The drive from Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, to the breakaway region of Transdnistria takes only about an hour. Transdnistria, which runs like a ribbon between the curved borders of Moldova and Ukraine, takes its name from the fact that most of it—though not all—lies across the Dniester river.
Transdnistria does have a somewhat different modern history than does the rest of Moldova—a much more Soviet one. From 1921-1940, much of the area that is now called Transdnistria was part of the Soviet Union. The so-called Moldovan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (officially founded in 1924) was a constituent part of the Ukrainian SSR, and for much of the time had its capital in Tiraspol. So while Transdnistria was Sovietized—and large amounts of Russians and Ukrainians were imported to work in the newly industrialized area—the rest of what we now know as Moldova was part of the Kingdom of Romania.
That all changed when in 1940, Romania gave into Soviet demands to annex to them the lands that would become the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. Other parts of the annexed territory were incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR. While German and Romanian troops did retake the annexed areas during World War II, the Soviet Union was able to claim them again after the end of the war. Transdnistria—the old Moldovan ASSR—was now a part of the Moldovan SSR.
This happy marriage came to an end as the Soviet Union began to fall apart and nationalist sentiments began to grow. Because of their different history, Transdnistrians had grown to be a kind of Homo Sovieticus and hoped to see the Soviet Union stay together, while across the river, their fellow citizens were eager for independence and possible reunification with Romania.
This rift led to a civil war between Moldovans on either side of the river, killing a not insignificant number between 1990 and 1992. Transdnistria, declared itself the Transdnistrian (Pridnistrovian) Moldovan Republic, and citizens hoped to rejoin a newly independent Russia. Russian troops were active in fighting against the Moldovan armed forces. The conflict has largely been frozen since 1992, and no permanent solution has yet been found.
A billboard in Tiraspol celebrating Transdnistria's 26 years of 'independence'.
Driving through the streets of Tiraspol today, Transdnistria’s continued affinity for all things Russia is striking. Most signs in Moldova are written in Romanian, while some also have a Russian label. In Transdnistria, nearly everything is in the Russian language. While Transdnistria has three official languages—Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian—the chief operating languages for monuments, museum signage, and conversations, is Russian.
And a Russian presence is palpable. Political advertisements left over from Russia’s recent parliamentary elections still fly over the streets urging locals—many of whom have Russian passports and are eligible to vote—to cast their votes for “The Party of Putin.” Posters and banners extolling the future unity of Russia and Transdnistria are omnipresent. Even the bridge crossing the Dniester is painted in the colors of the Russian and Transnistrian flags.
Russian peacekeepers, of whom there are about 400 in Transdnistria, are posted at the occasional observation point at key road intersections, and some other Russian troops remain stationed there.
Despite all of this, Transdnistria was not the leap back into Soviet time that I had expected. Yes, the Transdnistrian crest is a near carbon copy of the one that was once used for the Moldovan SSR. Lenin still stands proudly in Tiraspol’s center and the local security apparatus is still called the KGB, but there are many new buildings, the city is green, and some of the old Soviet-era residential buildings have been refurbished and painted with cheerful colors.
That Russia has been willing to invest some monies in keeping Transdnistria both frozen and in its pocket was evident. The roads in Transdnistria are demonstrably better than those in Moldova proper. At the same time, the emptiness of the streets is striking—there were many fewer cars on the roads and people on the sidewalks—perhaps another reason for the better roads. Transdnistria’s economy is moribund and many of its citizens have left to find work in Russia or Europe.
But with Russia’s attentions and energies focused elsewhere, and a poor economic situation in its own country, many in Moldova see an opportunity to woo back their former neighbors. Sadly, however, Moldova’s politicians seem too preoccupied with their personal interests and criminal schemes to make any effort to move Europe’s poorest nation forward.