Transnistria: The country you won’t find on a map

Transnistrian Ruble

One Transnistrian Ruble

 

Wedged between the Dniester River in eastern Moldova and the Ukrainian border exists a small country unknown to most of the world’s population. Transnistria is home to over half a million people but you won’t find it on a world map. The UN recognizes Transnistria as a part of Moldova, but, in fact, they have a completely independent government, their own laws, and even their own currency. The government is seeking stronger ties with Russia, the national language is Russian, and the majority of citizens have spent time working in Russia where wages are higher and more jobs are available.

 

Transnistria’s fight for statehood began in 1990 when Moldova exited the Soviet Union. Transnistria wanted to remain in the Union, and thus declared independence from Moldova. After the two-year civil war ended, the Soviet Union had already disintegrated and Transnistria was left as a semi-independent state, running their own internal affairs but with borders still somewhat controlled by Moldova. Though the flag still contains the Soviet hammer and sickle, nothing about Transnistria is socialist any more; in fact, it’s an extremely capitalist country.

 

Transnistrian coat of arms

Transnistria’s Coat of Arms

 

Having read about Transnistria being ‘stuck in Soviet times’, I was surprised to find the complete opposite. The roads immediately changed from absolutely full of potholes on the Ukrainian side of the KGB-guarded border to quite smooth and new on the Transnistrian side. And back to potholes everywhere on the Moldovan side. All of the sudden, the piles of plastic bottles and bags disappeared from the sides of the road; somebody had actually made an effort to clean up Transnistria and had done a good job. In the capital city, Tiraspol, infrastructure is overall modern. The old Soviet monuments and block apartments have been renovated to appear clean and relatively new, a vast contrast to the dilapidated state of architecture in many other post-Soviet cities.

 

This modern, clean appearance is likely possible due to cash flow from labor migration. The majority of Transnistrians hold more than one passport, and up to six in extreme cases. The most common second nationalities are Ukrainian, Russian, Moldovan, and Romanian. This makes it very easy to spend several months of the year working in Moscow or the EU, for example, but maintain a permanent home in Transnistria. It seems that almost the only people who live there year-round are retired.

 

The one thing Transnistria is missing is a national identity. Being such a new country, most of its inhabitants were born in the USSR and identify as Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, etc. National cuisine is limited to traditional dishes from these three countries and customs and traditions generally follow those of other Eastern Orthodox countries. This fact makes traveling in Transnistria an interesting experience, though, as it’s just about the closest you can get to visiting Russia without having a Russian visa. For those traveling in the Balkans or Ukraine, Transnistria is absolutely a worthwhile destination to add to your route.

 

Transnistrian soldiers

Ok, some things are still pretty Soviet. Like these guys’ backpack-sized walkie talkies.

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