Nicoleta Esinencu / Chişinău

This is where peace is made with tanks

Between punk nihilism and Soviet nostalgia: A trip to the Republic of Moldova and the phantom state of Transnistria .

Even on the flight out from Frankfurt, it became ludicrously obvious that the Republic of Moldova is hardly leading the rankings on the German awareness agenda. The ground staff at the largest European airport didn't have a clue where our destination was. Chişinău? They guessed we probably meant Kiev or Charkov. Some tried to decipher the name of the French city we were mispronouncing or asked whether we were really heading for Africa. These difficulties led us to nearly missing the half-empty Air Moldova flight. It's only two hours flight time from the glittering Frankfurt skyline to Chişinău, the capital of one of Europe's poorest countries. But the Republic of Moldova has come to serve as the model for a satirical bestseller about obscure post-Soviet countries: Molvania, a land untouched by modern dentistry.

In Chişinău, it was pouring down. After five minutes in the taxi, its engine broke down. It took some time to find another one coming down the broad empty street. At some point, though, we did arrive at a crooked, narrow little wooden house where the mother of an acquaintance lived. In the city the next morning, the first thing we noticed was the many different languages and scripts: Rumanian in Roman characters and Cyrillic script and a lot of Russian, plus any amount of crude composite forms. Sometimes, the fate of a country can depend on a way of writing. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of Moldovans refused to continue using the Cyrillic script to write their language (a Rumanian dialect) as required by the Soviet Russians from 1940 on. Today, the Moldovans not only have a public holiday to celebrate their independence from the Soviet Union (27 August), but also one in honour of their language (31 August). Since 1994, "Limba Noastr" (Our Language) has been the national anthem of this young republic: "Our language is a treasure / buried in the deep / A chain of precious stones / scattered over our country."

They're all here: communists, nationalists and Europe-haters

Nicoleta Esinencu, born in 1978 and one of the best-known young artists from Chişinău, does not find it easy to deal with that kind of national pride. She wrote in a play: "The Moldovans are patriots / Even if they don't really know what their native country is." Her bitingly satirical writings have upset quite a few Moldovans and thrilled the Rumanians, Germans, Dutch or French who have successfully staged her works. After all, Nicoleta's criticism of nationalism is universal.

Nicoleta looks like a blonde childlike elf. Her play "FUCK YOU, Eu.ro.Pa" (2005) took a critical look at the illusions her fellow Moldovans and the Rumanians harbour about EU accession. When the play was published in the programme for the Rumanian Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale, it unleashed such a storm of controversy that the then 23-year-old playwright found her work being discussed by the parliament in Bucharest. How could a young woman from a poor country (with a pro capita income of Euro 100 a month – pensioners receive Euro 15) be making jokes about the EU?

Nicoleta waves such comments aside. She is not against the EU, although she does think that many of the countries in the region have placed exaggerated hopes in EU accession. She also regards the change of heart as hypocritical: "When I was at school, many teachers would rather have bitten off their tongues than actually say the word Europe. If it was totally unavoidable, they sidestepped the problem by saying ‘Eurasia’."

Her intellectual punk nihilism has brought Nicoleta a number of awards, including a scholarship at Stuttgart's Schloss Solitude. Over those months, she learnt a little bit of German. Her favourite word is "Scheiße" – or, in her version, "Scheise", since she says it with a soft 's'. We couldn't walk 200 metres through Chişinău without her calling something she saw "Scheise". Sometimes she also switches into English to adequately vent her disgust over the screwy situation in her country. Come on!, she says, and rolls her eyes. And even weeks after our trip together, I still have her "It's so crazy" ringing in my ears. We are in a crazy country with a crazy Babel of languages, crazy communists, anti-communists, nationalists, EU-haters and fervent EU-supporters, crazy, proud and broken people. And beneath Nicoleta's gruff, abrasive manner, a deeply humane worldview shimmers through. "Here people say that after independence, there shouldn't be any Russian influence in the Republic of Moldova any more. Come on! There are any number of Russians living here. Are they supposed to vanish into thin air? In the post-1991 period, the popular slogan heard everywhere was: Suitcase! Station! Russia! One would have liked nothing more than to throw all the Russians out of the country."

Yet despite all the many changes, Chişinău, Nicoleta's hometown, has at least managed to keep its awful reputation. Even in Tsarist Russia – which it belonged to for a time after 1818 – this provincial town on the margins of the Russian Empire was considered a terrible, god-forsaken dump, only suitable for banishing the discontented and rebellious to as a punishment. The young Alexander Puschkin, banished to Kishinyov from 1820 to 1823, wrote: "Oh Kishinyov, oh dark city! Cursed city of Kishinyov, the tongue never tires of insulting you."

