As I made my way out of Moldova and into Ukraine, I had two choices. A direct bus through southern Moldova, or stoping in the internationally unrecognized, self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria, officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. If you know me, or have read a few of my travel stories, I don’t need to tell you what I chose to do.
It is said by many that in Transnistria, time stopped in 1992. My quick visit allowed me to see that there is a little bit of truth to this, but not a lot.
Sure, hammers and sickles are everywhere, and the statues of Lenin have not been taken down. I took this one from the profile, because taking it from the front would have been illegal. You see, in doing so, I would have taken a picture of a “national strategic asset”, the Parliament building, located behind. In this regard, time did stop in 1992, when ridiculous rules that make absolutely no sense in the modern world still had force of law. So I used my secret spy training to take a picture anyway.
And there you have it. Jealous of my shrewd, James Bond like abilities? OK, I will divulge all my secrets. I typed “Tiraspol Parliament” in Google Image and got thousands of pictures. I picked one at random. So random in fact, that I can’t find it again to give credit to the author! Here’s to the law being in touch with reality.
Before I go into how normal Transnistria seems to be, I will write a bit about the “stuck in the past” aspect. All post-communist countries have to deal with the remnants of communist bureaucratic mentality. The worst are probably Russia and Belarus, but Transnistria is not far behind. Because I had little time, I booked a private guided tour to show me around the capital. My three hour tour was really a 1.5 h tour, with 1.5 hour of bureaucracy! First, while I surprisingly didn’t need a visa to get in, immigration involved a lot of paperwork in duplicate (of course it would be hard to require a visa, since the territory has no diplomatic missions, anywhere).
Since my tour guide operates 100% within the law, we went through all the hoops. He had previously declared my expected arrival to the Ministry of the Interior – where he was reprimanded for not giving them sufficient notice (I had emailed him only 1 or 2 days before my arrival) – but now he had to provide them with a paper copy of the bilingual 2 times 3 page tourism contract I had signed; for a 3 hour tour! And the best came at the end, when I normally would have pulled some money out of my pocket and paid him. No, no, no; not allowed in Transnistria. Probably fearing he would fail to declare his income, the authorities do not allow cash payment for such services. So we had to drive across town to a bank, where I deposited the small payment into his business bank account, and all parties involved collected a pile of paperwork in triplicate.
Driving across town was required because only one bank was opened on Easter Sunday. The fact that the streets were dead on that day of family celebrations certainly contributed to giving the place a strange feel. It also resulted in an interesting incident.
We stood on a very wide boulevard, with no cars in sight on this important holiday. The pedestrian crossing sign was quite far, but there was a police officer very close to us. Andrey (my guide) went to ask him if we could, given the empty streets, cross here instead. “Yes, but be very careful”, was his answer. Andrey then told me he had asked out of respect for the man’s job – and perhaps to avoid the risk of a fine. In either case, this was one situation where I though old fashioned can often be silly, but can sometimes be quite civilized and respectful.
In 1992, the region broke out into four and a half months of violence, which left hundreds dead on both the Moldovan and Transnistrian side. Since then, the territory has been de facto independent, but internationally considered to be part of Moldova. This building, the National Theatre, is where the territory declared itself an independent nation in 1992.
I visited the war memorial, where the dead from the 3 great wars are honoured: The Great Patriotic War (i.e. WWII), the Afghanistan War and the 1992 Independence War.
I don’t know what the symbolism of the Afghanistan memorial is, but I’m going to guess it’s not super positive.
Close to it, a brand new Orthodox Church, typical of the religious revival in most (all?) post-communist countries.
And an old T-34, a popular place for locals to take portraits.
If you walk just a bit, you seem to be close to the countryside. In fact, the population of Transnistria represents only about 1/8 of the total population of Moldova. Tiraspol has about 136,000 residents. Furthermore, they kept a lot of green spaces and parks in the city. Of course, typically surrounded by not so pretty socialist architecture.
Yuri Gagarin; one communist statue I will always have respect for.
Signage in Transnistria is trilingual: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan (which is the same as Romanian). But there is one important nuance: Romanians – and Moldavians – use the latin alphabet. Here Romanian is written in Cyrillic, as it was, by order of Stalin, in the Moldavian Socialist Republic, to distinguish the Soviet province from the somewhat independent Romania and claim it was a totally different region that could never be part of Romania.
Transnistria may only be de facto independent, but independence is not at all what they seek. The residents want to be part of Russia. In 2006, a referendum on the issue asked residents about reintegrating Moldova (97% no) or becoming independent, with the goal of being annexed by Russia (98% yes). The results are a bit extreme and because few countries recognized the exercise, international monitors stayed away. But I would not disregard the results because of this.
The country is made up of roughly equal parts of Moldavians, Russians and Ukrainians, all of which hold citizenships of one of these countries, and in many cases more than one. While nationalism may create great passions in people, when you are destitute, money talks. As I mentioned in my story about Moldova, it is by far the poorest country in Europe, poorer than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa! So if you were an ethnic Moldavian pensioner living in Tiraspol, used to living there and fluent in Russian, would you rather join Moldova and feel nationalistic pride, or join Russia and see your meagre old age pension quadruple? Russia also heavily subsidizes the territory, with people paying the equivalent of one Euro a month for their apartment’s gas bill.
Travelling here made me realize the same thing as travelling in many of the world’s troubled region: the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know anything.
The only English sign in Transnistria; on the wall of one the best high schools in the capital.
My guide, demonstrating how to train on basic Soviet sports equipment. While equipment was in short supply in the old days, great athletes were produced using some very basic equipment like this. This picture doesn’t do him justice, I saw Andrey pull a few moves on this contraption that left no doubt he is in very, very good shape.
It was interesting to talk to him. As a young guy with an entrepreneurial spirit, he obviously has no affinity whatsoever with communism or centrally planned economies. But like many people I talked to in Eastern Europe, he also sees the good in the former Soviet system and acknowledges it as part of his history. He genuinely seemed sad talking about people in Kiev destroying the last statue of Lenin. In my home province of Quebec, possibly one of the least religious place on the planet, we still have a big crucifix in the provincial legislature, despite its association with slavery, religious wars and the Inquisition, because it is part of our history. So although I am a child of the Cold War and the USSR is forever the enemy in my mind, I can certainly understand his perspective.
A funny thing we agreed upon is that annexation with Russia would be bad for his business. Let’s face it, there is not much to see or do for tourists in Transnistria. Those who come are mostly people like me who have been to a hundred countries and find it interesting to visit a self-proclaimed, unrecognized, breakaway republic. But he is still a big supporter of joining Russia. An entrepreneur myself, I also understand his attitude; there will always be opportunities for those who dare.