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Transnistria: A Country That Doesn't Exist, But Has The Guns To Make You Think Otherwise (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

01/08/2013 07:50 am ET | Updated Mar 10, 2013

Within seconds of directing my camera at the bald granite Lenin head a suited man emerges. "No pictures allowed here. Passport and registration please." He shows his own identification, a hammer and sickle emblazoned across the page next to his frowning portrait. "Presidential Security," he informs me, "you must delete these pictures." We would be ordered to stop photographing five more times in the next three days.

This was outside the presidential offices of the recently elected Yevgeny Shevchuk in Tiraspol, Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway Republic sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. It has been called the most lawless place in Europe and is rumored to be a thriving transit zone for arms and human trafficking.

Our local guide, Andrey Smolenski laughed when he heard the story. "They still think that anyone with a camera is a spy, a relic of Soviet times," he says as he swings his car onto the wide empty boulevard called '25 Oktobrya, the date of the Bolshevik revolution. "Still, the KGB is not as bad now thanks to our new president."

About 500,000 people live in this small sliver of land, which seceded from Moldova as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Not much has changed here since then. The Supreme Soviet still makes the laws, the flag bears a hammer-and-sickle and the style of clothing is patently Soviet in its drabness. War memorials commemorating the short conflict between Transnistria and Moldova occupy the towns' central squares, replete with statues and artwork in the style of Socialist realism.

In the past tourists were only allowed in for a few hours, and though the policy has lightened in recent years, few stay here for more than a day. There are no foreign embassies, except for those of two other unrecognized states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "If you find yourself in trouble, you are alone," was the warning leaving Moldova.

Though unrecognized, Transnistria is a de facto state, maintaining its own military, police force, border control and postal service. It issues its own currency though ATMs dispense only U.S. dollars and Russian rubles, which must then be exchanged.

Our guide, Smolenski, a 27 year old in an American sports jacket, meets us in front of a WWII era tank for a tour of the city. He co-wrote a book about Transnistria and works for the state-run radio station -- but is now trying to set up a tour agency for Western visitors. "I will give you an objective picture of my country," he says assuredly. The tour consists mostly of war memorials and other sights dedicated to the heroism of the Transnistrian partisan forces in the 1992 "war for independence."

"I know that you are not spies," Smolenski says a bit later, "this is not needed anymore since the new president took office in December, the situation improved. Sometimes it seems here that you might be in North Korea, but it is not." He drives past a checkpoint with heavily armed Russian peacekeeping soldiers. "Don't take pictures," he snaps, "if they see you, they will stop us and we'll have to have a serious talk with some serious guys." When asked if that meant the KGB, Smolenski nodded in the affirmative.

Smolenski begins to tell the history of his country, a familiar story of frozen conflict in the post-Soviet world. Under Stalin's policy of Russification, waves of Russian immigrants came pouring into the Moldovan Soviet Republic, particularly into the heavily industrialized area of Transnistria. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, nationalist parties gained power and Moldova declared independence. Romanian was declared the only official language and there were calls from the right wing fringe to expel all Slavic peoples from the country. A short conflict ensued between Moldova and the majority Slavic Transnistria, which ended in a stalemate after the Russian Army intervened on the breakaway republic's behalf. Russian troops remain in Transnistria to this day.

Most Moldovans refer to the Russian troops as occupiers. "All propaganda," says Smolenski. "The Moldovan fascists tell these lies and America and the EU believe them. There could have been genocide here if Russia had not stepped in. But, the fact that we are unrecognized is proof that the Cold War is not yet over. Without Russia's support we would not survive."

Although Russia also does not officially recognize Transnistria, it provides the country with tremendous financial support to the tune of $150 million a year, according to Smolenski. Indeed, Russia's presence is heavily felt in the country. At every border crossing or strategic position there are Russian peacekeepers with AK-47 assault rifles and heavily armored vehicles concealed beneath camouflage netting. An enormous slogan reading "Russia brings peace and stability" was painted across an overpass.

The Soviet landscape has also remained intact. The country is remarkably clean and free of graffiti and trash. The facades of all of the buildings on the main streets are immaculate and propaganda posters hang from buildings proclaiming, "Tiraspol is our favorite city!" Another banner bears the face of the new president with the mantra "There Will Be Order" printed boldly down the side.

In the classic Russian style of Potemkin villages and dummy missiles, much of this order is illusion. Behind high walls and fences are piles of rotting trash. The sides of the buildings not visible from the street are unpainted and crumbling. Most of the young people expressed a strong desire to leave the country. When asked about life in Transnistria one young man named Alexander said, "life is very bad here."

A bored man working with his wife in a tailor shop gave the most enthusiastic assessment: "It is possible to live here."

Most reminiscent of the communist era is the extreme boredom and conformity that permeates the place. There are barely any cafes or clubs, nothing beautiful in the city, no culture to speak of. Most of the young people were more anxious to ask questions about Europe and America than to talk about their own country. Ninteen year old Vilena -- the name, a derivation of Vladimir Illich Lenin -- looks shyly at my American friend and asks "what is it like to live in America?" She asks if there are really so many sheep in my native Netherlands.

As the days pass and as more uniformed men appear demanding passports, a sense of unease begins to fall over the trip. Andrei tells about an Austrian tourist he had showed around a few months before. "He took a picture of a factory and was arrested by the KGB, but because he spoke no Russian they called me. They interrogated me for six hours, without coffee or anything," he looks out the window at some people waiting for a trolleybus and as if by reflex says, "but that was under the previous president, now everything is better."

Transnistria