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The Capital of Nowhere

Transnistria is the country which dare not speak its name. Not to mention being the proud owner of perhaps the world’s most complex and challenged title. Officially it is Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika, though more often rendered in English as either Transdniestr or Transnistria, neither of which are likely to spark too many nods of recognition from travel agents.

Hardly surprising, given that it appears on few maps, is recognised by no-one, and has no representation abroad. It is generally considered to be no more than a renegade province of Moldova, itself a forgotten backwater wedged between Romania and the Ukraine.

To be fair, there are precious few reasons why one should have heard of Transnistria; with a population of less than 550,000 people occupying less than 4,000 square kilometres on the eastern side of the Nistru River, Transnistria is less a country than it is a strip of land with nowhere to go. Vaguely Stalinist and heavily pro-Russian in a part of the world which is now more oriented towards the EU than the CIS, Transnistria is an island of statues and rhetoric in a sea of complete indifference.

It’s an inauspicious start for a young country, and unfortunately things haven’t gotten any easier since independence was declared in 1990, unleashing a bitter 2 year war with Moldova.

And although it’s tempting to see the issues surrounding the name as a bit of a joke, it is also from language that the struggle began, and which remains perhaps the touchiest point in the conflict.

Along with Belarus, Ukraine and a few others, Moldova was founded upon the implosion of the USSR, established a capital in Chisinau (pronounced KISH-i-now) and switched the official script of the country from Cyrillic back to Latin, setting off a wave of protest in the eastern part of the country, where the majority of the population are ethnically Slavic, and thus, Cyrillic readers. The continued presence of the Russian 14th Army provided Russian-speaking Transnistrians with both the arms and the courage to fight for their own state.

For the traveller, the problems begin long before arriving. Setting off from Odessa, on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, the journey is one of only 120 kilometres, but thanks to the paranoia and bureaucracy involved, occupies much of the day.

The bus driver in Odessa is unwilling to take a foreigner, knowing quite rightly that my presence on board will slow the journey considerably. He is only convinced by a charming old man called Alexei, who slaps me repeatedly on the back and says, amidst much laughter, “Transnistria – money, money” while rubbing his fingers together in the international symbol for bribes.

Eventually we set off, winding through fields of sunflower and maize, with Alexei beside me, practising the other two words he knows in English, “mafia” and “bullshit.”

I had expected the bureaucracy to be painstaking, which was just as well. Ukrainian customs demanded I fill in a form listing my possessions, including an accurate list of what currencies I was carrying. Unimpressed by guesstimates, the officer insisted I actually count all cash out onto his desk, while I waited to see how much he’d decide his cut was. To my amazement he passed up the opportunity to help himself, instead asking me for a medical certificate and business card, although he didn’t seem terribly bothered when I produced neither, and eventually seemed to lose interest entirely.

I gained the impression that the endless questions and answers beloved of Eastern bureaucracy actually serve no purpose, but that officials feel obliged to ask foreign travellers some kind of questions in order to be seen to be doing their job. What they asked and what I replied were of less consequence than the fact that they asked, and I answered, something. Anything.

A half kilometre on we arrived at the border with Moldova, and I was asked to step off the bus, and into a small booth at the side of the road. First one, then two, then three uniformed officials crowded in after me, and took turns inspecting my passport and looking at my Moldovan visa.

One shook his head, amazed at my inability to answer questions in Moldovan, and apparently unimpressed by my collection of key nouns in Russian. I hadn’t gotten as far as verbs in my phrase book.

“Problem,” he muttered in English, shaking his head in the timeless fashion of mechanics who have just decided your car needs a new fanbelt.

“Here no Moldova.” he said instead, “Here Transnistria. You no have visa Transnistria.”

I was genuinely surprised – we are sitting in a booth bearing Moldovan signage, and I was sure I’d seen a Moldovan flag beside the road.

“I understand,” I explained, “but in my country, no embassy Transnistria.”

Actually, Transnistria has no embassies at all – so I guessed I was on fairly safe ground.

“Problem, problem,” he continued, and the others agreed, scratching their jaws, swapping cigarettes and discussing earnestly how such an extraordinary situation might be remedied.

“How long you want to stay in Transnistria? Two weeks? One hour?”

“Three days?” I asked, hoping that sounded reasonable enough.

“For 3 days I could give you a transit visa. You must give me twenty euros,” the guard informed me, his English suddenly having improved by proximity to western currency.

