Tiraspol: Back in the U.S.S.R.
Published: April 12, 2014 (Issue # 1805)
TIRASPOL — The stuffy minibus carrying passengers from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, cranks to a halt at the border with the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic. A throng of Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians jostle for position in the passport control queue inside a small hut just beyond the demilitarized buffer zone.
On the other side of the window sits a curvaceous woman with long bleach-blond hair wearing a khaki military uniform. Her face is expressionless except for the blood-red lipstick but she suddenly comes to life on seeing a British passport, warning, “You need to leave by 9 p.m.”
Visiting Transdnestr, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or simply the PMR, conjures thoughts of James Bond movies, heavy weaponry and one of the world’s most secretive states.
In reality, Tiraspol is the capital of a rebel region whose independence is only recognized by two other only partially recognized states, Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But despite the lack of formal recognition, Transdnestr has its own government, currency, passports, police and army, and for all intents and purposes it functions as a separate state.
Transdnestr occupies a narrow sliver of land between Moldova to the west and Ukraine to the east. Its population of about 550,000 is evenly split between Moldovans (32 percent), Russians (30 percent) and Ukrainians (29 percent). The two main cities worth visiting are Tiraspol, the Soviet-inspired capital, and neighboring Bender, which has a more cultured, laid-back feel to it.
After crossing the unofficial border, patrolled by Moldovan and Transdnestr soldiers, as well as Russian peacekeepers, the old minibus shuttles its resilient passengers onward toward Tiraspol.
Through the window the landscape reveals clapped-out Ladas, propaganda posters proclaiming the republic’s independence, and makeshift markets selling everything from clothes to spare car parts. It is otherwise gray and nondescript. But there is a certain thrill at arriving in a place you feel you should not be, where rumors abound of the mafia, weapons smuggling and the KGB.
Recent history has generated this myth, which in turn is making Transdnestr an increasingly popular place to visit because of its very uniqueness, particularly for those fascinated by disputed territories and political black holes.
As the Soviet Union fell apart and Moldova swiftly promoted its own non-Soviet national identity and language, the mainly Russian-speaking diaspora to the east of the Dniester River, forming Transdnestr, feared alienation and declared the region’s secession from Moldova in September 1990.
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