Transnitria, the country that does not exist

In Transnistria, a secessionist territory of Moldova, the clock has stopped at the time of the USSR. The bust of Lenin stands proudly in front of the town hall of the capital, Tiraspol, while the communist hammer and sickle is a prominent feature of town entrances and flags. Before its break-up in 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was made up of autonomous and federated regions and republics. Today's Transnistria and Moldova were then part of the same entity, but the former separated from the latter even before the fall of the Soviet regime. Almost thirty years later, the linguistic differences that led to the split have obviously not disappeared.

A post office in Tiraspol.
A post office in Tiraspol.

Russian influence

The most economical way to reach Transnistria is by minibus, from Chisinau to Tiraspol (1). The cars provided by the few rental agencies in the Moldovan capital do not allow you to get to the other side of the Dniestr, a river that straddles the two countries. The visa required for entry into Transnistria is issued at a checkpoint before the city of Bender. Looking like a toll station, it bears the red and green of the region, as well as the Soviet-era coat of arms.

The soldiers who guard the border post are Transnitrian, and not Moldovan. For Moldova, controlling the border would be tantamount to de facto accepting the existence of a secessionist region, which it still considers to be an integral part of its territory. If there is strict control on the outward journey and regular police stations on the way to Bender, this is therefore not the case on the return journey. The expressway leading to Chisinau, whose air is regularly full of sulphur, is calm and only monitored by its automatic radars - which, at night, dazzle drivers like trucks with their headlights on...

Minibus, whose sign indicates the route in the Cyrillic alphabet: Chisinau - Tiraspol.
Minibus, whose sign indicates the route in the Cyrillic alphabet: Chisinau - Tiraspol.

On the coat of arms of Transnistria, as on the road signs and on the arrival station, the Cyrillic alphabet is used to the detriment of Latin. In Moldova, however, they coexist and are used to write Moldavian and Russian - the first language being transcribed in both alphabets, the second in Cyrillic only. The Russian influence is much more noticeable here (2). The leu is abandoned in favour of the Transnistrian rouble, whose exchange rate varies around one euro for seventeen roubles (3). As this currency is not recognised elsewhere, foreign banks mistake withdrawals made in Transnistrian rouble for withdrawals in Russian rouble.

Canteen from the time of the USSR, in a bus station, in Bender.
Canteen from the time of the USSR, in a bus station, in Bender.

International isolation

The country itself is not recognised internationally. Its diplomatic relations are limited to three other secessionist states from the time of the fall of the USSR: Nagorno-Karabakh, separatist from Azerbaijan, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, separatists from Georgia (read Abandoned Georgia). Its borders are not delineated on Google Maps, integrating the territory into Moldova as an autonomous region, as recognised by the United Nations (UN). Hence its name, ironically given by its inhabitants but not without a touch of disappointment, of "country that does not exist".

The bus station of Bender and its wall mosaic, very popular in the USSR.
The bus station of Bender and its wall mosaic, very popular in the USSR.

A map of the bus network, in the bus station of Bender, crossing the borders between Moldova, Transnistria and Ukraine, whose main cities represented here are respectively Chisinau, Tiraspol and Odessa.
A map of the bus network, in the bus station of Bender, crossing the borders between Moldova, Transnistria and Ukraine, whose main cities represented here are respectively Chisinau, Tiraspol and Odessa.

Yet, beyond their distinctive central bank and currency, the Trasnitrians have their own president, government and institutions. However, their passports do not allow them to travel. Depending on where their parents were born in Soviet times, they may travel to Chisinau to claim a Moldovan, Russian or Ukrainian passport. The recent tensions in the Crimea have thus had a significant impact on them. Against a background of military suspicion, holders of Russian passports are sometimes banned from the Ukrainian territory, just a few kilometres from their lands. Those who wish to stay there are subject to geopolitical uncertainties which are often beyond their control.

On the margins of tourism

The Ukrainian city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, is an example of a popular destination. Much more so than Chisinau, capital of one of the least visited countries in Europe - if not the world (4). And it is easy to see why: the city is deserted, dotted with abandoned buildings and underground passages in a pitiful state. Only the adventurous tourists will be intrigued, to the detriment of a population that would benefit from a less disastrous urban planning (5).

An underground passage, in Chisinau.
An underground passage, in Chisinau.

A building facade, in Chisinau.
A building facade, in Chisinau.

Tiraspol, obviously even less visited, is nevertheless pleasant to explore. The Dniestr, which is used by dancing boats until sunset, is bordered by a steep beach in the city centre. The narrow bridge that joins it is the only one, within a radius of several kilometres, that connects the two shores. A few hundred metres away, the only other way to cross the river is an old Soviet ferry. It is a sort of platform where a few cars can go, held by a rope to help it stay on course for the sixty metres or so separating the two banks. Pleasantly surprised by the presence of foreigners, Tiraspolians see an opportunity to ask the reasons for a visit so far from the traditional tourist circuits. Part of the answer lies in the question...

Economic difficulties

At nightfall, along the broad 25th October street, the fountains light up and music resounds. Chisinau was swarming with newlyweds and Tiraspol is not to be outdone: the public place is hosting a wedding party this evening. Apart from these festivities, the city is a dark desert that almost nothing populates. The opportunity to visit one of the factories that made the reputation of Moldova in the time of the USSR. Transnistria was indeed the spearhead of the socialist republic (6). Now abandoned, the car repair factory is under surveillance and forbidden to visit. But walking around the town with a local offers passes and a touch of confidence.

One of Bender's streets. Here, trolley buses are imported from Belarus, where they're manufactured.
One of Bender's streets. Here, trolley buses are imported from Belarus, where they're manufactured.

His presence allows other activities otherwise impossible: taking a ride in a permanent funfair, set up in 1982 and never renovated; climbing to the top of a high-rise residential building to get a rare view of the capital; unexpectedly chatting with locals, in the line 19 of the trolleybus linking Bender to Tiraspol... Seven other such lines exist, designated by the first seven Arabic numerals. The number 19 was therefore not chosen at random: it is a tribute to the escalation of violence that took place on the 19th of June 1992, during the Dniester War.

Tiraspol funfair.
Tiraspol funfair.

Bender funfair.
Bender funfair.

Above all, hiring a native is a way to learn more about local life. How and why, when the Soviet empire was in full swing, thousands of people decided to come and live here. How and why, today, thousands of people are fleeing one of the world's last frozen conflicts (7). From a planned economy under the hot Eastern European sun to the merciless competition of the globalised world economy...

View of a building, at night, in Tiraspol.
View of a building, at night, in Tiraspol.


(1) Less economical, it is possible to take a taxi.

(2) See the referendum of 2006, around the issue of independence.

(3) Some coins, dating back to 2014, are made of a composite of fibre and plastic. They are the only plastic parts in the world.

(4) See, for example, statistics from 2017 or from 2019.

(5) Work has begun following the passage of a blogger showing the state of the capital, whose video has gone viral in Moldova.

(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moldavian_Soviet_Socialist_Republic#Economy

(7) See this data and read this really good article.

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