Doris Manu visits Transnitria to find a largely apolitical populace, a monopoly company that supported the new president that owns supermarkets, factories, and a TV channel, and nightclubs that host Venetian Carnival-themed parties and blast Rihanna late into the night, where you pay for drinks with plastic rubles. Welcome to Tiraspol, capital of the Pridnestrovian quasi-state.
It’s mid-December and Tiraspol looks very grey. The sky projects its shade on the city. The exceptions are a few official buildings in bright colours and some small traditional houses that are reminiscent of another era. At first sight, the architectural chaos doesn’t give any hint about the special character of the place. Looking like a suburb of a bigger city in a post-communist country, it is slightly more organised, cleaner and more relaxed than what I have seen elsewhere in the East.
Tiraspol is the capital city for the inhabitants of the self-proclaimed Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Republika (PMR) and for a handful other countries that recognize its autonomy. This breakaway region of the Republic of Moldova is commonly known as Transnistria. If you look at it from the West, it is the territory that lies across the river Dnister, hence Transnistria. But locals reject this name and prefer to call it Pridnestrovie, using the Russian prefix ”pri” which means ”before”, signaling that they look at the world from the East. For them, the river Dnister has demarcated the border with the Republic of Moldova — with the exception of small enclaves here and there — since 1992, when they fought a war for independence with the Romanian-speaking people on ”the other side”.
The main square in Tiraspol tells the story of this recent past. Looking at it from the East, the Dniester flows on the left side of a grand memorial to the local soldiers killed in the war. A Russian tank facing the West and bearing the inscription ”Za Rodinu”, the Soviet Battle cry meaning “For the Motherland!”, is on a pedestal, as a reminder of the decisive help Russian troops gave Transnistria during the war. An orthodox church and the flag of the self-proclaimed state complete the scene where all the elements of distinct Pridnestrovian identity are present. Beyond the recent past, Lenin oversees everything from atop a pillar in front of the nearby Parliament building.
Soviet symbols, such as the statues of Lenin and the red star, are still to be found in abundance around Transnistria. This makes it a great place to visit for those who romanticize the communist past, who have not necessarily Soviet nostalgia, but nostalgia about their own childhood or youth spent in communist Eastern Europe. In Tiraspol, these nostalgics can find cafes and bookshops that have remained unchanged since Soviet times, with black and grey granite floors, standard iron doors, and a smell that has lingered inside since the 80s or earlier. Dusty Ikarus white red Soviet busses carrying the guard of honor, as well as military men wearing the Russian fur hat, shapka, can also be spotted on the streets on a day like the inauguration day of the new PMR president.
The presidential election took place on a Sunday and the inauguration ceremony was held only five days later. Ordinary people just don’t flock to watch the military parade that marks the historical second change of leadership in the the PMR’s history. Instead, they go about their daily business, doing grocery shopping at the Sheriff supermarkets on the main street. Ironically, Sheriff is the company that backed the newly inaugurated president, Vadim Krasnoselski. In the PMR, the dealings between politicians and Sheriff, a monopoly that owns supermarkets, petrol stations, factories, a TV channel and more, are as old as the unrecognized state, opaque and something everyday people don’t discuss.
In contrast to other places in Eastern Europe, people in Tiraspol don’t seem to be passionate about political debates or to complain about corruption and their country in general, although they don’t necessarily see positive change in the future of the PMR and its status. But local and international politics don’t come up as a topic in discussions unless one asks for it.
Daily life in this city is filled with other things to do, look at and talk about. Young people get married in their early 20s and have families to take care of. They work either in state jobs, for private companies like Sheriff or in hotels and restaurants. As several hip places to go out have sprung up among the few Soviet style cafes, many spend their evenings and nights on the main street in an Italian restaurant, in a lounge café and in the fashionable Vintage club. On a Saturday night, the Dance Club Vintage hosts a Venetian Carnival themed party. In a basement filled with confetti, fog generators and large mirrors, Venice princesses dance on the bar. DJ Kush plays Beyonce and Rihanna to the excitement of a female-dominated dance floor. The offer of drinks on the menu is extensive, and they can be paid for using Transnistrian ruble coins made out of recycled plastic.
Due to the fact that the PMR’s currency can only be used within its borders and can not be exchanged abroad, payment by credit card is not possible. ATM machines can be used to withdraw local money, and most places accept the Russian ruble as well in exchange for goods and services.
A tourist interested in buying souvenirs and local products will immediately be disappointed. Virtually all products in supermarkets, with the exception of the famous Kvint cognac that everyone advises you to buy and a few others, are made in neighboring Ukraine and Moldova or imported from Russia and China. The bookshop on the main street sells a few souvenirs like portraits of Putin and postcards covered in dust — a sign of how little the people of Transnistria are exposed to foreigners.
In spite of that, some locals are able to speak very good English, they are those who were lucky enough to have a good teacher or to go abroad and practice. As they cannot travel with a PMR passport, most locals have a second nationality – either that of Ukraine, Moldova or Russia. These are also the countries Tiraspol has direct transport connections with. The train Chisinau – Odessa stops in Tiraspol and people board it in both directions. Busses leave daily for St Petersburg and Moscow. Full marshrutkas, the eastern minibuses, also leave Tiraspol every hour for Chisinau.
More and more young people go to live abroad, I am told, and they never come back. Ambitious people the same age as their country have few opportunities and getting a university degree that is not recognized anywhere without validation or having a random and not so well-paid job does not match their ambitions. Hyperactive teenagers are aware the world is big and full of opportunities, and they cannot fulfill their dreams in their tiny isolated homeland of Transnistria. Opening a business here is nearly impossible unless one is a high-profile public employee or well connected enough to get through the bureaucratic hurdles, civic society movements are more or less obstructed by the government, and nonconformists in their teens feel suffocated living in such a small city and country where everyone knows everyone.
Being in the heart of Eurasia means they can go West or East, wherever is easier. When they are young, they can go anywhere. This is a pervasive feeling among the Transnistrian teenagers that gather, heads full of dreams, in places like Club19 – an NGO and cultural center for under-18s founded by Czech expats. Rock concerts, movie nights, presentations of European Voluntary Service opportunities and virtual gaming sessions happen in a tiny basement with a hipster(ish) decor. The walls are garnished with posters of civil rights activists and inspirational quotes, so that one can easily picture themselves in the future – in a Tiraspol impacted by globalization – like the teenagers imagine themselves in the virtual game they play on a big screen in Club19. And one can not help thinking that this generation is surely on its way of getting out of the basements and adding its own touch to Tiraspol’s lifestyle and architecture, while Lenin and the heroes of the Independence War quietly watch.