Transnistria……now you see it, now you don’t!
People may voluntarily choose not to see issues or deny uncomfortable truths in their lives such as debt, addiction, sometimes love………surprisingly for some, even the lunar landing !
Arguably though, the most astonishing examples of mass denial remain those relating to the “invisibility” of entire countries. Yes, entire nations remain unacknowledged by the greater part of the international community and consequently do not formally exist for the world at large.
This is usually the case for “break away” territories, disputed areas in which unresolved or frozen conflict (call it what you will), creates a political and military limbo between arguing factions with no clear resulting sovereignty. Sometimes these areas declare their autonomy to the globe but remain de facto without UN representation and fail to play any part in international organisations or treaties. Transnistria, on the border between Moldavia and Ukraine, is one of these invisible countries.
I got to the western Transnistrian border on my motorcycle feeling a little apprehensive but excited at the same time too, eager to discover what there was ahead. I could see the barrier to the break away territory several hundred metres away but was forced to stop well before by smartly dressed uniformed officials bearing European Union insignia on cap and sleeve.
“Do you know what lies beyond that barrier?” I was asked in English.
“I believe so” I replied.
“You will be entering a disputed territory”
“Yes, I am aware”
“Are you also aware that you will have no road insurance, medical cover, telephone cover, limited police assistance…?”
“Ehrrr, really? No, wasn’t totally aware”.
“You will have to buy insurance and there is more than just a chance that you’ll be asked for a bribe. I recommend you turn back and cross the border to Ukraine further south and avoid Transnistria all together. It’s is the safer option”.
I had come this far and had no intention on missing out on Transnistria.
“Thank you but I’ll continue on my chosen route to the barrier ahead”.
The official smiled in acknowledgement and nodded. He took my passport details, shook my hand and wished me good luck.
Slowly, I rolled to the barrier in the distance. Stern looking Transnistrian guards wearing Soviet era uniforms with huge pizza sized flat caps greeted me at their imaginary, yet very real border. In English they barked the entrance procedures to their “make believe” country. I listened in silence, then paid 15 Euro for third party insurance and was given a transit permit with instructions to leave the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” (Transnistria) later that very same day.
“Good luck” said the Transnistrian official as he handed back my passport and gestured me to go. I was in.
Tiraspol is the so called capital of Transnistria. It wasn’t far from the border and the road was smooth and impeccably maintained. As I approached the city I noticed bright Soviet style propaganda around me to admire. There were monuments advertising past Red Army grandeur and banners in remembrance of the Great Patriotic War. In a small square, a shiny armoured personnel carrier was parked by a plaque like some dubious work of art. Often there were red stars, hammers and sickles on billboards to admire as well.
Then, as I rode through the streets of central Tiraspol, stone busts of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as “Comrade Lenin”, adorned the front of government buildings, or any building for that matter, that had a hint administrative significance. I remember feeling rather uneasy with all the grim nostalgia that these icons of the past imposed.
My foreign numberplate did not go unnoticed for very long. As I rode around in an uncertain way looking for photo opportunities I was accosted by a couple of guys who introduced themselves as fellow bikers. One rode a Suzuki the other a Honda. A little banter broke the ice and suspicion soon faded away. In no time I was in conversation, laughing and sipping coffee with Andrei and Ivan at a local caffe. During our chat I learned about problems the locals faced with money grabbing police and the difficulties of living somewhere that nobody formally recognises. Apparently, even obtaining a passport could be awkward.
During the few hours I spent in Tiraspol it was definitely Andrei, Ivan and their acquaintances that made the difference. They were friendly and seemed to take a warm interest in my visit and trip. I received an offer of a place to stay for the night, suggestions of eateries for good food and hot spots for drinks in the evening. People seemed genuinely keen to get to know me and for a while my mind was taken away from the insisting Soviet paraphernalia.
All in all it was a good experience and I think I would return to Transnistria given the opportunity, for a little longer than just an afternoon. However, there was something about the place that kept me constantly on edge. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help wondering who was really in charge of this fictitious country and whether there was any real rule of law. The presence of Soviet symbols everywhere filled me with thoughts of Cold War repression, control and restraint on personal freedom. It was unsettling. At one point I even started wondering whether Ivan and Andrei were some kind of under cover police just making sure I wasn’t snooping around where I shouldn’t!
In September 1990, after the dissolution of Soviet Union, a slither of land to the East of the river Dniester unilaterally declared its independence from Moldavia and set up a utopian state modelled on old Soviet Communist rule. Tensions with the Moldavian government rapidly escalated to the point of conflict in 1992 during which the Moldavian army (backed by Romania) on one side exchange blows with rebel militia and Russian forces on the other.
A cease fire was agreed in July 1992 which has held for twenty five years and although some autonomy has been granted to the breakaway territories by the Moldavian government, it remains to be seen how long the status quo can hold.
The population of Transnistria is approximately 470,000.
The language is a local variation of Romanian.
The currency is the Transnistrian Ruble.
There are several non recognised countries similar to Transnistria in the world. These include, but are not limited to, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The last two are both situated within the territory of Georgia in the Caucasus.