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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 May, 2005, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Trans-border Trans-Dniester

By Simon Reeve
Author and broadcaster, Places That Don't Exist

There are almost 200 official countries in the world but there are dozens more unrecognised nations determined to be independent. They have rulers, parliaments and armies, but they rarely feature on maps and receive few foreign visitors.

The leaders of Trans-Dniester gather to watch Independence Day celebrations
Trans-Dniester broke away from Moldovan control in 1990

The detention cells in the KGB secret police headquarters in Trans-Dniester - which lies between Moldova and Ukraine - are not the ideal place to spend a Saturday night.

Perhaps I have seen too many Cold War thrillers, but after a BBC film crew and I were detained by the KGB in Trans-Dniester for spying, I had visions of being held for years in a dark cell and having to write escape plans on toilet paper.

Fortunately, the KGB offered us salads, gave us their cap-badges as souvenirs, and eventually set us free.

It was a strange experience.

But then Trans-Dniester is a fairly strange country. Stuck in a Soviet timewarp, it is not actually a "real" country at all.

According to the international community and most maps, Trans-Dniester does not even exist.

Map showing Trans-Dniester
I wanted to find out more about this "unrecognised" place.

Trans-Dniester split from Moldova when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Two-thirds of Moldova had wanted closer ties with Romania and neighbours to the west. But the area of the country to the east of the Dniester river wanted to stay close to Ukraine and Russia.

War broke out, and the east separated.

Weapons black market

Vladimir Voronin, the friendly president of Moldova, told me Trans-Dniester was a "black hole" for arms trafficking.

"There's uncontrolled migration, contraband, arms trafficking, the trafficking of human beings and drugs," he said.

"There are 13 enterprises in Trans-Dniester that are producing arms non-stop."

After talking, President Voronin opened a bottle of cognac and insisted I have a glass. We were finishing our second bottle when his wife returned with the weekly shopping.

'Soviet theme park'

Ongoing tension between Moldova and Trans-Dniester ensures both countries suffer.

Moldova is officially the poorest nation in Europe. We visited a village where men sold a kidney to buy a cow.

About a million young Moldovans have fled abroad in search of work. Children and the elderly are left behind.

President Vladimir Voronin of Moldova with presenter Simon Reeve
President Voronin of Moldova (left) wants Trans-Dniester back

Crossing the border into Trans-Dniester was a bit like entering a Soviet Union theme park.

In this country of 700,000 people the Soviet hammer and sickle still adorns many buildings.

Lenin looms over the streets and stands proud outside the House of Soviets in the capital Tiraspol.

Moldovans had warned me hungry armed men roam the streets of Trans-Dniester, but although the border is tense, the leafy lanes of Tiraspol were full of cafes and restaurants.

Fighting talk was limited to thoughts on political strife in neighbouring Ukraine and the impact on Ukrainian exports of salo, pig fat.

Some Trans-Dniester eat it covered with chocolate, which is as unappetising as it sounds.

Unity

Trans-Dniester Independence Day was celebrated while we visited.

Statue of Lenin outside the House of Soviets in Tiraspol
Soviet statues take pride of place throughout the capital Tiraspol

The Soviet-era army goose-stepped past officers awarded medals by the kilo.

Small children in uniforms sang Our Army Is The Best Army with evident pride.

Igor Smirnov, the self-proclaimed president of Trans-Dniester, was happy to explain why independence is so important.

"Independence means protecting all the generations who live here," he said, "regardless of their nationality. Moldovans, Ukrainians, Russians, I don't want to list them all, there are 46 in all."

Most residents of Trans-Dniester seemed fairly happy to be separate from Moldova and in many ways Trans-Dniester appeared wealthier.

Unchecked

Trans-Dniester still has a Wild West feel.

Celebrations on National Independence Day
Children march and sing in Tiraspol on National Independence Day
A mysterious firm called Sheriff - headed by former Red Army officers - runs much of the economy, and Trans-Dniester is thought to be a major producer of illegal arms.

Guns from there have turned up in conflicts around the world. The border with Ukraine is porous, and it is easy for smugglers to traffic goods or arms to the Black Sea port of Odessa, and from there to the rest of the world.

There are no foreign embassies, and few international agencies keeping an eye on what goes on in Trans-Dniester.

But as the EU expands eastwards, Trans-Dniester will soon be on the eastern edge of Europe.

Eventually the ongoing crisis over its status will have to be resolved.

Places That Don't Exist was broadcast on Wednesday 11 May, 2005 at 1930 BST on BBC Two. The series continues every week until Wednesday 1 June, 2005. Next week: Taiwan.

SEE ALSO:
Regions and territories: Trans-Dniester
04 Apr 05 |  Country profiles
Peace talks restart on Moldova
24 Feb 04 |  Europe
Places That Don't Exist
04 May 05 |  This World
Have your say
10 May 05 |  This World


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