In Transnistria, you can still dream
Like youth everywhere, young people in Transnistria are depressed about little things but not as anxious as their peers in the West. The lack of information and the feeling of living in a bubble make it easier for them to survive. Despite what you might often read in western media, life in Transnistria is not all that bad.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the narrow strip of land between Ukraine and Moldova declared independence from Moldova. Transnistria is one of the famous de facto states not recognised by the international community, located in the post-Soviet space and trying to survive with a Soviet melting pot identity in a globalised world.
How does it feel to be young in Transnistria? Most of the youngsters in the country feel to be in a “transition” period between childhood and finding a job in Moscow. All Transnistrians are fluent in Russian, significantly less in English, and have diplomas from the “State” University in Tiraspol – which outside Transnistria is only recognised by the Russian Federation. Of those young boys who stay, they usually take care of their families or try to find a job in the public administration, often after coming back from a short stint in Russia. The women are overall more educated and head West, to the European Union to find low skilled work in Central Europe or sometimes even further, as far as the United Kingdom. To do so, they use their “other passport” – most Transnistrians have a second passport from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia or Bulgaria.
Time is not money
It is difficult to capture the atmosphere in this para-state. If you have the opportunity to walk the streets of Tiraspol and to talk to young men, they will warmly invite you for a drink and pay with Transnistria roubles – a currency not recognised anywhere else in the world. Some people speak very good American-English because of all the American television-shows they watch or video games they play, which is the main activity for young men who have nothing to do during the long Transnistrian winters. After a few drinks, they invite you to spend more time in a Transnistria dacha, an unforgettable experience with a relaxing lifestyle – something that few of us in Europe can enjoy.
In Transnistria, time is not money, so it is important to enjoy the little things and not to worry much about the future. It might seem to be a paradox but Europeans and Russians are constantly worried about getting a diploma, finding a job in order to pay off student loans or how to afford an apartment, while most Transnistrian youngsters enjoy a more peaceful life. Some young men repair their houses outside the city, go fishing or drink homemade alcohol with their friends. Many young women still dream of marrying a rich foreigner from America, the UK or, of course, France. The charming women, usually of Ukrainian, Moldovan or Russian descent, are quite successful at this game. You can meet them in the clubs around the city centre. Their style is not vulgar or cheap, and they are very careful not to rush into relationships and want to know more about the person before visiting them in the West.
Transnistrian women also want to keep in touch with their families and if they are ready to give up their lives in Transnistria, they want to make sure their western partner is prepared to return for holidays with their relatives as often as possible. Most Transnistrian women end up with Russian tourists, simply because Europeans and Americans are not able to speak Russian.
Young people in Transnistria are curious, open-minded, and usually good at geopolitics with a very specific focus on identity issues and state building. Contrary to what we imagine, they often describe themselves as European more than Russian and from time to time, the last Soviets of Europe.
While the older generation is aspiring for Transnistria to be recognised and to become a part of Russia, the young people are not especially interested in the topic and are more pragmatic. The lack of jobs is indeed an issue as many of them would like to buy the new iPhone X, invest in bitcoin, buy a BMW and fall in love. Sounds like a cliché? Ask them what they think about it and you’ll be surprised! The Transnistrians at home are envious of the expatriates because they can afford the products they can only dream about, but at the same time the expatriates miss the relaxed life without concerns of the others. Of course, finding a job is an opportunity but also the beginning of a nightmare, as smart Transnistrians have to survive as foreigners, with a Russian degree, in a competitive world which is not especially friendly even for young Americans and Europeans.
We usually describe the younger generation in Transnistria as oppressed, dreaming of a more colourful and hopeful world that allows more freedom and nonconformity. However, the situation is probably even worse in Europe, as most of the young people have to compete in high school to find a good university, then take a loan from a bank or have their families pay for university studies and only a few of them will be able to find an unpaid internship and land a job in the end. Overall, young Transnistrians have more opportunities to express their opinion than westerners – who have to be docile, taciturn, uncomplaining and submissive – otherwise they will not get the unpaid internship and job, and will have to stay living with their parent’s until they’re 30 – like many in Western Europe at the moment. At least, in Transnistria you can still dream about something, while their European counterparts have low expectations for the future.
Most Transnistrians I have met are open-minded, unlike many young people in Western Europe and the US who are increasingly supporting far-right parties. When I visit Transnistria, I have a feeling that it is a way to discover how young Europeans were at the end of the 1960’s, with high expectations and hopes, whereas today most EU and US youngsters are just disappointed and struggling to survive.
Nationalism is rising all around the world and people are describing themselves as “proudly French” or “Polish patriots”. On the other hand, Transnistrians are open to the question and are ready to say they are European, from a geographic perspective, and those with a Russian passport may claim to be Eurasian – both concepts are transnational.
Like all youth they are depressed about little things, but not anxious at all. The lack of information and the feeling of living in a bubble make it easier for them to survive. Despite what you might often read in the western press, life in Transnistria is not all that bad. In Transnistria, you can enjoy free education, free university, free social care, almost free public transportation and sometimes receive income from the government. The paradox is that most westerners are actually poorer than Transnistrians. In the US and the UK, most people have to take a loan to pay for everything and will only be able to save a part of their income after they are 30, while the Transnistrians have access to pretty much everything for free. There are, of course, trade-offs, and in the end living in the EU or North America is better, but we cannot deny that statistically the young generation in Transnistria is actually better off than their peers in the West. It is quite ironic since Transnistria is often described as one of the poorest places in Europe.
Forget all the stereotypes and go out to meet the young generation in Transnistria. This is the only way to really see what the situation is like. I suggest to all my colleagues: go and meet them on your own and you will discover some creative and open-minded people with a fascinating identity. Travelling to Transnistria can open one’s eyes that the reality is much more complicated than simplistic media reports. However, we cannot deny that a lack of freedom and the challenges young people face when it comes to finding a job or paying the rent. But, in the end, how is it any different than the young generation in Europe? Are they in such a better position?
Michael Eric Lambert has PhD in international relations from Sorbonne University and is the director of the Black Sea Institute.
Learn more about the situation of post-Soviet youth in the latest edition of New Eastern Europe issue 1/2018 here.