Friday, 20 April 2012

Crossing the Border

The atmosphere on the minibus is tense. Quiet and unsmiling the guard slowly moves from person to person, scrutinising with unflinching eye each and every document, peering from passport to face to passport again. First the babushka with her husband, floral shawl wrapped tight around head; now the young mother, hushing the little bundle cradled in her arms.

It’s stuffy – someone behind me tries to stifle a cough - but we all await our turn patiently. A pungent mixture of stale sweat and alcohol hangs heavy in the air whilst condensation drips down the windows, the heated proximity of so many human bodies crushed together in stark contrast to the frost that covers the ground outside. A tense silence reigns supreme, for we all know that this is the guard’s game and we must play by his rules.

Soon the uniform, green and immaculate, looms large next to me. I manage a weak smile as I compliantly hand over my passport and migration card but the glare I receive in return ends my insincerity. An unkind eye scrutinises the documents, searching for any infringement. An eternity passes, another cough; then a decision is made. “Off”, he growls in deep Russian, signalling towards the door. There is no room for debate, no opportunity for dissent.

I’m frogmarched in a poky little office a short distance away. There’s paperwork strewn everywhere; a couple of retro computers flicker brightly. In broken English the guard points to my migration card, and it’s now I realise my big mistake. I should have left the country by 11 in the morning; the grubby clock on the wall says 1. My welcome officially expired two hours ago.

The guard sits himself down in front of one of the monitors and begins to stab at the keyboard with podgy fingers. He then turns it to me, grim faced. The numbers read 318. “You pay. Euro.” €318. Just to leave.

I try not to panic. I plead. I beg. I pat down my pockets, feigning helplessness. But he just sits there, a hint of a smile playing on his lips. This is his court, his kingdom.

I dig deep, my fingers touching a small wad of roubles and I place it in front of him, like an offering to some angry god. He picks it up and examines it closely between finger and thumb. A small shake of the head. Niet. Not good enough. I find some more money, this time Moldovan Lei. Again he picks it up, this time smiling broadly. Yes, yes, this will do.

The melodrama suddenly comes to an abrupt end. He springs up, hands me back a 50 Lei note, shakes my hand, and motions me out of the door. I quickly leave before he changes his mind and rush back to the waiting mini bus, relieved that the cost of freedom couldn’t have been more than £10. It is, after all, just another day at the Transnistrian border.

Transnistria is without doubt one of the most obscure corners of Europe. A thin strip of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, Transnistria usually makes the news for all the wrong reasons – weapons smuggling, people trafficking, drugs, you name it. It’s also famous for being stuck in a communist time warp, a place where the glory of the Soviet Union continues to shine. Here statues of Lenin still stand proud and hammer and sickles adorn walls and buildings, harking back to an era that elsewhere has long since been consigned to the history books.

It’s ironic then that it was the very collapse of the USSR some two decades ago that led to Transnistria’s creation. As the Union faulted and crumbled along ethnic lines the mainly Romanian-speaking region of Moldova seized its opportunity to declare independence, taking slavic Transnistria with it. With the threat of unification with Romania looming the Transnistrian authorities – with the help of the locally-based Russian 14th army - waged a short and bloody war with their Latin neighbours. The result? De facto independence, albeit unrecognised by any other nation in the world. To this day Transnistria – despite having its own parliament, military, police, postal system, currency, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms – continues to be considered by almost all international observers as Moldovan soil.

And independence has not proved easy for the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, as it’s officially known; politically and economically isolated from the rest of Europe and with its continued existence almost entirely dependent on the continued presence of the Russian armed forces, daily life is precarious for the 500,000 or so inhabitants. Unemployment and inflation is high and the average wage is well behind levels enjoyed in the West. And the population is slowly ageing, with young people looking for opportunities elsewhere. Transnistria enjoys a claustrophobic existence.

The minibus grinds to halt and the driver jumps out to open the door. He shakes my hand warmly – foreigners in these parts are something of a novelty – before getting back in and speeding off. I take in my surroundings: grey streets, some ramshackle houses, some apartment blocks in the distance. A chill dampness fills the January air.

I wander towards what I think must be the centre of town, trying to look like I know where I’m going. Soon I stumble across an open-air market, with everything from hats to typewriters and engine parts to books spread across blankets on the hard concrete floor. Behind each sits an unsmiling seller, wrapped up tight against the cold.

Beyond the market a large statue of a man astride a horse beckons me closer. “Suvarov”, it says in Cyrillic on the side. The founder of Tiraspol. From here I can see all the way down 25 October Street, named after the revolution that propelled the Bolsheviks to power in 1917; nearby Lenin stands proud outside the Presidential Palace, whilst across the road a Soviet-era tank points its turret towards the war memorial. It’s here that I’ll be meeting my contact, local journalist Mila Selezneva.

