Bribery and corruption

Tuesday, September 11th 2007

One of my main aims on this trip was to visit the breakaway Republic of Transdnistria. I can't even remember how I first heard of this place but I think I chanced across it on the web pages of Tan Wee Cheng. It's a place which I think most Europeans would be surprised to realised they share a continent with, and I was sure that going there would be interesting. The country declared independence from Moldova in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, but was not internationally recognised. Today it remains a country that doesn't really exist.

Information for travellers to the region was scarce but rumour had it that the state was a Stalinist nightmare, with officials watching the every move of outsiders, extracting bribes wherever possible, and arresting people on a whim. Following Foreign Office advice, I'd contacted the British Embassy in Bucharest to ask about the latest situation. They said that right now things were calm and travelling through should be fine, but that it could change literally overnight.

In Odesa I'd met a traveller from Spain called Carlos who also wanted to visit the country, so early one morning we both headed up to the bus station to get a bus to Tiraspol, the capital of Transdnistria. It took us a little while to find the right bus station, but with the help of several friendly Ukrainians, we got there and bought a ticket for a 2.30pm marshrutka minibus to Tiraspol. We drove out of Odesa, through gently rolling hills, and after about an hour we were at the border. This was where I expected things could get interesting. I was not wrong.

Leaving Ukraine was fine. We stopped for twenty minutes or so while passports were checked, got our exit stamps and drove on. A few minutes later we passed a flag and sign declaring that we were now entering what was formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, and our passports checked. Carlos and I were ushered off the minibus at this point and led into a small building by the road. Here we had a few minutes of friendly banter with the guards there about football, then an awkward few minutes in which they just ignored us totally. Finally they cut to the chase and started discussing 'entry fees'. They told us they could only give us a transit visa, valid for three hours, and that it would cost 30 Euros.

I was happy to see that the Euro has now replaced the US dollar as the hard currency of choice for corrupt officials. I offered 20 Euros, and they accepted that. Carlos offered 10 Euros, five pounds sterling and 40 Ukrainian hryvnia. They looked pretty disgusted by the hryvnia, but took them anyway. They gave our passports to another official, and after a bit more friendly banter we got them back, each with a hand-written entry permit on a torn scrap of paper. It was 4pm and we were in Transdnistria.

The road to Tiraspol was tree-lined and pleasant-looking, but extremely bumpy. Traffic was light except for a big convoy of military vehicles. We arrived in Tiraspol at about 5pm. The bus stopped at the now-disused train station, where we found a currency exchange bureau. Having read in my Lonely Planet guide that we should expect all the locals to be deeply suspicious of outsiders and likely to report us to the secret police if we spoke English, I was a bit concerned when Carlos strode up without any hesitation and said "Hello! Do you speak English?". Bracing myself for instant arrest, I was surprised when the girl behind the counter said "Yes I do! Where are you from? How can I help you?" She was called Yulia, and she was so nice and friendly that we spent half our time in Tiraspol talking to her. She gave us some Transdnistrian roubles in exchange for hryvnia, dollars, pounds and euros, and then found a policeman to try to help us stay longer than the three hours we'd apparently been given. This proved impossible, as new regulations required an invite from a citizen of Transdnistria to get anything other than a transit visa. Yulia was apologetic. We asked if there were many tourists in the country these days. "Oh yes", she said. "Two days ago there was a German!". Tiraspol will not become the new Prague any time soon. We also asked if taking photos would cause any problems, and Yulia said she couldn't imagine why it would.

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