Some bizzarre cases of mass denial involve the status of unrecognised, self proclaimed indipendent nations. There are several territories around the globe that find themselves in this unenviable and awkward situation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and even Taiwan are all examples of countries not formally recognised by the United Nations and the international community at large.
Ghost nations like these are generally the result of unresolved frozen conflicts where no beligering power prevails over another. Transnistria, on the border between Moldavia and Ukraine has been fiercly contended between Moldavia and belligerant pro Russia sympathisers since the end of the last century. It is another frozen conflict country, an invisible nation that few people even know exists.
I got to the Moldavia-Transnistria border by motorbike feeling a little apprehensive yet eager to discover what I would find ahead. I could see the barrier to the break away country several hundred metres in front of me but was forced to pull over before reaching it by a smartly dressed uniformed official 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, no, wasn’t aware of that”.
“You will 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 ridden that far with the specific desire to visit the rouge nation that Transnistria is had no intention on missing out on it now.
“Thank you, but I’ll continue to the barrier ahead”, I said.
The official smiled in acknowledgement and nodded. He took my passport details, shook my hand and wished me well.
Slowly, I rolled to the roadblock ahead. 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 fantasy country. I listened in silence. Then, I paid 15 very real Euros for what was probably worthless third party insurance and was granted a transit permit valid for just the remainder of the day through the “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” (Transnistria).
“Good luck” said the Transnistrian official as he handed back my passport and gestured me on my way. I was in.
The road that led to Tiraspol, the so called capital of Transnistria, was smooth and maintained. As I entered the small town bright Soviet style propaganda popped up around me. There were monuments advertising Red Army grandeur and banners in remembrance of the Great Patriotic War. In a small square, a shiny armoured personnel carrier acted as a monument to military might and armoured warfare. There were red stars, hammers and sickles on billboards and slogans, uncomprehendable to me, written in Cyrillic.
Then, as I rode through the town centre, stone busts of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as “ Lenin”, appeared in front of buildings that had any hint of importance. I felt uneasy with all the Cold War nostalgia that these grim icons of the past cungered up.
My foreign numberplate didn’t go unnoticed for very long. As I rode around looking for photo opportunities I was accosted by a couple of guys who introduced themselves as fellow bikers. One owned a Suzuki the other a Honda, they told me. A little banter broke the ice and suspicion soon faded. In no time I was sharing travel stories with Andrei and Ivan at a table in a local caffe. During our chat I learned about the problems the locals faced with corrupt police officials and beurocrats and the difficulties of living somewhere that nobody formally recognises. Simple things such as obtaining a passport or buying insurance could be impossible.
During the few hours I spent in Tiraspol it was Andrei, Ivan and their acquaintances that made the difference. They were friendly and seemed to take an interest in my visit and trip. I received offers of hospitality, suggestions for where to go for a good meal and drinks and for a while my thoughts were diverted from the insistent Soviet paraphernalia around me
All in all it was an ok experience and I think I’d return to Transnistria for a little longer than just an afternoon if I were ever given the opportunity. However, there was something about the place that kept me on edge.
At the back of my mind I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any real rule of law in this fictitious tear away country. The presence of Soviet symbols everywhere filled me with thoughts of Cold War repression, control and restraint. It was unsettling. I wondered about my chaperones Ivan and Andrei. Who were they really? Perhaps a couple of plain clothed cops sent to make sure I didn’t snoop around where I was not welcome? I made sure I took a poicure of them.
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 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) exchange blows with rebel militia and Russian forces.
A cease fire was agreed to by rival factions in July 1992. It has since held for over twenty five years and although some autonomy has been granted to the rebel territories along the Dniester, it remains to be seen how long the status quo will prevail.
The population of Transnistria is approximately 470,000.
The language is a local variation of Romanian.
The currency is the Transnistrian Ruble.
Visitors are welcome but just for an afternoon.
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