Transnistria, a piece of land sandwiched in between Moldavia and Ukraine, is often described as a “black hole” where human trafficking and weapons smuggling are businesses nobody questions. Less known is the fact that Sweden recently changed its stance toward the regime by cutting off aid for people who have been tortured in the prisons of Transnistria. Blankspot spent 24 hours in the country that doesn’t exist, to find out why.
Av Jonatan Fried 10 september, 2016
The dead straight road leads a few hundred yards in to a grey building and some guard posts. A red and green roof marks the entrance to the country.
“You have to walk up there.”
Alexandru, who drowe me here, doesn’t want to be seen by the border patrol. He is “persona non grata” and not welcome in Transnistria. He’s been threatened and listed as a suspicious character by region’s secret police, KGB. He must keep at a safe distance.
Alexandru has tried to talk me out of my plan. It is better to just visit during daytime, a few hours, he says. To spend the night here is dangerous.
“They will keep surveillance on you and there are cameras at the hotel,” he says.
But he picks up his phone with a Transnistrian SIM-card and makes a call.
It is 9 o’clock in the morning.
“Okay, he’s there now. You can go.”
I recognize Boris from afar. His jeans and small-checkered white and blue shirt stand out contrasted against the border patrol and the Russian soldiers who are guarding the land from the roadside. Boris is one of Transnistria’s official interpreters. We have exchanged many emails.
Boris hunches down to a low-sitting window and communicates with the guards in Russian. I have to show my passport even though this isn’t an official border— technically we’re still in Moldavia.
After a few minutes, the guard slips a tiny note over the counter.
“It’s his VISA,” the guard tells Boris. “Make sure he doesn’t lose it. He has to be back here at 9 am tomorrow, otherwise he’s going to have problems.”
From this moment, I have exactly 24 hours to explore Transnistria, an unrecognized country that emerged after a long-forgotten civil war in Moldavia. After 1,500 people had died and the Transnistrian secessionists received military back up from Russia, they declared the strip of land East of the Dnistr River as an independent nation on September 2, 1992.
Transnistria did what it could to get recognition from the rest of the world. They wrote their own constitution, founded a judicial system, called for public elections and created its own currency. They even printed passports for the citizens.
But the world did not recognize Transnistria nor accept its passports.
There are good reasons. Ever since the civil war, Transnistria has been the “Black Hole of Europe” – a free zone for organized crime, trafficking and illegal weapons export. Here, shady individuals have found asylum, conducting their business without any oversight from the outside world or international justice system, whatsoever.
This lack of recognition has also enabled its rulers to use torture and long prison terms to blackmail people, take over desirable companies or just silence dissent. Those in power and their allies risk nothing—they know they will go unpunished.
This is where Alexandru comes into the picture. Together with the other lawyers of the Moldavian organization, PromoLex, he has helped a long string of people who have suffered in Transnistrian dungeons.
Many of the torture victims have presented their cases in the European Court of Human Rights. All of them have won.
PromoLex’s work has been done in conjunction with Civil Rights Defenders and financed by the aid agency, Sida, both Swedish organizations.
But Sida has suddenly stopped its support and Alexandru is no longer welcome in Transnistria. What happened?
23 hours and 50 minutes left: From the car window I see enormous industrial plants from the Soviet era, sweeping fields, houses with neat little gardens and the old fortress of Bender, Tighina.
“You are on historical Swedish grounds,” Boris says.
Here in Bender, just a few minutes from the border, is where the Swedish King, Charles the XII fled to and lived for several years after suffering Russia’s defeat in the battle of Poltava in 1709. (This was an era when Sweden was a major power in Northern Europe and its borders stretched far to the East, covering most of the Baltic region.)
From Bender, Charles the XII, now with only a fraction of his army in tow, hoped to rope the real super power of the era, The Ottoman Empire, into his retaliation on Russia. But the Ottoman Empire, in which many Arab countries and Turkey were included, turned their backs on him and eventually attacked the Swedish camp, forcing him to leave.
Boris was born in the Ukraine, but has lived in several of the former Soviet states. He ended up in Transnistria just before the civil war, and ended up staying. He’s a worldly character, speaks perfect English and knows a whole lot about the Swedish-Russian battles of the 18th Century.
“The Russians are experts in sundering and mastering,” he says without making any historical parallels with what is going on in the Ukraine or Moldavia in present time.
