Transnistria: living in no-man’s land

Due to the recent Crimea crisis, this small non-recognized territory located on the Eastern part of Moldova has returned to the headlines. Their citizens would be glad to see their territory becoming Russian while other groups analyze it in strategic terms, talking about an attempt to create a Crimea-Transnistria corridor. Certain or not, the history of Transnistria deserves to be told.

Transnistria belongs to the modest group of former Soviet breakaway states with historical unresolved conflict that remains claiming its independence frozen in time. It is only recognized by countries in similar situations like Abkhazia, South Ossetia (both in Georgia’s territory) and Nagorno-Karabakh (in the Azerbaijan’s territory). It is designated by the Republic of Moldova, to which it technically belongs, as Transnistria Autonomous Territorial Unit with Special Legal Status. Despite that, it has its own currency (Transnistrian Rouble), government, parliament, army, police, postal system and car plates.

Geographically, it establishes a long and narrow shape all along the east part of Moldova in between the River Dniester and the Ukrainian border. Actually, Transnistria means beyond the Dniester in Romanian. However, the official name of the territory, given by its 1995 constitution, is Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica or Pridnestrovie.

Its population is almost equally divided by 30% Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians plus a 10% of small minorities such as Germans, Bulgarians, Polish and Jews, having a great majority of Russian speakers. However, the northern part speaks mostly Romanian, but using the Cyrillic alphabet.

HISTORY

In the era of the Russian empire the area was populated by many ethnics including Ukrainians, Romanians, Russians and Germans. In 1812, Russia annexed Bessarabia and Transnistria, including in its territory many fully Moldovan villages. After the World War I, the recently created Ukraine SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) fixed their border on the Dniester river with these territories that at the time were still part of the Great Romania.

The geopolitical concept of an autonomous Communist Transnistrian region was born in 1924, when Bessarabia’s military leader Grigore Kotovski proposed the founding under the auspices of Moscow of the Moldavian Autonomous Oblast that months later became the Moldavian ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) of Ukrainian SSR, placed on the left bank of the river. That means including only the Transnistran part of the current Moldova. In 1940 part of the historic Region of Bessarabia was annexed to the recently created Moldavia SSR taken from Romania. They also took the actual Transnistria territory from Ukraine SSR. Then, during the World War II Romania, as a member of the Axis forces, reconquered the territory plus part of Ukraine SSR until Odessa, forcing a Romanisation of its population. During this process, It is estimated that 185,000 Jews were killed under the Romanian and German occupation. In 1944 the Soviet Union regained the area, killing thousands of Romanians living in it.

After the war the Soviet Union re-established the Moldovan SSR occupying  the same territory as today’s Moldova, including Transnistria.  Cyrillic was made the official script for Moldavian (Romanian) language, sharing official status with Russian. By Russian decision, the bigger part of the heavy industry, including almost all of the power industry of the country was settled in Transnistria while the rest of the country continued to be mainly based on agriculture. Furthermore, Transnistria has become a weapons stockpile and an ammunition depot for the Russian army, and it probably continues to be one.

In the 1980s the Soviet Union Perestroika allowed a political liberalisation at the regional level what revived many national feelings in their Republics, as happened in Moldova. Since 1988, witnessing the imminent dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moldovans were claiming for a revival of its tradition as well as for recovery of the Latin alphabet and Romanian as official language. These claims were attained in 1989 fostered by the Popular Front of Moldova elected in 1990 and which declared the independence of the country in 1991.

At that time, Moldavian SSR had an ethnic mix conformed by Ethnic Moldovans and Slavs mainly Russians and Ukrainians. The Popular Front of Moldova had an ethnocentric position, excluding Slav minority in its plans thinking in a possible union with Romania and creating public tension among both groups. This was especially significant in territories with greatest Russian speaking population as Transnistria.

In turn, Transnistria was declared Independent as a Soviet Republic in 1990 because, unlike the rest of Moldova, did not wish to separate from the Soviet Union. In the course of that year there was a rise in the tension between both territories with the establishment of armed militias in both sides. In the same year, facing the possibility of an armed conflict in the area, adverse for its interest of keeping Moldavian SSR within the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Transnistria proclamation to be lacking legal basis. Yet, he mentioned the restriction of civil rights of ethnic minorities by Moldovan new government.

WAR

Since 1990 the situation between both belligerents had been tense, but stable until 1992. Nonetheless, two armed confrontations with casualties took place during this period. Both were caused by Moldovan attempts to cross the Dniester River being restrained twice by the Transinistrian troops.

The war started officially the 2nd of March 1992, the same day when Moldova became a member of the UN, and lasted until the 21st of July 1992. Moldovan troops were reinforced by their police and some Romanian volunteers, but Transnistria was supported by the Russian 14th Army. This matter became clear when Russian vice-minister Alexander Rutskoy visited Transnistria during the war and later on sent more forces to defend the bridge between Bender and Tiraspol at the late stage of the conflict.

Most of the confrontation took part in the riverside villages along the border, especially the ones connected by bridges because of their strategic position. Finally, on the 21st of July a ceasefire was signed both by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Moldovan President Mircea Snegur. Around 3.000 civilians died during the war.

