Ever heard of Transnistria? Probably not. It’s a tiny breakaway republic in Eastern Moldova and you probably haven’t heard of Moldova anyway.
But imagine if you could go back in time to the Soviet era, experiencing first-hand the closed economic system and “we don’t like the West” attitude of Soviet republics and other regimes behind the Iron Curtain. Sounds like it could be an interesting visit, doesn’t it?
Such is the allure of Transnistria, a breakaway region that claims to be its own country, but which is not recognized by any other government on Earth. They have their own currency, passports, stamps, and flag (with a Soviet hammer and sickle), and allegedly get some backing from the Russian government, all creating a rather awkward situation for the region, which is brimming with awkward situations to begin with. The ghosts of the Soviet empire linger quite strongly here, where life has thus far remained rather detached from the influence of Western tourism, trade, and other influences. Setting foot in Transnistria is like stepping back in time.
At least, so they say. But such is the allure of visiting the region, which has become a major tourist draw among the rather small crowd of tourists who visit neighboring Moldova. Who’s going to pass up a chance like this to (sort of) sneak a peek behind the Iron Curtain?
People afraid of bribes, that’s who. And I had already gotten into awkward bribe predicaments in Moldova already.
So the protocol at the border (so we heard) was to stick a 5 euro note into your passport and they’ll send you on your way. So we stuck a 5 euro note in our passports and got on a minibus to the capital, Tiraspol, and hoped for the best.
2 seats in front of us was a girl who put a 5 euro note in her passport, and they took her off the bus and into the interrogation room.
“Um, should we take the euros out of our passports?”
Turns out bribery protocol is awkward. Where the hell is the rulebook?!?!
Oh, and we got taken into the little room anyway. But by a different set of border guards. The Moldovan police and the Transnistrian police check everyone once each, so we managed to get halfway through without any trouble. Glass half full!
But then I fucked up. The border guard (who was maybe 19 years of age) asked the two of us to empty out all our pockets, and I forgot about my damn money belt. I had maybe $10 worth of Belorussian money in there, and he felt me up and found it.
The glint in his eye seemed to shine brighter than the sun.
“Oh yeah, I have some Belorussian money. I forgot about it because it’s not much and I can’t get it changed anywhere.”
“Well, you’ll have to pay a fine.”
After looking at all our belongings and cash spread out on the table, he placed his finger on the stack of Belorussian bills, pulled them over to his side of the table, and said “Okay.”
Then…and this is the best part…his supervising officer passed through the room…pulled one of the Belorussian bills back over to my side…and said “Okay.”
Yes. A Transnistrian border guard waltzed into the room and reduced the border bribe.
And we went on our way.
It’s such a bizarre world when you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in a nonexistent country with no internationally recognized legal relations, and a 19 year old kid with a gun just wants to buy a few extra beers this weekend. In a different time and place, we probably could have been playing video games together or something. In fact, on the way back, he asked us how we enjoyed things, genuinely interested in what we thought of his hometown. Just like anyone, really.
I have mixed feelings about Transnistria. It’s populated by large numbers of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, most of whom speak Russian, read and write in Cyrillic, and, after the Soviet Union collapsed, found themselves in a country of newfound independence and growing feelings of (legitimately) victimized nationalism. As Moldova pushed for greater Romanian influence (they are close cousins of their Romanian neighbors), the Russians found themselves feeling increasingly marginalized. There were even calls to have them deported, just as the Soviet Union had the ethnic Moldovans deported. So, they rebelled. Can’t say I see a right or wrong side there. Just a sucky situation, fueled by ethnic tensions. It’s a common refrain in many regions of mixed nationalities all over the globe.
As for Tiraspol? It was interesting. It looked and felt much like other small cities in the region, populated by grey concrete Soviet-era apartment blocks, Lenin statues, parks, and other remnants of their past. But life was, expectedly, rather normal. People go about their day as you’d expect, talking with friends, shopping at the markets, and otherwise living their lives. It’s sort of the lesson I’ve learned in every country I’ve visited. Life is life.
Except for awkward lawless Wild West sorts of border crossings. But things like that happen all over the world as well.
You know what’s funny? We came to the hostel and another guy was there, planning to visit Tiraspol the next day, so he asked us all about it. But when he went to visit on his own, he didn’t have a single border bribe moment at all. And he came back disappointed. He wanted a funny story too!
Oh, life. You’re so silly sometimes.