I do not have to wait long. She appears, young and smiling, and asks in faltering English how I am. “Yes, good”, I say, “It’s good to be here”. “Well, you are very welcome!” comes the reply, and we set off together down October street at steady, slow pace.

Mila had read about my trip online a few weeks before my arrival and got in touch suggesting we meet and talk about the media and journalism back in the UK. For my part I was looking forward  to find out about everyday life in Transnistria.

As we walk we take in some of the sights and Mila becomes an impromptu tour guide; “Here is the Kvint shop, very good brandy”, she says, and it’s not an exaggeration – Kvint has a world class reputation and is one of the region’s major exports. “And here is the bank”. This is a necessary stop; I need get some Transnistrian Roubles, the local currency which is impossible to exchange anywhere else, even in Moldova proper. Across the road from the bank is a shiny casino, which seems oddly out of touch with the communist iconography littering the streets.

It’s a point I put to Mila. “Oh, just because we have these monuments doesn’t mean we’re still communists. It’s to remind us of our past and just because things change doesn’t mean that we forget that.” I ask her if she thinks it’s odd that the monuments remain here whilst most of them have been removed in other parts of Eastern Europe. She shrugs. “Perhaps we remember here more”.

And Mila is keen to tell me that things are changing in Transnistria. Igor Smirnov, President for twenty years from the War of Independence, has just been deposed in democratic elections barely a fortnight before. The new leader, Yevgeny Shevchuk, has promised to ditch the country’s pariah status and achieve some sort of international recognition. I decide to leave questions about weapons and people trafficking for later.

Outside the grand House of Soviets – replete with angry Lenin - we meet one of Mila’s friends, twenty-something Aleksei Bychkov. He also happens to be president of the “Student Community of Transnistria” and we jump in his car. “Where are we off to?” I ask Mila. “Bendery”, comes the reply. “This is where my editor is based”.

And in Bendery I do indeed meet Mila’s editor and the rest of the team at Dnestr television. And it turns out that having a foreigner in Transnistria is so unusual that they decide to film and broadcast an interview with me, Mila translating throughout. They ask about journalism in the UK and how it works. I talk about its many strengths and problems, and in turn ask them about their work in a country where media freedoms are considered to be restrictive. “It can be frustrating”, says one in Russian, “because we cannot always speak to who we want as they are not allowed. The government stops us”.

Soon it’s all over. We take pictures and shake hands and then it’s back to Tiraspol. Aleksei suggests we go to a local bar and I readily agree, and so I find myself in the Komlnek eating pirogi and sipping a locally produced vodka. Here I feel I can ask some more probing questions.

“We are Russians, not Moldovans”, says Aleksei when I ask him about Transnistria’s unrecognised status, “and we cannot live together, we are too different”. I ask him how this was managed in the Soviet era. “Because there weren’t the divisions there are now”.

“It’s true”, agrees Mila, “everyone today has nostalgia for Soviet times, because everyone was so much happier then. If you fell in the street people would help you, today that wouldn’t happen”. I point out that she was born in 1992, after the collapse of the USSR. Does she also have this sense of nostalgia? “Yes, we all do”.

Then there are the practicalities of life. I ask how easy it is for them to travel, and it turns out that being ethnic Russians they hold Russian passports. For those less fortunate in the cultural stakes – and despite the sole use of Russian in almost all walks of life – Transnistria has a large Moldovan ethnic minority whose movements are far more restricted.

There’s only so much we can discuss in one meal, and soon it’s time for me to go back to the apartment I’ve rented for the night. We agree to meet again in the morning before I get my bus back to Chişinău.

Outside the bus station we exchange a few gifts and ambush a passer-by into taking some pictures. And as I wave goodbye from the minibus I decide that I will return. There is still so much to learn about life in this unpredictable corner of Europe, and it’s clear from even a short visit that the whilst the near-hysterical coverage of Transnistrian affairs back home has some groundings in fact the reality is far more nuanced. And as I stare out across fields covered with snow as the border post appears on the horizon I can't help think that it may be time for Transnistria – or at least the people who live their everyday lives here – to finally come in from the cold.

(This is the winning entry for the Travellerspoint Travel Blogging Competition)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I like how you captured the mood of the country in this piece. You deserved winning the Travellerspoint competition. I was one of the 7 runners-up with this entry:

http://skabrat.com/2010/12/adventures-in-chinese-dining-tip-2/