Lenin statue in Tiraspol, Transnistria
Moldova,  Tieran Meets the World,  Tiraspol,  Transnistria

A Brit, a Bike, and a Breakaway State

A Brit, a Bike, and a Breakaway State – Transnistria (AKA Pridnestrovie/the PMR)
VIDEO [Article Below]

Summary: Pridnestrovie (AKA Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovien Moldavian Republic [PMR]) is a breakaway state sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. A relic of the USSR, statues of busts and Lenin still dot it’s streets, Russian peacekeepers man the border with Moldova, and UN restrictions mean there are no chain franchises here. After cycling through Moldova in winter, I travelled to Tiraspol, the capital of the PMR, to find out what’s it like to live in “the country that doesn’t exist”.

Thoughts From the Road 

 The road is quiet. The last vehicle I saw was a cart pulled by a donkey ten minutes ago. I close my eyes, wind tickling my cheeks, sun spilling onto my shoulders, and breathe slowly. Stress is a memory. I feel my bike listing towards the roadside, and open them again; I’ve never felt so “here”, and so “now”. I feel an almost overwhelming sense of euphoria building. This is like a drug. My heart is beating fast, the cold air stinging my lungs. My mind is racing and yet in the same moment time seems to stand still. I ding my bell; a pure, pristine note echoes away from me. Sometimes I wonder, will I ever feel this free again?

Chapter 1

Welcome to Moldova

I forced my wheels forward as they squelched, slipped and slid over slush and snow. The sky-blue and corn-yellow of the Ukrainian flag melted into trees behind me as I waved goodbye to a nation I’d grown familiar with – and the dog that had just stolen one of my gloves. Before me lay an enigma; a country so neglected by tourists that even its Ukrainian neighbours were barely able to tell me anything about it. If you’d asked me to describe the flag, I’d have drawn a blank. The culture? I had no idea of the demographic, political and cultural complexities I’d come to learn the tiny, landlocked region has battled with for most of its existence. It was like stepping off a cliff.

Wisps of water vapour swirled through the air, playing tricks on the mind, and the rest of the world disappeared. No sound, no movement, just the clangs, squeaks and scrapes from my bike trundling through the Moldovan countryside. As I put some distance between myself and the border with Ukraine, shadows emerged from the white, and Moldova’s peculiarities began to reveal themselves; indistinguishable at first, but gradually they took shape in the mist. The noisy complaints from my bicycle were joined by the clip-clopping of a horse and cart carrying farming supplies, audible long before it was visible, which seemed to materialise from thin air.

Moldovan Farmers with Horse and Cart near Briceni
Farming in some parts of Moldova remains unmechanised, and farmers use horses and donkeys to carry their equipment.

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I was in a bubble, extending 100 metres from me in all directions, obscuring everything outside it from view. Traditional Moldovan homes, front doors and windows lined with strips of brightly coloured paint, faded into view before evaporating behind me. Flaking yellow pipes carrying gas overhead, rather than underground, traced the edges of houses, disappearing and then reappearing as I cycled between them, and countless wells, known as “fîntînă”, beautifully decorated with intricate and complex patterns, lined the streets of villages at regular intervals, each with a working bucket-and-chain mechanism to retrieve water. If I close my eyes now, I can still hear the rattle of meltwater striking the corrugated iron that stretched over porches echoing through empty streets in those tiny villages, made up of just one road flanked by several homes.

A Moldovan well, or fîntînă
In Moldova, you can often find water in a fîntînă, a kind of drinking well

In rural Moldova, sometimes the only water around is in the wells, or “fîntînă”, that dot the countryside,  

Alone, it’s difficult to sell Moldova in the heart of winter as a tourist hotspot. Potholes large enough to swallow a person pepper the streets. Yellow gas pipes the size of tree-trunks erupt from the ground in the cities, with smaller, protruding offshoots crisscrossing each other, forming a sickly-yellow lattice over the surrounding infrastructure. Buildings and monuments seem to be placed without much consideration of appearance, and the resulting aesthetic is clunky and unpolished. Mud-coloured buildings, mud-coloured roads and, well, mud; I sensed February wasn’t the peak season to be visiting.

