COMRAT, Moldova — The Transnistrian policeman who had been interrogating us turned to his colleague. “I caught three journalists – Bulgarian, Spanish and American – without accreditation.”
His fellow lawman looked us up and down with distaste.
“Line ‘em up and shoot ‘em,” he said and turned away.
It was true we were journalists. It was also true that we hadn’t applied for accreditation by the authorities that run the de facto republic that’s recognized by nobody. But we weren’t there to do any expose; we were there to change buses and – hopefully – have lunch.
But before we even had a chance to change money they were onto us.
I’d gone inside the grandiose Soviet train station to admire its vaulted ceilings. The timetable still listed trains about a dozen trains to and from Ukraine and Russia – even up to the Arctic Circle – but most of these trains probably haven’t come or gone since Gorbachev’s time.
When I came outside Tiraspol’s finest clad in a blue uniform was giving my Spanish colleague a good going over. I immediately got into goofy-tourist mode.
“Hey how ya doing?”
I asked the policeman who was peppering my friend in fair English with staccato rapid fire questions.
He turned on me. “What is your job in the United States?”
I told him I hadn’t worked there in a long time. But not wanting to be caught in a lie I added that I lived in Turkey.
And what did I do in Turkey?
Here we go. I copped to being a reporter. His eyes lit up. The spider had caught himself a coupla’ flies.
At this point my Bulgarian colleague wandered up. To his disadvantage he speaks fluent Russian which makes interrogations so much easier. From here on out he bore the brunt of the questioning. We were told we shouldn’t have entered the territory without accreditation – despite the fact that we weren’t reporting here – apparently the stigma of working for the press makes us spoiled goods. We should have avoided Transnistria altogether.
At this point we were worried we’d be sent packing and not allowed to board our minibus to our ultimate destination in Moldova proper. Then he got on the phone to his boss.
After the phone call he went through our passports. The Middle Eastern stamps seemed to trouble him as if we were here to import the religious and ethnic conflicts of the Levant to his quiet corner of not-so-post-Soviet space.
He was convinced that our Spaniard – an ethnic Basque – was a violent separatist. We thought this should win him accolades considering the Transnistrians are in the same business but it did not.
A decision was made. We would be confined to the station area. We could take not pictures nor talk to anyone. We would be allowed to leave unmolested provided we kept our professional curiosity in check.
At this point I hazarded a question.
“Where can we buy a souvenir bottle KVINT cognac?” I asked him.
The policeman’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.
“That,” he said beaming, “is an excellent idea.”
Besides producing small arms in Soviet-era weapons factories, Transnistria also makes fairly good brandy. The factory outlet is adjacent to the station. He described in proud detail how we could get a liter of 10-year-old cognac that he claims sells in the U.S. for more than $100 a bottle for “just 15 bucks.”
He watched over us as we changed money – time to help the local de facto economy – and warned us not to stray too far.
We got our cognac and were left with about 55 Transnistrian rubles between us ($5).
At a nearby kiosk a woman sold hot dogs for 10 Transnistrian rubles. I ordered five to split between three of us.
What had started out as a tense and potentially unpleasant situation quickly devolved into a hot dog eating contest as we only had a few minutes to board our minibus.
Afterward the policeman had a few more words with our Bulgarian pal. He didn’t like that American, he told the Bulgarian, mimicking my gangly goofy demeanor.
“Does he like me?” The Basque asked.
“No, he doesn’t like you, either.”
We pulled away without incident. Hot dogs in our belly, the clinking sound of glass cognac bottles in our luggage.
Till next time, Transnistria.
POSTSCRIPT: At least they didn’t ask for a bribe like last time.