A country unknown to most people, a country ‘so obscure it doesn’t officially exist‘: Transnistria. Also known as Pridnestrovskaya, Transnistria is a small strip of land located between the east bank of the river in Dniester (Romanian: Nistru) in Moldova and Ukraine. Following a Russia-backed battle for independence with Moldova in 1992, it is now a frozen-conflict separatist breakaway state not recognised by any country in the world but still sees major support from Russia.
Transnistria by the Western media is remarkably often referred to as a ‘rebel’ state. Some even call it the ‘blackhole of Europe‘ due to its dubious state of law and accusations of illegal weapon trafficking. Once part of Moldova, but unlike the rest of the country not wanting to seek closer relations with Romania, Transnistrians remained highly loyal to a then already collapsing Soviet Union. Independence had already been declared in 1990, when two years later a short war broke out with Moldova. With the help of the Russian army Transnistria was quick to claim victory, disconnecting the region from the rest of Moldova for generations to come.
With little to no tourism and its isolation from the outside world, Transnistria is now a relatively unknown place in Europe. In fact its status as a country is still open to debate. Having its own government, currency, constitution, police, secret police, central bank, border checkpoints and national anthem, one could argue though that Transnistria is a country. Transnistria however suffers even more from an identity crisis than for example Kosovo: Transnistria is not recognised by any country in the world, not even Russia.
Travelling to Transnistria
Despite its current status of being an unrecognised state, it is completely possible to independently visit Transnistria. There are however a few things you need to know before entering the region.
1. Transnistrian Ruble
Transnistria only uses its own currency, the Transnistrian Ruble. It’s a currency that is unofficial and cannot be traded anywhere in the world. International bank cards are highly unlikely to work on standard ATMs so bringing some euros or dollars with you and exchanging only little amounts is advised. I met two other travellers who did not prepare for this, so they spent a couple of hours driving around by taxi looking for an ATM that worked.
Also keep in mind that Transnistria is one of the poorest regions in Europe so you are very unlikely to spend much.
2. Stay out of trouble
If you get arrested for a serious criminal offence, there is little help from outside to be expected since other countries apart from Russia have little to say about the way they handle their business. There are only two embassies present, one of Abkhazia and one of South-Ossetia. Both of these Georgian unrecognised breakaway states find themselves in a similar kind of situation: trying to seek closer ties with Russia.
Be aware of what you photograph, as some things are not meant to be shared to the outside world. I found this out the hard way and got arrested by the KGB.
One tip is to either speak the Russian language yourself or to have a phone number of (preferably) a local who does, just in case you run into problems.
3. Register with the local police
If you want to stay overnight you should register with the local police. Finding out where to go is very difficult though, and also expect zero English skills from officials. Keep in mind you need to wear long trousers if you want to get in the office, it is mandatory. You should also learn how to read Cyrillic. If you stay in a hotel, the hotel will register you but if you choose to rent an apartment yourself or go Couchsurfing you need to do it yourself. It is very wise to bring a local with you.
Staying overnight brings me to my last comment for travellers: in Tiraspol there are no more backpacker hostels. Despite absurdly low prices for most commodities, the cheapest place to stay is $15 a night in Aist, an old Soviet hotel located centrally and next to the Dniester river. A unique experience, but this hotel is openly known for facilitating prostitution, a popular reason for western tourists to visit Transnistria anyway.
Perhaps because of point four, the majority of the already few tourists chooses to visit Tiraspol only on day trips from Chisinau, Moldova, which is just a 1.5-hour bus ride away. If you want to stay longer, that’s perfectly possible (and recommendable). Myself I sought my refuge in Couchsurfing, but be aware that there isn’t much to choose from though and invitations can be rare. In terms of transportation I chose to hitchhike to Tiraspol from Chisinau.
Coming into Transnistria from Moldova is a fairly straightforward process, despite the fact that the Transnistrian border checkpoints are technically illegal. Moldova reacted by setting up their own checkpoints too just a few hundred meters before, but they will not give you an exit stamp for leaving the country or whatever.
When visiting Tiraspol, people often experience some kind of Russian or Soviet feeling. Tiraspol is indeed a fascinating place and gets you very close to how it must have felt like living in the Soviet Union. Its national flag for example remains the only national flag in the world that still shows the hammer and sickle.
The people I spoke to also still identify themselves as Soviet citizens, though they often carry double passports: Russian, Moldavian or Ukrainian, depending if they have family living in one of these countries. The Transnistrian passport itself is a thing on its own. It cannot be used anywhere else in the world. It is basically a book, which looks like a passport from the outside, but where on the inside you will find hand written personal details, approved with some official stamps.
In Tiraspol you will find out that the way of thinking is different from the way we think in for example western Europe. For example on a local outdoor market I met Alexander, a retired Soviet paratrooper. Dressed in summer khaki army camouflage clothes, he was selling Soviet memorabilia to other Transnistrians. His English skills were unique as almost no one speaks anything other than Russian. When he found that I was from The Netherlands, we started talking about the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in Ukraine. “I am very sorry for this”, he told me. He was convinced it was the Ukrainians to blame, but he adds that it must have been a tragic mistake. Basically all the people we met believed that Kiev is to blame for the accident.
They also condemned Obama for giving money to the ‘fascists’ [Kiev], and in this way supporting a war in a territory that is not his. “Ukrainians and Russians are brothers, this war is not good”, Alexander told me. He praised the strong leadership of Putin, who “helps those who are suppressed by the Kiev government” as he said.
It is no surprise that Russia is loved by many citizens of Tiraspol. “I like Russia because they give us free gas and light”, my host told me. He explained how Transnistria cannot survive without the financial help of Russia. Officially Transnistrians pay their energy bills directly to the local municipality, but apparently the money is never forwarded to Russia. A debt of 4 billion euro remains open, but Russia sees no reason to cut the supply. As implausible as this might seem, while fact checking I indeed found evidence of his claim.
The trick is that Russia holds Moldova accountable for the debt, perhaps the reason why Russia never recognised Transnistria. And the only way for Moldova to get rid of the debt would be for Moldova to entirely give up its claims to the disputed territory.
If the Transnistrians were to choose, becoming part of Russia is what they would ultimately want. Pensions and wages are higher, they like the culture, and all in all Putin is just as popular in Transnistria as in Russia. But there is yet little confidence there will be a unification with Moscow anytime soon. The frozen-conflict status will remain at least for the years (perhaps decades?) to come, but travellers should always feel welcomed to visit such a unique place in Europe.
If you feel like learning more about the Moldova-Transnistria conflict, then have a look at the excellent work by Pietro Shakarian.