What Moldova and its frigid, rolling hills lacked in beauty, though, it made up for with intrigue. I’d personally never seen the region mentioned in the news back at home, and my fascination with its inner-workings overrode my grievances with its looks. Within a week, I found myself at an election rally for a local candidate (not the first time I’d attend a political Moldovan event) and discussing the country’s struggles with locals, each conversation raising new questions and drawing me further down the rabbit hole I’d entered. I explored markets hidden beneath corrugated iron panels, where traders would offer Moldovan leu for one of my English or American coins. Despite being surrounded by Moldova’s large and comparatively powerful neighbours, I felt isolated; there was a sense of mystery, of true exploration that I hadn’t felt before, and one that would remain for the next four weeks as I made my way South.

Hanging out with a Moldovan farmer near Gagauzia
Hanging out with a Moldovan farmer and his Donkey just outside of Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova.

The horse-drawn farm carts and wells at village roadsides harked back to another era, and at first glance life seemed to move slowly here.  This quaint facade would have any newcomer underestimating the country’s complexity, and I must admit I fell victim to its allure. But scratch the surface, a few millimetres beneath a thin film of agriculture and wine-making, and it doesn’t take long to uncover its fractures. Divides exist between those that speak Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian, between those that support Russia and those that are pro-EU, and between the Gagauz autonomy and the rest of the country. But the most infamous geographical and political embodiment of the cracks in Moldovan society is undoubtedly Transnistria.

Thoughts From the Road

I think back to Germany; a night by the banks of the river Elbe, when I lay awake in bed, fighting back tears and coming to terms with my new routine; wake up alone, cycle alone, eat alone, go to bed alone. The loneliness was pushing my sanity to breaking point. All that kept me going was the humiliation I’d have to face if I quit and returned home. 

Over 1,500km later, I glide between a frozen lake and fields crusted with patchy snow, listening to the tick, tick, ticking of my wheels, and it dawns on me: that person doesn’t exist anymore. They were shattered into pieces and slowly, day-by-day, kilometre-by-kilometre, put back together again. I’ve let go. I no longer fight the loneliness, but embrace it. I no longer dread the solitary cycling, but savour the immersion in foreign cultures. I no longer count the days until I go home, but instead think of how I can extend my journey. It’s funny what you get comfortable with, once things become routine…

Chapter 2

The Pull of the Soviet Union

We in the West are taught that everything in the Soviet Union was TERRIBLE; that its collapse was a liberation for its people, and that the rise of democracy has brought prosperity to Eastern Europe. If that’s all you’re told, then it may be surprising to learn that there are still pockets of Europe and beyond that would much rather align with Russia and return to the conditions of  yesteryear than continue on their current trajectory. 

It’s not merely a vague nostalgia for “the good ol’ days” that sees people yearning for the return of the USSR. The fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics took with it the stability and modest equality that its citizens had become accustomed to over decades. In a heartbeat, factories shut down, banks collapsed, and pensions disappeared. The younger generation didn’t experience that loss directly, and so, while in many ways they have embraced the “new” society, many of their parents and grandparents yearn for what they once had. My friend Alex, who lives in Chișinău, Moldova’s capital, explained his experience with the transition.

When we became independent, we have a joke that we became independent not just from the Soviet Union, but also from oil and natural gas. So we became both independent and super poor at the same time.”

Alex Mirgorodski is from Chișinău, Moldova
In Chișinău, Moldova’s capital, Alex explained how the collapse of the Soviet Union impacted Moldova.

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“A lot of very talented people became unemployed in a moment. My wife’s father was an engineer at a factory producing things for the army and the Soviet space program. It was shut down. This was a really sad period of time; these talented people started to sell things, and they weren’t good sellers. My wife and her mother would sew something with a Moldovan design, and her father would take it to Romania and Poland to sell. You can see now all these retired people with really low pensions go out to sell things. It’s like a flea market, but different because they don’t sell rare or unique things; they just sell shoes or some clothes.

