It’s real easy to get away from it all in a bizarre nation that doesn’t exist
TIRASPOL, Transnistria – Greetings from the self-declared Republic of Transnistria, one of the most bizarre places on Earth. Transnistria has its own government, army, flag and currency and controls its own borders. In short, it thinks it’s a country. The trouble is, no one else does.
Transnistria’s parliament building in downtown Tiraspol.
This renegade region, the size of Rhode Island and home to about 600,000 people, is 50 miles east of where I am living in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau.
Technically, Transnistria is within the internationally recognized borders of Moldova. But when Moldova became an independent country 15 years ago, this mostly Russian-speaking enclave decided to go its own way. A civil war erupted, in which 1,500 people died.
Since then, Transnistria has run its own affairs under the authoritarian regime of “President” Igor Smirnov. About 1,800 Russian troops help keep him in power.
No country in the world recognizes Smirnov’s government and Transnistria has become known as a haven for weapons and contraband smuggling.
I recently spent a day in Transnistria as part of a small delegation of Americans invited to lecture at the state university in Tiraspol, the capital of this non-existent country.
The author (far left) with a delegation of Americans in downtown Tiraspol invited to lecture at Transnistria’s state university.
Not many Americans visit Transnistria, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable making the trip on my own.
As we sat in our van at the border crossing waiting for Transnistrian officials to give us the go-ahead to enter, I pulled out my camera, hoping to get a picture of the red-and-green-striped Transnistrian flag. It’s not a flag you’ll typically see pictured in an atlas.
An official seated next to me from the U.S. Embassy in Moldova suggested that it wasn’t such a good idea. Several months ago, another American visitor also wanted to take a picture. Transnistrian border guards are notoriously camera-shy. They fired shots in the air until she relinquished her camera. I put mine back into my pocket.
As we drove through the streets of Tiraspol, I could see why travel books describe it as a living museum of the old Soviet Union. There were political billboards with the hammer and sickle, huge statues of Lenin and Soviet armored tanks on display.
At the university, I gave a lecture to a group of 60 students about America’s mass media. With the help of a Russian translator, I discussed the vital role a free press plays in our democracy.
I got a lot of blank looks. Under Smirnov’s iron rule, there is no such thing as a free press and people who voice dissenting opinions sometimes end up in jail.
A camera crew for the state-run television station shot footage of my lecture for use on the evening news and interviewed students about their impressions.
After my lecture, our delegation dined with the university’s rector. Over borscht and cognac, he told us the rest of the world had turned its back on Transnistria. Our group listened politely.
Students at Transnistria’s Tiraspol University. About 600,000 people live in the breakaway region.
But I had other things on my mind. I wanted to go to a post office to buy highly sought-after Transnistrian postage stamps for my father, an avid stamp collector. Others in our group wanted to buy Transnistrian-made cognac, considered quite good and an amazing bargain.
A couple of hours later, stamps and cognac in tow, our group crossed the border back into Moldova.
There have been on-again, off-again talks about resolving the Transnistrian conflict and possibly reuniting it with the rest of Moldova. Even the United States government has gotten involved.
The Nistru River (also spelled “Dniester”) separates Moldova from the breakaway region of Transnistria.
But tensions in the region have escalated in recent weeks due to new customs rules imposed by neighboring Ukraine designed to halt the heavy flow of smuggled goods coming out of Transnistria. Smirnov has asked Russia to send more troops.
In the meantime, Transnistria remains a curious relic of Soviet times and an interesting place to visit for adventurous travelers who like to go about as far off the beaten path as you can get.