I was talking to my father a couple of days ago on Skype (bless the internet!) and he was surprised to learn that I was still in Moldova. What could there possible be there to keep me so long? he wondered. And it is true that touristic sights are thin on the ground; but what Moldova lacks in castles and museums, it makes up for in geopolitical quirkiness. Not only is it home to Gagauzia, but it also has its own breakaway province, the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), although it's more commonly known as Trans(d)nistria.
|There's not much in the way of pretty public spaces so young couples about to get married must make do with what they have for their wedding photos. A tank certainly says romance to me.|
Transnistria's formation was rather more painful than that of Gagauzia. As the Soviet Union was breaking up in the late 80's and early 90's there was a rise in Moldovan nationalism in the Moldovan SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic), which saw the reinstatement of Romanian as the official language and a growing desire for unification with Romania. The majority Russian population (most of the ethnic Moldovans/Romanians, who had historically populated the area, had been deported during Stalin's various purges) of the left bank (i.e. east side) of the Dniester was not too happy about the prospect of being a minority and so took up arms to separate their chunk of Moldova, which, by strange coincidence, happened to have all the industrial parts of the country, from the rest and hopefully attach it to Russia (which, unfortunately, is at least 1000km away). They were also lucky to have a Soviet army division on their side and so they managed to keep the fledgling Moldovan army at bay and reach a ceasefire which holds to this day (monitored by Russian soldiers). A ceasefire, however, is only temporary- at least theoretically - and so this mini-state has remained in limbo as it tries to assert its independence, whilst the majority of the the world's nations refuse to accept it as such and insist it gets back in bed with Moldova. The Pridniestrians (as they like to call themselves) would rather not - at least according to Transnistrian officialdom which conducted a referendum on the issue in 2006 in which it claims 97% of the electorate voted for independence from Moldova (to me the figure seems too high to warrant credibility).
The international community (bar Russia and other micro-statelets such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is incensed at such gall - a region seceding from its rightful country. Such a thing cannot be tolerated and so they refuse to deal with it. (Of course the glaring hypocrisy of such a stance coupled with the support of Kosovo's independence seems to be lost on the international community.) So instead Transnistria does its own thing in its little sliver of land. The Western media, when its spotlight does accidentally illuminate this forgotten slice of the world, usually churns out a picture of a mafia state where gun-running and trafficking are a way of life. Obviously I haven't seen that, and I do think it probably does exist, but not on the scale espoused by hype-mongers trying to sell their latest editions. Instead the lasting impression I will have of the place is one of quiet sadness. Transnistria has undergone a depopulation even greater than Moldova and the streets, even on a weekend, seem unusually quiet. Just a block from Tiraspol's main street are empty residential blocks, neglected gardens and not a single soul to be seen. On the main street (named after the October Revolution) people go about their business, indistinguishable from any other rural, post-Soviet country. Except possibly for the fact that Soviet symbols are far more visible here than anywhere else. The guidebook talks of a Soviet theme park, but I think that is a tad exaggerated. However the nostalgia for the "good old days" is certainly palpable: a couple of Lenin statues of October Revolution street and hammers and sickles aplenty. From talking to people there this was understandable as back then there was a job for everyone, food enough and the possibility to travel (within the USSR). Nowadays it is hard enough just to make ends meet. It is not uncommon to see babushkas sitting on small stools on the pavements with a small bag of tomatoes, potatoes and apples from their gardens or assorted knick-knacks so as to supplement the meagre state pensions. They will be there from dawn till dusk just so that they can buy some bread for tomorrow. Also looming large in the dominance of public spaces is the relationship that Transnistria has with Moldova and Russia. There are a multitude of memorials, plaques, posters and statues commemorating the separation from Moldova, most notably a tank in the very centre of Tiraspol (which, strangely, is a popular place for couples getting married to have their wedding pictures taken - a somewhat surreal melange of frilly white lace and camo green); and on the other hand there are many signs declaiming the everlasting friendship between Transnistria and Russia, and pictures of Putin and Medvedev are as prominent as those of Igor Smirnov, the "president" since its separation from Moldova.
|The sign says "Our strength lies in unity with Russia"|
Whatever the legal status of Transnistria the reality on the ground is that the territory is run like a separate state, with its own elections and organs of government, border controls (although Ukraine refuses to allow exports without Moldovan customs papers, effectively forcing Transnistria to export via Moldova). Though by no means does this mean that it's cut off from the rest of Moldova: over a hundred marshrutkas a day ply the route from Tiraspol (the Transnistrian capital) and Bender (the 2nd city) to Chisinau, Sheriff Tiraspol football team participates in the Moldovan league and has won it for the last decade or so (its stadium, bankrolled by the ubiquitous Sheriff corporation, is the best in the country, and so Moldova plays many of its international fixtures there). And although it has its own phone and postal systems these only work within the country, for access to the rest of the world Moldovan phone numbers and stamps have to be used. Not that they seem to care too much about the outside world: non-Transnistrians who stay for more than 24 hours have to register with the police, there is precious little information for tourists, and the one building in the entire country that has some historical value, the Turkish castle in Bender, is used by the local military and so is strictly off limits, not just for tourists, but for any sort of photography. So below is a picture I took of it (along with a strategically important bridge which is also on the long list of forbidden infrastructure of strategic importance. Looks like I won't be going back to Transnistria for a while then.).
|The Turkish castle of Bender.|