Since we became independent, it’s really hard to say if it’s been good or not. In the Soviet Union, nobody could even imagine something shutting down – a factory or a company. So this kind of thing is what people are missing today. Yeah, they were not earning a lot of money, but at the same time they knew that their salary and pension payments would be enough for decent living.”

Several weeks later, I’d be sat across from another new friend, Daniel, at a dinner table in Romania as he explained the difference between his experience in the USSR and today’s democratic Romania:

“[Under communism] we had money, but we couldn’t buy anything because we couldn’t find the things we needed. The opposite of that is the capitalism we have now, where we can find everything but cannot afford to buy it.”

Back in the Soviet Union, “deficit” was a big concern. Rather than not being able to afford goods you wanted to buy, you had the means to buy what you wanted, but the variety of goods you could get was extremely limited, particularly when it came to things that needed to be imported, like coffee. That meant that the quality of life was not sky-high, but it was constant and predictable. You’d have housing, a job, food, and a pension. Maybe not the luxuries, but you could live. 

Granted, Daniel is from Moldova’s more powerful brother, Romania, but his perspective neatly sums up a general sentiment that can be found all across the former Soviet Union, as well as other countries that were once under communist rule; I was told similar things by friends in Poland, Ukraine, Moldova and Bulgaria. 

Chapter 3

What’s it Like to Live in a “Country that Doesn’t Exist”?

As the world sensed the impending fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova geared up for independence. But a furiously stubborn sliver of land that hugs the border with Ukraine, less than 20km across in some parts, refused to go along quietly; in 1990, Transnistria declared independence from the rest of the country, sparking a war that dragged on for two years before Russian peacekeepers were sent to put a stop to the fighting. Now, just 60km from the capital, Chișinău, a hard border cuts through the countryside, manned by the Transnistrian and Russian military, serving as a permanent reminder of Moldova’s wounds.

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“The economy there is completely separate.” Alex explained through a mouthful of zeama (chicken soup). “They have their own factories. They still produce carpets and shoes. So they have their own economy. They have huge support from Russia. Russia pays some of the pensions for retired people there. You have the feeling there that nothing has changed for decades.”

Unable to resist its pull, I soon found myself bouncing over potholes with four wheels beneath me instead of two on the hourly Marshrutka (a chaotic minibus transport system found across Eastern Europe and Central Asia) from Chișinău to a relic of the USSR; one that has clung on while the world around it has become unrecognisable. 

In my imagination, drizzle and uniform grey clouds are, for some reason, synonymous with the Soviet world, perhaps because of its similarity to the concrete it was so fond of, so it seemed fitting that a textureless grey sky blotted out the sun on my approach.

Even its name reflects a Soviet level of practicality; “Trans” means “across”, and “nistria” refers to the Dniester river. So, the whole thing translates to “Across the Dniester”. At least, that’s what those in the West have come to call it.  That name, I’d come to learn, comes with unfortunate baggage. You see, while it was first used harmlessly in Romania from around 1924, it was, in fact, popularised by the Axis powers during their occupation of the region in WWII. For some reason, the name appears to have stuck; even Moldovan locals, and some that I spoke to in Tiraspol, said “Transnistria” without batting an eyelid. There are those, however, who find that name very offensive. I discovered a little too late that it’s best to use the term “P.M.R.”, or “Pridniestrovien Moldavian Republic”, when speaking to locals. Alternatively, some have come to know it colloquially as “the country that doesn’t exist”.  

I’d been cycling through ex-USSR countries for months now and, so far, I’d experienced the essence of the Soviet Union as a memory; a story told by a local here, or a monument or preserved building there. But what struck me most was not the surprisingly familiar atmosphere in the Transnistrian capital, Tiraspol, but how it represented the here and now; the values of people, the method of governing, and the political alignment of the region. Roses lay scattered, adorning the base of statues of Lenin, standing proudly outside government buildings, with the not-at-all menacing name of “Supreme Council”, and the rather unsubtle “House of Soviets”.  These aren’t memories; they’re hospitals and shops, parliaments and police stations, and monuments to the country’s heroes. The green and red of the Transnistrian flag, the only one in the world to still display the hammer and sickle, fluttered side-by-side with the white, blue and red of the Russian one, a very public statement displaying who’s friends with who, and boldly showing off an icon that most other nations have chosen to forget.

