Journey to Transnistria, a country that doesn’t officially exist

John Henzell writes about his trip to Transnistria, the country that remains unrecognised by the world.

The unrecognised but autonomous enclave of Transnistria is being seen as an example of how events in eastern Ukraine may transpire. Photo: John Henzell
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Those living in the self-declared Federal State of Novorossiya in eastern Ukraine might find it rewarding to visit Transnistria.

Both are Russian-speaking enclaves that aligned themselves with Moscow when their central governments began looking west. In both cases, the Russian military played a part when the secessionist movement turned violent. And both countries do not officially exist.

The main distinction is that Transnistria, a sliver of territory in eastern Moldova bordering Ukraine, went through this process 22 years ago, which is why many analysts are looking to it to predict the future of Novarossiya.

Any newly-minted Novorossiyan who opts to visit Transnistria, as I did recently, will soon discover that its status as a frozen conflict means it exists in a strange schism between the de jure and the de facto.

The schism is on immediate display at the ceasefire line in the rolling farmland on the road between the Moldovan capital, Chisinau and Tiraspol, its Transnistrian equivalent.

As befits Moldova’s assertion that Transnistria does not exist, it has no border control. The checkpoint is staffed by armed Transnistrian officials. The language abruptly changes from Moldovan to Russian.

All this reflects the way Transnistria has many of the hallmarks of a state: its own elected government, military, police force, currency and passport.

But therein lies a lesson for the Novorossiyans: because Transnistria remains unrecognised by any other UN member state, the only countries that recognise the Transnistrian passport are fellow members of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations.

The grand title of this alliance belies the reality that the only other members are similarly unrecognised frozen conflicts in the former Soviet statelets of South Ossetia and Abkharzia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

This crossing into Transnistria serves not just as the old ceasefire line or the place where Moldovan (a dialect of Romanian) is superseded and Cyrillic replaces the Latin script found throughout the rest of Moldova. It also serves as a litmus test for the new government led by Yevgeny Shevchuk. He won 75 per cent of the vote after campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, trouncing the Kremlin-approved candidates who have ruled since the 1992 ceasefire.

Officials at the checkpoint are notorious for inventing infractions by foreign visitors, the fines for which usually bear a striking correlation to the amount of cash they are carrying.

I had the number for a hotline set up to report extortion attempts but it proved entirely unnecessary. Within 10 minutes, I had a visa and was headed into Transnistria. On the corruption issue, at least, Mr Shevchuk appears to have made some progress.

Driving into disputed territory, nothing seemed to change and the farms seemed just as prosperous as the ones before the checkpoint. The big change came when I crossed the broad Dniestrer River and entered Tiraspol.

Chisinau, which I’d left that morning, looks like most other capitals of former Soviet states: shiny new towers amid rotting Soviet-era infrastructure seemingly untroubled by maintenance since 1991.

In Tiraspol, public buildings like the train station, museum and parliament were freshly painted and well maintained, the flower beds were lovingly tended and patriotic posters bearing the Transnistrian emblem were bright and clean.

Despite being capitalist, the parliament is called the Supreme Soviet, the flag, emblem and currency all bear the hammer and sickle, and statues of Lenin are resplendent in public places as if glasnost, perestroika and raspad (collapse) never happened.

With an average GDP of Dh5,500, it is extraordinarily cheap for visitors. The fare for the two-hour train journey back to Chisinau, for example, was Dh3. The flip side was wondering how any Transnistrian could afford to travel outside its disputed borders.

So to the comparison between Novorossiya and Transnistria. Tiraspol’s repeated entreaties for incorporation into the Russian federation – the most recent being immediately after the events in Crimea this year – have gone unheeded in Moscow. Instead, the Kremlin seems happy for Transnistria to be a sphere of influence rather than a landlocked enclave it is compelled to support.