Date visited : May 2014
Ahhh, Transnistria (or, the Prednistrian Moldavian Republic’). A ‘country’ that doesn’t exist, and which gives the impression that it’s been in a time-warp for 25 years.
I’ve already spoken about the background of Transnistria, but here I’ll try and write how it feels to actually go there as a tourist. Quick recap: it’s a very small region of Moldova (twice the size of Luxembourg) which declared Independence in 1992 but was never recognised as such.
The very first indication you’re in somewhere ‘weird’ is when, along a long straight road surrounded by trees, you reach what seems to be a hastily-constructed barrier, staffed by armed guards. This is the ‘border’ between Moldova and Transnistria, and ‘foreigners’ are taken away to a small kiosk to show their passports, explain why they’re in the country, and fill in a form. This form is important as Transnistria practices the old Soviet policy of registration – whereby foreigners have to ‘register’ with the local police to say they’re in the country.
The ‘Soviet’ nature of Transnistria is actually all-encompassing; they’ve embraced the architecture and the symbolism – many of the banners and roadsigns are self-promoting (in that old Soviet 5-year-plan way) and are liberally branded with the hammer-and-sickle motif; the parliament building has a statue of Lenin outside it; the buildings still mostly conform to Soviet plans and expectations, even down to the tower-blocks on the edge of the city where many people live; and if I tell you that the main park in the city is called ‘Culture Park’, that shouldn’t really surprise you (it could only be more Soviet if it were called ‘Victory Park’).
Despite being nominally a part of Moldova, it has its own government, legal system, and currency – the Transnistrian Ruble is possibly the least convertible currency in the world since, as it does not ‘legally’ exist, nowhere else touches it with a bargepole. Prices are on a par with Moldova, although again as I was couchsurfing, I’ll readily admit to not being au fait with prices of accommodation (and, to be honest, restaurants).
It’s actually interesting to compare Transnistria with Moldova, despite them being nominally the same place. Transnistria is cleaner (at one point I saw a gang of seven people sweeping the road, with another gang of seven a little way further down doing the other side), more house-proud (none of its buildings are falling down, the pavements are better maintained, and it just feels more ‘loved’), and seems to be (remarkably) more affluent.
Culturally, it’s Russian. Everything is written in Cyrillic, the main language is Russian (or possibly Ukrainian, but certainly an East Slavic rather than a Romance language), and the whole ‘country’ looks eastwards for inspiration rather than westward. They see Odessa (c.100km away) as being their ‘big nearby city’ than Chisinau (c.75km) despite Odessa being in Ukraine and Chisinau theoretically being their capital. On my visit there were booths where people were being encouraged to sign a petition requesting that Transnistria actually become a part of Russia (rather than an independent state or remain part of Moldova). It seemed to be a popular desire.
Being a separatist state of a country that’s pretty obscure to begin with, tourism isn’t exactly Transnistria’s lifeblood. What that does mean, however, is that I found the whole country to be very safe. People are genuinely curious about you, mainly to ask ‘why the heck are you coming here?!’, and of course they’re very keen to speak to genuine foreign speakers (because so few come here) – although many people don’t speak foreign languages – don’t confuse inability or reluctance to speak as rudeness . Even though I walked through the backstreets of suburban Tiraspol at dusk, I never once felt threatened or worried about my safety.
Due to its size, Transnistria doesn’t have much in the way of genuine tourist sites; even the big fortress at Bender is mainly used as an Army base and therefore visible only in passing. Fans of Soviet architecture and style are in for a treat however, and the centre of Tiraspol has a small number of unusual sites, including the war memorial – not just the standard ‘Great Patriotic War’ and the monument to the Afghan conflict in the 80s, but also the Transnistrian War of Independence, and the associated tank, driven off the main road in 1992, up a grassy bank, and left there. If nothing else, it’s ‘unusual’.
Transnistria: A taste of Soviet culture without the need for a special visa. At least at the moment; who knows what will happen in a few years when Moldova seriously looks at EU membership. And I did genuinely find it much more pleasant than Moldova proper.