Break-Away Republic of Transnistria

November 2008: As part of a multi-country trip in Eastern Europe, my friend Dan and I visited the break-away republic of Transdniestria, a Russian speaking country that has more in common with the Soviet Union than Moldova, the country it fought a war of secession with after the fall of the Soviet Union.

I was so eager to visit this place that I made sure that no matter what happened with the Eastern European travel itinerary, that we would end up here. It was one of the key stops in our Eastern Europe trip even though at the time it had a reputation of having a distrust for western tourists, unclear immigration policies subject to change depending on the mood of a border guard, and widespread corruption and intimidation tactics used by border guards to shake down tourists for bribes, some being substantial in size. For most this may sound like a reason not to go, but for me it is why I had to go.

 

About Transdniestria

During the Soviet Union, Transdniestria was part of Moldova. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, Moldova struggled to maintain its rule over Transdniestria which has a large percentage of Russians in its population and Transdniestria revolted breaking away from Moldova via a war that killed approx. 1000 people. Transdniestria declared independence, formed its own government, currency and with the assistance of Russia, its own military and border guards. Transdniestria is still recognized internationally as part of Moldova and GPS and most maps will show that it is part of Moldova. The only country that currently recognizes Transdniestria, aside from a few other break-away republics like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is Russia. Transdniestria’s economy has a reputation for being heavily involved in the black market, especially with stolen luxury cars. Russia has also helped keep Transdniestria economically afloat and even keeps some Russian soldiers stationed there. Transdniestria because of its international isolation, has remained in a kind of Soviet time warp. The country still has many Soviet era buildings, and symbols. It also has a government that aligned more with the Soviet Union like dictatorship than that of a democratic western country. During my visit the president, a wealthy businessman owning much of the country, Igor Smirnov had been re-elected with 105% of the vote. Geographically speaking there isn’t much to see in Transdniestria. The main attraction is visiting a break-away state and one that still resembles the Soviet Union with its time warp characteristics.  This was the main attraction for me when I visited.

 

Location of Transdniestria

Corrupt Border Crossings

Transdniestria does not have an airport and the only way to enter it is via Moldova or Ukraine by car. Before the trip I had heard multiple reports from other travelers that the border guards were corrupt, and that there was a real possibility of being detained, usually when exiting the country, until a hefty sum of money is handed over in exchange for freedom. Since the entry requirements were obscure, the border guards would use this to their advantage to fleece the few travelers that passed through. Then there was the added difficulty in finding transport. Because of delays at the border for foreigners, many travelers had also reported that busses would refuse foreign passengers. A month before my trip, one of my friends traveled to Transdniestria on his own and as he exited the country, he was pulled from a bus by the border guards and detained in a guard kiosk. A guard seized his passport as collateral for a requested bribe of approx. 100USD. Just to add intimidation to the equation, the guard placed his gun on the table. After some haggling my friend was let go after he managed to reduce the amount of the bribe from 100USD to only about 5USD in assorted foreign currencies from various countries of the region. He succeeded in doing this because he convinced the guard that he did not have any more money on his person, when in truth it was well concealed on his body. I planned to do the same and hide my money inside my sock. I also planned Transdniestria towards the end of the trip when I would be mostly out of funds anyways.

We decided to hire a taxi driver in Moldova to take us into Transdniestria to assist us with the border guards. Not only would our taxi driver translate for us, but he also could intercede on our behalf if we encountered any issues. I found a driver willing to do this and we drove from Chisinau, Moldova to the border of Transdniestria. We arrived at the border post across the river from an old fortress that is now used to house Russian soldiers. Our taxi driver was told to pull over and we had to wait in line to go through immigration formalities with the stern looking border guards with the floppy pizza brimmed hats that all authority figures seem to wear in Soviet-ish countries. We were asked few questions about our stay that our driver translated. I decided it was easiest for us to ask for permission to transit into Ukraine instead of staying overnight and applying for a permit, because the permit process was not straightforward. We were asked to declare our funds and to show the money to the guard. We didn’t declare the few hundred USD stashed in our socks. Instead, we only showed about 50 USD. We knew if we declared too much money, the guards might take it but we also knew that if we didn’t declare enough and were caught hiding it, they would also take it. So, we decided to just try and hide most if it and hide it well. The line was long, and the guard became impatient with us and waved us in to Transdniestria. The entry process wasn’t too difficult, but I knew the exit was where most travelers had the most difficulty. I guess the reason is that you can always turn around and not enter the country but when you are already inside, you have no options. The border guard granted us a transit visa with 24-hour time frame to cross the country into Ukraine. 

