Before moving on to my experiences in Ukraine, I wanted to post a particularly interesting article I found about a traveler who spent a day in Transdniestr. It was written by Daniel Metcalfe, and the original article can be found here.
Transnistria: Where the Cold War Never Ended, by Daniel Metcalfe
As tourists flock to a resurgent Eastern Europe, I wanted to see a part of the East that few had heard of, let alone visited. Slovakia? Pah. Hungary? Old news. I wanted to go where the national tourist board seemed to ward people off. Transnistria “may not be paradise on earth,” the government’s website said, “but it’s not Dante’s inferno either.” And so, my interest whetted, I headed to the strangest and most forbidding ‘country’ in all Europe.
The sun was high as the border guards chewed lazily on sunflower seeds. Disturbed by my arrival, they debated how much to charge. They settled on $20 for entry – provided I get on the bus, go straight on, and on no account get off until the Ukrainian border. This was a country, I wanted to tell them, not a safari park. But I would have to think again.
Transnistria is the badlands beyond the river Nistru. It is in Europe’s eastern sticks, where the Carpathian Mountains turn to steppe, and is one of the Europe’s oddest entities. Transnistria is actually the eastern part of Moldova. It declares itself a country, and has all the trappings of one too, with its own hammer and sickle-bearing flag, currency, and national anthem. Known in Russian by the acronym PMR (Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika), or in English by the variously-spelled Transnistria (“Land on the Nistru River”), this little province is actually a strip of eastern Moldova that declared itself independent in 1992 after a bloody civil war.
Determined not to follow the rest of the Eastern Bloc into self-confessed democracy, Transnistria chose Communist-style autocracy, Soviet nostalgia and even closer relations with Russia. All this it got. But it also got a criminal government occupied by Russian “peace-keepers” who run its shady business dealings. In short, Transnistria is a festering wart on Europe’s southeastern rump, and it’s only recognised by its Russian godfather, despite Transnistria’s desperate (and yet strangely ambivalent) bid for international approval.
With only a day to spare I wanted to get a look at the capital, Tiraspol. The moment the guards’ backs were turned I dodged past my waiting bus and hopped into a taxi heading straight for the city.
Arriving in the capital, I felt like I’d smuggled myself across the Berlin Wall. I found flaking stucco buildings and parks overgrown with cow parsley and dandelions, like any neglected ex-Soviet town. But snatches of Russian grafitti (“Onwards Communists” and “Lenin forever”) portended the Sovietesque show to come.
In central Tiraspol the first thing that struck me, beyond the strange silence, was the police. They dawdled on every street corner, twiddling batons, and pushing up their huge peaked caps – every one of them perfectly able to relieve me of my hard-won greenbacks. But I passed unharrassed. Tourists were perhaps too alien to risk plundering.
At last Constitution Square. This was what I was after. A real taste of the Soviet days: an acheingly ugly presidential palace that grimaced over a rain-drenched piazza. Old women in scarves hurried out of the lancing wet. I marched to examine the memorial to the Civil War and the derelict tank that someone had mounted on a plinth: an unforgettable reminder that the nation was born out of war.
But the Soviet nostalgia wasn’t the whole picture – as some off-the-beaten-track guidebooks would have you believe. Tiraspol was also a very modern city. The wealth of the tiny criminal elite, from drug smuggling, human trafficking, munitions sales, and (yes!) contraband Ukrainian chicken, was pouring into the capital. For a republic that prided itself on its Soviet credentials, this was not what one would expect.
But it was all here, laundered into showy shop fronts, a spanking new bank with blue-tinted glass and one or two swanky restaurants. These were not like the depressed Moldovan joints I’d come from. These were hip and modern. I lunched at the Seven Days Café, and settled on flashing chrome furniture among slick, English-speaking waitresses. Behind me gabbled a dozen Russian-speaking youngsters, scions of the elite, whose drivers waited for them in gleaming BMWs as they dined on cake and hot chocolate.
But what about those old women scurrying out of the rain? Where were they going? I tramped to the other side of town where I discovered a quite different side. Here in Tiraspol’s market I witnessed the grinding poverty of the majority, where locals sold their garden produce on dirty wooden boxes or huddled in Khrushchev-era slop kitchens. Here teeth were either missing or capped in gold, and women grew old in their thirties.
But the propaganda machine was so effective that few, it seemed, wanted closer ties with the West. The local rag Pravda, successor to the Communist daily, still supports the pro-Russian line and rejects all compromise with its neighbour. “We never want to be joined with Moldova,” said the guide-women in the national museum, forming an aggressive circle around me. “They want our factories, our industry, our productivity.”
Whatever locals wanted, however, was studiously ignored by the establishment. Running the show was the hard-line president Igor Smirnov (complete with Ming the Merciless eye-brows) along with his sinister side-kick Vladimir Antufeyev, the KGB boss, who was once responsible for a failed putsch in Latvia in 1990.
One wonders how this injured child of history got this way. Once part of a region of eastern Romania called Bessarabia, Transnistria has always suffered from its position between the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Flat and undefended, it was easily overrun.
This Romanian-speaking bank of the Nistru was siezed by the Russians in 1918, built up as an industrial zone and Russianised before the rest of Bessarabia (today’s Moldova) was grabbed in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet pact. The politics is so messy as to be almost incomprehensible and issues of national identity are rendered almost meaningless. Who are Transnistrians anyway? Are they Moldovans? Slavs? Russianised Romanians? I don’t think anyone knew. I just wanted to get out without paying any more bribes.
I wasn’t so lucky this time. Transnistria’s peculiar status allows it a three-tiered border system: Transnistrian guards, Russian “peace-keepers,” and Moldovan guards – each more greedy than the last. My minibus driver hooted impatiently as I watched him from a pokey upper room, the contents of my wallet emptied on a technical, and entirely fabricated, pretext. Sixty dollars lighter I was glad to get out with enough for a beer.
For a country whose guards rob you on exit and entry, you wouldn’t rate its commitment to tourism. But bizarrely Transnistria is actually trying to encourage visitors – at least according to www.pridnestrovye.net, which manages to sink its tourist-drawing ambitions with the single, beautiful phrase: “forget Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia…Come to Tiraspol.”