Tiraspol: The Capital of Semi-Unrecognized State
Moldova, with its capital, Chisinau remains a relatively unknown European state. Its history has been a tapestry of empires – Ottoman, Russian, Romanian, and Soviet. In the present day, this nation is not a singular entity but a duality.Despite being the poorest country in Europe, Moldova has allowed itself the extravagant indulgence of division – two states, two capitals, two parliaments, and two governments.In the words of journalist Jas Gawronski, Moldova is often described as a “semi-unknown European state.” Since its establishment as a contemporary nation in August 1991, it has existed in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Hidden within its borders is a state that officially doesn’t exist: Transnistria.Transnistria, known as Transnistria Republic by the Moldovans and Pridnestrovskaja by the Russians, is a de facto independent state. It is not recognized by any United Nations member, save for two self-proclaimed states – the Republic of South Ossetia and the Republic of Abkhazia, alongside the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (which will cease to exist from January 1, 2024). Recently, Transnistria gained fame due to its local football team, Sheriff, making it to the Champions League group stage. Yet, it’s a world unto itself. Credit cards don’t work, phones don’t connect, Moldovan currency is not accepted. If you possess a Moldovan entry visa, it’s worthless in Transnistria. Even for diplomats, Moldovan entry visas hold no value; instead, they require an invitation letter from a Transnistria government official.The KGB still operates in Transnistria, and it’s not an exaggeration to say you might feel surveilled. They have an office within the sole “embassy,” which is more of a municipal office than a conventional embassy. With approximately half a million inhabitants, Transnistria has its own “capital” in Tiraspol, its public institutions, its passport (valid only in Moldova and the three separatist republics that recognize it), a unique currency (a modified plastic ruble, with plastic coins instead of metal), and its own borders, complete with soldiers and checkpoints.
Economically, militarily, and energetically, Transnistria heavily relies on Russia. Every household, even outside Tiraspol, is powered by gas supplied from Russia.
To reach Transnistria, one must navigate two checkpoints: the first with calm Moldovan soldiers and the second with irate Russian troops. Here, your vehicle, backpacks, and passports undergo scrutiny. Cameras are not looked upon favorably; to them, having a camera marks you as a potential journalist, inviting international complications.Beyond these checkpoints, you step into a world that time forgot, an echo of the 1980s. Remnants of the USSR pervade: Lada cars, 40-year-old buses with millions of kilometers on their odometers, and Cyrillic script. The Soviet Union never fell in this realm. Perestroika, glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev’s declaration of the USSR’s demise on December 26, 1991 – none of these events unfolded here.Tiraspol is the epitome of this time travel. A fabricated city, meticulously pristine with no litter on the streets, modernized buildings, vast green spaces, and immaculate roads. Families stroll happily, carefree.In Tiraspol, everyone minds their own business, but the sight of a Westerner was met with surprise, given the scarcity due to COVID and the conflict in Ukraine. Yet, the reality of Transnistria is starkly different. Just outside Tiraspol, roads are pockmarked with craters that make Rome seem like Switzerland. Houses hark back to the immediate post-war era, constructed from wood, with yellow gas pipes exposed along the streets. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings dot the Transnistria countryside, and its people face poverty, alcoholism, and economic underdevelopment. Younger individuals often flee to Chisinau, seeking flights to the EU.Reminders of the secession war are omnipresent in the city. The most famous monument is a Soviet tank, and memorials to the fallen stand in the central square. The war itself claimed 600 civilian lives in Transnistria, 400 Moldovan civilians, and approximately 3,500 military casualties on both sides.I booked a one-day tour from Chisinau through the aviator.com portal, costing around €150, which included an Italian-speaking guide and lunch. The guide was highly professional, a Moldovan man who had lived in Italy for ten years, spending the first year and a half there as a semi-clandestine immigrant (with a passport but no residence permit) in Florence and Rome.
Reportage from our Rotten Trips correspondent Alessio Luna