Exploring Transdniestria

Once inside Transdniestria, we visited Tiraspol for 1/2 a day via our taxi driver who showed us some of the highlights like the capitol building with the Lenin statue, the Soviet looking flags, emblems, monuments and murals. We visited the eternal flame lit in honor of fallen World War II soldiers. While we visited the eternal flame, a wedding was in progress. Weddings are commonly held at the place of the eternal flame all through Soviet era countries. On the most part there was nothing spectacular about Tiraspol. It was industrial and had the look of a city from communist times. There were a lot of Ladas-old Russian cars, trucks and dreary communist block apartments. There was definitely a lot of Russian influence in town. There were Socialist murals, posters of Putin and Medvedev, Putin’s temporary replacement ruler and of course Che Guevarra.  We didn’t see any western businesses or advertising of any kind. We didn’t even see any other foreigners. Most people paid little notice to us as we walked the streets and we unsuccessfully tried speaking to some pretty blond Russian girls. 

Downtown Tiraspol

With only 4-5 hours to spare before we needed to catch our bus for the long trip to Odessa, Ukraine, we deiced to eat at the franchise pizza chain of Andy’s pizza. This was a franchise chain for the Balkans and not a chain that I had seen anywhere else. We had a huge meal of pizza, beers and chatted with the friendly workers who were interested in us visiting. One interesting observation I had about the interior of Andy’s was that there were paintings inside that portrayed local scenes of Tiraspol of grassy fields with communist bloc apartments in the background. I found it interesting that these drabby portraits were hanging inside the restaurant instead of faraway exotic lands, waterfalls, mountains….I also saw a shop on the street selling paintings of similar local scenery.  I wondered if either most people living in Transdniestria are so isolated that they do not see a lot of scenery outside of their borders or there is a movement within Transdniestria to glorify it via propaganda type paintings in order to discourage its citizens from leaving.

Other places of interest are the military attractions like the tank that was captured from Moldova during the recent was to secede from Moldova.

Dan in front of the Moldovan tank captured during the war of independence 

Socialist Mural on a Random Storefront

Wedding at the Eternal Flame WWII monument

We visited the capitol building, where the seat of the President Igor Smirnov is located, and a huge statue of Lenin keeps a close watch.

Capitol Building with Lenin Statue 

Capitol Building with Signs bearing Soviet Symbols

We visited the capitol building, where the seat of the President Igor Smirnov is located, and a huge statue of Lenin keeps a close watch.

Statue of Historical Hero

Our bus boarding to Odessa, Ukraine

Our taxi driver helped us to find the right bus to Odessa,  and we parted ways. We were going to try and blend in with the other passengers in the bus and hopefully excape detection from the border guards. 

Exiting Transdniestria’s Gauntlet of Corrupt Guards

Our plan didn’t work. The border guards boarded the bus and instantly selected my friend and I in very harsh Russian to disembark and follow them. A guard with a very unpleasant demeanor ordered us to sit down in his office, he closed the door and requested our passport and entry form into Transdniestria. The guard tossed our passports on to a shelf and left the office. Dan and I looked at each other realizing that this would likely be the moment of truth if we would be be able to exit Transdniestria with our money intact. The guard returned to the office after about ten minutes and asked us how much money in broken english with a thick Russian accent. I pointed at the form that indicated the amount we decalred. He continued to ask us more questions that I couldn’t really understand and his attitude became increasingly defiant, what I imagined was part of his act to intimidate us. His questioning was broken up by a call on his radio. The timing couldn’t have been better for us.  The call seemed urgent and it more importantly distracted him from us. He grabbed our passport and threw them at the table and blurted, “go.” We didn’t hesitate. We hopped straight on the bus, which fortunately was still there waiting for us and shortly later we disembarked to Odessa, Ukraine through some of the poorest wooden villages that I have seen anywhere in eastern Europe.

8 + 7 =

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