Thursday, 25 April 2013
Whose Country is it anyway? by Ben Crowley.
Firstly let me apologise for the lateness of this blog. After arriving home in Melbourne and being inundated with admirers and fans, I found it difficult to find the time to complete the quality product that those following our blog have become accustomed to.
Excited by this frozen in time glimpse at the former Soviet Union, I traversed the potholed highway signposted to Tiraspol, considered just a regional outpost in Moldova, but the capital city to the 550,000 people who call Transnistria home. Flying along one of the better roads (ease of military movement assured) that Eastern Europe had to offer, I was brought to a sudden stop by a large Russian tank sitting in the middle of the road. At this point 3 or 4 soldiers came running towards the car, pointing their rifles in a rather aggressive nature towards our vehicle.
“Otkuda vy?” yelled the light infantryman with the clearly visible Russian flag sewn to his shoulder.
“Privet, Avstraliya,” Tom Unkles sitting in the passenger seat replied.
“Ah Avstraliya! Sydaney! Melbon! Kangaroo!” they laughed and joked as the Russian soldier continued to interrogate. “Mashina otkuda?”
“Avstraliya” Tom replied once again.
“Mashina Avstraliya!” at this point they were almost on the ground with laughter, “kuda? Ukrayina?”
“Tiraspol,” Tom told the man. “Turizm.”
“Ah Tiraspol,” he then continued to (we assume) tell us that we certainly weren’t getting through this way and that we’d need to turn around and take our first left in order to cross at the only legal crossing, located in the town Bendery.
Transnistria, also known as Trans-Dniestr, Transdniestria or to make matters even more confusing, Pridnistrovie in Russian (literally left bank of the river Dniester), gained its quasi-pseudo-de facto independence in 1992, two years of full scale war after they declared themselves separate from Moldova. However since then, only other “non-states” such as South Ossetia (Blog Day 220 – Revolutionary Ideas), Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh (Blog Travelling to Nagorno Karabkh, by Ben Crowley) have recognised its autonomy. Even Russia, who as its protector has its 14th Army stationed there as a buffer against Moldovan aggression, has yet to recognise Transnistria’s sovereignty.
Once we got to what appeared to be the only border crossing, situated in the town of Bendery, we found ourselves faced with numerous contradictions, the sort that we had become used to in the former Soviet Union. From the onset it appeared nothing more than a shambolic police check, the usual cones, barricades, crudely written стоп (Stop) signs and some portable buildings; nothing permanent except maybe a flag pole. However, the immigration/customs process seemed very permanent and ran in a surprisingly efficient manner, still of course bearing the usual Sovietesque qualities. Unlike our previous encounters, these were Transnistria’s own forces and they appeared to take their task quite seriously.
I was originally in charge of this particular border crossing (we usually took turns), but they wanted nothing of me. The guards dealing with customs were insistent that the legal owner of the vehicle was to deal with the paperwork, something we had not particularly come across in the past. So we gave them what they wanted, what most people want, Tom Denner.
Like an Englishman defending his nation’s culinary pedigree, we struggled through the temporary import documents, all printed only in Russian and Moldovan (Romanian) and found ourselves not getting very far. We were relieved to enlist the help of a local who spoke quite proficient English but still struggled to explain the automotive jargon. Whilst having our completed paperwork examined I was lucky enough to have this man whose name is now forgotten in history explain his thoughts on the question of his nation’s sovereignty.
“Things are very difficult in Transnistria, the rest of the world doesn’t accept our wishes and it makes it very difficult. The Moldovans make it very hard, we just want to live peacefully with them,” he stated, expounding the same sort of rhetoric we had heard all over the world. I asked him why he was travelling from Moldova. “I need to work in Chisinau as there is no work in Tiraspol. I think most people will leave for Moldova or Russia.”
“Even though you fought against Moldova?” I asked.
“We were once brothers and sisters, but they went crazy when the Soviet Union fell. I don’t hate them, I just don’t understand why they won’t respect our wishes to be independent, why they discriminate against us and make things so hard.”
I asked him whether it was safe in Transnistria and what there was to see, to which he proudly told me that Tiraspol is probably safer than anywhere in Western Europe. There might be organised crime but not crime against individuals. He also noted that Tiraspol has some interesting architecture, in particular and he was quite adamant about this, from the exact years 1954 and 1976, which having spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Bloc I found hard to believe, let alone from years so specific.
Before we left there was one line that he did say quite forcefully considering how calm and well natured he was, “To Transnistrians our independence is not disputed. It is fact.” Finally the car paperwork was completed and then all we had left was the extremely simple process (please note sarcasm) of crossing the road to the passport office, completing more forms (in Russian/Moldovan), and receiving temporary (24 hour) immigration cards which we had to go into Tiraspol the next day to get a 24 hour extension for because the Registration of Foreign Aliens Department of the police force were on holidays. Finally on the third day we went to the Registration of Foreign Aliens Department to be given full registration as tourists to stay in Transnistria. During this process we only needed to visit five different offices multiple times over the three days and spend many hours of our short stay. I don’t think it’s possible to make a process much easier than that!
The first thing we noticed when driving from Bendery to Tiraspol was how dark it was. At this point night had fallen and there was a distinct lack of street lighting and light pollution from buildings. That and the Soviet era apartment blocks, trolley buses, Lada Nivas, Russian tanks and Sovietesque billboards and signs depicting enough hammer and sickles to bring any card carrying communist to their knees with ecstasy. All those things and how dark it was. We made the small drive to Tiraspol and then began our search for accommodation.