Adrift in Transnistria, Matthew Clayfield gives thanks for cheap vodka.
Every morning in Transnistria, the self-proclaimed Eastern European country that no other country recognises, there’s a run on the banks. You wouldn’t think there’d be much demand for a currency like the Transnistrian ruble, which is useless beyond a thin sliver of land along Moldova’s eastern border with Ukraine.
But every morning the banks are full, locals withdrawing what they need. The quote-unquote country is heavily reliant on remittances from elsewhere, and signs displaying exchange rates – the dollar, the euro, the Russian ruble – pepper every corner. If you’re one of the very few tourists who come here, you take your passport inside (the ATMs are either empty or won’t accept your card), sign a plethora of paperwork, and exit bearing a wad of nothingness. A shot of vodka is the equivalent of 50 cents here. The wad of nothingness doesn’t need to be massive.
We’ve been getting cocked eyebrows from the moment we arrived: at the border, where Transnistrian officials did a double-take when we said we’d be staying a week; at the town’s most popular café, 7 Fridays, when we told our waiter the same thing; and at the bank, where we took out more than most tourists do, in rubles and euros, the latter to pay our host, who had no interest in accepting the local currency. The Transnistrian kopek has the weight and feel of an arcade token and the three-ruble “coin” is a curious green plastic square not unlike something you might get at a casino. It’s money befitting Transnistria’s status: a fake currency for a country that doesn’t exist.
Transnistria was formed in 1992 after a two-year war between Russian-backed Transnistrian troops and the Moldovan police and military. Moldova contends that the Russian “peacekeeping” troops, who remain even now, violate its territorial integrity; Transnistria counters that its ethnic Russian population would be overwhelmed by the Moldovan majority were it to give up its hard-won status.
It doesn’t take long to realise why most tourists come here for only a couple of hours. The sights, such as they are, can be seen in an hour, leaving plenty of time to wander, get a bite to eat, and maybe do a tour of the Kvint brandy factory, the only place in town that produces anything of any value to people elsewhere. There are two statues of Lenin, one of the 18thcentury Russian general Alexander Suvorov, and the impressive if dilapidated war memorial, where a civil war-era tank looms over the names of the slain.
By the end of our first day in town, I’ve made Snezhok on Strada Lenina my local. Apart from the bartender, who spends most of his days sitting on a bench, wrapped in a quilt and chain-smoking, it’s mostly frequented by old men watching Russian World War II movies on the TV over the bar. A few days into my stay a couple of Danes strike up a conversation. They’re here to see Copenhagen take on Tiraspol, the “country’s” capital, in soccer. I’m soon sandwiched between two locals in a cab on our way to the Sheriff Stadium halfway between Tiraspol and Bender.
The game is a washout, 0-0, but worth attending not least because we’re seated, in an otherwise empty stadium, within spitting distance of the Ultra Sheriffs, the local, fiercely loyal fan club. Tiraspol competes in the UEFA Europa League as a Moldovan side, but the passion on display tonight is clearly that of Transnistrian nationalism. But it’s not enough to get the side over the line and I leave with my hosts a few minutes before full-time.
Next morning I’m back at one of the banks. The machine I bought my stadium ticket from gave a promissory note rather than change. It’s only worth $2, but that’s four shots of vodka in these parts.