The country that doesn’t exist

No other nation recognises Transnistria as a country, but within the sliver of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, the opinion of the UN doesn’t matter.

The 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.

After the 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 liquor factory Transnistria was so proud of, would become the hardest-earned member of my currency collection.

KVINT makes 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. 

Transnistria’s 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 Russian-speaking land have Moldovan passports, a 2006 vote in which 97% of the population voted for independence with free association to Russia illustrates their true allegiance.

Its murky 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.

The quality 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.

But the 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 Wittgenstein.

KVINT produces 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.

But 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.

Of course, 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 country’s greatness.

Sheriff also 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”.

In his 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 country.

The 550 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.

Editor’s note:
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.