“When the State itself is Illegal, Can You Imagine the Rest?”
Article by Fabio Buonsanti, an Italian adventurer based in Oslo, Norway. Photos by Ania Akatova.
Of all the strange places I have visited so far, there is one place that will forever stick to my mind: Transnistria (officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, PMR).
Located on a thin strip of land wedged between the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine and the river Dniester, Transnistria is a self-declared “independent state” since the end of the War of Transnistria in 1992.
At the dissolution of the Soviet Union a bloody conflict errupted between the newly independent Republic of Moldova (formerly referred to as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the USSR) and the leftovers of a Russian enclave lying within the borders of the new Republic of Moldova. Supported by Moscow, the enclave managed to resist the attacks by the Moldovan forces and finally, when these ceased, the tiny Russian enclave declared itself an autonomous republic. Today, although Transnistria claims precise borders, a capital (Tiraspol), a stable government, an independent police force, and even its own currency, none of the countries belonging to the international community has yet recognised it (not even Russia!).
Few people may have heard of Transnistria and most would not be able to locate it on a map. I felt the same until 2012 when, by pure chance, I stumbled across its history and geography. I got insanely curious about it – so curious that I decided to spend my Christmas in Transnistria.
It was fairly easy to convince the rest of my travel mates, two Italian guys and a Russian gal, to come along on this adventure.
HOW TO GET THERE?
While in Chisinau, the gloomy, cold and rather ugly capital of Moldova, the easiest and cheapest way to reach Transnistria is by minivan (a shared taxi, ca. € 2,00/person). Alternatively, one can hire a private taxi, which comes at a slightly higher cost. Most experienced, low-budget travellers know that the cheapest solution is not always the best. This is particularly true when it comes to the Chisinau-Tiraspol route.
Minivans to Tiraspol, apart from being slow, are notoriously unreliable and quite ‘flexible’ with their schedules. Their drivers usually do not leave until all seats are occupied.
Knowing in advance that the Transnistrian authorities would (hopefully) grant us a 10-hour (maximum) visa to visit their ghost country without any need of registration, it took us just a second to decide in favour of a faster (and warmer) private taxi, which ended up being a beautiful old Lada Zhiguli (cost: ca. € 3,00/person, 4 persons). A warmer car was highly desired in the -15°C weather.
The road to the border is not a bad one and, no matter how you get there, at some point you will be asked by the driver of your vehicle to fill out an immigration card where, if you plan not to stay too long in Transnistria, you’d better make sure to declare a stay shorter than 10 hours and an exit from the same point of entry. On the contrary, accommodation details, registration, bribes and dubious “transit fee” must be surrendered at the border.
Although Moldova already appeared not to be the safest place in the world, the atmosphere at the Transnistria border was quite creepy.
While our driver was allowed entry without any sort of control, we had to get out of the car and one by one enter the small and dated checkpoint station. Inside, an old map of Transnistria was hanging on the wall and everybody was smoking cigarettes near the broken window. Three policemen were wearing Soviet winter uniforms and looked at us with a suspicious eye! Who knows how many foreigners they get to see here. Probably a number very close to zero, especially during the cold winter months. While waiting in the immigration room, some unidentified persons kept staring at us during the entire immigration interrogation and the impression we got was that anything could happen to us. Fresh in our minds were the many scary stories we read on the web about bribes and violence by border policemen and by the local secret services staff who is the only post Soviet secret service who still officially maintains the ‘KGB’ name.
The old and overweight policeman in front of us put some handwritten notes on two enormous logbooks and fulfilled with zeal the lengthy paperwork required to enter the enclave. While the immigration interrogation took some time, we left unharmed! Meanwhile, our Lada taxi was waiting for us on the other side of the border.
After the border crossing, on the bridge that leads to the city of Bender, another checkpoint staffed with Russian soldiers armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, controlled the land. Around 5,000 Russian ‘peacekeeper’ soldiers were sent here from Moscow in 1992. Not surprisingly, they have remained here ever since.
