The bridge between the city of Rezina and the city of Ribnita, over the river Dniester is eerily silent for a road that connects two major cities. There are no lane markings and the bitumen has been neglected, in spots wearing through to the concrete substructure. This is because it is essentially no man’s land, existing between the Republic of Moldova and the breakaway republic of Transnistria.
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Transnistria is a small sliver of land that lies primarily between the East bank of the Dniester River and the Ukraine. To the West of the Dniester is Moldova which (along with every other nation in the United Nations) does not recognize Transnistria’s independence, and officially seeks to reclaim the territory back within its borders. Transnistria however is moving in the other direction, having developed its infrastructure to be entirely independent of Moldova with a rail system and telecommunications network not to mention currency all of its own.
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Although ethnically Russians only make up 30% of the population in Transnistria, culturally and politically they are decidedly pro-Russian (any anti-Russian sentiment is political suicide, for example). This is not a one way street. Since the War of Transnistria in 1992 the Russian 14th Army have been stationed as peacekeepers, although peacekeepers may be a grandiose term for troops that covertly supplied the Transnistrian rebels with arms as well as a general, one General G. I. Yakovlev, which defected to the Transnistrian cause.
Yet since 1992 the conflict has largely been a frozen one, each side resorting to petty moves intended to frustrate the other. The only recent outbreak of violence was this year when a Moldovan man was shot by a Russian soldier trying to barrel through a border crossing very similar to the one we were about to cross.
I was thinking about this as well as numerous warnings that I should prepared to get fleeced by the border guards upon entry. Guidebooks and websites told of all sorts of tricks likely to be employed at the border including imaginary fines, required letters of invitation and visas. These extortion attempts would most likely take on the character of an interrogation and be conducted by heavily armed guards in a “hut” by the crossing.
Taking both these things into consideration I reached the end of the bridge, my nerves twitching in anticipation and rolled down the hill coming to a stop as gently and deliberately as I could at the boom gates flanked by guards in camouflage.
In total we were at the border crossing for around an hour and a half. The experience was less an exercise in resisting bullying and intimidation and more a lesson in navigating frustrating bureaucracy, involving multiple forms filled out multiple times. We each had to pay an import charge of 28 Ukrainian hryvnias (around $4), visit three demountables or huts as everyone seemed to call them (all sufficiently cool in this hot day) and then we were in. Simple as that. No one put any cigarettes out on me and I didn’t even see a gun.
The idea was to make Tiraspol, the largest city in Transnistria, by nightfall. We had figured that the quality of the roads would be, at best, as good as Moldova’s (which were, for the record, significantly better than Ukraine’s). We were pleasantly surprised to find, racing along between rows of apple trees that flanked rolling fields of wheat and potatoes that the roads were in fact excellent, some of the best we had found in all of Eastern Europe.
The drivers were another story having abandoned even the meagre conventions of Moldovan roadcraft as they overtook on blind corners, overtook into oncoming traffic and would use the shoulder as an ersatz lane.
The Lonely Planet is always eager to engage in hyperbole, but rarely in my experience is it substantively incorrect. It describes Transnistria as “a surreal living homage to the Soviet Union”. Indeed they are the only flag with the hammer and sickle, but riding along nearly the entire length of the territory there was little evidence of a Soviet propaganda machine at work. In fact religious roadside iconography vastly outnumbered any political monuments. Rather, monuments dedicated to the USSR and specifically the Great Patriotic War were far more numerous in Ukraine, with its bold signs often including representations of wheat, cogs, an atomic nucleus with orbiting electrons and block letters in the Socialist Realist style at the entry to every town.
Upon entering Tiraspol I became aware that there was in fact a distinct homage toward another kind of Russia in Transnistria. Yes — the main streets are called Karl-Leibknecht Str and 25 October Ulitsa, for example and, granted, there is a statue of Lenin cut out of red rock — who with cape swept back who looks as if he might take off at any moment and liberate the proletariat. But the deeper connection to modern day Russia is far more subtle.
The evening before we had stopped for the night in the city of Balti in Moldova. The cars (almost all very old Russian Ladas), the roads and the apartments (all grimy Soviet blocks) were all concrete manifestations of Moldova’s status as Europe’s poorest nation. Balti, the third largest city in Moldova has only three hotels (the two we saw were pretty run down) and the footpaths (my personal measure of national wealth) were a health and safety nightmare with twisted iron rebar waiting to skewer a victim. In other words, the poverty was unrelenting.
