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To the country that does not exist

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the increasingly delicate situation faced by the residents of Transnistria. Whilst questions are now being asked about the breakaway region’s political future, most of its inhabitants remain eager to live as normal a life as possible.

June 13, 2022 - Tim Hartley - Stories and ideas

Statue of Vladimir Lenin in front of the brightly decorated city hall in Tiraspol. Photo: Schagre / Shutterstock

We were a few minutes short of the border between Transnistria and Moldova with my wife Helen and son Chester, when the stocky guy in front of us on the minibus turned round and spoke in broken English. “Have you got someone to meet you when you reach Tiraspol?” 

“Here we go”, I whispered to Chester in Welsh. “They told us we’d be ripped off everywhere and look, it’s started before we even cross the border.” But Andreas was not Transnistrian, not even Moldovan.

“I’ll help you out at the checkpoint. You should be OK,” he said. Helen gripped my hand, all three of us unsure.

The border crossing to Transnistria is no more than a portacabin with a couple of guys in broad hats who stamp a piece of paper for you. That is your visa. They also tell you to register at the hotel if you are staying more than 24 hours. “This is a big deal,” counselled Andreas. “I was late getting over the border once and they charged me twenty euro for half an hour.”

The miserable border guard in the big hat asked me where we were staying. “Hotel Timoty. Tiraspol”, I said. He pointed to my passport and name. “Timothy. Timoty!” he said and laughed out loud. I laughed too, nervously and maybe a little loudly as I hurried back to the minibus. This was not the welcome the newspaper reports had told us to expect. No waiting for hours, hostile questioning and certainly no bribes asked for, or given. Just a bored guard finding a laugh in my forename. It was all very normal.

“He’s one of the good ones,” said Andreas pointedly. “Some won’t speak to you at all unless you speak Russian with them.”

Travel advice from the UK’s foreign ministry had been pretty clear: “The Transnistria region is not under Moldovan government control … You should exercise caution … The Embassy will do its best to provide Consular help where needed. But in practice this will be very limited.” So, my little family, we are on our own.

You see, the breakaway republic of Transnistria, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or PMR for short, is not really a country at all. This narrow strip of land had been an autonomous republic within Ukraine until 1940. After the war, it was merged with Moldova. Demands for recognition increased during the late 1980s but to no avail. Then as the Soviet Union was collapsing all around, and in something of a backlash to Moldovan nationalism, this mainly Russian-speaking region fought a war of independence against Moldova between 1990 and 1992. It now has its own president, parliament, money and borders. But it is not a country. Despite having some 2,000 soldiers based here, for “security” reasons, not even Russia has formally recognised its existence. It is only recognised by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, themselves countries that do not exist and who fought their own Russia-backed wars against Georgia.

Andreas was something of a stranger in this land too. He was a Greek Cypriot who had fallen in love with a Transnistrian girl who had been picking fruit on his family farm outside Ayia Napa. He may have loved his wife but he hated Transnistria. “You should be safe here, but everyone, and I mean everyone, will try to take your money,” he said.

Andreas is a civil engineer who is building hundreds of new homes in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. However, he commutes there from Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, every day in a cramped minibus. I asked him tentatively why he did it. “The wife, family. You know how it is.” Andreas shrugged his shoulders. “I tried to set up my own business here in Tiraspol. But I was forced to quit by Sheriff.” We looked blankly at each other. Did he mean the police? Was his meaning lost in translation? Andreas clocked our stares and explained.

“Sheriff is the name of the local football team. You may have heard of them. But it’s not just a football team. It’s big business here in Transnistria. They own all the supermarkets and gas stations. They sell all the Mercedes cars here. They have a finger in every pie.”

Sheriff. It sounded like the Wild West, all top down and threatening. We passed through the town of Bender and crossed the river Dniester. A Russian tank covered in camouflage netting was dug in on a traffic island at one end of the bridge. Guards in thick coats and fur hats, with rifles lining their right-hand sides, walked back and forth. Others cowered in a bunker nearby. There was nothing to see through the drizzle, nothing for them to do and as yet no one for them to fight. This must be the most boring posting in the Russian army.

The minibus rattled on and there just before Tiraspol proper was the FC Sheriff stadium. It is large, modern and very impressive. The club was founded by Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, former members of the special services. The club dominates the Divizia Naţională, the top division in Moldovan football, and regularly gets into the European Champions League. The club’s sponsor Sheriff Security Services has taken over most of the businesses in the PMR. Some contend it is truly run by Igor Smirnov, the former president, and is used as a front for money laundering. When I visited Sheriff also “held” 26 seats in the PMR parliament. Nobody ever messes with the Sheriff.

“I tell you,” said Andreas, “they made life so difficult for me. I had to close my business down before it had really started. Permits for this and that and then I had to employ whoever they told me to employ. It’s a hell hole here. But my children. My girls. They’re not growing up here.”

