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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 October, 2004, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Visiting Trans-Dniester's 'Wild East'
Kieran Cooke
By Kieran Cooke
BBC, Trans-Dniester

Perhaps it was the harp on the front of my Irish passport that intrigued the frontier guard. His big thumb leafed through the pages, thick droplets of rain splashing on visa stamps. An instruction was barked out. "We have to go into the shed," said Georghe. "Just smile - and don't say anything."

Soldier on guard in Trans-Dniester
Trans-Dniester retains some of the symbols of the former Soviet Union

Every correspondent needs a Georghe - a fixer, a minder, someone who knows their way about - and who's unfazed when things turn difficult.

The border guards of the old USSR - the Pogranichniki - have a special place in the annals of Soviet history.

With their smart, green uniforms they are more than mere frontier troops - over the years they have been seen as the protectors of the motherland, the first line of defence against a hostile outside world.

The Pogranichniki on this frontier - between Moldova and the breakaway self styled republic of Trans-Dniester - are obviously not up to the mark.

Inside the small, overheated border post, the air is thick with alcohol fumes and the smoke of heavy Russian cigarettes. "The foreigner is welcome," says the officer in charge, tie askew and face flushed.

"He can come here and drink our excellent brandy. But what are we going to do with you?" he says, pointing at Georghe.

Another guard joins in. "You come here with your fancy car. Your papers aren't in order - I like that watch you're wearing."

'Smugglers' paradise'

Georghe smiles, is servile. I catch his glance - you must leave, it says, there is private business to be done.

I watch the border activity. A ragged-looking bus pulls up: anxious looking faces peer through steamed up windows.

The head of a miserable looking soldier pokes out from a roadside bunker. A stork flies slowly overhead, untroubled by frontiers and gun posts.

Map showing Moldova and Trans-Dniester region
Georghe climbs into the car. He still has his watch. He starts to tell me about the bribe he has had to pay - but, within a few hundred yards we are stopped again.

Another look at passport and papers, another payment. The money handed over is small - a few dollars - but it's equivalent to a week's wages in Trans-Dniester.

We trundle on down the road. The greyness is brightened by Communist Party banners. "Our strength is unity" one proclaims, strung across a none too sturdy looking apartment block.

"These people are crazy," says Georghe. "Why do you want to see such a place? Are you crazy as well?" Georghe has a bit of a swagger about him. He would make a good market trader or car salesman.

He reads my thoughts. Trans-Dniester, he says, a smugglers' paradise. It is a black hole, no problems with international law. Take the car trade, he says. His talk is interrupted as yet another uniformed individual flags us down. This time it is the traffic police.

Georghe is told his driving is "not satisfactory". There is more money to pay.

"It works like this," says Georghe. "You want, perhaps, a black Mercedes of a certain model with white leather seats. Car thieves are contacted in Europe - Berlin is very popular."

No maps

Once the right car is found - white leather seats and all - it is driven to Turkey or Romania and shipped into Odessa - the Black Sea port in Ukraine that is only a couple of hours drive away.

We motor down a broad boulevard in Tiraspol, Trans-Dniester's main city. Apart from the occasional dilapidated trolleybus and speeding limousines with darkened windows, it is very quiet. A giant statue of Lenin - even the pigeons seem to have been scared off by the great man's glare - stands on one side.

"When the car arrives here all its identity marks are changed and false," says Georghe. "New papers are issued - then it goes to Russia or back into Europe - who knows - maybe even to Berlin. It's big business."

Trans-Dniester President Igor Smirnov
Igor Smirnov has led Trans-Dniester since its secession
Trans-Dniester is not exactly a tourist destination: apparently for security reasons, there are no detailed maps of the area.

There is a big steel plant in the north of the territory, plenty of armaments factories strictly off limits to visitors and, oh yes, an arms dump left over from Soviet times which, according to a Western military analyst, has enough explosive power in it to produce a bang not much smaller than that at Hiroshima.

We buy some of the locally-produced brandy. The woman behind the counter seems to view the presence of customers as a major inconvenience. We drive back towards the frontier: framed against the darkening sky is a giant, modern, football complex.

Igor Smirnov, a former factory manager, runs Trans-Dniester with an iron grip, courtesy of an extensive security apparatus.

Vladimir, Smirnov junior, is football crazy. He decided, a few years ago, that Trans-Dniester - where average per capita incomes are less than $550 (300) a year - needed one of Europe's finest football stadiums.

And here it stands - outdoor and indoor pitches, a hotel, enough training grounds to stage a mini world cup - all unused for much of the time.

"These people are crazy," repeats Georghe. He is unfazed by the searches and more checks on papers at the frontier. His thoughts are elsewhere.

"So what kind of car do you like?" he asks. "Blue or silver? Leather seats? No problem."

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