The names of those who died in the Transnistrian war for independence
A list of names of people who died in the Pridnestrovian war for independence from 1990-1992.

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I wandered for hours, past the numerous watchful eyes of Lenin, who seemed to surprise me behind every corner. But I wanted to hear what it was actually like to live in a country that doesn’t exist from someone with first-hand experience; I needed to find a local. So, I sought out Anya Golomoz, a store manager and perhaps the only person around who wasn’t affiliated with the tourist industry but still spoke fantastic English. She didn’t exactly express enthusiasm when I asked her about her home country:

“All of my family – my grandparents and my parents – are originally from Russia. They moved here because my grandfather was in the army. He was a soldier, and he was sent here to serve the USSR. Afterwards he decided to stay here because he enjoys making homemade wine – a very good reason to stay. And it ruined my future, so thank you, grandfather!”

Lenin statue in Tiraspol, Transnistria
A statue of Lenin outside of the Supreme Soviet, or Supreme Council (effectively the Transnistrian Parliament).

Is Anya proud to call Transnistria “home”?

Anya seemed able to detach herself from the situation in Transnistria. It granted her a clarity and objectivity that allowed her to respond very diplomatically to my questions. As a young person whose mindset doesn’t align with that of the typical, older Transnistrian resident, I was curious if she took pride in being from such an unusual region, if she felt at home there, and whether she felt the same fondness that many of her neighbours do towards Russia.

 “I’m proud of the population of Transnistria for really believing in what they want. They’re moving towards their goal. They really believe they will be a part of Russia someday, and they are pushing for that… they have never given up on that idea.”

Anya’s very concept of home didn’t come from a sense of patriotism or connection to a homeland. She seemed to be minding her own business, watching from the side-lines as the fate of her country hung in the balance.

“Home, to me, is where my family is. It’s where my parents and where my kids are healthy and wealthy, and where I’m happy and can rest after a hard day at work. It’s where I can invite my friends to have some fun, to have drinks with them. I know that if anything happens, I will have people who will be by my side, and who would help me go through anything. I wouldn’t say that I love Moldova or Russia. I honestly don’t care either way. I work here. I live here. My family is here. I don’t care if we’ll be a part of Moldova or a part of Russia, I’m not that interested in that. All I care about is my salary, how to pay the bills and how to feed my children.”

Anya Golomoz lives in Tiraspol, Transnistria
Anya Golomoz spoke explained what it’s like to live in Tiraspol, Transnistria, a “country that doesn’t exist”.

Is Moldovan culture different from Transnistrian Culture?

A hallmark of the Soviet Union was the stamping out of individuality. The idea, in part, was to create a cohesive union with one identity, but it also meant that cultures started to lose some of their identity, and blur into one another. That’s partly why there are such broad similarities across the nations that were once concealed behind the iron curtain. So, how different can people like Anya in Transnistria really be from those in Moldova?

“You see, in our country there are three populations; Russians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians.” By “country”, she was referring to Transnistria, not Moldova. “So we all are friendly together. Of course in Moldova, there is a slightly different culture. I think the mentality of people is just a little bit different. They are more European now. But here in Transnistria, it’s a mix between Russian mentality and the mentality from the old days in the Soviet Union. You can’t say that we’re very different, because in Moldova there are also Russians and Ukrainians, along with many other populations. Basically, we drink as much wine as Moldovans, and as much vodka as Russians!”

Is Transnistria still communist?

Admittedly, one thing that stuck out in Tiraspol was the echoes of communism. It was more pronounced in Transnistria than anywhere else I’ve visited, with posters of Soviet heroes, and monuments and streets named after communist leaders. But many outsiders seemed to think that meant it was communist. While it does appear frozen in time as a satellite of the USSR, Anya suggested that the region hasn’t remained totally entrenched in the old ways.

