Transnistria – Brides and Bribes in Eastern Europe’s Breakaway Territory
Oh, Transnistria. At the miltarised border crossing closest to Tiraspol, just metres away from The Republic Moldova (which unlike Transnistria, actually exists) I really was deep in former Soviet lands, and, sitting inside a very small windowless room, away from prying eyes, as two uniformed militia had asked me to step inside to “chat”. With the door closed behind me, the men began to glance over the stack of passports – mine, and my four travel companions who were waiting outside. It wasn’t exactly good cop bad cop.
There was a young guy, who spoke just a little English, and his boss – an older man, thick moustache, chest full of military medals, perhaps his overall look and demeanor could be described as nonchalantly dictatorial. The location, the cheap wood panelled decor, the men, it was all genuine Hollywood material. But this was real life, in the “country” of Transnistria.
The older guy enjoyed looking over the rim of his glasses. I was asked to sit down, and explain just why I hadn’t checked in earlier with the militia, back in the Tiraspol – the capital city of Transnistria. It seemed that an important stamp was missing from one of my in-triplicate carbon-copied documents that I’d received four days earlier at this very same location. But really, all we were going to discuss today was how much cash I would need to hand over, before I would be allowed to leave Transnistria. Not enter, but leave – I was bribing my way out of a “country” that isn’t recognised by anyone except members of the two or three other former-Soviet breakaway nations. And, after spending four days in Eastern Europe’s most magical breakway militarised territory, at this point nothing surprised me.
On a small piece of paper, it was suggested that I pay 180 Euro per person, and there were five of us. Or, the alternative was to go back into Tiraspol city and register with the militia, they would charge me 345 Euro per person, then I could return to the border, at which point we would all be allowed to leave. I told the militia-man we didn’t have access to 345 Euro per person, or 180 Euro per person, and I suggested that I would rather just live in Transnistria forever. He replied , yes, that’s the only possible alternative to coming up with one thousand, seven hundred, and twenty five Euro.
Considering my options, and speaking on behalf of four others, I suggested to the guards that Transnistria wasn’t such a bad place, and would they mind if I thought about it for a minute before determining where I would live out the rest of my days. Or, maybe, they would be interested in accepting the crisp twenty Euro note that I had earlier placed in my right pocket (four days in Transnistria had taught me to be prepared for such situations). I pulled out the note, snapped it twice, and used both hands to carefully place the money on the table, aligned perfectly in front of the older guard. Cold, hard, cash. Take it or leave it buddy.
Your move, old man.
Neither seemed impressed with my flippant attitude to bribe negotiations or systemic militarised corruption. They didn’t look twice at the twenty Euro note. The young guy translated – in summary, twenty Euros would simply not be enough. Now, this wasn’t the first time I’d played the old “bribe the corrupt official” game in Transnistria. In fact, it was the second time this week. So I decided to play hard ball. He was at 1725 Euros, I was at 20. Time for me to get some hand in this game, and wrap up this little charade.
I showed him a page that I had prepared in anticipation for this eventuality.
Flicking through my notebook, I said out loud, with added drama, “ahhhh-huh! Here it is…”
I held the page up, so he could clearly see where I had written in large letters – “TRANSNISTRIAN ANTI CORRUPTION OFFICER”. Below that, a local phone number. In big numbers. I tapped the page repeatedly, nodded, and raised my eyebrows up and down. Yes buddy, that’s right. Check, mate. I told him I knew the Transnistrian official who oversaw this sort of grubby thing, and perhaps I would need to give him a quick call, as I was sure he really didn’t like the very few tourists that dare visit Transnistria being treated like this.
Translated, the old guard said he really didn’t give a shit who I called.
He told me to get out of his office, and that I should take my friends back to the city and pay the 345 Euro – per person. I walked out, gathered my thoughts, and gave an update to my friends who were also waiting to leave Transnistria. After a few minutes, I walked back in with a new plan. Once again, the guards asked me to sit down at the small table.
“So, did you call your friend?”
“And what did he say?”
They were both smirking at me. I told them that, no, I hadn’t yet called the Anti Corruption official, but the good news was that I had found some more cash in the car, and I now had thirty Euro to offer him, which should cover all five of us leaving Transnistria.
Him, 1725, and now me, 30.
