I am traveling in the backseat of a car, and Vitalie sits to my right. He has been animated and chatty on this trip, but as we roll toward the border he becomes withdrawn and anxious. He works his hands into fists and shoves them under his legs. His back stiffens and he turns his head away from the window, refusing to look at the policeman who has come around to his side of the car and wants to see his passport.
Vitalie is seething, leaning in closer to me as his resentment repels him, like a natural force, further away from the car window, from the policeman. I am careful to take short breaths so as not to breathe in too much of his loathing.
"There shouldn't be a border here," says Vitalie. "I shouldn't have to go through passport control in my own country."
I am in Moldova, a tiny, wedge nation tucked into the shadows of Ukraine and Romania. Vitalie is my interpreter and together we are crossing the border into Moldova's breakaway region, the self-declared republic of Transnistria.
Moldova is a country the rest of Europe seems to have put in its pocket and forgotten about. It is, by far, the poorest nation in Europe. A quarter of its population of four million has fled the country in search of work, and recent research shows that another quarter would leave if given the chance.
The only freely-elected Communist government in the world is right here in little Moldova, but it nonetheless faces resolutely west, tirelessly resisting the tug from Russia's strong arm, which wants to pull Moldova once again back under its sphere of influence.
And Transnistria is the tool it uses. About the size of Rhode Island, Transnistria is on the left bank of the Dniester River. For the longest time it was part of Ukraine, but then the Germans and Romanians used it as killing fields to purge Europe of about 150,000 Jews during World War II. After the massacres it was known as the Forgotten Cemetery, until the Soviets populated it with Russians, stuck a bunch of military bases there, and began using the region to stockpile vast amounts of weapons. Meanwhile, Stalin took it away from Ukraine and gave it to Moldova.
I give the border guard my passport and watch as he carefully tears off a tiny corner of notebook paper, presses it firmly with a red stamp, and then places the torn bit of stamped paper loose inside the fold of my passport. This is my "visa" and it costs a laughable 30 cents. I do not get a real visa because Transnistria is not recognized by anyone as a real country and is forbidden to actually stamp my passport.
This wannabe nation broke away from Moldova soon after the Soviet Union dissolved. Russia ran quickly to its aid, and after a brief but costly civil war with Moldova--up to 700 dead in a few months--a cease-fire was called. But that was 15 years ago and, to date, nothing has been resolved. Transnistria remains contentedly occupied by Russian forces, while joyously and lavishly celebrating its (unrecognized) independence each year.
We've crossed the border into a Soviet yesteryear and entered the all but emptied city of Ribnitsa, a bleak urban desert. Only a handful of people can be seen on this workday; no packed trams, or even dirty buses, are spotted--just aging, putty-colored Ladas on the roads still named for old communist leaders, and babushkas peddling sunflower seeds on the sidewalk.
In my pocket is money from a country that doesn't exist.
As in much of Eastern Europe, the streets are lined with row after row of communist blocs, the infrastructure so weak the some of the buildings crumble a bit when touched. And this day the sky, in solidarity--or maybe mourning--is the color of cement. A flag, draped across what must be a government building, still sports a hammer and sickle.
There is no Europe here.
This renegade republic is run mafia-style by president Igor Smirnov and his son, Vladimir, who controls a consortium called Sheriff. There are Sheriff gas stations, Sheriff grocery stores even Sheriff cigarettes, at every pass. Profitable enterprises, indeed, but Vladimir also directs customs, the inflow and outflow of goods, which includes a sizable weapons industry.
There are an estimated 50,000 weapons and 40,000 tons of ammunition warehoused in Transnistria, allegedly watched over by 2,500 Russian troops. And the Washington Post reports that several large factories in the region are still covertly manufacturing arms. And this is why Russia cares about Transnistria. Many believe that a good number of those weapons are being passed along to terrorists via Vladimir's porous borders.
For years the international community (including, more recently, the United States) has been trying to broker an agreement on behalf of Moldova, whereupon Russia would withdraw its troops and disarm Transnistria. Talks last week produced zero results again.
Weapons may be free flowing here, but information is most certainly not. Nearly all of the media are state-owned, and the scant independent news outlets that have managed to keep operating face constant lawsuits by authorities, designed to shut them up. The cost in fees is crippling, which is the point.
We are sitting in the office of a leading independent newspaper editor. She sits behind her desk, leaning forward on her elbows, tap-tapping her cigarette into the ashtray. She speed-talks, making it a challenge for Vitalie to keep up. Across from us is a life-size oil painting of Lenin.
The editor says she was sued for printing an article critical of the government's plans for privatization. Even the woman interviewed for the story was sued. According to the editor, the government collected $15,000 from the newspaper, and $5,000 from the woman--hefty sums considering the average monthly income in Transnistria hovers around $100.
"We had a good lawyer this time, quite well known for representing the mafia," she says, "but we still lost."
After photos with Lenin we head to a cafe across the street, where the editor talks about other aspects of her life: How she can't talk to her cousins on the other side of the river (in Moldova) since the government cuts the mobile phone links. And how she can't cross the border to buy a washing machine (better quality, better price), because she has to prove, with photos, that she needs one. "How do I prove I don't have something?" she says to me in Russian, tipping her head up to blow the cigarette smoke away from my face.
We say goodbye back at the newspaper and climb in the car again to head back across the border of the non-state state. Vitalie reminds me to find my little piece of notebook paper.
"It might be 30 cents to get in," he says, "But it's a $70 fine if you don't have it, along with some tough harassment."
The writer is a journalist based in Vienna.