 “The ruling party right now is not communist, but the way of living might be a little. But what was the point of communism? For everything to be equal. They shared everything. In villages, they grew vegetables and fruits, and it was common to share the income from selling those fruits and vegetables equally with everyone. That’s not the same anymore. Now, as much as you work, that’s how much you get paid. So we are not communist anymore. Nobody thinks about anyone else any more, they just think about themselves.”

Chapter 4

Logistics: How does Transnistria Work?

The Transnistrian Flag and Currency (Transnistrian Ruble)

Just three other countries recognise Transnistria’s independence: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and The Republic of Artsakh. Never heard of them? That’s because they, too, are regions that have declared independence, yet are not recognised by any UN (United Nations) countries. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are areas that, officially, are in Georgia, and The Republic of Artsakh is, or was depending on who you ask, part of Azerbaijan. 

That hasn’t stopped Transnistria from fiercely proclaiming sovereignty in every way it can; it flies its own unique flag, has its own car license plates, and even a currency, the “Transnistrian Ruble”. In fact, it’s the only country in the world that uses plastic coins as legal tender (yes, they do look like something from a board game, and I did spend over an hour approaching strangers in the street until I’d collected all four denominations of them). 

The Transnistrian Ruble is the only currency in the world that uses plastic coins.
The Transnistrian Ruble is the only currency in the world that uses plastic coins; they come in denominations of 1, 3, 5, and 10 rubles.

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“The green in our flag is because there’s a lot of fruit trees here”, Anya explained, “and because our economy is a lot to do with agriculture, and the red relates to communism. The hammer and sickle is the sign of communism, and it represents hard work. The sickle is used when you cut the grass when you’re working in the fields, so that’s for those who work in agriculture – there are many villages where the people work on farms – and the hammer is for those who work in a factory or in construction. So that was most of the workforce back in the Soviet Union. They had many factories, and produced everything on their own because they never brought anything from abroad. It’s the only place in the world where the hammer and sickle is still on the flag.”

Cars in Pridnestrovie, or Transnistria, have their own unique license plates
Vehicles in the PMR have the Transnistrian flag on their license plates.

How independent is Transnistria?

But the level of independence stretched deeper than merely symbolic gestures. Moldovan authorities really have no jurisdiction over Transnistria. The taxes, pensions, laws, currency, military, and basically everything else you can think of are totally isolated from that of Moldova. 

“We have a president, currently Vadim Krasnoselsky, who is elected by the people and many ministers. We have a parliament, but it has a different name which I don’t really know in English. It translates to something like “Supreme Soviet”, and is one of the many buildings here with a statue of Lenin outside. Of course, it’s Transnistria, so there are Lenin statues everywhere.” Anya gestured outside; I must’ve seen Lenin in some way, shape or form at least three times on my way to meet her.

Although its intimidating in name, the Supreme council, also known as the Supreme Soviet, is essentially the parliament of the P.M.R. The government there is “unicameral”, meaning it has just one chamber. Contrary to what you might expect in a breakaway region in a country that has struggled with corruption since it became independent, Transnistria does operate under a multi-party system of government, with elections every 4-5 years. But – and this is a big but – because it’s not a recognised nation, election watchdogs and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have refused to monitor them, so there’s no way to know just how free and fair the elections actually are.

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The flag of Transnistria, AKA Pridnestrovie, AKA PMR
The Transnistrian flag flying next to the Russian flag in Tiraspol, the capital of the PMR.

Is there a lot of tension between people from Moldova and Transnistria?

The war for independence that kicked off in the 1990’s saw around 1,000 people killed and 3,000 wounded. In such a small region, virtually everyone who was alive at the time was directly affected. I considered the prospect of returning to living peacefully as neighbours after such fierce fighting and so much suffering, and what it must have taken to push fellow countrymen to take up arms against one another in the first place. But Anya couldn’t point to one specific source of tension between Transnistria and the rest of Moldova in the lead-up to, or following, the war. Instead, it seemed to come from several, vague directions.