How different things looked from the Hotel Timoty. The owner, Tatiana, “Call me Tania”, Fiodorova was smartly turned out and, like Andreas, very friendly. Business was not booming. It seemed like we were the only people staying there but Tania really wanted to make a good impression. 

“The parliament building?” she repeated when I asked for directions to the only known tourist sight in Tiraspol. “Easy”, Tania said, pointing to the poorly photocopied map she had given us. “Here we are on Karla Libknekhta.”

He was an early German communist,” whispered Chester knowingly, “shot alongside Rosa Luxemburg during the uprising in Berlin in 1919”.

Transnistria has been described as the world’s biggest open-air museum, a place where the Soviet Union never collapsed. The hammer and sickle still adorns the country’s flag and currency. Coming here was our chance to see a supposedly still communist country; the real thing, and the indications so far were pretty good.

“Then turn left onto Lenin Ulitsa. Cross Karl Marx Square…” Tania continued patiently. That one needed no footnote from my personal tutor and guide. “And then into…”

“Twenty two October Street”, I announced triumphantly pointing at the crappy little map.

“Twenty FIVE October Street”, Tania corrected me with an admonitory turn of her head.

How could I have forgotten the date of the Bolshevik Revolution? Chester smirked. Bastard.

“Follow that down to the end and you will see Lenin himself,” Tania said with a flurry.

The streets of Tiraspol are broad, tree lined and set out in a grid formation. There is little traffic here for a supposed capital city. The people look healthy and are well turned out. Women in puffer coats push smart buggies, the children wrapped up against the late spring winds. There is a quiet order about the place. What cars there are drive slowly. In a very Germanic way people wait at red lights to cross the roads even when there is no traffic and we found ourselves unconsciously observing this ritual. The shops are full of consumer goods and the Sheriff supermarket was positively buzzing. It also had a currency exchange booth in the entrance where I bought my Transnistrian roubles.

Tiraspol reminded me of the set of The Truman Show. In that film, Jim Carrey’s whole life is orchestrated as part of a reality television series. He lives in a model suburb where everything is totally “normal”. Everyone except for him knows that the whole thing is a fake, a mock up. The spring weather gave Tiraspol a similarly unreal feel and as we walked the streets I felt as if we too were part of some film cast. We had been told that the economy of Transnistria was in the doldrums, the country propped up by questionable Russian money, that the people hate foreigners and the police would demand a bribe from anyone they did not like the look of. But it did not seem that way to us. “So much for the Stalinist throwback”, said Helen. “Should we be disappointed?”

To most people the parliament building would have been another big disappointment. It is a solid white and pink Soviet construction. Big, bland, nothingy. Slightly ugly if truth be told. The front is pocked with external air conditioning units set below every window. The real attraction though is the marble statue of Lenin, which guards the small square at the front. The great man is on a great plinth, his cloak flying backwards over his left shoulder like some latter-day Winged Victory. Classical, neoclassical, socialist realist. The portrayal of power does not change from one millennium to another. Yes, normal tourists would have been very disappointed. “Marvellous”, said Helen, “so bad that it’s good”.

Opposite parliament is the war memorial. Black marble slabs list the names of the 700 men and women who died in the war of independence with Moldova. The tank mounted in front of the memorial however is Russian. “The first one to liberate Tiraspol in 1944”, Tania had told us. In fact, Transnistria had its very own “Liberation Army” that fought with honour in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

The people of Transnistria are roughly 30 per cent Moldovan, 30 per cent Russian and 30 per cent Ukrainian. Despite this, in a 2006 referendum 98 per cent favoured “independence and potential future integration” with Russia. It is the country’s geographical position, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine but tantalisingly close to Russified Crimea, which is so problematic. The presence of Russian troops and military hardware here keeps the republic in a state of permanent political limbo.

After a walk along the Dniester we sat down for lunch. I was glad Chester had not ordered the borscht. Below the blood red mess of onions and potatoes lay two pieces of meat, pork I think. As he demolished a plate of salad and chips (a strange combination I know but how many vegetarians are there in Transnistria?), Helen rubbed her seemingly permanently blistered foot. The family got round to talking about perceptions of modern Russia and the geopolitical and ethnic fault lines of Europe. These divides have been exacerbated by mass movements of people during the time of the Soviet empire. I think this is what most families do on holiday…

“Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia. They’re all de facto states,” pronounced Chester. This college education had gone too far.

“I’m getting it now,” I said. “This is not a rump communist state at all.”

“Well you wouldn’t get beggars in a communist state would you?” Chester replied. We had seen one on the otherwise immaculate street earlier.