“Twenty dollars?”

“Euro better. Cash.”

I handed over the cash, was given a small piece of paper with a meaningless stamp on it, and re-boarded the bus. Alexei was delighted, unable to resist declaring “mafia – bullshit” upon hearing I’d been hit up for €20.

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy did not end at the border. Officially, one can not check in to a hotel in Transnistria before one has been registered with the Militia, so I was sent to first one, and then another office of the OVIR, who oversee the whereabouts of particularly suspicious foreigners such as myself.

Foreign Registration forms at OVIR are long, and sensibly available only in Russian. An official slumped down next to me at a long desk, and proceeded to read the questions out loud, which, though it proved no help at all, did seem to help to fill in his day, and after a while he seemed satisfied that he had filled in enough questions, charged me a small handful of worthless Transnistrian roubles for a stamp, and sent me on my way.

Tiraspol doesn’t feel particularly Stalinist. The avenues are wide and dotted with statues of a grim faced Lenin, sure, but there are not the numbers of armed troops on the street one sees in Belarus, for instance. Instead, it feels catatonic. Walking the length of the beautifully titled Karl Marx or 25th October streets, one sees few open shops, and less people than stray dogs. The most interesting thing are the cars, few of which seem less than thirty years old.

Such stores as are open sell the essentials of 1950s life – chemical tasting ice cream, fatty cheese and 5 litre bottles of cooking oil. Another is selling 2nd hand cassettes and battered cook books. Whereas Bucharest, Kiev and Sofia have boasted Adidas, Benetton and Hugo Boss stores for 5 or 10 years, Tiraspol seems to have been able to withstand all signs of modern consumerism. The clothes, the shop windows, the cars, the adverts – everything is essentially just as it may have been a generation earlier.  With a per capita GDP of US$660, this is, after all, arguably the poorest region in the poorest state on the European continent.

If life in Tiraspol doesn’t feel tense, it does feel unnaturally bland and lifeless. Walking around Tiraspol’s streets, one sees statue after monument after billboard championing countless decades of Soviet friendship, but very few people to admire them. The wide streets only highlight the scarcity of both traffic and people, and only along the ragged strips of riverside sand which serve as the city’s beaches do I actually see anything like life, crowds or laughter.

I suspect most Transnistrians do not live in fear as much as suspended animation.

“We’re a bastard child born unofficially,” Minister of Defence Vladimir Bodnar said last year, “But we believe we’re an official state.” The extent to which that is true depends entirely where one places the onus of the state to prove its identity.

Transnistria does have a government, a President, and an army. It does have a currency, stamps, though valid only for postage within the Republic. It has a flag, and in this sense functions more or less as a living, breathing country.

On the downside, it has no seat in the UN, no embassies, no recognition, and is the subject of bitter recriminations from Moldovan officials, who refer to the place only as Stînga Nistrului, or West Bank, as if the place did not have enough names already. Writing in the Moldovan Weekly News in July, Deputy Speaker Iurie Rosica described Transnistria as “the separatist criminal regime in Tiraspol” and the people as being “terrorized by a criminal regime”.
He’s probably not far wrong with ‘criminal’. Heading out of Tiraspol towards Tighina, one can’t help but notice the glistening football stadium, home of FC Sheriff Tiraspol, and built at a cost of $200 million, double that of Moldova’s annual budget.

And it is here that the facade of communism slips slightly, and something of the true Transnistria comes to light. Because Transnistria does boast one thing which is wealthy and powerful, and that is the Sheriff Corporation; a giant and anonymous corporation with fingers in every pie: gas stations, telecommunications, casinos, car yards, supermarkets and football, and with a near monopoly in each. Staggeringly, Sheriff is responsible for fully 80% of the regions imports. No one seems to be sure who actually heads Sheriff, but it is either the current Transnistrian President, Igor Smirnov, or his son, Vladmir – who conveniently also heads the Transnistrian Customs Service.

If one wonders what communism and the very capitalist world of corporations could have in common, a popular answer in these parts is arms. Because another thing Transnistria seems to have been curiously blessed with is the Russian 14th army, 6 munitions factories and some 40,000 tons of abandoned military equipment; including anti-tank missiles, grenades, and several canisters of cesium-137 nuclear material. Caches of equipment seem to be “lost” on a regular basis – I was told of one case recently where 70 SAM missiles disappeared from a Russian warehouse, never to be seen again.

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