Nation with vain hope of making stamp on the world

There are are many odd places in the former Soviet Union but few as zany as Tiraspol - a grubby city of empty shops, nostalgic Communists and an unhealthy enthusiasm among officials for philosophy and philately.

Here even the most lunk-headed bureaucrat can sound like a lecturer in logical positivism. "We are not recognised by anybody, but the fact is that we exist," intoned Yelena Efimova, pedantic propagandist for a pioneering experiment in the great ontological - and politically explosive - question of our time: when does a chunk of soil become a state? "You are here, that proves we exist."

I asked her to elaborate. "We have all the attributes of an independent nation: police, army, constitution, customs, economy, currency, everything." Then came the clincher: "We even have our own stamps," she said.

From her desk in Tiraspol's Government House, she took out an assortment of philatelic exotica, freshly minted but entirely useless stamps trumpeting the existence of what the rest of the world insists is non-existent.

What this nation, carved from the western fringe of Moldova and dominated by Russian-speaking Slavs, stands for exactly seems a bit muddled - one stamp bears a picture of the Russian poet Pushkin, another an advertising logo pilfered from the US computer company, Apple. (Local heroes, it seems, are thin on the ground.)

But Mrs Efimova's stamp collection did have a point. Each stamp bore the same legend: Postal Service of the Trans-Dnestr Moldavian Republic. Such is the official name of what, in 1990, became one of the first fragments of the Soviet Union to declare itself independent.

The act was not an attempt to destroy the empire but rather to preserve it, to put back the clock to a time when Slavs still ruled the roost in its distant outposts, in this case a sliver of land along the eastern bank of the river Dnepr, between Ukraine and the then Soviet Republic of Moldavia. Its population is tiny - barely 700,000. Its bluster is boundless. "If anyone tries to crush our independence by force," Mrs Efimova warned, "the whole nation will rise up."

It all sounded a bit melodramatic. Most ordinary people I spoke to cursed officials as a band of self-serving, thieving incompetents. Dj vu, though, stopped me from scoffing too much.

A few weeks earlier I had been in Chechnya. There too they had their own stamps - decorated with pictures of General Dzhokhar Dudayev and other icons of a statehood that no foreign leader other than the ousted president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, acknowledged. There too a corrupt political clique had seized power and draped itself in the banner of wounded nationalism.

The fates of two cities, however, could not be more different. Grozny, the capital of secessionist Chechnya, has been reduced to rubble. Tiraspol, the capital of separatist Trans-Dnestr, is shabby but entirely intact. The agent of their different fortunes is the Russian army.

Boris Yeltsin sent the military into Chechnya to enforce what the whole world accepts as a legitimate right of any state to territorial integrity. "Russian soldiers are there to defend Russia's unity," Mr Yeltsin declared. "Not a single territory has the right to secede."

Moldova used much the same argument in June 1992 when it sent its troops to retake Trans-Dnestr. The Russian military, in the form of the 14th Army, had no time for abstract notions of territorial integrity. A ferocious artillery barrage stopped the Molodovans dead.

General Alexander Lebed, the Russians' commanding officer in the region, insists preserving the peace is far more important than preserving borders, especially when the borders belong to someone else. "Here common sense prevailed and there are nice villages and towns instead of ruins," he told me proudly. "Territorial integrity is a good thing but it cannot be proved by tanks. It can only be proved by economics."

If Mrs Efimova's worthless stamps, threadbare discourse on nationhood and an increasingly worthless local currency are any indication, the Trans- Dnestr Republic may soon fade from being to nothingness after all. Its economy is in ruins. Only philatelists will mourn its passing.