“And the pavements wouldn’t be so higgledy-piggledy either,” ventured Helen, now awkwardly sticking a plaster onto her ankle under the table. Oh dear. My family truly believe that real communism, where there were jobs for all, the pavements were all perfectly paved and the trains ran on time, actually existed.

“I suppose they just want to get on with their lives, bring up the kids and be left alone, but to do it all in Russian,” I mused. The Lenin statue, hammers, sickles and communist street names were just that, historic reminders of a better past kept alive for fear of a worse future. Like a human appendix, they served no real purpose bar being easy targets for sloppy western journalists to poke fun at.

Tania was there again on reception when we returned to the Hotel Timoty with a big smile on her face. Had she been waiting for us? I was nervous about asking her directly about the politics of this country that does not exist but she was more than happy to give us her take.

“The economy is not so good here and a lot of people move away to work. My son is in Canada and works in the oil industry. Those who can leave”, she said with a small sigh, “have already left”.

“Would it help if you were part of Moldova?” I was keen not to lead or insult Tania. “Or Russia?”

“We just want to be recognised so that we can trade. There are lots of different nationalities here. We all live peacefully together.” Tania then rattled off her own list of harmonious fellow Transnistrians: Moldovans, Armenians, Russians, Belarusians. A recent television report had told of discrimination against Ukrainian speakers and Moldovans simply for being Moldovan, regardless of which language they spoke. But Tania had not heard anything like this.

“We even have Uzbeks here,” she said as if this clinched the multicultural deal. Tania would take being a part of Russia but recognition by the wider world of Transnistria’s sovereignty is what she really wanted.

Russia has tried to broker a deal between Moldova and Transnistria, a fact the western narrative has overlooked. The PMR is a tiny corridor of land buffering Ukraine and Moldova. The danger of the continuing political paralysis is that someone might try to break it, and that they would do so for purely political reasons. Any violation of “Russian rights”, for example, or a simple border dispute or ethnic incident, could give President Putin an excuse to defend his “brothers and sisters”. In doing so, he would need to forge a clear path across Ukraine to Moldova. Russia is desperate to keep Ukraine out of the hands of NATO and could use the same rationale here as it has done in the Donbas.

Around 150,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives crossing the Dniester in 1944. A lot has been invested here in every sense of the word. Some people, like Viorel Cibotaru, from the European Institute for Political Studies in Moldova, thinks conflict is likely at some point. Several years ago he said, “The EU needs to act fast to give Moldova a security guarantee and a clear roadmap to EU membership. This has to be a strategic decision, not economic or political.”

That night we dined at the Kumanyok restaurant which was set back from the road between the river and Lenin Street. “It’s traditional,” we had been told. The dry Solaricco Bianco wine was clearly marked Pridnestrovie and was very good. It came from the Kvint company that also makes fantastic brandy. It is like Armenian brandy, full of caramel and it sticks to the side of the glass, only it is a quarter of the price.

The extended family opposite us at the Kumanyok were in fine form celebrating the father’s birthday. Two young girls played with toys that spilled out from a big plastic chest while the unsure 13-year-old sat at the table with the adults. A regular family enjoying a regular night out. Despite there being only us and the family here for dinner we were serenaded by a piano, accordion and violin played to an electronic backing track. The music was a jumble of folk songs and jazz. Helen said the mix of modern and traditional extended to the toilet. “I wasn’t going to crouch on one of those horrid foot stand things. No pan and no seat. Yuck. But then there was an electric soap dispenser and a really powerful hand dryer. It’s all a bit weird.”

There are not many restaurants in Tiraspol but the next night we were again shown some marvellous hospitality. Igor would look up any words he could not translate on his phone. He handed us a wooden pallet with five holes in it, each hole holding a glass of flavoured vodka. “Go on! Just try them and tell me what they are,” Igor said. “We make them ourselves right here.” Lemon was easy, so was orange. The ginger one took a bit longer and Helen was the unfortunate one to first taste the garlic flavoured vodka. Igor had saved the best for last and despite his hand gestures and descriptions he had to turn to his phone when we could not find a word to describe it. “Horseradish”, he said with a flourish. “This is my gift to you.”

Wherever we had been in Tiraspol we had been warmly welcomed. I wondered aloud whether it was only people like us who talked about the future of Transnistria, imminent threats of invasion, the role of Russia, Moldova, and East and West. Did the locals ponder their future each and every day? “Do they really care?” said Chester, throwing a hand towards the other tables in the restaurant. “Look at them. They’re just getting on with it and from what I can see, they all seem to be doing OK. This is no totalitarian throwback whatever we’ve been told.” Chester was right of course. However, I could not help wondering for how long Tania, Andreas, the extended family at the Kumanyok, and whoever the Sheriff may be, would all be left alone to just “get on with it”.

Tim Hartley is a Welsh journalist and author. He has worked for the BBC as a reporter and editor.

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