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The Capital of Nowhere


US officials have complained so vociferously of the trafficking of both arms and radiological material through Transnistria, that embassy staff based in Chisinau have been advised not to enter the territory for their own safety. Transnistria was described in one US newspaper as being the “Wal-mart of arms trafficking”.

Another Lenin..

Add to that the frequent accusations that Smirnov is linked to not only the Odessa mafia, but of being a Russian intelligence agent, and one can see why possession of your very own independent state might come in handy.

The next day I head off to Tighina, a.k.a Bendery, the second city of Transnistria. As the microbus turned a corner we faced the most militarised check-point I’ve ever seen, with an APC under camouflage netting, and a dozen young troops sitting in 2 machine gun nests. It’s a chilling sight, especially when I’m not entirely sure I’m allowed to be in Tighina, and even if my paperwork seems to be in order, any contact with officialdom here means hours of interviews and forms and at least a token display of official exasperation. As the soldiers peered into the van, I bent down to tie my shoelaces, and managed to avoid attracting any attention, but for the first time I did wonder quite how kindly the authorities might take to a foreigner who is picked up in the wrong place.

Lonely Planet describes Bendery as “decidedly unpleasant” and notes that the only site, a 16th century Turkish fortress, is occupied by the Russian army. No one seems to know exactly why the Russians are still here, and with so many of them around, I decide not to ask. Bendery feels as tense as a town surrounded by troops should feel, militarized and paranoid, as if the next attack could come at any moment, though in reality there is almost no chance of this conflict heating up in the near future.

Certainly Tighina saw the worst of bloodshed in the 1992 war of independence, but apart from the half dozen memorials there is little in town but dishevelled apartment blocks and skin-headed men in antique Vauxhall Victors. The atmosphere is sour and vaguely sinister, reminding me how Montonegro’s capital Podgorice felt shortly after the end of the Balkan wars.

It’s a relief to cross out of Transnistria into Moldova-proper, which is wildly functional by comparison. The border guard spent only a few minutes examining my colourful $US60 visa, and seemed to be out of questions.

Not that Moldova is a lucky country itself. Not only is it the poorest state in Europe, but it is a country entirely contrived by Stalin out of the ashes of Antonescu’s Romania at the end of World War II. Which means it exists in a perpetual state of confusion about its identity, legitimacy and sense of direction, of which the Transnistria issue is only the tip of an unsightly iceberg.

Historically, Moldova and Romania have been more often than not intertwined under the name Bessarabia, sharing a common language and culture for centuries before the country was cleaved in two by the Molotov-Ribbentrop accord, with Stalin creating the Moldavian SSR out of his half. Stalin insisted the countries existed as different historical entities, sovietizing the culture and language, and exhorting Moldovans to rally around the Soviet flag in defiance of their past association with decadent Romania. The 1941 German invasion, and subsequent Red Army re-invasion, saw Chisinau destroyed and the population heavily depleted, with the sizeable Jewish population sent to camps in Poland. History then repeated itself when one Leonid Brezhnev spent 3 years as Secretary of the Moldavian Communist Party, deporting a further 300,000 Moldovans to Siberia for the crime of being Moldovan.

Impromptu beach on the Nistru River

So no surprise if the place feels lightly populated, a state of 3.8 million people (excluding Transnistria) in a country of 29,000 square kilometres. Only Chisinau, with 700,000 people, feels like anything more than a village, and even it feels provincial and decrepit compared with Bucharest.

This emptiness is itself, a dilemma. Put simply, Moldova has nothing. No minerals, few industries, no sources of energy, and little in the way of sources of income. Travelling around the country feels like travelling through Europe prior to the industrial revolution – it is as close as Europe comes to having a genuinely agrarian economy. Villages are surrounded by small rings of intensely farmed land, producing maize, corn, melons and grapes, but these are largely for personal use and traded only locally. In a country where every second family seems to own a goat and a cow, startlingly few seem to have more than two. And if they did, Moldova’s decrepit road and rail network would make any form of real trading difficult.

Only grapes and sunflowers seem to be grown in any real quantities; the latter then processed into cooking oil (or potentially into the biofuel ethanol); but it seems unlikely that cooking oil and sticky Charonnay will be enough to inspire any kind of real economic viability.

