After vagabonding in Ukraine, there was a destination Alex wanted to discover before going back home in Barcelona: Transnistria, a narrow strip of land between the Dniester river and the Ukrainian border. Transnistria proclaimed independence from Moldova in 1990, and is considered one of the post-Soviet space’s “frozen conflicts”.
A new day, a new country, an old war
A few hours before I arrived at the central bus station of Chisinau, I befriended a man called Sanju. Sanju asked why I was visiting Moldova.
I said “ I want to visit Transnistria and understand what has happened there.”
Sanju said: “Oh, It’s a terrible territory. It’s not very interesting. I fought in the war in 92 and it is not a country, it is simply a Russian military base in the heart of Eastern Europe.”
I guess I couldn’t argue. There are three Russian military bases and 1500 Russian “peacekeepers in Transnistria and Transnistria is protected by the Russian army.
I said, “I also want to see what is happening in Chisinau with the protests that have been going on.”
Sanju said” Ohh it’s a waste of time, the protesters won’t get what they want, the government will never even blink at the protests.
“Not even 100.000 people?”
Sanju’s opinions were a bit pessimistic but they only made the protests all the more interesting. For the past 3 weeks hundreds of people have been camping out in front of the administration building in Chisinau ever since a 100 million euros went missing. A stagerring number of 100.000 people attended the protests on one Saturday which is a big number for little Moldova. The protesters blamed the “corrupt government oligarchs” and were now protesting, demanding new elections. The scene was set on extremely similar ways and circumstances to the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests that began the whole war in Ukraine. Certain media outlets have even called the protests “The Moldovan Euromaidan”, although many are sceptical that things would get as violent as the Euromaidan in Ukraine. But there was a lot of talk because, if the protesters were successful in overthrowing the government then maybe the Pro-Russian territory of Transistria could attack mainland Moldova, just how Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula when the government was in disarray shortly after the Euromaidan in Ukraine.
I left the bus station saying my goodbyes to Sanju and thanked him for the conversation. I then walked to my hostel in Chisinau. I tried to find a host but had no luck so my only option was to find the cheapest backpacker hostel.
After leaving my stuff at the hostel I walked to the square where the protesters were camping out. It was quite a sight. By then many protesters had left due to the cold and rain but there were many tents outside the administration building all of which carrying Moldovan and EU flags. It really did look a lot like the Euromaidan.
What was actually pretty interesting and frightening was that there were lots of police officers standing all around the administration building. I walked around the building and counted between 300 to 400 of them. And when they changed shifts, that would be an extra 300 to 400 hundred men. I didn’t think that the government was just standing by and employing close to 800 men just to stand between them and the protesters. They were taking this seriously and I don’t blame them especially after what happened in Ukraine.
It started getting dark so I bought some hotdogs and sat down at the protest. I observed a police officer come to the camp and stand chatting with the other protesters. I later learned that he was being disobedient to his job and was sympathising with the protesters.
A lady walked by and asked where I was from in English. I said “Barcelona. I am here to learn about what is happening here.”
The lady was very passionate about the protests, she explained that the government was a bunch of corrupt felons and were actually one big family.
“The departments of the government are run by the same family”, she said.“I have collected many witnesses of the money that disappeared because I am a lawyer and I am fighting these oligarchs in court, I have demanded that (certain members of government whom I don’t remember the name) be prosecuted.”
“Wow.” I said. “How did it go?”
“It’s progressing, the government has tried to slip through us. They agreed to our demands and they employed a prosecutor to look into the members but that prosecutor was the daughter in law of one other government member. We all agreed that it is too suspicious that she (a member of the accused family) be the one to do it as there are fears that she may not do it fairly. We asked that she be removed and that we choose the prosecutor that will prosecute the members.”
“Jesus, that’s quite a story! By the way where do you get all your funding from? From private donors? Do you fund yourselves?
“No, we get funding and help from the EU and they will provide the international and neutral prosecutor.”
“Ahh it all makes sense now.” I thought. I have a bit of a conspiracy theory kind of opinion about how the political system works in the world and I don’t find the theory that it would be in Europe’s interest that this government be removed too farfetched.
I wondered about the Ukrainian Euromaidan. The Pro-Russian propaganda claimed that the Euromaidan was not an entirely Ukrainian effort, but that EU funding and interests were involved to remove Yanukovych. No real evidence supports this but once again I think it is possible. And it is also possible that it’s the same scenario here in Moldova.
I went back to my hostel and crashed to bed.
Meeting Maxim and Transnistria
I left my hostel and walked to the bus station where I would take the bus towards Transnistria. I was anxious, not sure what to expect. Transnistria was only 70 kilometres away from Chisinau and the bus was about 2 euros. If you compare the Ukrainian present situation to the situation in Moldova in 1992 you ll find many similarities. During the fall of the Soviet union in 1990, a huge flux happened in Moldova and fighting broke out between the Russian/Soviet supported east or Transnistria and the Western Romanian supported West. After two years a new de facto state had been created under Russia’s political and military protection: Transnistria. In Ukraine, the war has resulted in the creation of two de facto states, The Donet’sk people’s republic or DNR and the Luhan’sk people’s republic or LNR. It’s so frisking similar!!! Although In the case of Moldova the Russian army openly show their presence and influence.
What also makes Transnistria interesting is that it is a country, it has its own currency, government, university and borders all completely separate from the government of Chisinau, but no European country has acknowledged its existence and therefore on the map and politically it doesn’t exist. But it exists :/.