We stop at a large housing complex from the Soviet era. Alex Ursu, a Moldavian policeman, bought a condo for himself and his wife in one of these buildings, in 2006. It was much cheaper in Transnistria than on the Moldavian side, where he was a police chief at the time. (Alex Ursu is not to be confused with Alexandru.)
Alex Ursu’s nightmare began on July 29, 2009. Transnistrian militia stormed into his home and accused him of having forged the bill of sale of his condo. He was asked to sign a document, stating that he agreed to relinquish his home.
The militiamen took him to jail and placed him in an interrogation room. They tied his hands together and hoisted him up in the ceiling. Then they beat him unconscious. When he came to, the assault continued—for three days. They gave him no food and he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom.
Then they arrested his father. For another three days of beatings, his aging father was forced to sit with him in the jail. Even when the militiamen threatened to do something to his pregnant wife, Alex Ursu did not give in.
After some time, there was a trial. The judge ignored the bill of sale for the condo, which his wife had brought to court as evidence. He listened only to the militia’s account, then Alex Ursu was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Alex Ursu’s wife was forced to move out, and a militiaman, moved in instead. Today, this man, has a high post in the self-proclaimed Transnistrian regime.
It wasn’t until Alex Ursu’s case caught international attention in 2012 that he was released.
But many of his fellow inmates are still imprisoned. Many of them aren’t criminals, just like Alex Ursu, and are being blackmailed for money. Some of them were forced to pay up to $20,000 per year in order to get their sentences shortened.
“They behaved like a mafia,” he said a few days earlier when I met him in Chisinau, where he lives now.
I look up at the building in the large housing complex in Bender where he used to live. He is one person PromoLex has helped. His case gained international attention, which may have saved his life. Today he is healthy and has reunited with his wife and two children.
Sida’s funds were used in cases just like this. But Swedish aid money is no longer available for helping torture victims in Transnistria.
Representatives of Civil Rights Defenders have protested, of course, but nothing has helped reverse the decision. And when the organization didn’t voluntarily end the cooperation with PromoLex, they were handed a deathblow. Sida pulled the plug on all funds they allotted to Civil Rights Defenders in Moldavia.
We leave Bender and move on toward Tiraspol, which is Transnistria’s unofficial capital city. Boris tells me about his uncle in Ukraine who just turned 113 years old.
“The most important thing in reaching old age is a positive attitude,” he says.
21 hours left: The car pass by Western retail boutiques, well-stocked grocery stores and an enormous soccer arena, so grand that it outshines most other sports complexes in this part of Europe. Tiraspol also has a university, a hospital, grade schools and a functioning industry that exports goods, mainly garments and textiles, to all of Europe.
Boris brings me to a small restaurant that serves local specialties. The menu feels like a mirror of the history of Transnistria. They serve the Turkish cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, which are said to be what inspired a Swedish dish brought home by Charles XII. They also serve Russian classics like borscht and solyanka soups, as well as dishes with roots in the Southern European cuisine like Mediterranean salads.
Both Boris and I go for Russian, Pelemini with Smetana, which are dumplings served with sour cream. We also try the local dolmades— vine leaves stuffed with rice, like cabbage rolls.
Around us, a typical day unfolds, similar to what takes place on any given Saturday on the western side of River Dnestr—in Moldavia. Families stroll around, some on their way down to the river for a swim.
There are quite a few symbols left from the Soviet era too—The Hammer and Sickle, gigantic Lenin statues and Stalinist monumental buildings. Mixed with cool Victoria’s Secret stores and elegant sidewalk bistros, they create a Disney-esque feeling.
This is exactly what the regime wants to show people like me, visiting the country for a day. They want everything to seem normal.
But those who have been allowed to stay longer, and have managed to get below the surface, have another view of Transnistria. One example is the experts of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in European, OSCE, whom in the past were allowed to visit the large military depot, Kolbasna, located in northern Transnistria which was left behind from the Soviet era.
There is information that different types of nuclear weapons—some no bigger than a suitcase but capable of devastating large cities—are stored in Kolbasna. There is evidence that such weapons and missiles with radioactive contents, so-called “dirty bombs,” have been smuggled out from Transnistria after the civil war ended in 1992.
If these types of weapons end up in the wrong hands, it’s an international security risk and could unchain events that would make the events of a James Bond movie look cute.
There are also likely weapons factories in Transnistria that are manufacturing new weapons, which are exported to conflict regions and terrorist groups. Both the facilities and the knowledge as to how weapons systems are constructed were left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’d be easy to smuggle them out via the Ukraine and to the port in Odessa.