180 years later, in her prose essay "Chişinău – A City of Headaches!", Nicoleta Esinencu enlarges the scope of the rant: "People from Chişinău only like to buy tickets for the National Historical Museum because it's cheaper to get into the museum than a public toilet."

Chişinău is a strange city: massive Stalinist-style buildings on broad inner city boulevards and, at the same time, low houses and lots of green spaces. Writer and publisher Vitalie Ciobanu (born in 1964) drops by to join us for supper. Fourteen years ago, together with a fellow writer, he found the cultural magazine "Contrafort" (Counterforce). Vitalie recalls how "Contrafort" started: "We wanted to set ourselves off against those older journalists who, once the Soviet Union fell, relapsed into 19th-century style national myths. Moreover, we wanted to align ourselves with new ideas and tendencies in European literature. And we also wanted to be distinct stylistically – in our view, we were followers of post-modernism and we called ourselves Europeans."

"Contrafort" has increasingly become a platform for young, innovative literature from the Republic of Moldova. Vitalie is happy that the magazine rapidly gained recognition in Rumania and has already attracted pieces by authors from Paris, Rome, Berlin, Prague and New York. For Vitalie, President of the Moldovan PEN-Club and enthusiastic participant in the "Literatur Express Europa 2000" project (run by the LiteraturWERKstatt Berlin), internationality is very important. Just like Nicoleta, he too had the biggest problems in his early years in his own country; he was abused as "elitist", "freemason", "pro- Israeli" or "pro-Hungarian". They were called Hungarians because they received funding from the Soros Foundation, started by Hungarian-Jewish-American investment banker George Soros, a survivor of the German occupation of Budapest.

When we broach the topic of the government and President Voronin, a torrent of words burst out of Vitalie, who otherwise seems so calm. He says the government has reintroduced censorship in news broadcasts, and dubs what the authorities in Chişinău are doing as "backwoods regionalist isolation". "Contrafort's" present support from the Rumanian Cultural Institute has aroused the mistrust of the responsible authorities in the Chişinău Ministry of Culture, who are against any rapprochement with a comparatively powerful neighbour.

"I will never accept the role of a writer only for Moldova", says Vitalie, visibly upset. "I write in Rumanian, and I want to have access to a certain universality, literature cannot stop at national boundaries. Above all, when it's a question of the same language. If I was an Austrian, that wouldn't mean that I shouldn't find literature from Germany interesting. And that again wouldn’t mean I believe that Austria is part of Germany!«

While Vitalie is complaining about the depressive mood in the country, Nicoleta has poured herself another vodka. She spends more than six months a year involved in theatre productions abroad or on scholarships there.

She says: "The Republic of Moldova is not interested in me, why should I be interested in the country?" Since her plays are rarely staged in the Republic of Moldova and her books not published there, she looked for a publisher in Bucharest. Her play "√.md" will soon be performed as part of the "Moldova Camping" theatre festival in Germany.

"But of course the biggest problem is Transnistria", Vitalie says with a sigh. The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), also known as Transnistria, is a pro-Russian phantom state with a stabilised de-facto regime on Moldovan territory. Since the end of 1991, it has been under the totalitarian rule of the Smirnov family clan. Today Transnistria holds both the largest stores of wine in the entire former East Bloc and the most extensive arsenal of conventional weapons in Europe. The territory (as large as the Saarland) not under Moldovan government control has its own government, currency and border installations. It is, moreover, reputedly a hive of money laundering, drug trafficking and smuggling, with the German Foreign Office warning against trips to the "black hole" of the Republic of Transnistria.

"Famous Russian painters? Only Americans buy that kind of stuff!"

For the Moldovans, the presence of the Russian "peace keeping troops" is a catastrophe. "I cannot imagine a peace treaty with Transnistria and a reintegration of the region into our country without demilitarisation and decriminalisation, since otherwise we will not have the Europeanisation of Transnistria, but the Transnistrisation of the Republic of Moldova. And then we will fall even further under Russian influence", says Vitalie. He continues quietly: "With this problem, the Republic of Moldova has no chance to become a member of the EU. " Come on! Nicoleta rolls her eyes. Vitalie reaches neither for the cream puffs nor for the vodka, but places a pile of "Contrafort" on the table.

Foto: Florin Tabirta

On the following day, we head off to spend nearly a week in a region which has also been dubbed the "Museum of Communism". The most visible objects of cultural value are the numerous Lenin memorials. The only other things to be seen are concrete-slab housing blocks, empty streets, plants growing wild, and the army – a third of the region is military territory. It's crazy.

