Welcome to Transnistria: The Country That Doesn’t Exist
Chucked away in the obscure shadows of the former USSR, there lies a country that still slumbers in Soviet-era nostalgia and where Lenin looms large to this day. Transnistria is self-declared de facto state that the world seems to have left to oblivion. Its existence serves as evidence that the death knell of communism has still not tolled – even twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Located at a narrow strip of land where Moldova meets Ukraine, Transnistria has since the War of Transnistria ended with a ceasefire in 1992 asserted itself as a full-blown state. With an operating government, postal system and notoriously strong police and military forces inspired by the KGB, the state has survived to this day. The estimated 500,000 Transnistrians still living on the territory have until this day been gradually equipped with their own stamps, currency, passports and flag, all garnished with the easily recognizable hammer and sickle. As operational as the country may seem, Transnistria suffers from only one drawback: no other sovereign state has ever recognized its existence. Welcome to Transnistria, the country that froze in time and was left behind.
As you cross the river Dniester into Transnistria by the internationally unrecognized border posts surrounding the territory, you are met with polls indicating the number of dark incidents that happened in the region over the past year. It seems to be serving as a warning that due care has to be taken; after you take the decision to enter, your safety is no longer guaranteed for as Transnistria has no official embassies or recognized relations with the outside world. Serving as a warning: ”Attention! In the region of Bender, this happened over the 9 past months: Accidents 36, Injuries 36, Deaths 8”
“It’s the Gaza of Eastern Europe”, a man once said to a Westerner travelling through Romania and Moldova, discouraging him from rendering visit to the capital, Tiraspol. This provides for another piece of evidence that the Cold War’s grip on the region remains. A two-sided propaganda, one side conveying the territory like a ‘black whole’ of human trafficking, Soviet scale corruption and illicit trade, the other proudly proclaiming it to be the best country to live in, with a state caring for each and every citizen. It is comparable to the chapter in Animal Farm, when pig Squealer describes his version of the story in so much detail that it “seemed to the animals that they did remember it”.
Sign welcoming you to “Tiraspol – the capital of Transnistria!”, the emblem symbolizing the river Dniester
Surrealism describes well the momentum when the morning fog laying heavily over the river and vast fields around the administrative capital Tiraspol dissipates and you uncover a city astonishingly well fitted to the description of the world in 1984 by George Orwell. The uniformity and gray tones are reflected in buildings emerging before you, and the atmosphere, air and surroundings change remarkably. You see fewer people in the streets, and those you see are either old ladies swiping the streets, tucked into huge scarves to fight the biting cold of the morning or younger civilians hasting to and fro their offices with a determined and serious gaze in their eyes.
You may sporadically spot military officials armed with AK-47 assault rifles, patrolling the streets permeated with monuments of Soviet leaders, Soviet-era tanks and memorials for war heroes from the glorious past, making sure that civil obedience is maintained. To the frustration of European state officials concerned with security policies, 1,200 troops from the Russian 14th army are presently serving on the territory as ‘peacekeepers’. This is spite the fact that Russia has signed several treaties, most famously during the 1999 Istanbul Summit, pledging to withdraw the forces in the region. In 2002, NATO passed Resolution 371, urging the Russian Federation “to respect its commitments which were taken at the Istanbul OSCE Summit in 1999 and [..] withdraw its illegal military presence from the Transdnestrian region of Moldova in the nearest future”, however this has still not been complied with. A remarkable characteristic of Transnistria is the one of persistent hope. Hope to once be able to recognized by the international community, hope to once have the chance to see their football team play internationally and most importantly for many Transnistrians, the hope of reunification with their proclaimed mother country, Russia. This was very well established in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea on March 16th, when the authorities in Tiraspol officially pleaded the Duma to annex Transnistria. This was outright ignored by the authorities in Moscow. To some, this may sound somewhat puzzling, as the authorities in Tiraspol are largely backed by political and financial support from Russia. The Russian businessman Paul Smolensky has estimated it to amount to an annual lump sum of $150 million. Political theorists have conspired that it may well be because Russia sees herself reassured to have her forces at disposal on Europe’s doorstep. This has been deemed especially important in recent times of an expansionist NATO and the heatedly disputed Association Agreements between the European Union and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.Advertisement on a trolleybus in Tiraspol: “In the future, along with Russia!”What the leadership of this breakaway territory thinks about its future in the region is a central question. Unanswered questions about political inaccuracies were addressed as the Youth Ambassadors Summer Institute (YASI) rendered visit to Tiraspol on October 11th as a part of the conference “Peacebuilding in Eastern Europe 2.0”. Here, they met with Transnistira’s main face outwards, the famous Nina Viktorova Schtanski, at the T.G Shevchenko University. Nina Schtanski holds the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and is arguably the most famous external face of Transnistria in international contexts. As she walked in, the room was filled with awe and an intimidating admiration from the other Transnistrian officials. Nina Schtanski appeared to carry the same respect as Vladimir Putin himself does in Russia, and can be described to be an incarnation of Putin in a female body. Miss Schtanski’s rhetoric is known to be impeccable, her wits and sharp comments indisputable. One of the questions that were raised was why Russia had rejected Miss Schtanski’s request of annexation, issued on behalf Transnistria in March in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. Miss Schtanski looked the student into the eyes for a second, then bluntly answering: “You know, the problem with your question young lady, is that you should not be addressing it to me. This question is for Mr Putin to answer himself. Please travel to Moscow, ask him the same question and come back, as I would be delighted to hear what he thinks about the matter.” Then she sent the student a long gaze and smiled an intimidating smile, which cannot really be categorized as a smile – it was more like a political statement. As much as Nina Schtanski persistently proclaims that her legitimate home country is Transnistria and that it ought to be recognized by the international community and preferably annexed by Russia, in the eyes of the world the country simply doesn’t exist. Nina Viktorova Shctanski was, for the sake of rendering her justice, a former supermodel and someone who has been called the incarnation of Putin in a female body. Now she is the one tasked with running a de facto state, playing an important role in Eastern Europe’s geopolitics.
Miss Schtanski, as most Transnistrians, is surely very proud to see how Transnistria has, at an increasing pace, shown to survive as a viable state capable of providing for its people with the services and institutions inherent to a full-fledged state, only short of recognition. A political tug-of-war between the eastern and western influences has become increasingly prevalent in the region and especially on its leaders, but as the situation stands, it is rather implausible that a renewed armed conflict will emerge. However, time is working in favour of Transnistria, having a legitimising effect on its claims of statehood. The question is then again raised, as it has already been so many times in recent years: Will the most prosperous future present itself to lie in the East or in the West? Time will show.