I looked up at them from the small table. They scoffed. Looking at each other, a few words were exchanged, and they both shook their heads in the negative. Thirty wasn’t going to be enough.
Despite not being surprised by this situation, a feeling of annoyance was building inside me. This was starting to get old. There was driving to be done, and it was time to get moving. However, after the amazing time Transnistria had showed me over the last four days, I felt it would be wrong to end this visit on a sour note, and restrained my growing insolence. So, I said, look, old man, thirty is all you’re getting, seriously, what the fuck, I’ve had enough of this place and want to just get the fuck back to the real world. Now, buddy, now.
After a bit of discussion with his colleague in Russian, the local language of choice, the old man pointed at the door, towards the Transnistrian border line and slowly, firmly, disappointingly, slightly angrily said – get out. I thanked him, walked back out to the cars, got in, and went.
We drove across the border, two cars, one with Dutch plates the other with French, through no-mans land past the tanks and the men with big guns. Then, we just kept driving as far as we could. Back into normality. Crossing back into the official countries of Moldova (where a border guard had just four days before offered the sarcastic advice of “good luck” as we drove into Transnistria) and on into Romania, heading South through Bulgaria, into Skopje Macedonia and finally stopping in Berat, in a remote part of Albania. Short sentence, for a long drive.
Like the pay phone on October 25th Street in downtown Tiraspol, Transnistria has been around since 1990. The territory declared independence from The Republic of Molodova and a devastating war erupted. There were many casualties on both sides. Wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, the issue of Transnistrian independence remains unresolved to this day.
When the breakdown of the USSR occurred in the early 1990’s, the situation was only exacerbated as the two factions were left to their own devices. In 2013 the presence of the Russian military forces based in Tiraspol is helping to maintain a balance of peace. Despite this, the occasional border skirmish breaks out, and word on the street is that should the Russians ever leave, sadly, the war may be back. Long, complex, and convoluted, the history of Transnistria is worth checking out, and Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start, I guess.
Sure, in many ways Transnistria appears to be the last bastion of the 1950’s Soviets.
But Transnistria has more to offer than Lenin statues, hammers, sickles, and associated communist imagery.
Take a look at the photos, and draw your own conclusions.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
Practical Information About Transnistria
I’ll just offer my own experience here. Transnistria is definitely an area of flux, and at the borders things change frequently. I drove into the area, crossing the border between Chisinau (capital city of The Republic of Moldova), and Tiraspol (capital city of Transnistria). Hot tip – when you are asked if your car is a company car, say yes. In that case, the fee payable is just 5 Euros. There is no fee for the visa. Everything at this border was straight forward, even professional.
However, I would suggest you register with the militia in Tiraspol if you intend on staying overnight. The guys at the border will give you the address. Day trippers need not worry. There are different procedures involved with regards to catching the train into Transnistria from either Chisinau or Kiev, so perhaps do some current research – or even better, ask the question in the comments below – I’m sure someone will help out.
Additionally, if you’re planning on staying overnight, my opinion is that the Tiraspol Hostel is pretty bad accommodation. I would need to go back to Chunking Mansions, Kowloon circa 1993 to recall accommodation in that state of cleanliness and comfort. That is to say, dirty and uncomfortable. However, the Vodka was free, and I did get to learn a few things about the many unknown breakaway nations chatting with like-minded nerds who specialise in former Soviet breakaway territories. So, if you’re into that sort of thing, contact Tim. But, I would suggest registering with the police/militia in Tiraspol, no matter what Tim suggests is the “best” thing to do.
I would also add that as a driver of a foreign car, you may be seen as an easy target for bribes. It happened to me. Long story. But hey, when you’re in an unrecognised militarised area deep in Eastern Europe, you sort of expect to pay a bribe here and there. No big deal.
There’s a restaurant on the main street of Tiraspol called “7 Fridays” (written in Russian, maybe just look out for a big “7”), on the main drag – October 25th Street. Great for food, or just drinks. Good service and prices. Head down the side and around the back to a cool outdoor space. Steer clear of Andy’s Pizza (average food at best, with terrible service). Also – the local Vodka is really cheap and a tasty drop. The cognac called “Kvint”, is locally famous. Supermarkets and mini-supermarkets are dotted around the city.
It’s just like home.
Only, in a country that doesn’t really exist – Transnistria.
PS, I’m still in the middle of a very huge European road trip.