last train out of the country was leaving in 10 minutes, and I was sitting in a
room no bigger than a prison cell, across from a border guard who held our
passports hostage, awaiting his bribe.
No other nation
acknowledges Transnistria as a country, but at this moment, the opinion of the UN
and the world’s cartographers only mattered on paper. There in that room,
sitting across from a man with the power to detain me, I wasn't concerned with documentation.
My definition of a country became simple: border controls, armies and
governments, all of which Transnistria has under its red-and-green flag bearing
a gold sickle and hammer. The only paper I was concerned with was cash, even though
Transnistria’s currency is about as useful as Monopoly money anywhere else on Earth.
Here, on this sliver of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine –
officially known as a breakaway state within Moldova – 550 Transnistrian rubles
was worth about $50. And that’s how much we had to bribe the guard to let us board
the train departing Transnistria’s capital Tiraspol.
transaction, the only local currency I had left was a five ruble note, a Transnistrian
keepsake that I would keep indefinitely. My other two souvenirs – a body covered
in flea bites and three bottles of brandy – would disappear in due time. But
that five ruble note, on the back of which sat a picture of the KVINT
Transnistria was so proud of, would become the hardest-earned member of my
nearly nine million litres of alcohol each year, but it is particularly recognised
within Eastern Europe for its brandies, which have won more than 100 medals at
international competitions. KVINT produces its brandy using the same methods as
cognac – but because the name cognac is reserved only for the alcohol made from
certain grapes twice-distilled in copper alembics in the region surrounding the
city of Cognac, France, KVINT differentiates its rich brandy by using the
Moldovan word for the drink, divin. Still,
most people I met simply referred to it as cognac, which isn’t surprising in a
place that never seemed big on rules.
history is short and contentious. The name first referred to a region born in
WWII that included southern Ukraine and its capital at the time, Odessa. The
much smaller, ethnically Russian territory now known as Transnistria declared independence
in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union through a bloody four-month war with
Romanian-speaking Moldova, which still lays claim to the area. But while most people in this
have Moldovan passports, a 2006 vote in which 97% of the population voted for independence
with free association to Russia illustrates their true allegiance.
past, coupled with strong accusations of KGB government presence and a bustling
illegal arms trade, doesn’t give Transnistria a lot to be proud of. Other than a
state-of-the-art professional football stadium, the one thing Transnistrians
can brag about is their brandy.
of this fine spirit starts with the grapes, and Transnistria benefits from its
proximity to the Black Sea and Dniester River (from which it gets its name). Combined
with a moderate continental climate and rich soil, the territory is perfect for
growing a large number of grape varieties; KVINT uses more than 20 local and
European varieties in its products, including bianca and cabernet sauvignon.
real alchemy happens in the oak barrels, where the spirit turns from a clear,
harsh distillate into liquid gold – at least at its best. I can only dream
about the divine flavours that seep into a barrel of the 50-year divin, but the
nine-year – similar to a comparable cognac – was sophisticated and fruity, with
tastes of caramel and just the right amount of burn. The three-year, on the
other hand, is better served in a shot glass with something on the side to neutralise
the scorching sensation. Then again, the three-year only costs about 33 Transnistrian
rubles a bottle instead of more than 29,000
Transnistrian rubles for the 50-year Prince
about 3.5 million litres of divin each year, which is enough to have stores all
over Tiraspol selling exclusively KVINT products. Its reported 30 million euro revenue
in 2012 is about 4% of Transnistria’s GDP, according to statistics
from the Centre for Eastern Studies. This $1bn GDP would make Transnistria
the poorest country in Europe.
according to Timoti Ohotcii, owner
of Tiraspol Hostel – a rundown house with sulphur-water showers
and flea-ridden, partially reclining chairs for beds – Tiraspol is far from
poor; it just runs things a little differently. The money that flows through
Transnistria is off the books, he said, which is believable considering cash Transnistrian
rubles (or on rare occasion, American dollars or Russian rubles) are generally
the only form of accepted payment.
in addition to the off-the-books economy is Transnistria’s notoriety for being
a cesspool of corruption: organised crime, illegal arms sales, human
trafficking and money laundering.
At the centre of that corruption, reportedly, is Sheriff, a conglomerate started by two ex-KGB
agents, which holds the reins on Transnistria’s entire economy, owning petrol stations,
a television channel, a mobile phone network, supermarkets, a car dealership
and FC Sheriff Tiraspol, the football club that plays in
one of Europe’s finest stadiums, a shiny, extremely expensive testament to the
happened to purchase KVINT in 2006, which had been state-owned for most of its
116-year history. It’s the oligopolous result of Transnistria’s slow-moving transition from communism to capitalism, or
what Ohotcii liked to call “old-west capitalism”.
hostel advertisements, Ohotcii – who was a reasonably knowledgeable tour guide, if not the
greatest hostel owner –
promotes Transnistria as “the last remnants of the Soviet Union” – and in some
ways it still is. While every other country in the former USSR demolished many remnants
of their Soviet past, Transnistria still clings to what they see as the good
old days. Soviet monuments still stand guard throughout Tiraspol, and the city
holds a Soviet-style military parade on their Independence Day, 2 September. It
is the only post-Soviet land to wave the hammer and sickle on its flag, and a
large bust of an austere Lenin stands in front of Transnistria’s parliament
building, illustrating that the formation of this quasi nation was as much
about ensuring the
communistic future rejected by the rest of the USSR as it was about the right
to keep Russian over Romanian as its national language.
But at the
same time, Tiraspol is a quiet town with smiling faces, beautiful parks and
trendy sushi restaurants. I met nothing but friendly people during my stay and –
until we were forced to bribe our way out of the country – the only corruption
we heard of was through news articles or internet documentaries. Even when we
were detained, the border guard was fully pleasant, kind of funny even. Looking
back, the whole incident was our fault anyway. We had listened to Ohotcii’s advice and, for reasons I still don’t
understand, purposefully avoided registering with the police when entering the
rubles we gave him probably could have fed his family for a month and was a
small price to pay for a story of intrigue to be told over a snifter of my last
remaining bottle of KVINT brandy.
The BBC has a robust anti-corruption
policy in place and BBC Worldwide staff undertake a comprehensive training
programme to ensure that they are aware of the UK Bribery Act and the issues
that it raises. Although the tone of this article is relatively light-hearted,
with the bulk of the piece focusing on the culture behind Transnistria’s
award-winning brandy, the individuals concerned were locked in a room and had
their passports taken away during the reporting process, compromising their
safety and putting them in a situation of duress – a situation recognized by
organisations such as Transparency International. Considering Transnistria’s
disputed history, BBC Travel editors felt it would paint an inaccurate
picture if the encounter were left out.