We were in Transnistria, the unacknowledged Soviet State that claims it's a country, sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova. Their twentieth anniversary party celebrating its 'independence' was a blast of tanks, comradeship and Slavic booze frenzy, but now we were stepping into the office of one of the nation’s most cutthroat and corrupt.
Powerbroker Dmitry Soin is one of Transnistria's high stakes players. He’s close to the heart of the state's organised crime structure and wanted by Interpol for personally carrying out the murders of a hitchhiker and a moneylender, as well as plotting at least 25 other assassinations. In 2006 he was exposed by a Sunday Times journalist as a weapons dealer, offering to sell converted Azalan combat missiles produced inside Transnistria. I was told numerous times by every source I approached that it would be impossible to track down and meet Soin, given his wanted status. Most believed him to be hiding away somewhere deep in Ukraine. He wasn't. He was sitting in Proriv HQ, waiting for me with a warm handshake and a pot of tea.
Proriv is the political cult that Dmitry sits at the head of. Depending on who you ask Proriv is either a pro-active youth-led political party or a vicious indoctrination movement, established to breed dogmatic right-wing nationalism and unwavering dedication to the party while kids are still young. We often saw young Transnistrians in yellow, proudly waving banners bearing the faces of Che Guevara and Vladimir Putin as they marched through town. These troops are Dmitry's Proriv foot soldiers, like Mouseketeers, only their career trajectory will take them into the illegal army of a fictional state.
Inside his office, Dmirty sits at his desk behind a large, intricate Japanese scroll. “I have a strong taste for the Asian arts,” says the man as we settle down into conversation, “but I've never been to that part of the world. I don't need to. Transnistria provides me with everything I need.” Connected to his office is a specially-installed Yoga room, extending his oriental tastes to squat thrusts and ankle bending. He says he practices every day.
On his shelves sit Che Guevara biographies and self-motivation tomes. I ask him what Che means to him and how the Cuban revolutionary has come to feature so highly in Proriv's image repertoire. Dmitry is frank: “I chose Che Guevara as our mascot for one very simple reason – kids think he's cool. Any country you go to, the kids think he's a cool guy. He has a beard. He rides motorbikes. So that's why.” And Putin? He figures pretty frequently too. “We just use Putin because he is a strong leader. We look to Russia for inspiration.”
Dmitry doesn't know that I know about his shady criminal dealings, so we talk about Proriv, his love of kids, and its wacky foundations. “I modelled our organisation on the Jehovah's Witnesses – I was always very impressed with the way they used the media to spread their message. They have great techniques to keep people loyal. I started up our printing press as a direct result of them.
“Our basic idea is that materialism should not overcome political ideas.” But he refuses to lay out any kind of Proriv manifesto that goes any deeper than this pseudo-communist rhetoric, that translates as little more than 'Hey Comrades! Live righteously in poverty whilst your leaders collect Japanese scrolls and sell bombs to the Taliban!'
Dmitry tells me that Proriv starts “recruiting people at the age of 12. Young people today start thinking like adult people at a much younger age than they used to. They come to our party because here there is a kind of unity. They know there is someone here who will work with them and give them what they need. We produce notebooks, calendars, stationery. People come to us because we provide activity clubs and camps, we offer them psychological training. We have entertainment programs and sports competitions. Role playing games, games for character development. We can give children who might not have computers at home the opportunity to use them. The process is designed to politicise young people.”
Psychological training? “Yes. We teach them how to act as proud citizens. We teach them how to be nationalistic and how to fight for Transnistria's independence.”
And how do you do this? “Well, unfortunately due to the Independence Day celebrations, this week the centre is closed so we can't show you. But you can come back any time, and we can train you too.”
How do you fund this endless Che-inspired bonhomie? “Well, we sell many notebooks and stationery from the store that I told you about.” Who knew such a huge party operation could be funded off the back of pencil sharpeners?
Transnistria are reported to have the biggest stockpile of weapons in all of Europe, which is the main reason nobody can touch them. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been overseeing and adjudicating attempts at resolving the weapons issue. Before coming to Transnistria I met up with them at their Moldovan office, where they explained to us that, despite them officially having free access to keep checks on Transnistria, in practice their attempts are always blocked. They know that in the city of Kolbasna, in the north of the Transnistrian region, a huge weapons stockpile sits guarded by the Transnistrian military and is completely inaccessible.
There is much speculation about the extent of the weapons-producing factories that are also operating behind the security posts. The OSCE wangled enough political currency and goodwill with the Transnistrian government to begin a controlled weapons destruction program a couple of years ago. It seems as though, having earned this degree of trust and access, they're unwilling to say anything negative to us about Transnistria, should further access be denied.
This appears to be the stalemate situation Transnistria's elite seem happy to keep living in – maintaining the political rhetoric about gaining independence while throwing spanners in the works every time an outside organisation tries to help them achieve their proposed aim. It is a convenient, endlessly repeated cycle and a façade that covers up their far more profitable, behind the scenes criminal activities.
I read out the accusations against the Transnistrian regime of weapons-producing, smuggling, corruption etc. etc. and ask Dmitry what his response would be. He fobs me off, “If there is an issue with weapons in our country, it is not our responsibility. We give the EU full access to our country, if they thought there was a problem they would deal with it. If they are continuing to suggest there is a problem, it is only for their own political ends, to justify a continued disengagement with the struggle of the Transnistrian people.”
The sad irony of Transnistria is that for it to exist, and for people like Dmitiry Soin and Transnistria's Dear Leader Igor Smirnov to continue living the lives they lead, ultimately the funny little country must continue to not exist in the eyes of the world that surround it. If it did, its recognition would come on the condition of transparency and an end to the nation's weapons industry. But then the game would be up – and why would those in power enjoying the fruits of the current arrangement want that?
PHOTOS: HENRY LANGSTON AND ALEX HOBAN
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