New hidden cam video of Transdniestr reveals that everything is still effed

When researching Romania and Moldova for Lonely Planet, I’m also obliged to visit the self-declared, breakaway republic of Transdniestr (A.K.A. ‘Transnistria’). It’s yet another one of those countries-that-don’t-exist jobbies that you hear about occasionally in the news. Though they haven’t had any headline-grabbing military action since the brief, but bloody 1991 civil war with Moldova ended in a stalemate, they’re nevertheless notorious in the region for being run by Russian gangsters who make a tidy profit in arms dealing and human trafficking. Meanwhile, dirt poor citizens are told they’re living the Soviet-era communist ideal and that this is in their best interest.

Despite rampant rumors of arms dealing, there has been precious little hard evidence that any yahoo could pop over into Transdniestr, load up on weapons and outfit a small army whenever they felt like it. Well, a new video has come out, done by the Italian TV program Le Iene (“The Hyenas”) that appears to not only show a guy successfully closing an arms deal, but also has bonus footage of Transdniestr and Russian border guards doing what they do best: shake foreigners down for everything they’re worth. Moldovan police are well-known for doing this too, but we don’t see any evidence in this particular video.

The two-part video, which was brought to my attention by Elfin Waters who always sends me the very best tidbits coming out of Italy, unfortunately is a little long (about nine minutes each) and almost entirely in Italian, so I’ll provide my own narrative here. I should preface by saying that Italian is by far my weakest language, so if anyone notices that I’ve gotten anything really wrong, please alert me.

In Part I, the guy gives a breathless history about the region, how it’s not recognized by any government in the world (except Papa Russia), but nevertheless has their own currency, police force, army and “borders”, controlled by Transdniestran border guards – with backing from a 5000-strong Russian ‘operational group’ to keep Moldova from getting any bright ideas about taking its land back.

The guy travels to Chişinau, rents a car and heads to Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr. It’s right here that he makes two costly mistakes. It appears he’s hired a Romanian woman to be his translator. Unfortunately, this does him little good in Transdniestr, a primarily Russian-speaking region, and we see them frequently reduced to caveman talk in both Romanian and Italian. Also, it’s pretty clear that the translator has never been to Transdniestr before, so there’s no one to stop the announcer guy from walking into a bunch of border scams, including a daring new one (at least, new to me) when they try to leave, but I digress.

They stash all their A/V equipment in the doors/roof/trunk of the car and then proceed to the worst possible border crossing: the hectic and bribe-happy crossing at Bendery. This is a three-part crossing. First you get checked out by Moldovan cops, then a Russian military post and then the Transdniestran border guards. The Moldovans wave them through, but uh oh, there’s trouble at the Russian checkpoint. The Russians use a well-worn scam, saying that our heroes have to go back to Chişinau for some mystery document and then cross at another border crossing about 100 kilometers north, which, with the state of Moldovan/Transdniestran roads, is almost a full day’s drive in all. However, after much frowning and feigned grumbling they reluctantly allow them through after paying a ‘fine’ of 600 lei (about US$55).

Then our heroes walk over to “Transdniestran immigration”, one of whom amazingly speaks Italian, and seemingly without even bothering to invent an infraction or fine, they are ordered to pay 20 euros. FYI – Transdniestr entry permits are officially about US$1.

Finally inside Transdniestr, we are treated to the requisite video montage of Tiraspol, including not one, but two Lenin statues and the hilarious Che Guevara/Putin poster on the city’s main thoroughfare. They touch briefly on “President” Igor Smirnov, and his dubious ties to Sheriff, the company that owns virtually everything in Transdniestr. They even find an unusually candid local that explains that Sheriff (and by association Smirnov) is the republic’s “mafia”. What’s interesting here is that I’m 98% sure that during this conversation they are standing in the lobby of one of Tiraspol’s best hotels, supposedly owned by Smirnov, where all his gangster buddies stay during visits. Not sure if the woman speaking is just some random off the street or if she actually works at the hotel. Either way, I have never, ever heard a Transdniestran speak so negatively about Smirnov. Perhaps the increasingly thin subterfuge and hilarious propaganda passed around in recent years has finally started to lose its effect on the populace.

Finally they head to the market to try to find someone to sell them guns. Through the magic of video editing, they appear to find someone willing to talk guns in almost no time.

In Part II, after decamping from the market to slightly quieter street corner, the prospective dealer quizzes them about why they want the guns and what precisely our heroes want to buy (handguns and kalashnikovs). Then some haggling over prices. Then some idle shop-talk about missile launchers and remote control bombs (Christmas is coming up after all). Then they agree to meet again Saturday afternoon for a viewing of the merchandise.

They meet as planned on the street and retreat into a bar, where the dealer calls in his runner with a sample. More discussion of weaponry ensues. The runner arrives and we see a Russian-made handgun being examined. Then they haggle and the announcer agrees to buy 50 handguns with silencers for 500 euros each (about US$625) and 50 kalashnikovs, also for 500 euros each – so, 50,000 euros total (US$62,500) for a hell of a lot of firepower. They then discuss the route they will take from Transdniestr, through Moldova and into Romania when they have their truckload of guns.