And though the government has talked proudly of achieving 7% growth last year, GDP is still lower than it was in 1990, and 7% of nothing is still not a great deal. The current Voronin administration is still ostensibly Communist, though these days that entails collapsing at the feet of Brussels and Washington while still being very pleasant to Moscow.

Add to this the continued rumours of organ sales, which have seeped into the global consciousness during the past 10 years, with stories of Moldovans selling their kidneys for $3,000 to agents in Turkey, who can reportedly the on-sell them for over $100,000.

Chisinau is, perhaps surprisingly, a very social and busy place. On August 31st Street, tucked in behind the leafy Gradina Publica gardens, there is a small cluster of gorgeous bars and restaurants. Outside Café Symposium sits a late model Jaguar, 2 BMWs, and a Mercedes. Not surprising in Paris or even Beirut, but in a country where only 13 people earned $US80,000 last year, a car costing 4 times that stands out. My own salary, which I might optimistically describe as modest, would rate as that of a high court judge here. A staggering 98.4% of the population earned less than US$8,000 last year, and the average wage is officially less than US$1,500.

I can not imagine another country in Europe where the gulf between have and have not yawns quite so glaringly, and yet I still find myself enjoying the people and the country they live in. The people are bubbly, affable and hospitable. The countryside is gorgeous, all rolling hills and forests. The fibrolite roofed villages are microscopic, clinging to the sides of streams or clamped between bright swathes of corn like props in a Van Gogh painting.

Heading out of town to Moldova’s greatest tourist site, the cliff-face monastery of Orheiul Vechi, one realises quite how remote much of Moldova is; buses run only to the nearest town some 26 kilometres away; from there one must take taxis or hitch-hike through a series of one donkey towns along roads that sees perhaps half a dozen cars a day.

The monastery itself is carved into a cliff-face above the river Raut, built in the 5th Century BCE to provide shelter from marauding hordes. It is packed with local pilgrims every Sunday, but is otherwise abandoned to wandering cattle and prone to encroaching weeds, which seems curiously apt in a country apparently going to seed.

Chisinau (or Kishinev, or Kyshinev, take your pic) feels so much like a medium sized Romanian town it is hard to believe the countries are not in the same country. Both share the strong, inexplicable Francophile influences in food, language and styles; Chisinau even boasts a mini Arc D’Triumphe. Both have wide, leafy boulevards lined with tiny cafes selling perfect espresso and signs for Stomatologs (Dentists) Traduceres (Translators) and Lombards (pawn shops). The language itself, a kind of pig-Latin, is simple and difficult not to be amused by – opposite my hotel is a Producere Lactate, which turns out to be a dairy.

But language is a touchy subject here. Everything seems to have at least 3 names – 1 each in Russian, Romanian, and the official post-Soviet Moldovan, which is essentially a Romanian dialect. Transnistria has closed schools teaching in Moldovan, and usage of the “wrong” name for a town draws terse reactions, even when made by visitors who could hardly be expected to know any better.

After a week in Chisinau I take the microbus to Ias, the closest Romanian town, and then continue to the local capital of Suceava. The journey takes 6 hours, 3 of which are, inevitably, spent at the border. Crossing into Romania there is none of the culture shock that so often accompanies border crossings; the signs, the people, the language all look the same. Except that even in Romania there is a sense of things being slightly bigger, slightly more to scale. While farmers are still using donkeys and carts, there are also cars, and they look clean and modern and not as if they once served as transports in the Korean war. The fields look extensive enough to produce crops for more than a single family.

“Congratulations”, a friend of mine texts me, “You’ve just become the first person in a century to be happy to arrive in Romania.”

In a logical world, Moldova would squirm happily back into Romania, just in time to join Europe, and the EU would be able to honestly claim to have done these pleasant, charming people a real favour.

More likely is the formation of a loose federation between Moldova, Transnistria and the Gagauz region to the south, created at least partially out of pressure from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the new and pro-western government in the Ukraine. But even this presupposes that Transnistria is in anyway interested on co-operating with others and forming a part of a legitimate and democratic state. Which, frankly, I doubt.

I suspect that, for the middle term, at least, Tiraspol will go in being the capital of the Sheriff Corporation, a shady place of blazing sunlight and empty streets and tumble down gardens, roasting quietly in the middle of nothing at all.

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