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The Setting

People may choose to deny uncomfortable truths such as debt, addiction, sometimes love as well.  Also there are “conspiracy” theories that argue against the lunar landing, the existence of evolution the fact that the earth is round.

A further example of denial relates to the abnegation of entire countries. Yes, there are nations that remain unacknowledged by the the international community (UN in particular) and consequently do not formally exist.

This is the case for “break away” territories, disputed lands in which  frozen conflicts  (call it what you will), create a political and military limbo between arguing factions. Places like this have no formal seat at the UN and fail to play any part in international diplomacy or treaties. Transnistria, on the border between Moldavia and Ukraine, is one of these “invisible” unrecognized micro-countries.

 

The Border

I got to the western Transnistrian border on my motorbike feeling a little apprehensive but excited at the same time too, eager to discover what there was ahead in this breakaway state. I could see the barrier to the rouge nation several hundred metres ahead of me but was forced to stop 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 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’ll have to buy insurance at the border 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 the safer option”.

I had come this far purposely to visit Transnistria and had no intention on missing out.

“Thank you but I’ll continue on my chosen route”, I replied.

The official smiled in acknowledgement and nodded. He took my passport details, shook my hand and wished me good luck.

 

Happy Big Love

Happy Big Love…that’s what it says up there

 

Slowly, I rolled to the barrier in the distance. Stern looking Transnistrian guards wearing old Soviet 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 fairy tale country. I listened in silence, then paid 15 Euro for third party insurance and was granted 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 move on. I wondered what he meant as I rode away wairily.

 

Transnistrian Monument

Transnistrian Monument

 

Inside Transnistria

Tiraspol, the so called capital of Transnistria, wasn’t far from the border and the road that lead to it was smooth and impeccably maintained. As I approached the small town I noticed bright Soviet style propaganda becoming more and more dominant all around. There were monuments advertising past Red Army grandeur and banners in remembrance of the Great Patriotic War. In a small square, a shiny green armoured personnel carrier was parked by a commemorative plaque, posing like some dubious work of art. I also came across red stars, hammers and sickles and several billboards with old communist style slogans stencilled in bold Cyrillic text.  Then, as I reached central Tiraspol, stone busts of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin), adorned the front of government buildings, or any building that had a hint of importance. I remember feeling rather uneasy with all the grim nostalgia that these icons imposed.

My foreign numberplate did not go unnoticed for very long. As I rode slowly around staring at the soviet paraphernalia 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 some trust was established.  Soon enough I was in conversation, laughing and sipping coffee with Andrei and Ivan at a local caffe.  I learned about the problems the locals faced with corrupt, money grabbing police and the difficulties of living somewhere that nobody formally recognised.  Obtaining a passport could be awkward as could getting valid qualifications for working abroad as could taking part in international sports events.

 

Soviet era emblems

Soviet era emblems

 

Lenin standing tall

Lenin standing tall

 

My impressions

During the few hours I spent in Tiraspol (that’s all I was conceded) it was definitely Andrei and Ivan  that made the difference. They were friendly and seemed to take an interest in my trip. I received an offer of a place to stay for the night, suggestions for places to go and eat, hot spots for some night life. They seemed keen to get to know me and for a while my mind was taken away from the Soviet legacy Transnistria clings to so dearly.

All in all it was a good experience but in hind sight I cannot help wondering about my chaperones. Who were Andrei and Ivan really? Could they have been a couple of minders sent to make sure I moved on quickly and had no particular business inside Transnistria other than a bit of tourism? There was something about their company that kept me just a little bit on edge. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell was going on. The presence of Soviet symbols everywhere filled me with thoughts of Cold War repression, control, restraint on personal freedom. It was unsettling.

 

Hello from Transnistria!

Hello from Transnistria!

 

Some Facts

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 supported by Russian forces on the other.

A cease fire was agreed in July 1992 which has held for over 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 current status will hold. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Transnistria will return to Moldavia sooner or later.

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 Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both Russian “protectorates”,  both snatched from Georgia in the southern Caucasus.

 

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