Exactly what is going on in Transnistria and which weapons exactly have been smuggled out of the country, is hard to say. The chairperson of the OSCE has been banned and denied entry for several years and no other independent organization has been able to investigate what the factories are manufacturing or what’s left in the Kolbasna depot.
It’s not even possible to obtain basic information about Transnistria’s national income, how many people live there, or what type of assets the political elite possesses. There is no free media and the regime shares next to nothing with its citizens.
The only ones with some kind of insight are the Russians. Since the end of the civil war, Russian peacekeeping troops are stationed in the country and it’s Russia that supplies Transnistria with natural gas—free of charge.
After the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Russian presence in Transnistria took on new urgency. Many fear that Russia will use the unrecognized country as a base while taking over the western regions of the Ukraine. Both armaments and troops are already in place. As a precaution, the Ukraine has closed its borders with Transnistria. But that doesn’t seem to stop illegal arms from flowing over it.
In order to find some kind of solution for this extremely dangerous situation, the countries and organizations that are most concerned are trying to breathe life into an old taskforce dedicated to the future status of Transnistria. Dormant for quite some time, the ‘5+2,’ as it’s called, includes Russia, the EU, the US, OSCE and Moldavia, among others.
But the work of the 5+2 is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Only one meeting has been held in recent years.
This is where Alexandru and PromoLex come in to the picture again. Their work along with that of the judges in the European Court of Human Rights, has proved—over and over again—that the ruling class of Transnistria are using mobster methods in order to enrich themselves.
Such a depiction is hardly one the regime wants to acknowledge; it makes them look bad in international negotiations regarding the safety and wellbeing of millions of people.
That’s why they are trying to stop PromoLex at any cost—otherwise they refuse to participate in the negotiations.
18 hours left: When we finish our lunch and walk out of the restaurant, the sun is scorching in Tiraspol and despite the fact that it is Saturday there are relatively few people out and about. Boris believes many have gone to Odessa and to the beach. I am trying to document the street life with my camera. We pass the impressive parade street where the regime annually holds a huge military march in order to put fear in the surrounding region by showing off their huge weapons stockpile.
We walk down to the river where people are laying out and swimming at a man-made beach. On our way we pass a monuments from the civil war and a tanker from World War II that has been painted and transformed into a memorial of sorts.
Boris stops me several times when I want to snap some photos. He speaks of surveillance cameras and guards that can see us. When we pass by the governmental headquarters, a building tucked away on a back street, he wants to me to put the camera back in my bag.
In some instances, Boris’ precautions feel absurd—for example when we arrive at the large Lenin statue in front of the parliament building. Even though it’s a landmark of Tiraspol, he asks me not to photograph it.
The same thing happens when I want to take a picture of a regular grocery store. I don’t understand the issue, or believe that there would be surveillance cameras across the street.
“Scheriff” is the reason for his paranoia. They’re a corporation that controls pretty much everything of value in Transnistria, owned by the same group of men who also make up the ruling class. In addition to grocery stores, they also own gas stations, cellphone companies, and all stores selling wine and cognac. Even the enormous soccer arena carries the logo “Scheriff.”
On paper, anyone who wants to can start a company in Transnistria. But the regime uses a number of tactics to prevent that from happening. For example, I told that if someone opens a grocery store, then Scheriff immediately reduces the prices in their stores to shut down the competition, thus putting them out of business.
Another significantly crueler method was used against Eriomenco Vitalii, who has run several successful companies in Transnistria. He was in the bakery and brewing industries, among other things.
Eriomenco is serving time in prison in Slobosia, which is located just outside of Tiraspol. He was arrested in March 2011, accused of embezzling money from his own companies. The same day he was arrested, his four companies were taken over by a member of Transnistria’s self-proclaimed government.
A few days ago, I met with Eriomenco’s sister, Ala Gherman, back in Moldavia.
According to her, the police tried to convince Eriomenco to sign a document that would transfer the ownership of his businesses to the government representative. When he refused, first he was exposed to mock executions and then he was tortured.
When he still wouldn’t sign, his family members received threats and were forced to flee to Moldavia.
A three-year long judicial process followed. The judge disqualified all evidence for Eriomenco’s defense and he was sentenced to a long prison term.
