Thursday, January 12, 2012

Different Coloured Keyholes: Transnistria

Transnistrian Flag
Consider the breakaway territory of Transnistria. It's a strip of land about 400km long and 40km wide sandwiched between the Dneister river (hence the alternative spelling "Trans-Dniestr") to its West and the Moldovan-Ukrainian border to the East. Transnistria is the last Soviet autonomous state in Europe and is not recognised by any other country in the world - check out perhaps the best map on wikipedia of a lonely, greyed out world map with "States that recognise Transnistria". It prints its own money, has its own passports and stamps. Much of the Moldovan heavy industry from the Soviet era is in Transnistrian territory, leaving the rest of Moldova as one of the poorest countries in Europe. The split between Transnistria and Moldova proper occurred as a result of the 1992 Transnistrian war.

Moldovan Flag
One only needs to glance at the flags to realise that Transnistria is orienting itself mother Russia while Moldova is setting about orienting itself internally creating an identity for itself. This division is carried through to the language - in Transnistria Russian is spoken while Moldova has it's own language.

Gauging the political temperature in Transnistria is the difficult part. There is scant literature about this breakaway territory leaving one to rely on filmed documentaries. Two that I came across paint the place in completely different shades and it sheds far more light on the techniques of documentary film making than it does about subject of Transnistria. The real question to be addressed is that how does one judge the danger in a travel destination based on two conflicting pieces of information? It's something that occurs quite often and is worth investigation.

The first is from the BBC Series Places that Don't Exist (which also includes in other episodes visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Think English public schoolboy toff  in a starched white shirt amiably interacting with the natives in a postcolonial age. Simon Reeves is the host, remains upbeat despite some occasionally unpleasant scenes - one in particular involving an elderly woman getting dragged off by police in Moldova for singing a Russian song. The documentary is unapologetic about the state of Transnistria - he relays that his hotel room is probably bugged by the MGB - the Transnistrian variant of the old KGB. In one scene Reeves visits a steel mill, the largest in the former Soviet Union, which claims not to be exporting arms to other countries. Reeves admits that it is entire possible for a steel mill of this size to be doing so and remain undetected while a film crew is allowed in.

Officially the beef that Moldova has with Transnistria is with border control - the border between Transnistria and Ukraine is extremely porous undermining the integrity of Moldova. Reeves does not shy away from this, going to the border which is little more than a dirt road thereby demonstrating that smuggling arms or other illegal goods in such a situation would be extremely easy.

Another issue in Transnistria is the immense power and influence that criminal gangs, indeed one criminal gang in particular, wield. This gang is called "Sheriff" and they have been able to build a massive football stadium at the cost of 200 million euros, while Moldova's one is "crumbling". The ground floor of the stadium is a Mercedes showroom where the latest Benzs are extravagantly displayed. One cannot help but remember an earlier scene in Moldova when Reeves goes to a Moldovan village where a man sold his kidney to buy a washing machine and renovate his house. The implication is that such a disparity can only be achieved here through criminal smuggling given that Transnistria is not able to legally export anything as it is an unrecognised state.

And yet, there are scenes which clearly show that there is no comprehensive system of repression in Transnistria. The first is that they are able to come right up and interview the president during a military parade. When interviewed, the president does not vomit out angry rhetoric, instead he stresses independence, learning from the rest of the world and pluralism.

In the ultimate scene they try to film a "secret" army base, they get quite close to it but they are caught and arrested. They are then released and given their film back.
Now consider the second film about Transnistria - Europe's Black Hole. This opens with a military parade, this is a scene similar to the one in Places that Don't Exist but different by being far more aggressive in nature. Instead of soldiers in dress uniform - they are in camouflage gear, faces painted black and lying prone. These are clearly soldier ready for battle more than just marching around the parade ground. When I heard the opening line "under the eye of Lenin, terror has free reign" my feelers were instantly poised, waiting for sensationalism.

This film relies on the motif of a covert journalist. Scenes are shakily shot in low fidelity film. There are many scenes in a car when the shot drops below the dashboard apparently to avoid detection. The soundtrack is also ominous, drawn out growling bass set to a beat on a kettle drum.

Issues of how reliable this is as a comprehensive picture of life in Transnistria extends to journalistic method as well. Consider the fact that the film's entry point into Transnistria is an arrest warrant issued by Interpol for a person that is hiding there. The association of criminals to the state and the reiteration of the phrase "criminal state" is quite effective until you ask the question - what does "criminal state" actually mean? Not much. Looking at almost anywhere through the aperture of the criminal element and you will get a skewed picture of that place. But this is not just a problem of taking the wrong entry point - there seems to be a concerted effort to skew the perspective toward making it seem more dangerous than it actually is and most of all providing the appearance that the criminal element is one and the same thing as the government. This is given weight by testimonies given by members of the Moldovan government - a government that is still at war with the Transnistria - clearly getting the facts from the enemy.

 The implied thesis that the film puts forward is that the Transnistrian people exist under an extremely oppressive regime that is run by criminal gangs. We get glimpses at why they mistakenly associate their lack of tact to obtaining access with repression. When they attempt to enter the same football stadium that was shot in the last film, this time shot from the floor of the car they are in - they are denied entry. The exact dialogue goes like this: "Good afternoon this is a camera crew they would like to look around?" they ask. The response is "that is forbidden". There is no mention of who they work for or what film they are making. Why would someone let you enter and just start filming potentially putting their job in jeopardy? In Places that Don't Exist they did not have any trouble getting access to the same stadium and are given a tour by a very suspicious man in a sleeveless shirt.

This is not say that the film is useless in terms of reliability - one interview describes the horrific experiences of a sex slave that has managed to escape captivity. Attempting to do the same thing beforehand and being punished in a particularly appalling way is the most effecting part.

So which version of Transnistria do you believe? There are certain facts established by the first film that stick in your throat when you try to swallow the second. First - if, in the first film, they were caught trying to film a military base but released with their equipment and footage after a short amount of time, then clearly the Transnistria is not exercising the paranoia that would be expected for the state that is described in the second film. Secondly, how are they able to approach and interview the president which seems free from the presence of body guards which would also be present in such a state? But more than that there is the feeling of freedom of movement - that scenes can be shot at the border relatively freely, that the bank notes printed in Transnistria do not have the president on them because "We don't have a cult of personality of the president" all convey the impression of a state that does have massive criminal problems but is regardless much freer than the one described in the film Europe's Black Hole.

It is important that when people consider travelling to a place that is considered dangerous they realise there are many reasons why somewhere would be labelled in such a manner - the chief one is usually ignorance. I remember travelling to Mexico how paranoid most US citizens were - preferring to cram themselves into US trailer parks instead of crossing the border. This was the results of media that picks and chooses the facts it presents conveying a skewed picture. Also present is self-interest - especially when dealing with government agencies that would prefer their citizens to stay at home - spending their money domestically instead of overseas. I don't know about you but I spent my stimulus money on a holiday OS.

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