More correctly known as the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ (or ‘PMR’), Transnistria is one of a number of frozen conflict zones that emerged following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. (Others are the unrecognised states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia along the Russian-Georgian border, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway territory of Azerbaijan.)
At the border points with Moldova there are still today tanks in the middle of the road and soldiers in camouflage. With a few euros you can get permission to enter, only few euros to put a stamp on a piece of paper, from a guard with a russian hat that does not even speak a word of English. This singular “visa” lasts 10 hours, so you can’t stay for night. And watch out, because at 6pm it closes the border! Welcome to the self-proclaimed Republic of Transnistria!
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1990, a thin stripe of land on Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine broke apart from its parent country and declared independence from Moldova. The name ‘Transnistria’ comes from ‘Trans Dniester’: a reference to the River Dniester, which forms the natural border between Moldova and its independent republic. This was the front line of the ‘War of Transnistria,’ waged between 1990 and 1992. Only later approximately 700 casualties, a ceasefire was signed.
Since then, Moldova has stayed out of Transnistria’s affairs but still refuses to recognize it as an independent state. Like every other country in the world! Despite this, Transnistria acts as an independent country, with its government, military and police force, postal system, constitution, flag, national anthem and even a currency: the Transnistrian Ruble. A flag that still uses the communist symbol of a hammer and a sickle, and it’s the only country to do so. The reason of this conflict is the fact that Transnistria has been a primarily a Russian-speaking territory, since the Ottoman Empire ceded the region to the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, and of course, people of Transnistria have felt more Russian than Moldovan. Still today, Russian-speaking people are the largest ethnic group in Transnistria. According to the ceasefire signed at the end of the Transnistria-Moldova conflict, Russia maintains a peacekeeping force in Transnistria, that provides constant financial, military and political support without which Transnistria could not exist. In fact russian subsidy, represents for almost half of Transnistria’s budget. Inevitably, there is a huge Russian influence on public life: Transnistria’s people watch Russian TV, kids in schools learn from Russian textbooks, and many pensioners receive Russian pension….
The lack of officially recognition it’s not of good, of course. Try to think, for a moment, of its new generations. Old people is still hoping for Transnistria to be recognized and to become a part of Russia, but the younger are struggling with lack of jobs and the tough economic situation. Most youngsters would to emigrate abroad, especially to Moscow, and since the birth of the country, the population has decreased by more than a third. In this country there are people who had never traveled beyond Transnistria, and the community is closed and hard to penetrate. People can become also kind of paranoid when they see a foreigner from the western world, and the majority admire Putin and hope that Transnistria will become a part of Russia.
The population, roughly 2.3 million people, with 140,000 of those living in the capital, Tiraspol, celebrates its Independence Day on September 2nd, a street party with military displays. Most tourism in Transnistria comes from Russia or Ukraine, with few travellers from the West (and me, some years ago, just a crazy curious bulgarian boy). Many of these visitors come to see the non-nation often described as the “last outpost of the USSR”, even if it also offers more traditional attractions, like the Chitcani monastery, a well-preserved Ottoman fortress near the Moldovan border and the Bendery Military Museum, an interesting collection of military equipment located inside a disused Soviet train.
A trip to Transnistria it’s possible, but it is not completely safe, because we go in a phantom country, not recognized by other nations and it would not be possible for the embassy to intervene if necessary. The main problem is not so much organized crime and traffickers, at least not for tourists, but the corruption of law enforcement agencies, who invent pretentious transgressions to spill money to the very few foreigners they encounter on the streets. I’ve been in Transnistria for a few hours, some years ago and it happened. Two very zealous (and very aggressive) policemen chased me and started to intimidate me to follow them. In Russian they made me understand that I would have to pay a fine. I did not follow them, even if the discussion went on a bit, but I raised my voice too, and they let me go. The reason? I crossed the (without traffic…absolutely desert) street with a red light.
Some political curiosities….The constant presence of Russia in the region in all the affairs has soured relationship with Moldova, but not only, the presences so close to the Ukrainian border, is also perceived as a threat for Ukraine. Recently, a Ukrainian MP, accused Russia of using the conflicted region to influence the pro-European states of the post-Soviet space against the European Union.