We drove for a few hours and we arrived at the border crossing and crossed the Dniester river which is where the name comes from: “Trans-Dniestria”.
I arrived at the capital Tiraspol and called my host that I had found online via Facebook. He then came to meet me at the bus station and we went to his apartment. Maxim was a nineteen year old Russian university student who was living in Tiraspol. He spoke English excellently! Maxim worked for the Tiraspol hostel which is the only “hostel” in Transnistria and was started by an American guy who had a fetish for the ex-Soviet. It’s generally quite hard to travel in Transnistria. A European can legally stay in Transnistria for 24 hours unless they get registered and get permitted to stay in Transnistria for longer by registering with a citizen of Transnistria that is a “company holder”. So Maxim and Tiraspol hostel simply use Maxim’s mum’s name for the registration and Maxim’s apartment as the hostel. Maxim and his mum get a job while the American dude gets his share of benefits from the hostel.
Pretty sweet deal, especially when you realise that the vast majority of the population of Transnistria is extremely poor. I remember walking down the street and on the side of the street there was an old man sitting on a chair and was selling just a bucket of grapes. I instantly broke into tears, the sight seemed just so truly lonely.
Maxim’s apartment was nice and I was able to bargain a good price for the following five days in Transnistria. Maxim was living with his girlfriend and together we enjoyed long nights chatting and rehearsing South Park jokes over a few bears.
I asked Maxim, “What passport do you have?”
Maxim said: “Transnistrian. But because no one recognizes Transnistria except for us we can’t use it to travel anywhere. That is why the Moldovan government has allowed every citizen of Transnistria to get a Moldovan passport also.”
“Woow! That’s pretty interesting.”
Maxim said that there was another person at a different apartment who was travelling and that he was going to visit him tomorrow, I asked if I could come along and he accepted.
I ended my first day in Transnistria pretty well. I thought.
Oh, it’s just Lenin
Me and Maxim got up the next day early in the morning and headed out to meet Yuri, a Canadian agricultural engineer who had then been staying in Tiraspol for ten days. Yuri explained that he came to Tiraspol because he wanted to learn Russian, go, help and volunteer in the DNR. I explained my experiences and Yuri seemed interested. However,Yuri explained that he was losing hope because his contacts in Donet’sk had stopped communicating with him and he was thinking of aborting his mission.
We walked together through the central square of Tiraspol. I really wanted to converse with Maxim about Transnistria so we spoke in English, I felt a bit bad for Yuri as he wanted to practise his Russian.
Around the centre of Tiraspol there were many statues of Lenin, even though Transnistria is not a communist country the statue still stands. Maxim explained that it is actually because the sculptor was very famous and they are preserving the statue.
There were many reminders of the Soviet past here that were not demolished unlike in other ex-Soviet countries.
We also went to change some money from Moldovan Lei to Transnistrian Rubbles, yup that’s right, Transnistria has its own currency but it doesn’t really do them much good as peole can’t use it to trade with anyone.
We continued walking around the centre until we saw a short building with some different looking flags on it.
“What building is that?” I asked.
Maxim said” That’s the Abkhazian and South Ossetian Embassy”.
Me and Yuri looked at Maxim in confusion, and then it only took a few seconds to understand before we burst into laughter. Basically, if any country recognised Transnistria, they would normally have an embassy in here in order to strengthen relations. And if Transnistria did have any embassies then that would mean that someone would recognize Transnistria’s existence and it could become Europe’s new country ,right? However, Transnistria only has two foreign embassies in Tiraspol of “countries” (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) which are also unrecognised! I found it quite hilarious and I realised that all de facto states around the world were sticking together and helping each other. I also expect the embassies of the DNR and LNR to be in Tiraspol in a few years from now!
The fall brought the fall
After a few days of gallivanting around Tiraspol, Maxim offered to take us to an abandoned Soviet brick factory in the South of Transnistria close to the Ukrainian border. Once we arrived at the factory, there was a man stationed there guarding it from metal salvagers. Maxim gave the man some food and gift and the man allowed us to explore the factory. The complex was huge, absolutely enormous. After the fall of the Soviet Union thousands of factories just collapsed and were left abandoned. I actually enjoy exploring abandoned spaces. It reminds me of the meaninglessness of life and of human effort to do ……well anything. Life and humans and human effort as well as human product is meaningless and hollow. And I think abandoned places really symbolise that for me.
We returned from the brick factory to Tiraspol and hit the bed after a long day.
It’s a bit of a Bender
The next day Maxim offered to take me to Bender which is the second largest city in Transnistria and is where a lot of the fighting took place. Much of the infrastructure has been rebuilt now but the government of Transnistria has decided not to refurbish the administration building of Bender in order to remember the past conflict. The building is still covered with bullet holes, apart from that there really wasn’t much else to see in Bender.
An intense three months
It was finally time for me to leave Tiraspol. I said a big thank you and good luck to both Maxim and Yuri and I took a train directly to Bucharest/Romania where I would fly back to Barcelona, ending three months of travel. Boy, has it been an intense three months but in a surprisingly different way. When I normally travel, I travel by bicycle or long distance walking across countries and I feel that the past trips have been intense primarily because of my physical effort but this time I feel that the journey was intense in experience and riding the twists and turns of different environments, situations and political opinions. It has been an intense three months trip but as soon as I had some spare time at the airport, I was already planning the next one…
See you soon