In Tiraspol, having finally found a place to park our bikes Marten and I sat down to eat lunch. We found a café, with a large outdoor seating area enclosed by pink flowers. Toward a table in the corner sat a trio of very attractive, very well groomed ladies drinking together and scoping the surroundings. The waitress brought over a menu in which were pictured meals and salads photographed, by the looks of things, by a professional food stylist. Marten and I got WiFi on my phone and I noticed that there was a hotel nearby. We needed a room so I ordered my food and went to take a look. In the hotel the condition of the reception was impeccable and cost of a room was far in excess of what I could afford. How could a breakaway republic in Europe’s poorest nation afford such frills when Moldova could not?
We eventually found a hotel within our price range, the Hotel Aist whose crumbling exterior looks over the Dniester River. Marten went down to change money (it is impossible to get Transnistrian Ruble from an ATM, instead you must find one of the few ATMs in Tiraspol, withdraw US dollars and then exchange them at a booth) and came back with a bottle of the local Kvint brandy. We each took a swig (very nice) and went out to have a look at the town.
The main road — 25 October Ulitsa — could be any major street in any major Russian city. It is well-lit and the trolleybuses bounce along as the flow of mostly European cars moves impatiently. Amongst the traffic almost imperceptible are 4x4s with heavily tinted windows. We decided to check out a street running parallel. This was a different story entirely. The connecting road was completely unlit and the parallel road was mostly residential, the few places of business were closed for the night. We continued hoping to find a place to eat dinner. We could not find anything.
Then piercing the night was a Sheriff supermarket completely at odds with its unlit neighbourhood. It had the polish of a Western chain that requires the highest degree of cleanliness and instant brand recognition in order to elbow space for itself in an immensely competitive market. Yet this was no competitive market, the Sheriff Corporation with its icon of a five pointed sheriff badge, is a monopoly in Transnistria. It runs nearly all profitable businesses owning the only supermarket chain, all telecommunications, petrol stations, a television station and the Leviathan Sheriff football stadium (more on this later). The Sheriff brand is ubiquitous in Tiraspol and as such it enjoys a privileged political status in the republic, it does not pay taxes and can conduct its business in currencies harder than the Transnistrian Ruble. The relationship between the only ever Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov (in his fourth consecutive term) and Sheriff is difficult to discern. Some contend that they are rivals for power, Sheriff as the young guns standing against the president and his band of older conservatives. Others say that the entire corporation is a money laundering front for the first family.
The next morning we woke to the sounds of heavy rain outside, a grim rattle to any adventure motorcyclist. I opened the curtains and looked out over the Dniester River. It was raining very hard. As a condition of our entry into Transnistria we would have to register should we spend longer than 24 hours there. Exactly what this entailed I was not sure but I assumed it would be another opportunity for extortion from the authorities and perhaps this time we would not be so lucky.
Thankfully after breakfast the rain had subsided just long enough for us to get on our bikes before it began again. The destination, our last in Transnistria, was the Sheriff Stadium at the edge of town. This stadium is an anomaly in Eastern Europe being the only one in all of Europe that UEFA claims abides by all stipulated safety and security measures. The complex can host any outdoor event, occupies 40 hectares with the main field and five practise fields, has a Mercedes showroom and includes a five star hotel currently under construction.
We pulled in to a petrol station (Sheriff of course) with a good view of the stadium under the guise of attaching rain protectors to our bags so as they would not get wet. I pulled out my camera to take a shot of the stadium but was told I could not by the service station attendant. They were clearly all members of the same club.
You don’t have to work for Ernst and Young to see that the numbers here do not really add up. The entire 2008 annual budget of Transnistria is $330 million with this stadium costing $200 million to date. Also consider that the average income is barely over $50 a month. Where is all the money coming from?
Many would point to 40,000 tons of Russian military ordinance that was left in the republic in 1990. These weapons were agreed to be sold off in a deal signed by the Russian and Transnistrian presidents. This deal was superseded a year later but how many of these weapons were sold in the interval is unknown. Transnistria has long had a reputation as an administrative black hole perfectly suitable for arms smuggling. With the Ukrainian port Odessa only 100km from Tiraspol, is it indeed relatively easy to ship arms to Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
Under the interested but slightly suspicious gaze of the petrol station attendants we eventually got on our rainproof gear. I took one last look at Sheriff Stadium, the emblem of a breakaway republic that has long since swapped a communist star for a sheriff’s star as an emblem and began the ride to Odessa.
K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.