From Transnistria with Love

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My interest in modern-day Transnistria was somewhat inevitably fuelled by my family history in its former namesake, the wartime Transnistria Governorate. While the two entities share little in the way of material for valid political comparison, the political oddities of the present-day territory are also of attraction to many other than myself. But judging by levels of external media coverage and political dynamism when it comes to one of Europe’s few remaining “frozen conflicts,” even in a region ever more fiercely contested by the European Union and Russia, Transnistria is still relatively unheard of these days.

For those unaware, Transnistria (officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) is a breakaway region of Moldova measuring barely 15 miles wide and 250 miles long. It was the industrial heartland of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic after the war, contributing to nearly 40% of its GDP and attracting a steady wave of immigrants from Ukraine and Russia. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, and talk of political and cultural harmonisation with neighbouring Romania swirled in Chisinau, the authorities in Transnistria declared independence and a bloody civil war with Moldova ensued.  A ceasefire was signed in 1992 and has been maintained ever since by over 1,000 Russian peacekeeping troops.  To this day Transnistria is de facto independent but recognised by no one, surviving largely thanks to Moscow’s tacit largesse.

P1010585Described by the likes of Lonely Planet as a “surreal living homage to the Soviet Union” and a “black hole” for trafficking and laundering by the European Union, it is evident that few have seriously taken to whatever delights Transnistria may really offer. I set out to visit Tiraspol, the capital, not so much aiming to bust a myth or two, but simply see it for myself and then judge. Perhaps their apparently unabashed love of all things Russian could strike a chord with an understanding observer such as myself.

I travelled to Tiraspol on a marshrutka from Chisinau. Ostensibly an internal route, it felt anything but. Migration cards for the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic were passed around before departure and Moldovan travellers nervously took out their passports to fill in the details.  The European Court of Human Rights has ruled on official efforts in Transnistria to clamp down on Romanian-language education. Ironic then to see Romanian creeping through the English-language migration card (nationality spelled ‘nationaliti’ and employment ‘empicyment’).

Travelling on a Russian passport undoubtedly affords me a margin of appreciation in Transnistria. But in a place recognised by no one, to which no consular authorities have reliable access and warn any moderately intrepid travellers from setting foot in, not to mention WikiTravels’ encouraging section on health in Transnistria, there were more than enough grounds to be nervous.

After an hour or so, for the most part entirely hushed, we passed a Russian peacekeepers’ checkpoint and “left” Moldova. And so it felt, the marshrutka stopping within minutes at the Transnistrian “border” post at Bender.  We were ordered out and queued at a passport booth manned by the KGB. Contrary to prior accounts by wide-eyed Western travellers of uniforms adorned with the hammer and sickle so ubiquitous in Transnistrian symbology, I couldn’t see anything of the sort. My passport check seemed to take too long, what international law-enforcement databases could this colonel possibly be accessing? I walked a few dozen yards further to the registration bureau. Declaring that I wasn’t planning on staying for that long, my migration card was stamped with a notice to spend no more than 10 hours and leave through the very same crossing point. Although when a few foreigners travelling with me were whisked away to a back room (stories of intimidating extortions from non-Russian speaking travellers at Transnistrian checkpoints are rife), I was quick to scramble and claim I was their tour guide. All clear, we drove on.

Bender (or Tighina, in Moldova) is Transnistria’s second largest city and perhaps its most historic too, formerly a centre of Bessarabian Jewry and its fortress fought over for centuries in wars involving any number of European parties. It was also the scene of the fiercest fighting during the civil war, a poignant memorial park resting today at its centre. We cross the Dniester and within ten minutes are already in the capital, almost on the other side of the territory. It’s that small of a land.

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There is disappointingly little to say about Tiraspol. Its streets are impeccably clean and ridden on by an exceptionally modern fleet of trolley buses.  Little appears to have been built over the past few decades but it is refreshingly well-kempt in comparison to Chisinau. Disappointingly though, there are few magisterial suggestions here of Transnistrian grandeur.