Eriomenco has been in prison for five years now. According to his sister, he is sick with prostate cancer, but is still refused medical attention. His family has to pay for food, medicine and other necessities and send to him.
Ala Gherman turned to PromoLex to get help, getting Eriomenco’s case tried in a real court. She is convinced that he is innocent and spends all her free time working to free him. She has been gathering evidence that supports his case for a long time.
In her computer she has an x-ray of his jaw. The x-ray was taken by a dentist who was given a temporary permit to visit Eriomenco in jail. Quite a few teeth are missing.
“Look what they have done to him,” she said, showing it to me.
13 hours left: In a small village, about half an hour by car from Tiraspol, lives Luiza Doro—one of Transnistria’s most profilic journalists. From here, she and her husband run an online newspaper. It is the only publication in Transnistria that isn’t owned by the state or run by the corporation “Scheriff.”
Luiza offers me a glass of fresh cow’s milk from the neighboring farm and then we sit down in her office, which is also the family’s living room. On the walls are a couple of colorful textile prints with desert motifs, which her daughter recently displayed in a gallery in Tiraspol.
The Doros’ online newspaper is the closest to investigative journalism you can get in Transnistria. The ambition and desire is there, but the limits of publication here are governed by the KGB.
Luiza laughs a little when she tells me about her contact with the secret service. Then she turns to Boris, who will translate our conversation from Russian.
“Don’t you have to speak to the KGB some times?” she asks Boris.
“Yes, it happens. Sometimes when I interpret for foreign visitors, they call and ask what they wanted,” Boris says.
In Luiza’s case, it happens regularly. The secret service contacts her once a month, after they have gone through everything she has posted on her website since the previous month’s call.
“They want to make sure we do not work for other states and so we do not undermine Transnistria. They never threaten us, but they make sure we stay within their recommendations,” she says.
After several years as editor in chief of the largest newspaper in Transnistria, Luiza is pretty sure she knows how far she can test the patience of the secret service’s watchful eyes. Everything that touches on human rights and relations with other nations has a gag order on it. It also unacceptable to examine Transnistria’s economy, since then the regime’s illegal ventures risk being unveiled.
“We have to be very careful with what we publish. We are not scared, but you could say we have to balance on the edge of a sword,” she says.
But there is investigative work she can get away with—at least she hopes she can. Right now she and her husband are working on a story that explores how many people actually live in Transnistria. It’s a controversial topic since the regime, for some strange reason, has chosen to keep that in the dark.
The hypothesis is that the population has been drastically reduced over the course of the last few years, as the economy is in shambles. The Doros use all data they can get their hands on. One example is to take a look at how the bread sales have changed in Transnistria in recent years.
Isn’t it risky to investigate this?
“Yes, but we aren’t afraid since we are only using official data and open sources. The law permits that,” she says.
According to Luiza, the secret service stays in regular contact with all established journalists in Transnistria, even those who are freelancing. So far, two of the journalists have crossed the lines of what’s allowed. One of them, Sergei Ilchenko, was arrested last year. He is accused of spreading extremist opinions about Transnistria on Facebook.
The secret service wanted him to take back everything he had said or else his life would be in danger. After three months in an isolation cell, he chose to do what they demanded and he was released, then fled to Moldavia.
Since then he has said that someone hacked his Facebook account, blaming someone else for the status updates he was arrested for.
10 hours left: I check in at the City Club hotel a few blocks away from Tiraspol’s main drag. I was able to reserve the room on the Internet in advance. It is newly constructed and has large restaurants, one inside and one outside. There’s a fitness center in the basement and according to the website all beds are equipped with orthopedic mattresses.
The receptionist smiles at me when I walk into the lobby—I get the feeling that I am expected. I dig around in my bag for a print-out of my reservations, but the receptionist is one step ahead of me.
“No need for reservation documents, sir. You’re the only guest here tonight,” she says.
I look around, surprised, and wonder how such a big hotel can be in business without guests.
At first I’m the only one eating in the large restaurant, but after awhile a Russian family walks in to eat, though they’re staying at another hotel.
My hotel room is spacious, neat and has all technical equipment anyone could ask for. I am even given a code for their Wi-Fi connection. I should really check my e-mail, but I decide against it.
A few days prior, Alexandru showed me two video clips that have made their rounds on social media in both Transnistria and Moldavia. There are threatening undertones in the clips toward those who question the ruling class in Tiraspol. Alexandru believes the secret service created the video clips.
