Transnistria in Eastern Europe is one of the world’s finest theme parks, yet it is only visited by a handful of western tourists each year. In lieu of thrilling rides, scary clowns and overpriced refreshments, the rare visitor to this breakaway republic in Moldova is transported back in time to a state keeping alive the spirit of the Soviet Union. The hammer and sickle adorns buildings across the state; one encounters statues of Lenin, propagandistic tanks and an unintentionally comedic feel to daily life seldom encountered elsewhere. The separatist state of Transnistria is a modern-day USSR throwback; a Soviet Disney World that has the trappings of a state under Soviet rule, offering a unique glimpse into what life was like in the Soviet Union. Amongst other things, it boasts exceptional brandy and a football stadium rivalling anything in the Premiership.
Its ambiguous status has made it a major draw for smuggling, for the illegal arms trade and in the summer of 2005, for two curious backpackers who wanted to find out more.
Commanding slightly over 4,000 square kilometres inside Moldova with a population of just over 500,000, the de facto independent state of Transnistria straddles Moldova’s back alongside the repellent Dniester River, with Ukraine’s porous border forming its eastern boundaries. Not a single sovereign state or international organisation recognises Transnistria’s independence, although many observers cite Russia’s tacit approval of the current political situation as a subtle endorsement.
In 1990 Transnistria officially declared its separation from Moldova shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not wishing to align with the primarily Romania-speaking Moldovan population, Transnistria blazed its own path – printing its own currency, forming its own government and establishing the standard bureaus of an independent state. A brief civil war was followed by a fragile ceasefire in 1992, which remains in place, with 1,400 Russian “peacekeepers” providing a buffer zone at the unofficial Moldova-Transnistria border.
A shadowy figure, Igor Smirnov, is President, while his financial interests are run by his son Oleg, through the mysterious monopoly of the “Sheriff” company. They dominate much of Transnistria’s business, and they are the proud sponsors of the capital’s football team, Sheriff Tiraspol. An election in 2001 proved highly suspicious when one county in northeastern Transnistria reported a stunning 103.6% of the vote for Smirnov; the head of the Mathematics Department at Transnistria State University was unavailable for comment.
Our interest in Transnistria piqued when the BBC reporter, Simon Reeve, dispatched from the capital Tiraspol, proclaiming alleged human rights abuses, arms smuggling, and the semi-enjoyable detainment of his crew at a secret Russian military base during the filming of his “Holidays In The Danger Zone: Places That Don’t Exist” television series. Most books we read strongly discouraged visiting Transnistria; its lack of international recognition means there are no foreign embassies or international organisations to help those in trouble. The Foreign Office’s website states that: “it is very important to avoid getting into difficulty with the Transnistrian authorities”. Intrigued, we travelled from Romania in 2005 to the refreshingly post-Soviet Moldovan capital of Chisinau, once dubbed “the greenest city in the USSR”.
Independent travel – unwise
We arranged for a private guide, fluent in Romanian and Russian to accompany us on a day trip to Transnistria; overnight visits, we were told, were forbidden. Cramped inside a tiny, putrid minibus with about fifteen Moldovan citizens, we breezed through the Moldovan and Russian checkpoints. The bus slowly rolled into the Transnistrian command, just before the Dniester River. Ominous signs discouraging photographs were everywhere. A young Transnistrian guard entered the bus; checking passports with a stereotypical Eastern European border guard’s blank, cold stare. After viewing Andrew’s American passport, the guard proudly exclaimed: “problem"!
Andrew was ushered off the bus along with the guide and hurried into a small communist-infused prefabricated shack. The young officer, absurdly dressed in a loose-fitting pseudo-KGB uniform, attempted to intimidate Andrew with hilarious questions such as “Do you sell religious books?" and misinformed declaratives of “No, it is true that all Americans are required to serve in the army!” A Danish tourist we had met in Romania informed us that upon his arrival at the same border, the guards had told him that Denmark, somewhat ironically, did not even exist and his entry was forbidden. Andrew was hauled before a banker’s window and ordered to pay a bribe. Speaking nervously, the guide sadly informed him that he would have to pay the equivalent of £2.50 to enter Transnistria, which was duly paid in crumbled Moldovan Lei.
In Bender, the second largest city, we exchanged our Lei for some surprisingly crisp Transnistrian Roubles. We wandered lazily around a pleasant park, overshadowed by a beautifully decorated Russian Orthodox Church. Tiraspol, the capital, was a short minibus ride away. Our driver, able to start our transport only from under the bonnet, proclaimed in Russian: “The only people happy here are the dead ones".
Tiraspol is a semi-pleasant capital with a communist-inspired parliament building proudly guarded by a large statue of Transnistria’s hero: Lenin. Large billboards, replete with the omnipresent hammer and sickle and USSR blazonry adorn the main avenue, screaming propaganda. A large tank, in memory of the war with Moldova, inscribed with “victory”, sat above the main square alongside a memorial to the Soviet war dead from the Afghanistan conflict. Nearby in an arid park, stood an imposing statue of the much-decorated Russian army general, Alexander Suvorov, unexpectedly dazzling with its forceful motion and powerful lines.
Tiraspol is also home to one of the finest football complexes in Europe, built with £100 million illegal funds by Sheriff, right off the broad thoroughfare. A shiny Mercedes-Benz dealership is part of the complex, but business cannot be good in a state where wages average £60 a month. We requested to take a picture of the stadium; our guide was not enthused with the idea and a guard soon rushed to stop us. After protracted negotiations with our translator, we were allowed a single photograph, an experience common throughout our visit.
Despite its absurdities, life stumbles along in this isolated state as it does anywhere else in the world. Our final image of Transnistria was a wedding party; the bride and groom happily exiting the church, a common scene throughout the world. The whispers of arms dumps, human rights abuses and corruption seemed miles away, at least outside this theme park’s gates.
The future of Transnistria is less certain. Its obscure state means international organisations are limited to their actions within its uncertain borders. Its poorly policed border with Ukraine has witnessed vast amounts of smuggling. With Transnistrian-made weapons appearing across the globe, the issue of independence has spread far beyond the borders of Moldova. Transnistria continues to look eastwards to Moscow, whilst it stands alone amongst its former communist neighbours who have now turned their heads towards the European Union. With the European Union expanding, the “black hole” of Europe will surely be resolved one way or the other. Will independence solve the problem? It may well solve the Transnistria issue and improve security in the region, but it has the potential of setting a dangerous precedent to other unrecognised states within Russia’s sphere of influence that could revitalise their demands for independence.