How can you say you’ve seen the world if you haven’t seen Transnistria?
From Romania we continued east to Moldova, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia. I was very confused about the relationship between Moldavia and Moldova, but the simple answer is that Moldova is the Romanian name for Moldavia and Romanian is the official language of Moldova. Of course the whole relationship of historic Moldavia to the borders of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine is complicated, and then you can throw in the fact that the region was sometimes called Bessarabia to make it even worse. Until 1939 Romania controlled what is now Moldova but when Stalin and Hitler agreed to their nonaggression pact the Soviets just took it from Romania. And they kept it until the Soviet Union went away in 1989 and Moldova declared independence.OK. Then what is Transnistria? It’s a strange place, that I can tell you. Transnistria is a breakaway republic in what the rest of the world considers Moldova. It runs in a narrow path along the Dniester River (“trans-Dniester” becomes Transnistria) between Moldova and Ukraine where ethnic Slavs – mostly Russian and Ukrainian – make up the bulk of the population. As Moldova moved towards independence and declared that Russian was no longer an official language the ethnic Slavs began to feel marginalized and felt their future was at risk. To be honest, I’ve seen this in other former Soviet Republics: the ethnic Russian minority had been in a position of power and dominance but after the breakup of the Soviet Union suddenly they were an at-risk minority. So the Slavs in Transnistria fought back, declared independence, and went to war.
In the context of some of those post-Soviet ethnic wars (see Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance) this one wasn’t so bad; most of the fighting took place between March and July of 1992 and only about 700 people died. When the cease-fire was declared the Transnistrians were left in de facto control of their lands while under international law it is still part of Moldova. When you cross from Moldova to Transnistria, for instance, the Moldovans have no emigration process as they feel you’re staying in Moldova, but on the Transnistrian side you go through immigration, customs, get a visa, and all that.
Today, then, Transnistria operates independently but is not recognized by any U.N. member; only South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia – all breakaway republics on their own – recognize Transnistrian independence. It’s a small country, only about 500,000 people, and they would apparently like to be associated with Russia; in a 2006 referendum the people of Transnistria voted overwhelmingly for “free association” with Russia. My guess is that despite the degree to which Vladimir Putin likes to mess with the West, he knows Russia would have little chance of imposing a pro-Russian solution there: he would have to move troops through either Moldova or the part of Ukraine that remains loyal to the existing Ukrainian government. So Transnistria remains in a kind of international never-land.
What’s there? Really not much. Transnistria has its own currency but you can’t use it or exchange it anywhere else. That means you can’t use a credit card or ATM there, since there is no official exchange rate. We spent our time in Tiraspol, the capital and major city (population 130,000). It’s a surprisingly and demonstrably poor place, presumably because of the difficulty in integrating with the larger international economy. And they seem to have a bit of a love affair with the old Soviet Union: there are statues of Lenin still standing, the big government building near our hotel was still called the “House of Soviets,” and it is the only “country” that still has the hammer and sickle on its flag. I suppose for the people here the Soviet era was the good old days.
We went for two nights, though it became obvious that one would have been enough. There was one really good Ukrainian restaurant where we ate three of our four non-breakfast meals. A pleasant enough botanical garden and a couple of marginal parks. A nice walk along the Dniester River. And that was pretty much it.
It was all a little sad, to be honest. I understand why ethnic Slavs would feel that “independence” from a majority Moldovan/Romanian country would be preferable to what they feared would be subjugation, but they’re paying a big price for it. To a much greater degree than we’ve seen anywhere in a long time, people just didn’t seem happy; walking down the street or through a park no one met your eyes or smiled. With a little luck the cease fire between Moldova and Transnistria will hold and somehow someone will figure out how to integrate the people here into something that works for them. Maybe. And then, over breakfast on our last day, we encountered a group of Americans staying at our hotel. That was strange since this is really off the tourist route. What were they doing here? Then we heard them and realized: they were missionaries, here to save the Transnistrians. As though things weren’t bad enough for them, now they have these foreigners telling them their god isn’t good enough. Grrr…
Now it’s back to the real world. We’d actually stopped in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, for two days before coming to Tiraspol, and now we’re headed back there for two more days. After that, Italy for two weeks with friends.