In Chișinău

James Meek loses his passport

A couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the vote in the House of Commons on military action against Syria, I happened to be passing through Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, on my way from Odessa to Bucharest. I was on holiday. I went for a walk and, out of carelessness, lost my passport.

Although the roads and pavements of Chișinău, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, have potholes big enough to lose a child in, the internet’s a glideway; even the roadside sausage shacks have wifi. My phone told me that if I took €114, two photos and a police report to the British embassy, they’d give me a temporary passport.

My girlfriend went on to Romania and I was left to scurry around gathering documents. I discussed my situation with a taxi driver. She was surprised by the size of the fee. ‘What do you get for all those taxes you pay?’ she asked.

‘We don’t get charged extra when they fire the cruise missiles,’ I said.

As darkness fell, I arrived at a police station. I was beckoned into a small room and found myself face to face with seven policemen in cream blouses and black hats, regarding me with friendly anxiety.

The major in charge told me it was most unlikely anyone who found the passport would hand it in, for fear of being accused of murdering me. A police report was necessary, he said. Usually they undertook to prepare one within fifteen days.

I asked whether he might be able to do it sooner. He conceded that it might be possible, technically, to draw up a protocol, but that it would be worthless without a stamp, and the stamp was kept in a different building, which wouldn’t be unlocked till the morning.

I went into another room where a young policeman slowly handwrote my statement, making no comment when, as I realised afterwards, a mnemonic I’d come up with long ago to help me remember the Russian words for parts of the body led to me describe, several times, how my passport had fallen out of my kidney. The room was bare apart from an old computer, a few desks and chairs and two printed-out pages taped to the wall, one with a picture of Mike Tyson, the other with a picture of Bruce Lee. Under Tyson it said: ‘When you’re on the way up your friends find out who you are. When you’re on the way down, you find out who your friends are.’

Other policemen came in and out, curious, amiable. The major joined us. He turned the conversation towards financial matters, speaking of the relatively high incomes of British people, how well they lived there, and the low salaries of Moldovan policemen. How, he asked, was a policeman expected to live and keep a family on a few hundred euros a month? I agreed that it must be difficult. I took up his theme. What pressure there must be on policemen to supplement their income, I said. How hard it must be to resist the temptation to abuse their position by accepting gifts in exchange for services rendered. How awkward when your wife told you that all the other policemen were on the take and you were a fool to be the honest one; or when your corrupt colleagues told you you were making them look bad.

The next morning I went to the other police building, repository of the stamp. While I waited for the major to come out with my report some of the other policemen I’d met the previous night turned up. On their way inside they came over to me and shook my hand. I felt, for a moment, that I was part of some tight-knit, loyal group, membership of which I hadn’t really earned.

The major came out, earlier than he’d promised, and gave me the piece of paper I needed. ‘We are giving you this,’ he said, then, with great emphasis, ‘free of charge.’

I went on my way, ashamed that I’d been waiting for a bribery cue which didn’t quite come, but feeling, too, that I’d got a one-of-us deal without giving anything in return – not necessarily money. Dues. Respect. The promise of a favour. Corruption can seem very warm against the coldness of democracy and transparency. It’s nice to do favours for people, and if they do you favours back, even better.

There were no handshakes at the British embassy. The consular staff were behind toughened glass – there were two buttons behind my interlocutor’s head, one marked ‘incident’, the other ‘bomb’ – and scrupulous to the point of punctiliousness about my proving I was who I said I was and that I was going where I said I was going. It was tempting to view the €114 as a kind of institutionalised bribe; really it was a tax on my stupidity. They were friendly and helpful, but it was a paid service, available to all legally eligible, and in no sense a favour.

Just before I discovered that I’d lost the passport I was walking by an enormous seven-storey building faced in white stone, with the bombastic pseudo-classical attributes of late Stalinist architecture: pilasters, a grand entablature, enormous wooden doors and too wide in relation to its height. It looked like an ex-Soviet government building; a thousand bureaucrats could have fitted inside. Yet it was pastiche, a recently-built replica. Nobody in the street could tell me what it was. I heaved open one of the doors and went inside.

Where in a Soviet building you would have found a grand entranceway and a mean little turnstile manned by a slovenly policeman there was a vast expanse of lobby panelled in dark wood, with oil paintings and sprung leather armchairs, like a Moldovan version of a Vegas version of an English club. A casually dressed, dead-faced man with the same proportions as the building sat behind a reception desk in one corner. I asked him what the place was.

‘It’s a building,’ he said. ‘People are working.’

I asked the major about the ersatz ministry building and he told me it belonged to Anatol Stati, reputedly Moldova’s richest man. I looked him up afterwards; his company, Ascom, controls oilfields, or potential oilfields, in Kazakhstan and South Sudan. A few years ago, when communists were the elected government in Moldova, they accused Stati of fomenting a coup against them. He accused them of trying to steal his company. Who knows what the truth was? Yet the way they portrayed each other was not as a commercial company operating within the constraints of a democracy but as two rival loyalty groups with no interests beyond the defence and enrichment of their own constituents.

By the time I reached Bucharest with my temporary travel document – an exquisite object, like a ghost passport, almost identical to a normal passport but with a cream cover instead of a claret one – the Commons had unexpectedly voted not to join an attack against Syria, or, rather, against Assad, or, rather, against... but that was the issue. MPs recoiled from the use of low-precision vocabulary to define the targets for high-precision weapons.

The vote was bound to appear as indifference to the relatives of the people slaughtered by Assad and his goons. The trouble is that a loyalty group is a hard thing to attack, by a state, as if it were a state. It is easy to imagine, in some Damascene bunker, a version of the Mike Tyson quote I saw in the office of the Moldovan policemen who treated me with such kindness, honesty and generosity. ‘When you’re gassing the suburbs your friends find out who you are. When the cruise missiles come down, you find out who your friends are.’ And easy to imagine a well-intentioned punitive attack on Syria’s military infrastructure making the Assad loyalty group, and other loyalty groups for and against his, stronger, while making the concept of ‘Syria’ less real.