The seller says the guns will be ready in two weeks. They agree that he will call them when they are ready and speak the secret code: ‘the hen with the egg’ (that’s the literal translation, but I suppose it really means something like ‘the hen has laid the egg’ or something).

The announcer quickly sums up how he, just some regular guy that sauntered in to Tiraspol, was able to close a deal for 100 weapons in the space of a few hours.

Having done what they came to do, they wisely decide to get the hell out of TransD. This, apart from the apparently successful arms deal, is the most intriguing part for me. When they get to the Transdniestran check point, the guards pull the announcer into a hut, away from his hidden camera-wearing translator and they somehow surmise that he’s a prime target for a big time shakedown. It’s not said, but I wonder if the guards demanded that “by law” he needed to show them all the cash he was carrying. This is a common trick these guards use to get an idea of how much money they can then ‘fine’ that person for invented infractions later on. For whatever reason the announcer was carrying a large amount of cash (maybe to use as flash money during his arms deal, I don’t know), so, sensing a massive payday for all, the guards decide to give him a breathalyzer test. It appears to show that he is guilty of a DUI. The announcer claims he hasn’t had a single drink. They haul him off to a ‘clinic’ to confirm his blood-alcohol level with a more reliable test, separating the guy from his translator. When he returns, he agitatedly reports that they confirmed his alleged drunkenness and he was fined 600 euros (US$750) on the spot. Ouch.

At the Russian checkpoint, the exact same guy they dealt with last time takes them into the hut yet again for another shakedown. Our heroes’ frustration bubbles over into amusement at the absurdity of it all, as he pays 50 euros for an undisclosed offense. Finally, they are back in the relative safety of Moldova. The end.

I really found this video fascinating on so many levels. Despite some very weak prep work, the announcer manages to uncover all kinds of juicy info during his visit. We get to see guns, we get to see shameless thieving by Russian and Transdniestran officials, we learn that any dingleberry can stumble into TransD and buy/ship enough firepower to equip a small army anywhere in the EU for about US$63,000, not including bribes and presumably various border guard payoffs and we get to see the biggest Transdniestran border bribe scam that I’ve ever heard of.

Now, in fairness, what this video doesn’t show, mostly because it’s off-topic I suppose, is that with the right prep work and avoiding the Bendery border crossing, Transdniestr is really a mesmerizing place to visit. My visit in 2006 was wrought with relatively minor problems (I brought a Russian-speaker with me, but not one that had experience traveling in the region, which may have contributed to some of the social ostracizing we experienced), but my visit in May of 2008 revealed a whole new, seemingly chilled out Transdniestr. If you have any interest in Soviet-era Moscow, there’s really nothing like it in the world – not even Moscow. Well, maybe Pyongyang.

Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for I’m sure, some traveler tips for future TV exposé crews wanting to enter TransD from Moldova: It’s imperative that you bring a Russian-speaker, preferably someone with experience traveling in the region. Also, drive a car with Moldovan plates – a cheap car, so as not to give any hint, valid or not, that you might be rich – and avoid the Bendery crossing at all costs. I crossed through at Grigoriopol in May. This added about an hour onto the drive time from Chişinau to Tiraspol, but unlike the three-part, multi-national gauntlet of greed at Bendery, Grigoriopol simply has two very bored Transdniestran guards. I didn’t see it, but I think my driver had to pay a small ‘fee’, otherwise we sailed right though. You cannot, however, use this crossing if you intend to exit Transdniestr into Ukraine, due to the lack of transit paperwork facilities here.

Though they seem to change the rules every few months, at the time of writing, you do not need a letter of invitation from a Transdniestran local to visit the region. If you’re told otherwise at the border, you’re being sized up for a bribe. Same goes for if you’re told that you need a visa (nonexistent) acquired at the ‘Transdniestran Embassy’ (also nonexistent).

As you see in the video, going through the Bendery crossing means that you will most likely be invited into a hut at some stage to have a sit-down with a few looming, armed men. This is a scare tactic that builds up to whatever infraction you’ve committed and the eventual bribe you’ll have to pay. How much you pay depends almost entirely on how cool you play it. A theatrical performance designed to heighten anxiety and break your spirit will commence. Ominous forms will be filled out. If you’re entering on public transport, your bags will be pulled off the bus, presumably leaving you stranded. Your best defense is calm and patience. Let the bus leave you behind, another will be along shortly. Even the most persistent guards will eventually get tired of dealing with you, particularly if their tactics don’t appear to be working. Worst case scenario, you’ll be stonewalled at a mirthfully small bribe offer (say, five euros) or you’re sent back to where you came from. They cannot hold you, or arrest you or anything like that, so really, their only weapon is intimidation. If that doesn’t work. They’re out of options.

And for the love of Buddha, don’t carry a gangsta wad of cash, stored in your prominently displayed money/document pouch. Bring along just enough euros/Moldovan lei to get you through your visit. The less cash you have on you, the more meager the bribe they can demand. There are no cash machines anywhere in TransD, so if you don’t have serious cash on you, bribe negotiations will be brief.

For more info on run-ins with officials, escaping bribe shakedowns and what to do in case of arrest while abroad, read my recent article in Global Traveler magazine entitled “Who You Gonna Call?” (join the web site’s free 30-day trial to read the entire article).