This is one of Europe’s most curious regions. Yet, the self-declared republic of Transdniestr (Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika, or PMR in Russian; population 555,500) remains a largely unknown enigma.
The street credibility of being one of the world’s last surviving communist bastions is wearing thin and being eclipsed by sweet, sweet capitalism! Monuments to Lenin and other Soviet heroes share high profile street corners with expensive shops, while swanky hotels and stadiums pop up around Tiraspol, betraying a firm bling-centric platform on the part of business and political leaders. Meanwhile, simple folk struggle to get by in a land that the rest of the world knows nothing about.
Transdniestr defiantly occupies a narrow strip of land covering only 3567 sq km on the eastern bank of the Dniestr River. After a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, with mysterious Russian backing, TransD has made itself independent in all but name. They have their own currency (the Transdniestran rube, check the exchange rate here), police force, army and borders, which are controlled by Transdniestran border guards.
Waxing and waning political and economic turmoil is making a day trip into Transdniestr a crap shoot. Some people report skating through the border without so much as a sideways glance from guards, others not so much.
While overall tension levels were greatly diminished while I was there in 2008, 2010 and 2013 (compared to my first hair-raising visit in April 2006), when and how you visit the region can mean the difference between a surprisingly pleasant trip or a harrowing experience not soon forgotten. Although as recently as 2007 we were sternly informed that western visitors are officially “not welcome” in Transdniestr, they have mounted various efforts to attract tourism, painting the area as “Europe’s hidden jewel” and giving a decidedly abridged version of the region’s recent history and independence.
An ongoing, complex political predicament, between Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Transdniestr makes for an unstable atmosphere. Some progress has been made recently, but the overall situation is still unpredictable and subject to frequent change. For more information about entry “formalities” read this Transdniestr “visa regulations” entry. And, as always, check the current political situation before heading into erratic territory.
Politics, unsurprisingly, has been lively in the region and elections have been dubious. The current president is Yevgeny Shevchuk, who in 2011 unseated TransD’s first and four-term president Igor Smirnov after he had fallen out of favor with Moscow due, it’s said, to shameless greed.
The generously eyebrowed Smirnov was conveniently available and wholeheartedly supported by Russia when he was first “elected” president of Transdniestr in 1991 following the region’s declaration of independence. He was re-elected for a fourth term in December 2006 after hastily removing the term limits that he himself put in the constitution. Good one Igor. An ex-KGB agent, Smirnov made his less than wholesome entrance into Tiraspol only a few years before being elected president, via parachute jump allegedly, to run one of the city’s main arms factories.
With Russia’s mystifying support and Moldova’s lack of resources, TransD has managed to soldier as an unrecognized country and international problem child.
In 1994 the Moldovan Parliament ratified a new constitution, for lack of any sensible alternative, providing substantial autonomy to Transdniestr in regional affairs. However, Transdniestrans, refused to recognize this autonomy, because it didn’t go nearly as far as they wanted. Transdniestrans continue to insist they are an independent country and a sovereign state within Moldova and an endless stream of flat out propaganda flows out of TransD’s government controlled media to make sure that its citizens stay on message. Most of the time, TransD campaigns for the creation of a Moldovan federation, with proportionate representation between Moldova, Transdniestr and Gagauzia. This arrangement, as commanded by TransD, means that TransD’s president would then become vice-president of Moldova. Like that’s ever gonna happen. But still, they campaign on.
Meanwhile, neither Transdniestr’s president nor its parliament is recognized by any government in the world. The only reason they still have this swipe of land to call their own is thanks to the presence of the Russian 14th army, 1,200-strong, headquartered in Tiraspol.
Despite their claims to democracy, the Ministry of State Security (MGB), a modern-day KGB, has sweeping powers within TransD, answering to no one and as a result conducting themselves in a manner that one might expect.
Though ex-president Smirnov and other TransD officials are incomprehensibly rich and contemptibly self-serving, at least of them wanted by Interpol, a large number of locals still cannot be coaxed into criticizing their leaders, often deflecting probing questions with third-hand, conspicuously propagandistic stories about positive actions made by their government on behalf of the people. Direct questions on the current state of corruption are often met with indifference.
Political and economic attitudes aside, popular opinion within TransD still strongly supports independence from Moldova.
Transdniestr’s economy has been disastrous, despite the fact that 40% of Moldova’s total potential industrial output is concentrated in Tiraspol. After a brief period of improvement in metal production and light industry, the aforementioned political hostility that resumed in early 2006 appears destined to plunge the region into a new round of economic hardship. Inflation is rampant and the local currency, the Transdniestran rouble, is worthless outside their borders. The average salary is approaching $100 a month.
It’s believed that the mainstays of the TransD economy – and why the precious few Transdniestran elite are unfathomably rich – have included illegal arms sales of old Soviet military machinery, female slave trafficking, extortion of businessmen trying to open businesses in the territory, money laundering and reaping profits from state-owned currency exchange booths.
As for “private enterprises”, TransD is dominated by a single company; Sheriff owned on paper by Viktor Gushan, though it is rumored that Smirnov was steering the ship while he was president. The two men are close – their sons supposedly careen through the streets of Tiraspol in matching black Hummers. Sheriff runs just about everything that isn’t government owned, from the multi-million dollar football stadium on the edge of Tiraspol, to bread factories, liquor stores and car showrooms. It’s said that that in order to start a business in Transdniestr, you have to talk to Sheriff. Defying them will buy you a one-way ticket to the bottom of the Dniestr River. Suffice to say that foreign investment in Transdniestr is a long way off.
The official state languages in Transdniestr are Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian, though virtually everything from schools and universities to government institutions operate solely in Russian. Nearly all street signs are written in Russian.
Transdniestran stamps featuring Suvorov can only be used for letters sent within the Transdniestran republic and are not recognized anywhere else. You’ll need Moldovan stamps if you want to send anything outside TransD. Only TransD and Moldovan cell phones will work in the region.
Media is pretty tight and single-minded. Transdniestran TV is broadcast in the republic between 6am and midnight. Transdniestran Radio is on air during the same hours. Bendery has a local TV channel that airs 24hrs. However, there are several non-Transdniestran TV channels piped in for those looking for real news. The two local newspapers are in Russian. “The Transdniestra” is a nationalist affair, doggedly advocating the virtues of Transdniestr and its leaders and “N Pravda” is marginally more liberal.
My Top Five for Transdniestr are:
• Trying to get through immigration without bribing anyone
• Wandering Tiraspol and getting a sense of what Moscow was like in Soviet times
• Relaxing for an afternoon in easy(ier)-going Bendery and noting how the city is pulling away from the dismalness of Tiraspol
• Retreating to the work/homestay farm in Krasnaya Besarabka