“There are atomic weapons in Transnistria,” my Moldovan friend once told me, “It is dangerous there. They are pro-Russian, they might rise up and we will end up like Ukraine.”
Transnistria, locally known as the Pridnestrovie Moldovan Republic, fought against Moldova to remain part of the USSR and now remain an autonomous region; with its own government, currency and even visa restrictions while still officially seen by the international community as a part of Moldova. They continue to use the hammer and sickle on their flag. They, along with Belarus, still retain the acronym “KGB” for their secret service. Western literary-lore also tell tales of a Russian Mafia-esque existence in the little breakaway state; many travel there in expectation of an overall sense of lawlessness and Bandera-ism. Additional embargoes and sanctions have supposedly led to shortages, which lead to speculations that Transnistrians are starving and freezing at the same time. There was a growing concerns that the Pro-Russian rebellion in Eastern Ukraine would destabilize the area, and cause a crisis like the one seen in Ukraine.
Moldova, who signed the EU Agreement this summer along with Ukraine, has been an area of concern since media reports of an increased Russian presence in Transnistria. Rebels in eastern Ukraine also hope for Novorussiya to go from Kharkiv all the way to Odessa to link up with Transnistria.
However, on my brief visit, I saw no such similar wishes from Transnistrians. Nor were there shoot-outs, mafia cars, hookers and Russian tanks goose-stepping through the streets.
One checkpoint, manned with a Russian tank, did not stop any cars. Likewise, the locals say that the tank had been there for years, and it was not a new development. It was as much a part of the landscape as the bridge that crossed the Nistru river.
“Maybe there are more troops in the Russian base,” admitted Anatoly, a student at a local University, who holds a Russian passport along with his un-recognised Transnistrian one.
Earlier that day I, and a handful of other tourists, had visited a local market. Gorgeous lines of fragrant, freshly-picked fruits and vegetables in cardboard boxes lined haphazardly made aisles as people took a leisurely stroll. It was a warm November day, and women pushing strollers were plentiful at the market and in the parks just outside. A fat cat hid under the cardboard, yawning until an old woman shooed it away. The bells of the Orthodox cathedral down the street began to chime, as we left the fresh outdoor produse market to the indoor meat market.
While the metal table tops were completely sterile, my eyes immediately fell on three pig heads, snouts pointing up, lined up in a neat row.
So I took photos of it. One of the women manning the butcher’s stand looked at me, then asked in a boisterous manner, “Brazilia? Espania?”
“Ja Amerikanka,” I said.
This was met with cheers, as they invited me over to take part in their laughter. One girl spoke perfect English and translated for the group. However, as the conversation went on, it seemed that all the women spoke some words of several languages – French, Spanish, English and of course Romanian and Ukrainian.
The original woman that called me over fit what I expected of Moldovans in Chisinau – she was friendly, chatty, laughed a lot, and more than willing to play a game of charades when neither of us could communicate in words.
They asked me all manner of questions – did I have a husband? Do I have a brother? Is he single? Do I plan to stay in Transnistria long? Would I like to come over to their house for dinner?
I asked them about the political situation in Ukraine and how it was affecting them. They weren’t sure that it was. They wanted the war to stay on the other side of the border, in Ukraine, and to not interrupt the happy life they had in Transnistria.
I asked about food and gas shortages.
“Food shortage?” She asked me, “What shortage?”
She hadn’t noticed.
One of the women gave me a glass of wine, and crackers with a piece of sausage on it. Had I stayed there longer, I get the feeling that I would have gotten very drunk, and very full.
I met Anatoly for dinner. He spoke about three or four languages, depending on his fluctuating proficiency, and I took the opportunity to ask him his thoughts on western perceptions of Transnistria.
“They come here because they think it is dangerous. Then they get disappointed,” he said, indicating the peaceful Saturday evening in the middle of Tiraspol, “There are no protests or demonstrations here. We are not rallying to support the pro-Russians in Ukraine. I mean… some do support it, but it’s not crazy.”
After a few minutes of contemplation he added, “Tourists also come here because they think we are very poor, and the women are easy. Sex Tourists. They get disappointed there too.”
An article stated that Transnistria was the outsider’s name for the region, and that it was insulting because it uses the name decreed by brutal Romanian Marshal Ion Antonescu when he occupied the area during WWII. During that time, Transnistria was used as the largest killing field during the Holocaust, and on it’s territory, saw the death of an estimated 70,000 Jews. The Holocaust was only brought to an end after the Soviet Union occupied the region. This same article said that Moldova’s continued use of the name “Transnistria”, instead of Pridnestrovie, was a purposeful, antagonistic disrespect.
I asked Anatoly about this, wondering if he preferred one name or another. He mentioned reading the same article about what name the country goes by, then dismissed it.
“Who has time to care about silly things like that? I do not think of Antonescu when I hear ‘Transnistria’. No one does. It’s just the English name for this place. Call it Dnipestrovie… call it Transnistria. No one cares. Its just politics.”
“What about the unlikely chance that the rebels in Ukraine occupy Odessa? Do you think Transnistria would want to join them?”
He wasn’t sure. He didn’t think so, because there was no need to disrupt the peace.
“Truly, we just want to be left alone. We just want to go to work, or school, come home, have families. If things are peaceful now, why would we change it?”
The only time he would have thought it prudent to rise up would be in the event of foreign intervention (including Moldovan intervention) – threats to their current state of autonomy – but he did not believe anything like that would happen soon.
The consensus among all Moldovans, including Transnistrians, seems to be that they don’t want to be like Ukraine. While the people on this side of the Nistru River may lean towards Russia, their long coexistence with Moldova make them unwilling to make huge changes.
I asked about the rumors of the atom bomb. Anatoly burst out laughing, “An atom bomb? We don’t even have a radiation machine for cancer patients. How would we keep an atom bomb?”