I see all the major sights. The grandiose statue of the city’s founder General Suvorov, war memorial and eternal flame, “flying Lenin” (not my phrase), factory of the national cognac brand and flowing Dniester. All the trappings of a respectable sovereign state; a presidential palace, constitutional court, justice ministry, permanent diplomatic missions (well, that is Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and bureau for the national commissar on human rights. The odd traffic cop bearing a Kalashnikov and Transnistrian reservist are seen about. Billboards embellished with the hammer, sickle and Transnistrian colours, with phrases such as “Transnistria, founded for living in!” and more poignantly “a healthy soul in a healthy body,” the latter extolling the virtues of exercise. The Romanovs and Patriarch Kirill also adorn the advertisement boards. In the space of a few hours I see at least five newly or currently built churches and am accosted by missionaries. If this is communism, it doesn’t quite look it.

In all fairness, I could have been visiting a mid-sized provincial Russian town were it not for the displays of an ostensible Transnistrian identity. I take the marshrutka back from the capital’s railway station, servicing around three passenger trains a day because of a lack of cross-border rail agreements. We drive to Bender, give in our migration cards and I fail to snap the KGB colonel who boards our bus. We pass the Russian peacekeeping checkpoint into Moldova and I feel as if I’ve stepped back into another world, relieved nonetheless.

P1010620Prior to entering Transnistria I was asked if I found its political conundrum logical, or rather the supposed demands of its leaders and people coherent.  I could not answer the question, my mind racing to a parallel such as the Balkans. But whatever alleged political, ethnic or cultural arguments for the status quo, as a foreigner to the entire context, I still cannot effectively assess them, especially on the back of a visit as short as mine.

A cursory look around Tiraspol, however, was revealing of several of Transnistria’s better-documented weaknesses. I saw few people in their twenties. No one can accurately estimate the current Transnistrian population, but from its post-independence heyday of 700,000 it has fallen to somewhere below 500,000. Many have emigrated to Russia, Moldova and Ukraine to escape a depressed labour market, and hundreds, if not thousands, commute daily to Moldova so as to earn in a real currency. Over 90% of the population hold foreign passports, their Transnistrian ones rejected at any international border; on the bus back to Chisinau via its international airport, I saw the Russian passport of a Bender resident, its pages nearly entirely covered in fresh stamps. The Sunday boutique market on Constitution Square, for all of Tiraspol’s constant talk of having stabilised the economy and guaranteed pensions, was a miserable sight; I have been to many a market in the post-Soviet sphere, but few where pensioners desperately try to trade off any imaginable item of antiquated Soviet memorabilia and decades-old underwear to uninterested passers-by, above all in a currency, Transnistrian roubles, of no worth to the outside world. What discomforted me most, however, was the steely feel of the place; the omnipresence of its security services and sense that at any moment you were vulnerable to their whims, as well as the visuals and discourse of an era bygone and unknown to me.

The election of Yevgeny Shevchuk in late 2011, ending the uninterrupted rule since independence of war hero Igor Smirnov, brought hope of reform to the economy and political system. Instead, reports have it that the political opposition and civil society have been muzzled and little success made in breaking the oligarchic stranglehold on the economy, compounding a situation made desperate by the territory’s isolation. As Moldova prepares to pen a wider and more comprehensive partnership with the EU in November, there is talk that the noose may be tightening around Transnistria’s neck, its exporters to the European market squeezed and leaders faced with a do-or-die situation. That suggestion is treated with scepticism in Chisinau, judging by the results of negotiations with Tiraspol for the past two decades. How Russia will play its hand if that stage were ever reached is also unclear. The sense, however, that the coming months may determine Transnistria’s long-term fate is shared by all.

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When conversing with people in Chisinau, it is clear that there is more to this than mere politics. Several mention they have family in Tiraspol; versed in markedly different political narratives and realities, misunderstandings between relatives are commonplace. It is as if they live in different worlds; not even phone calls between Chisinau and Tiraspol can connect. The Moldovans I speak to see direct parallels in Transnistria with Soviet rule and cite the dangers of an entire generation solely brought up in a de facto independent Transnistria and imbued with an artificial patriotism, entrenching the status quo for years to come.

I have listened to various briefings and discussions of Transnistria’s peculiarities and the settlement of its status; it is easy to ridicule a non-state boasting Soviet-era practices and visuals we see as irrelevant. There are few grounds for me to genuinely sympathise with the rationale of the land’s rulers. But it is easy to forget that people live here and have continued to do so for over twenty years, irrespective of the prevailing political reality. And it is their opinions which I still have not managed to hear, thus preventing me from evaluating the true cost of this absurd riddle of modern Europe.

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