I have just spent the morning in a strange place that the outside world considers doesn’t exist. It appears to be a land stuck in a time warp called the USSR, rather like the German movie ‘Goodbye Lenin’ where a young East Berliner tries to keep it from his mother that the wall has fallen and her beloved Communist government is collapsing. In this real life ‘Goodbye Lenin’ the statue of the man himself is still standing and hammer and sickle logos are everywhere but so too is the brand of a monopoly business, co-founded by the son of a President, that controls everything from a football club to supermarkets, petrol stations, car dealerships and a TV channel.
Welcome to ‘Transnistria’ or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic as it likes to call itself. No member of the UN does, not even its mothership Russia whose troops are on the ground today as ‘peacekeepers’.The peace has spectacularly failed to be kept in this part of the world for the past two centuries. In a local cemetery I found the tombstones of Tsarist soldiers who fought the Ottoman Turks in the nineteenth century and French soldiers who fought with the Tsarists against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Nearby are the graves of locals who fought with the Soviet Red Army in World War Two and those locals who fought for the other side,the German Army,alongside Romanians and Hungarians who also threw in their lot with the Nazis. A nearby memorial commemorates the victory of the Red Army in 1945, the local conscripts killed during the disastrous Soviet campaign in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s and, when that war hastened the fall of the Soviet Union, the local volunteers who died in the fighting which carved out ‘Transnistria’ as a Russian loyalist colony as the rest of what was the Molodovan Soviet Socialist Republic opted for independence as the Republic of Moldova in the early 1990s.
If by now your knowledge of the geography of Eastern Europe is well past its natural limit,think of Molodova as sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and Transnistria as the right hand side of that sandwich.There is no land border between Molodova/’Transnistria’ and Russia which makes the Russian presence seem rather odd. But in the days of the USSR the Soviet 14th Army established its HQ in the area and when the Soviet Union fell apart those troops were the military might that enabled the rebel ‘Transnistrians’ to force back the forces of the independent Molodovan Government.
Although the breakaway region has never been formally recognised by Moscow there is now talk of it being absorbed into the Russian Federation. The local currency is called the rouble, the Russian flag often flies alongside that of ‘Transnistria’, the supermarkets are packed full of Russian goods ( no USSR-style empty shelves here), Russian is the official language (Moldova prefers a dialect of Romanian) and the streets are in a better condition than some in Moscow.
But even more common than the Russian and Soviet symbols is the brand name ‘Sheriff’.You see it first on the road into the capital Tiraspol on an modern football stadium ‘Sheriff Football Club’,which puts its separatist views aside each matchday to play in the Moldovan League and thus win a place in the UEFA Europa League. The stadium complex also houses businesses like the Mercedes Benz dealership which have adopted the Sheriff brand. What became the Sheriff company was founded by two former members of the secret police and they linked up with the son of the country’s President, who helpfully ran the country’s customs service. Sheriff used its economic and media muscle to influence local politics but the current President Yevgeny Shevchuk issued a decree abolishing all preferences granted to Sheriff by previous regimes.There is no obvious sign of the Sheriff’s businesses suffering too much.
Nor is there any sign that the economic advantages of life in ‘Transnistria’, essential services such as electricity are cheaper here than in Moldova, attract many migrants to join the half a million population who may eventually end up as Russians. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, on the Sunday I was in the capital Chisinau hundreds of people lined the streets trying to sell a few spare belongings. It is also one of the most corrupt, which is why Moldova’s application to join the EU won’t become a reality any time soon. But after centuries occupied by Ottomans,Nazis and Soviets the people of Moldova seem to value their new found freedom too much to move down the road to a bizarre mix of Soviet communism and monopoly capitalism.