From the very first step into Transnistria, particularly in the cities of Bender and Tiraspol, it became clear that the Communist propaganda was a monster surrounding us. Statues of Lenin, Red Army tanks, red stars, and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle symbol were intimidating us because they were visible just about everywhere: from the official border stamp issued on a simple piece of paper, to the flag of the country, and on billboards, newspapers, walls, street indications, pins, the post office, drinks and banknotes.
It feels quite weird to drive through small villages and cities in which people are still so proudly devoted to such symbols. Much of the population (ca. 500.000 inhabitants) apparently regards Russia as a heaven on earth and they obviously have no clue of what is going on outside their bubble ruled by a filo-Russian regime. In a way, Transnistria is like an open-air museum. It is like walking back in time of the Soviet Union. The fact that such a place is located in Europe and that few people know about its existence is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. This in itself made the trip quite special.
In addition to the number of weird things taking place here, as a non-recognized capital, we noticed that Tiraspol hosts only the embassies of two other ghost foreign countries, also belonging to the former USSR: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both of them are currently enjoying a de-facto independence from Georgia. Once again both are protected by Russia.
LIFE IN TIRASPOL
Trying to figure out how people live in Transnistria on a 10-hour visa (5 of which spent in the car) was a demanding task. Nevertheless, we managed to build an overall impression of what life looks like here.
None of the people we met could speak any English. Our Russian companion, being the only one who was able to communicate with the locals, came in handy on several occasions. She also helped us to define and compare the local customs and traditions.
Although some local people felt uncomfortable being photographed, they were generally nice, curious and friendly. With very rare exceptions, the level of poverty encountered was unbelievable and by far the highest I have ever observed in Europe. In 2012, the average Transnistrian resident had a salary equal to US$100 per month. For retired persons that average is US$20 per month.
Old cars, terrible roads, lack of infrastructure, and ridiculously low prices are also traits that define this place. Its currency, the Transnistrian ruble, is as unstable as the Russian ruble, and is not recognized by any other country.
Credit cards are useless here so we exchanged a total of €25,00 into the local currency. Despite our efforts to spend the entire amount on items such as souvenirs, transportation, postcards and a huge lunch for four, we did not succeed. This place is cheaper than Thailand!
In the capital Tiraspol, large Soviet buildings are alternated with small wooden houses, decorated in their typical Eastern European style. Nearly every main street contains something that is branded by the word ‘Sheriff’. Sheriff is a company owned by the former President of Transnistria, Mr. Igor N. Smirnov, who ruled from 1992 to 2011. Smirnov is a millionaire and is known to be very close to the Moscow regime. The Sheriff logo is nearly everywhere: stadiums, supermarkets, mobile providers, alcohol, and about everything else!
Some fast foods places and a restaurant called “7Fridays” are the meeting points on the main avenue. Yet, the main avenue is more famous for the imposing red statue of Lenin that stands in front of the Presidential Palace (still called ‘City Soviet’); for the walk-of-fame that pays a tribute to important people like Yuri Gagarin and the former President Igor N. Smirnov himself; and for the massive tank that commemorates the Transnistrian resistance against Moldova during the civil war of 1992.
To understand Transnistria, it is essential to comprehend the history of the entire region.
Many bad things are being said about Transnistria. It is reputed to be Europe’s hub of smuggling and trafficking (alcohol, weapons, drugs). It is also regaded as a strategic hold for Russia (close to Ukraine and closer to the rest of Europe) and generally regarded as the poorest, most unsafe, and and most isolated spot of the European continent. However, don’t let this bad repuation scare off your plans to visit Transnistria!
We visited Transnistria and enjoyed every single second of those ten hours we were offered. When you hear the statement: “When the State itself is illegal, can you imagine the rest?” you should know its time to explore this place!
Safe travels everybody!
Photos by Ania Akatova