The videos look as if someone has made efforts to copy something the infamous hacker group Anonymous would produce. A person dressed in a dark suit, wearing a mask over his or her face, explains what happens to people who challenge Transnistria’s independence as a nation.
One video shows how a number of human rights activists and journalists have had their e-mail accounts hacked. Alexandru’s e-mail account is there, as is Luiza Doros’. According to a distorted speaker’s voice, she collaborates with the PromoLex lawyers.
Both videos also warn western organizations from financing activists trying to undermine the legitimacy of the Transnistrian regime.
One Swedish name also shows up among the e-mail accounts that supposedly were hacked. The account belongs to Månstråle Dahlström, who is vice-secretary of development and cooperation at the Swedish embassy in Chisinau. Dahlström has been responsible for SIDA’s aid for human rights in the region for several years, including their support for PromoLex.
The secret police later also wrote a press release in which they condemned PromoLex’s work and claimed that its members have a political agenda and ties to the Moldavian secret service. The press release is a little less blatant than the video clips, but nobody can miss the threatening undertones.
Could the video clips and press release have something to do with the cancelled Swedish financial aid?
The Swedish embassy says no. When I interviewed Månstråle Dahlström and her boss, Henrik Huitfeldt, before this trip, they maintained that their decision had nothing to do with the threats from the KGB—they didn’t even know about the video clips.
They did say they feel that it is important to get negotiations jump-started with the Transnistrian regime, however, in order to help the torture victims in the long term. Right now, PromoLex stands in the way of the possibilities for negotiations. If the 5+2 talks made progress, they could foresee helping the torture victims down the road, they reasoned.
Henrik Huitfeldt also claimed that PromoLex’s work caused political problems—it fueled the anti-Russian forces in Moldavia that want to merge the country with Romania. He says this in turn also posed a disadvantage for the negotiations in regards to the future of Transnistria.
These accusations have made Alexandru and his colleagues at PromoLex angry. He says they have never had a political agenda, all they are trying to do is help people who otherwise wouldn’t have the possibility of a fair trial under an oligarchy with a poor judicial system at best, and where torture is not considered a crime.
According to Alexandru and his colleagues in PromoLex, Sida has fallen for the regime’s propaganda. Sweden, with its long tradition and respectable reputation in working for human rights, should know better than to blindly abide a self-proclaimed regime in a place like Transnistria.
“This regime has been allowed to do whatever they want since 1992. They will never sit down at a negotiations table,” Alexandru said at one point.
I find it odd that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, also seem eager to obey the Transnistrian regime. Before my trip to Modlavia, I requested to discuss the question of torture victims with the OSCE representative in Moldavia. I was told that I would be allowed to do an “off-the-record” interview with The Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, Ambassador Michael Scanlan.
But I would not be allowed to ask any questions about torture. That could jeopardize relations with those in power in Transnistria.
“However, he won’t be able to talk to you about torture cases, so if you don’t mind we won’t touch on that subject,” his press secretary wrote in an e-mail.
So both Sweden and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have chosen to, if not cultivate, at least smooth over relations with a regime that is suspected of smuggling radioactive missiles to terrorist organizations.
I have a hard time settling in this night. Before I turn off my nightstand lamp, I comb through the room from floor to ceiling, looking for hidden microphones and cameras. I look in the bathroom, behind the curtains, in the table lamp.
I find nothing.
2 hours left: When I come down to the lobby in the morning, it’s completely quiet. No lights are on. There is nobody in the restaurant, and the taxi hasn’t arrived. I know I am early, but I don’t want to risk being late to the border station. I pull out a book and sit down to read and wait.
After a minute or so, I hear a signal and a speaker voice says something in Russian. Then a small door behind the receptionist counter opens and a freshly-awakened receptionist peers out. It’s the same woman as the day before.
Who woke her up? Was I under camera surveillance?
“Good morning, Sir. You are early—your taxi will be here at any moment.”
Everything seems normal again.
With ten minutes left to go I slip my passport over the counter in the low-sitting window. The guard takes care of the VISA note. He looks at his watch and nods: “You go!”
In the rearview mirror I see the border station’s red and green roofs disappear behind us. An illegal border to a “country” that tortures its citizens and supplies terrorist organizations with radioactive missiles. A nation that doesn’t exist.
Nils Resare, Blank Spot Project 2016
*Names in this article have been changed or withheld at the request of some individuals or organizations wishing to keep their identities anonymous.
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