The recent conflict in Eastern Ukraine has raised for many people the spectre of Transnistria, a breakaway territory and frozen conflict zone nestled between Moldova and Ukraine. Transnistria seceded from Moldova in 1990 as the Soviet Union crumbled. A period of bloody fighting followed until a ceasefire was signed in 1992. Transnistria has always aligned itself with Russia, while Moldova has generally been trying to move closer towards Romania and the European Union. Today Transnistria remains an unrecognised state, but this hasn’t stopped it from printing its own currency (the Transnistrian ruble), issuing Transnistrian passports (recognised mainly by other unrecognised states) and functioning for all intents and purposes as a country.
Australia’s DFAT advice page on Transnistria (which hasn’t been updated since November 2014) gives the area the second highest warning level: ‘reconsider your need to travel’. There’s also a special warning on the page in light of events in Ukraine and the 2014 Moldovan elections. A few travellers have gone to Transnistria though and written about it online. If you’re reading up on it, you’ll find out about the corrupt border guards you have to bribe to get past. You’ll discover that there’s very minimal medical care available to Transnistrians, and that it’s practically impossible for tourists to access. You’ll certainly come across information on Sheriff, a company that owns a swathe of businesses, such as supermarkets and petrol stations, across Transnistria. Sheriff was started by two former soviet police officers and, it’s claimed, is linked to arms trafficking. You’ll find mentions online of the Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops stationed in Transnistria to this day. And you’ll read that you’ll be one of the first tourists the people of Transnistria have ever met, so don’t expect them to be able to speak English to you.
I’m not denying any of these claims; many of them are, I’m sure, true. Does Transnistria remain in a tense standoff with the international community? Yes. Is corruption in Transnistria rife? Yes. But we have little direct information on the country, so a few weekends ago a friend and I went on a trip to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, to see for ourselves what it’s like. So what were my experiences of travelling to this frozen conflict zone, and how did they match up with what I’d read about it?
First of all, crossing the border into the country didn’t disappoint. We caught a marshrutka (a fixed-route mini bus) from Chisinau in Moldova to Transnistria. After an hour or so of trundling along in the marshrutka, crossing gates suddenly loomed up in front of us, emblazoned with the Transnistrian coat of arms complete with hammer and sickle and big soviet red star.
We jumped out of the marshrutka and shuffled into the immigration hut. My Russian was decent enough to understand what was going on in there, even if M., my friend and a fluent Russian speaker, had to do the talking. So when M. made a mistake giving the border guard our address in Tiraspol for the night, I got nervous.
“Pardon me” apologised M..
“No problem, all good” answered the guard with a smile. I’ve spent plenty of time in post-soviet areas of various political persuasions, so I can tell you that’s a pretty astounding response to our incompetence. In fact one of the things that struck me most about Tiraspol was just how nice complete strangers were to us. Not in the jovial, familiar kind of way we might be used to in Australia but in the reserved, yet extremely hospitable manner I’ve experienced from, for example, acquaintances in Russia.
So we weren’t extorted for money at the border; it was all unexpectedly professional. Then again, we took the safe option of entering by public bus. Had we gone by car it could have been a different story. For us though, the general pleasantness of the people continued once we were safely across the border and in Tiraspol looking for dinner. Several people pointed us in the direction of Andy’s Pizza, a branch of the Moldovan restaurant chain that has, oddly enough, sprouted up in Tiraspol (and is, according to what we’d read online, an integral part of any visit to the capital). To my surprise the menus at Andy’s were in both Russian and English and our wait staff spoke great English – as did the host of our accommodations I was later to discover. The communication abilities of the Transnistrians was one point for me where what I’d heard about Transnistria just didn’t match up with my experience of reality. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to go there if you don’t speak at least some Russian, but from what I’d read I’d expected to find a disconnected, Russian-only enclave. However, the younger people we met had no problems chattering away to us in English, and it turns out that Transnistria apparently has three official languages: Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian.
After dinner we met up with our host who took us for an evening walk in the true spirit of гулать (stroll). He took us to see a big construction site where a new hospital was being built. When I explained to him that I’d read there’s no medical care in Tiraspol, he laughed and told me “we call Tiraspol the city of hospitals”. Whether or not we as foreigners could have accessed these supposed hospitals was, happily, something we didn’t have to find out. The next morning our host took us on a tour of the main part of town, which is more or less one long, tidy street lined with important, well-maintained buildings. I had the surreal feeling of walking through an outdoor museum in which a living piece of the USSR had been preserved. We saw huge, imposing Lenin statues, government buildings bearing soviet red stars and billboards displaying slogans like “Love Your City”. There were small shops, large hotels, an indoor market, a peaceful path running along the Dniester River and, indeed, a big Sheriff supermarket with an exchange bureau and cafe inside. There was an unnamed, hastily shuffled-past gate painted with more red stars. “Some things are not for us to know” I was told when I asked what was inside.
Altogether I found Tiraspol calm, welcoming and a little bit mysterious. But after just a brief visit it was time for us to leave again. It turned out that getting a marshrutka back to Chisinau basically involved flagging one down as it raced towards us along a busy road. Luckily for us a helpful woman headed in the same direction did the flagging down for the three of us. Unluckily enough the little bus was already full, so we spent the next 1.5 hours bouncing around in the aisle holding on for dear life as our driver sped merrily towards Moldova. Standing up, I didn’t get a great view out of the window, but we certainly passed armed soldiers and a tank or two on our way out of Transnistria.
So for me Transnistria was part frozen in time, part ever evolving and looking to the future. I don’t recommend it for a relaxing getaway. But if you want to experience for yourself what a frozen conflict zone can be like, especially one we have little direct information on, brush up on your Russian, jump on a marshrutka, and go on an adventure to Transnistria.