 “Some people hate Moldova because of the war. Honestly, I was born in Moldova, so I cannot say that I hate the country. It did not do anything wrong. I think the whole situation is stupid. Most of the people in our country, Transnistria, love Russia. But honestly, we don’t even have a common border with Russia. How can we be a part of Russia? We’re not even situated close to it, like Crimea is. We’re so far away. 

One of the reasons I think there is such a desire for independence is because, back when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Moldova became an independent country, there were a lot of people who didn’t like Russians. I don’t know why; they built schools, factories, hospitals and everything else for them. But for some reason Moldova became very anti-Russian. Moldovans would go outside to get in fights with Russian people and tell them to ‘go back home to Russia’. In Transnistria there are more Russians than Moldovans and Ukrainians, and they don’t want the same thing happening. They didn’t want this Moldovan nationalism to take place here as well. I don’t know all the other reasons, but I think that’s one thing.

Bust of Lenin outside Tiraspol city hall in Transnistria
A bust of Lenin outside the city hall in Tiraspol, Transnistria.

Chapter 5

The Future of Transnistria and Pridnestrovian Identity

How have Moldova and Transnistria moved on since the fall of the Soviet Union?

A common theme persistent throughout my cycle journey in Eastern Europe was the divide between the old and the young. Specifically, how it resulted in difficulty moving on from the Soviet past. Many young people seemed to be of the opinion that the ghost of the USSR was still holding their country hostage. So, how do you move on, when the inertia of the older generation keeps you anchored in one place? It’s easy to forget in this day and age that there are still millions of people whose very identity developed under Soviet rule. You can change an opinion here, or influence a preconception there, but to uproot the very foundations of someone’s mindset is a near-impossible task. Now, imagine trying to do that on a national scale for an entire generation. Back in Chișinău, before my visit to Transnistria, Alex told me about the pace of change since the rise of democracy – or at least “democracy on paper”: 

“There is a lot of inertia here, so everything is changing very slowly. People are attached to their habits, so that’s why communists became leaders after the USSR fell. They were just used to that brand, so a lot of people voted for them, and a lot of people were not satisfied after the breakup of the Soviet Union. 

But it isn’t only inertia that kept the country grounded over the past three decades. When your country is being pulled in every direction imaginable by different interests – Russian, Romanian, European, American, and Gagauz – it creates a tug-of-war that hinders any progress.

“We have this tension between Romanian-speakers and Russian-speakers”, Alex went on, “between official Moldova and Transnistria, between official Moldova and the autonomous region of Gagauzia; so there’s a lot of tension here in this small country.

That general attitude was prevalent all over Moldova as a whole, but it seemed refined and concentrated in Transnistria, where people actively push for a return to a union with Russia, a move some might argue is going backwards, not forwards. Here’s what Anya in Tiraspol had to say about the direction her country is moving in:

“I don’t think anyone likes the European Union here; the majority of the people want to be a part of the Russian Federation. You know what I think? I think the ones who miss the Soviet Union are the people who do not want to change in their lives. You know how it was in the Soviet Union; they had everything equal. The same furniture in all the apartments, people were wearing the same clothes. They looked like twins! Towns full of multiple twins! Maybe some people like that. But for me, personally, it’s not the best way of life. I’d rather work harder, get paid more, form my own plan for my life, and know that I’m able to do whatever I want as long as it’s within my power… I can go where I want to go, and I can study what I want to study. So I think it’s better now than it was in the Soviet Union. But that’s just me as a younger person. Of course older people preferred the Soviet Union; pensions are small now, and many people don’t have enough money to survive.”

However, Anya did concede the benefits that Soviet rule had brought with it. 

“Moldova used to be an agricultural country, and they didn’t even have doctors, teachers or builders. The Soviet Union sent workers from Ukraine, Russia, Armenia, Georgia and many other countries, who then built schools, factories, hospitals and everything else.”

Coat of Arms of Transnistria beneath the PMR regional flags
The Coat of Arms of Transnistria beneath the PMR’s regional flags.