In the local history museum, we admire a site devoted to Lenin. Lenin busts, Lenin sculptures and paintings, embroidered and crocheted Lenins, Lenins made of melon pips, and many, many more. There has probably never been such a collection of Lenins in such a limited space – except possibly in Ms Bondarenko's office at the Communist opposition party in the capital Tiraspol. Though in her case, we find Stalin too. Ms Bondarenko is a lawyer by training and has the military rank of a Major. When asked about the illegal arms trade in Transnistria, she gives the apt reply: "Even if you held a Kalashnikov to my head, I wouldn't give you an answer!"

She's not interested in discussing culture. "People here don't want modern art. Only realist art can speak to the people." She takes exception to the further question of what she thinks of the famous Russian painters such as Kandinsky or Malevitsch.

"They were only successful abroad. That's not great art. That's what Americans buy."

At the close of the interview, Ms Bondarenko hands us a play she has written herself. It is a piece about soldiers swindled out of their wages. We are right back in the middle of the (eternal) class struggle. The play is set in the Classical World – and even Cleopatra gets a cameo role.

The director of the state radio also doesn't think much of art for art's sake. The large, corpulent man was only heaved into his post six months earlier by the ministry of internal affairs. Our visit to his office turns into a monologue on Moldovan suppression of the Pridnestrovians. While he's talking, he keeps a carpet knife pointing directly towards Nicoleta, the only Moldovan there ("Scheise"). There's a Russian flag on the table. Christian icons hang on the wall behind the director. Only the picture of President Smirnov is larger (It's crazy). At the end, we are given another gift. His own poems: "The Good Way", verses for religious-nationalist edification. Later Nicoleta makes up the lines: It doesn't matter what border it's about. This is where peace is made with tanks.

At present, Transnistria's most important cultural object is probably sport, or more precisely, football. The stadium on the Tiraspol city limits does not only seem pretentious because of the bleak concrete-slab residential blocks. Hardly anyone would ever imagine that one of southern Europe's most modern sport complexes could be located in such a place. Next to the stylish "Sheriff-Stadium", there are a dozen training pitches, a vast hall and even a Sheriff football academy. While workers look after the meticulously laid out flowerbeds for Euro 50 a month, a 5-star luxury hotel is being built next to the site. The monumental sports complex immediately reminds Nicoleta of Ceausescu's Casa Poporului, the epitome of the absurd misuse of power. The megalomanic sports centre is only possible in this poor country because the eponymous owner of the club simultaneously owns the country's largest business: Sheriff runs petrol stations, supermarkets, TV and radio stations, a cognac factory, and nearly everything else that can be turned into money in Transnistria.

Just by chance, the owner of this monopoly enterprise is the President's son. The club was rapidly promoted to the first division. Now, it totally dominates the league. In May, FC Sheriff won the Moldovan league title for the eighth time in succession. Sheriff is by far and away the only regional club here with the financial clout to buy up foreign footballers – and not only Rumanian but also established Brazilian and African players.

While neither part of this divided country has anything good to say about the other, at least not officially, suddenly, when it comes to football, they are all united. Since the FIFA also does not recognise Transnistria, the clubs play in the Divizia Naţională, the Moldovan league. "Of course, there are also tensions between the fans", says Andrej, "but never really serious conflicts. " Andrej should know. After all, the 24-year-old, who speaks perfect German, is responsible for obtaining the visas and work permits for the foreign players at FC Sheriff. But he too cannot quite explain the miraculous reunification in the stadium.

"It's a paradoxical situation", he says, and gives an embarrassed laugh. Naturally, it's also about money and reputation. Since the Sheriff stadium is one of the few in the entire region that meets international standards, the national team frequently has to play there. For example, on 19 August, when Germany's team plays a qualifier there for the UEFA Under-21 European Championship. Then, both Transnistrian and Moldovan fans will be cheering their team on.

The German players, though, probably have no idea what a rare spectacle they will experience in Tiraspol – the Transnistrian police orchestra, conducted by a secret service officer, blasting out the enemy national anthem. And the otherwise hated Moldovan flag will be flying above the Sheriff Stadium. For a time, Transnistria's President Smirnov forbade games played with Moldovans in a joint national team. Then he was persuaded that there was no better possibility of presenting his separatist republic abroad.

In just a few kilometres on the way back from Transnistria, you cross more borders and border controls than anywhere else in Europe. If you want to get to Rumania, you have to endure seven checks, including the eastern border to the Ukraine. You need a lot of patience for a journey of slightly less than 200 kilometres from Tiraspol.

We have landed back in Frankfurt. Delayed. One of our cases is missing. And no one knows which flight we came on.

"From Kiev? " "Charkow? " "You French? "

And it starts all over again.

© Tanja Dückers