying taxes) . With this you escape Ukrainian custom tax, drive the goods into Transnistria and without even stopping the vehicle, you ship it back to Ukraine over an unmarked, unguarded border-road and sell it cheaply in Odessa or Kyiv.
Even though, to my knowledge, there has never been proof for these allegations, Interpol and western media know and point out the culprit. One of the Transnistrian companies that are said to benefit from this illegal trade is called Sheriff. It’s logo is a black Sheriff-star on yellow ground, this could be understood both as a tribute to the unregulated Wild West, as well as a memory for the companies founders who are/were members of police and customs forces even in Soviet times. The company controls most of the private business in Transnistria: supermarkets, petrol stations, internet and telephone companies, the largest distillery, casinos and a soccer team that, how bizarre, plays in the Moldovan league and participates in the European Champions League as a Moldovan team.

Lovely status quo

The soccer stadium in the outskirts of capital city Tiraspol is said to have cost the amount of one years overall gross domestic product. Speaking about the GDP. If Interpol is only halfway correct, the following numbers will tell everything about Transnistria. While, some years ago, the GDP of Transnistria was 250 Million US-Dollar per year (according to the PMR ministry of finance), Interpol the estimated turnover of Sheriff was four Billion US-Dollar. If this figures were true, Sheriff would therefore earn at least 95% of their Roubles on the black market. They would not pay taxes, would not increase the countries GDP and thus would be highly illegal.  

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And if we believe a number of articles in eastern and western media, a Romanian journalistic organisation has written, the conflict parties have no intention to change the political status quo of Transnistria. Sheriff benefits from having a tax free state, Moldova is allegedly having financial ties to Sheriff as well, the son of the Moldovan president obiously owns the only fast food chain in Transnistria, Andy’s Pizza. Ukrainian companies benefit from Europe’s biggest duty free shop and the Russian Oligarchs use Transnistria to launder money. Russia – Transnistria – Cyprus – Cayman Island, and the money gets cleaner with every stop. Allegedly.

However, I have never seen proof myself and it seems that no other journalist has seen it either. They have never seen the illegal underground Kalashnikov factory that is supposed to be hidden inside the country’s steel mill. I’ve been inside the mill but strangely found no illegal firearms. Transnistria is supposed to be on the international drug and forced sex labour route but again there seems little proof yet. But at least this makes a good story all the journalists write about.

Journalistic contraband?

The black hole of Europe, Stalins legacy, the wild East where no rules apply. But how do these articles come into life? Most journalists travel to Tiraspol for a day or two, see the Lenin statue in front of the Parliament, the armed Russian “peace keepers”, the black Lexus’ and BMWs on the streets, they later copy the allegations from other articles and present them as truths. Maybe they add sentences like: “if there is a place in Transnistria which is wire tapped, than this hotel. I dare not to speak the word ‘Democracy’ out loud.”  If you google “Transnistria” then you find a lot of sentences like these  that have been published.
 

Meanwhile it’s the population of Transnistria that nurtures the emotional contraband of false hope. The hope that they might get a job with Sheriff. The hope that the Russians help them to make their independence official. The hope that their country will be internationally recognized and then everything will be fine.

And maybe the hope that they will get some of the chicken. According to trade estimates, Transnistria imports enough chicken meat to supply over 300 pounds per year per person. Which is many times the amount one would eat in a year. Which would be half a year of an average income. The chicken might be the final proof that something is not quite right on the far end of Europe.

  
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Kollektiv Fischka travels the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic since 2002. The Kollektiv created numerous multimedia and theatre performances on the issues of separatism, identity and culture. The book “This is Radio PMR – News from Transnistria” (ISBN 978-3939181071), published in October 2007, can be purchased at www.fischka.com. In 2009, Kollektiv Fischka will contribute to the Berlin Historical Forum 89/09 and the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin.
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