The clear military superiority of the Transnistria forces, especially due to the Russian support, blocked the Moldovan aim of conquering the territory and has helped sustain the situation as it was before. However, the Russian position was supposed to be neutral as a mediator. To prove that their support was only in terms of munitions not of strategy, some of its generals argued they had enough military power to destroy both armies if they wanted. In any case, their preference for the maintenance of Transnistrian status was stated on many occasions.

HOW TO GET IN

As a non-recognized territory, everybody with a passport can enter in Transnistria with an entry card for a few hours. According to Wikitravel (updated March 2105) you can be inside for 24h. In my particular case, last summer 2014, they allowed us for 10 hours. Anyway, the procedure is not really complicated, it suffices to stop at the border and say to the guard that you are coming for tourism. He will analyze your passport for a few minutes, write something manually in its notebook and give you a small piece of paper that will be your entry pass. Some people say that cases of bribery are not uncommon, but I cannot confirm it from my experience.

The easiest way to go to Transnistria is to take a minibus (In Moldova they call Marshrutkas, like the Russian dolls, for obvious reasons) from Chisinau to Tiraspol. There are probably different companies doing this route, but in any case the prices are quite low, I paid 25 Moldovan Lei, approximately 1,25 Euros. The whole trip takes around one hour, including the border break. There are also buses and trains with regular connections with Kiev and Odessa, in the Ukraine.

After the border, you will start to see urban areas that certainly look more developed that the rest of the Moldovan countryside because the road pass through the city of Bender, that makes part of the Tiraspol agglomeration. Technically, you will not be in Transnistria until you are beyond this city and had crossed the Dniester River .

Once in Tiraspol you will find yourself in the middle of a big square almost empty, despite being in front of the main Trains Station. This is a characteristic of Transnistria, big spaces with few people. In fact, the territory has been losing population almost since its foundation. Accordingly to The Guardian they have lost between 150.000 and 350.000 inhabitant in its 25 years history. There, you will find the first of the many exchange offices because you will be forced to obtain Transnistrian Roubles if you want to buy something. However, some shops accept payments with Moldovan Lei or Ukrainian Hryvnia. Payments with credit cards are not accepted and the only foreign currencies available in some of their cashier (ATM) are US dollars and Russian Rubbles, but you will have to change them anyway.

ONCE IN TRANSNISTRIA

Most of the people describe Tiraspol’s atmosphere as being transported back to communistic times, with its wide clean avenues, statues and memorials. I am probably a little bit sceptical, but since I saw people with iPhones and multinational sport clothes I couldn’t think about it more than as a Communistic scenery for a factual capitalistic system. This is not a secret at all, and most of its politicians justify the use of such symbols as the hammer and sickle as an homage to their past, not denying their openness to the free market.

One of the most interesting places to visit in Transnistria is the Bender fortress in the border city with the same name. Along with the Thighina Military Cemetery also in Bender are the best ranked Transnistrian attractions in Tripadvisor. I haven’t been there because the 10 hours pass gave us only time to visit Tiraspol. If you are coming from Moldova, it is probably better to stop first in Bender, having then regular public transport to reach Tiraspol. In the capital the most recommended visit is the Tiraspol National United Museum where you will learn about the country’s history and war. Another thing you shouldn’t avoid are the street markets, where you can find many items from the Soviet Era as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. You will not really need a map because almost every interesting spot is located in the main street Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya (Strada 25 Octombrie in Romanian).

Everything is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, so unless you know how to read it, it can be complicated to understand the signals. However, most of the young people speak English so do not be afraid to ask. Obviously, it is not rare to find yourself in a situation of non common language so you will have to do your best, in my personal experience Transnistrians are pleased to find foreigner and they will facilitate things. Anyway, as the author of this fantastic article (http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/transnistria-soviet-leftover-or-russian-foothold-in-europe-a-965801.html) from Spiegel advices, it would be recommended have a pen and a piece of paper, especially if you are talking about money. It is not common, but they can try to scam you with conversions. Apart from that, if you are coming from a Latin Country, you can try with Romanian, many people understand it and it’s not a taboo as it can be thought.

 

Reading the mentioned article I learned that, when I was buying cognac (the national drink) in a big Supermarket called Sheriff, I was actually letting my money one of the greatest Transnistrian corporations. Sheriff is a big conglomerate of enterprises run by two former policemen that according to Wikipedia has: “(…) a chain of petrol stations, a chain of supermarkets, a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories, a mobile phone network, the football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol and its newly built Sheriff Stadium at an estimated cost of $200 million including a five-star hotel still under construction”. It has definitely become a vital part of Transnistria’s economy.

CONCLUSION

Most of the reports about Transnistria that appear on the Internet show its communist symbols and militarized border covered by snow or fog, giving a strong impression of desolation and loss. That makes it probably still more mysterious and the pictures are certainly real, but I can ensure that Transnistrian summer is quite bright and, despite the empty big spaces, there is still a visible street life with some bars and markets. As it happens in surrounding countries, year’s seasons are strongly defined thus people’s behaviour goes accordingly. There is a beach on the river and many sport facilities inherited from the soviet period as well as quite a good public transport. Furthermore, some of the restaurants had free WIFI and menus in English so it is not an apocalyptic scenario.

To finish, and without going into political issues or discussion about if Transnistria should be an independent country or not, I just wanted to say that, recognized or not, Transnistria exists, there are real people inside and, despite being poor, its society is still alive. For this reason, I think that at least we should respect them as a group of people that, for whatever reason, believes in a cause and have been fighting for years.

 

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