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Concerns about Transnistria’s Future, and the Prospect of War Between Ukraine and Russia

For Russia, Transnistria’s existence as an independent state has proved to be a strategic godsend. The two have a long history, and the tiny republic turned to its much larger cousin to function as a protectorate during the war for independence in the early ‘90s. “Protecting the ethnic Russian population in Transnistria” served as justification to station Russian troops there, providing a foothold closer to Western Europe, and enabling them to position forces to the south of Ukraine. But, given the current geopolitical climate, that move has made some people, like Anya, nervous. 

I’m really worried about the situation with Ukraine; that a war will happen. That will have a big impact here. We’re a really small country, and Ukraine is friendly with the United States and the European Union, so of course they would be armed better than our country. Look around you, we don’t even have normal soldiers here. They don’t have proper physical training. They are supposed to, but they just drink, eat, sleep, watch TV and play video games. I honestly don’t think they the physical training they are supposed to.

Transnistrian soldiers walk through Tiraspol streets
Two Transnistrian soldiers walk outside the barracks in Tiraspol

Will Transnistria ever be Internationally and Officially Recognised as an Independent State?

When Russian troops stepped in, I imagined the sense of relief those that fought on the side of the Transnistrian independence must have felt. Moldova was in no position to engage the peacekeepers, and the conflict was frozen overnight. That, as far as they were concerned, was as close to a victory as they’d get. But, after 28 years, not a single official country has recognised Transnistria’s independence. If the Russians left, it’s doubtful that the P.M.R. could fend off the Moldovan military if it attempted to reclaim its land. So what now? 

“Don’t you think that if someone really wanted our country to be recognised, it would have happened many years ago?” Anya spoke with an exasperated tone, as though she’d made the point many times before, “Like with Crimea, they wanted to be a part of Russia, so they became a part of Russia within several days. It’s already taken more than 25 years for Transnistria to become a recognised country.”

Could Transnistria could ever reunify with the rest of Moldova?

If, according to Anya at least, it won’t be recognised internationally as a sovereign state, then its current status seems untenable, sustainable only as long as the Russian government decides it is in their strategic interests to prop up the PMR. So, what about the prospect of voluntarily re-joining the rest of Moldova?

“I honestly think it depends on the government. It doesn’t depend on the people. If there was a different government, then it could happen. I think the majority of people here would not be ok with reunification, though. The only way for Transnistria to reunify with Moldova without having an armed conflict is for it to become an autonomy in the territory of Moldova. They would still have to let us have our own currency, government and president who would then be underneath the Moldovan government.”

Apart from the currency, she was essentially describing the situation in another region in the south of Moldova, Gagauzia – though the roots of the tensions in that case were very different. While it lacks its own monetary system, it makes up for that by having a unique language, Gagauz, and a population with a distinct ethnic and cultural identity. Gagauzia actually did declare independence in 1991 over concerns that Moldova would be absorbed into Romania (something Gagauz people overwhelmingly oppose). In this case, though, the situation was calmed when Moldova granted autonomy to the Gagauz republic, and gave assurance that, if the country chose to unify with Romania, then Gagauzia would have the right to determine its own path – namely whether it would do the same, or become an independent country. After all the blood that has been spilled, however, whether Transnistria would ever settle for that same agreement is extremely uncertain.

Final Thoughts

Despite its fierce proclamations of independence, I couldn’t help but notice a fragility in the “little USSR”. While Moldova is small, Transnistria is tiny. Though it boasted symbols of sovereignty in the form of its own currency, license plates and flag, with all the political turmoil snatching headlines in its neighbours, I left wondering how much longer things could last the way they are. With its reliance on Russia for protection, Pridnestrovie’s foundations seemed shaky and vulnerable, and its future dependent on the actions of the countries around it. But, for now, it remains an improbable and peculiar part – or not, depending on who you’re talking to – of an equally peculiar country that still exudes the ambience of the Soviet world.

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Stuck in Limbo Living in Abandoned Soviet Buildings
Ramadan & Religion in Turkey

Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

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1 year ago

A victim of Cold War propaganda, who justifying genocide and military aggression, as your use of the Nazi term “Transnistria” eloquently testifies. It’s disgusting.