We were planning our exit from Ukraine. My visa was expiring soon, and we’d already rode the train across the country from Kyiv. Sitting black sea port city of Odessa, we plotted our possible next moves on a Google Map. The plan was to spend a month in Istanbul, but we weren’t in a rush to get there.
“Well, we could go to Moldova. I don’t really know anything about it.”
“We don’t need visas there. We can catch a bus from Odessa, and people speak Russian.”
Moldova it is then.
“Oh, and there’s this disputed region in Moldova, on the border with Ukraine called Transnistria, it’s a partially recognised state. They call it the last outpost of the Soviet Union, they’ve got their own currency, and the flag still has the soviet hammer and sickle emblem.”
The opportunity to visit a Soviet time capsule? I didn’t need much more convincing.
Transnistria is thin strip of land approximately 400km long, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, along the Dniester river. As far as most of the world is concerned, Transnistria is part of Moldova. Transnistria isn’t recognised by one UN member state.
But far as Transnistria is concerned, it’s still part of the Soviet Union.
As the Soviet Union was coming to an end in the early 1990’s, Moldova was undergoing a period of pro-Romanian nationalism, with the Moldovan SSR ruling to remove Russian as an official language of the republic. As the Soviet Union collapsed, pro-Russian Transnistrian separatists sparked a war with Moldova over their right to speak Russian. The fighting ended with a ceasefire on 21 July 1990, freezing Transnistria in conflict with Moldova to this day.
How to go to Transnistria
The Australian government’s official travel advice suggested strongly that I “reconsider my need” to travel to Transnistria, citing a lack of government control over the region – meaning control by the Moldovan government. Although unofficial, Transnistria has it’s own government, complete with parliament, military, currency and a postal service. The region has been free from conflict since the 1992 ceasefire, despite the ageing soviet tanks aimed towards Moldova at Transnistria’s border crossings.
Buses to Transnistria’s capital city, Tiraspol, leave frequently from Moldova’s capital Chisinau, and from Odessa, Ukraine. There are also infrequent train services through Tiraspol from Moldova and Ukraine.
Visiting an unrecognised state that still believes to be part of a collapsed communist regime is easier than it might sound. Transnistria is happy to accept tourists, as long as you follow a few rules.
Upon entering the country, all vehicles are stopped, and foreigners are required to provide an address, and the number of days they will stay in Transnistria. Visitors from most countries outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) who stay in Transnistria for more than 24 hours must be registered at the local immigration office by their host or hotel.
For me, registration meant a trip downtown with our apartment landlord who showed her Transnistrian passport to the immigration officer before he took a copy of my own. Our landlord’s son kindly offered to show us around downtown Tiraspol, seeing all of the sights shouldn’t take more than an hour, he told us.
A Tour Through Tiraspol, Transnistria
We walk down Tiraspol’s main street, one of the tidiest I’ve seen since arriving in Eastern Europe. Our guide points out the Representative Office of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two other partially recognised states, and two of just three that recognise Transnistria’s sovereignty. Together with Nagorno-Karabakh, these four post-Soviet frozen conflict zones have banded together to form the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States.
Back in the #USSR | Have you ever been to #Transnistria? It's an autonomous sliver of land wedged between Moldova and Ukraine. Being there is like time travel back to the Soviet Union in the 80's Their quiet capital building has a splendid statue of Vladimir #lenin and their flag bears the hammer and sickle. #offthebeatenpath #soviet #architecture
As we approach Transnistria’s parliament building, guarded by a statue of Vladimir Lenin, our guide points out a new green trolleybus rolling down the street, a recent gift to Transnistria from Belarus. Although Transnistria has a seizable steel and manufacturing industry, it still relies on aid from Russia that has been slowly waning as Russia suffers from it’s own economic struggles and an expensive conflict with Ukraine.
Tiraspol doesn’t look much different to the other post-Soviet cities I’ve visited on this trip, with cracking sidewalks and rows of slowly crumbling carbon-copy apartment buildings. But despite the ageing infrastructure, things seemed to be in better shape here than in nearby Chisinau.
Our tour finished over coffee in a downtown cafe where our guide explained that he is currently completing his mandatory military service as an artilleryman in the Transnistrian army. For his duty, he is paid just $10 USD per month, he explained while sipping on a coffee worth just over a dollar. Meanwhile, young Russian men are reimbursed over $300 a month for their military service. It’s no surprise people in Transnistria have aspirations of joining the Russian Federation. It’s not uncommon to see the Russian flag flying side by side with the flag of Transnistria.
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Tiraspol was a manufactured Soviet city. The parents and grandparents of most of the existing residents relocated during the height of the Soviet Union, when jobs were plenty in Tiraspol, and the work paid well. As a result, the heritage of most Transnistrians traces back to Russia, Ukraine or other former-Soviet states. It’s common for Transnistrians to hold Russian, Moldovan or Ukrainian passports.
But opportunities for Transnistrians are limited both at home, and abroad. Like Transnistria’s sovereignty, local universities aren’t recognised beyond the border. Fortunately, several foreign institutes have opened in Tiraspol, offering young Transnistrians the opportunity to gain an internationally recognised qualification.
If you’re correctly registered, and haven’t overstayed your entry, exiting Transnistria requires only showing your passport at the border. There’s no checkpoint on the Moldovan side. As far as Moldova is concerned, you never really left.
But Transnistria is a problem for Moldova. Any aspirations Moldova has of joining the European Union cannot be fulfilled while Transnistria’s sovereignty remains in dispute. But our guide explains that attitudes on either side of the border of this unrecognised and frozen conflict zone aren’t likely to change any time soon, and for the foreseeable future, Transnistria is likely to remain just that. Frozen and unrecognised.