Pridnestrovian Diary, Day #1
The Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, the self-declared Soviet Union split-off state that lies between the Dniestr River in eastern Moldova and Ukraine, remains unrecognised by any major modern state in the 30 years from its fought-for independence in 1992 and the present day. Now the country is wedged in the middle of a major regional war, with Ukraine to her east and one of Ukraine's largest cities, the Black Sea port of Odessa, only 100km away from the capital Tiraspol (pronounced: TIR-AAH-SPOL with equal emphasis on each syllable). Every other border Ukraine has to the west is overwhelmed with refugees, Ukraine's neighbours struggling to cope with the some 10 million refugees already to have departed that benighted country's shores. Yet in Pridnestrovia, nothing much seems to have changed. Why not?
Let us surprise the reader, who is very unlikely to have been to Pridnestrovia. The number of western foreigners who visit the territory each year must be barely a handful. Particularly with the airport in Chisinau, Moldova's airport, currently being closed to all traffic amidst the Ukrainian conflict (despite everyone in Tiraspol curiously insisting that this is not so), it is a phenomenally difficult place to get to. A taxi from Odessa airport would be the usual route but Odessa airport has been closed for weeks due to shelling. Instead one must fly to Bucharest; take an overnight nine-hour bus to Chisinau; and then a one-and-a-half hour taxi ride to Pridnestrovia. So it is no mean feat to get here. Moreover the border arrangements have been amended. Moldovan and Pridnestrovian Police used to waive through the casual driver. However in this author's case those police officers have been replaced with men in unmarked military fatigues speaking Russian and aggressively searching luggage for evidence that anyone entering the territory might be a mercenary. Pridnestrovia has been home to a garrison of 1,500 Russian troops since 1992, so it is not hard to guess who these new improvised border guards are. Moreover they seem to have moved the Pridnestrovian border with the rest of Moldova several kilometres to the west of the Dniestr river since this author's last visit. Guarding a potentially violent border directly adjacent to a river is not particularly straightforward, so it appears to have been moved to create a land buffer in case of confrontation with (the rest of) Moldova.
However the good news is that once one has entered Pridnestrovia, one is in for an extremely pleasant surprise. While the country prides itself upon its Sovietist culture and traditions, in economic terms the country has been anything but communist since the inauguration of its reformist President Vadim Krasnoselsky in 2016. Pridnestrovia has been the subject of exceptionally rapid economic reform under a corporate statist model in which the majority of businesses of significance are run by the Sheriff Group, including the internationally famous football team Sheriff Tiraspol. Every second building along Tiraspol's main crossroads of streets is a newly constructed bank. Sheriff runs the local supermarket chain. Shops are awash with electrical, clothes and other consumer goods. Mobile telephony is now everywhere. The streets are clean and the people are orderly. In terms of economic development Pridnestrovia is obviously substantially superior to any of Moldova, Romania, Belarus, Ukraine (before the conflict) or large swathes of the Russian interior. Although small, with the capital only 150,000 people and the entire population counting 460,000, most people living rurally, she is increasingly perfectly formed. This island of economic renaissance is truly a surprising site to behold, all the more so when only 30km away is a cruel and vicious war that Pridnestrovians undertake their daily lives virtually entirely immune to. The truth is that Pridnestrovia never had many economic ties with relatively impoverished Ukraine, despite her being Pridnestrovia's principal neighbour; and as Pridnestrovia took off financially she left Ukraine far behind in cultural, economic and commercial terms.
Enjoying a coffee in one of Tiraspol's many central shops and bars, in which the people have been told to learn a little English for the day the foreigners start coming, and have also been instructed to be as friendly and polite as can be, this all may seem rather surreal. Part of the issue is that Pridnestrovia, like most of the countries in the region, is far from having a free press. However that does not mean the people of Pridnestrovia are ignorant of what is happening on their doorsteps. They just do not want this chaos to wash itself into their small paradise, that so far has been allowed to grow mostly unnoticed by the various Great Powers with an interest in the Bessarabian region simply because she has been too small to be significant. But the Pridnestrovians are worried. They are all too aware that Odessa is a city of some 1,000,000 people; and if 50% of those people become refugees knocking on the door of the Pridnestrovians, then they will overwhelm the small republic of fewer than half a million people. So far these refugees have not arrived, and that is because the Russian Army has held off from a full-scale assault upon Odessa. But everybody is aware that it is only a matter of time before this happens; and they do not know what to do. Without any support from the European Union, NATO, the Russian Federation or any other institution of size, because she is not recognised; without connections to any of the UN institutions or other multilateral programmes, Pridnestrovia is at a loss as to what to do. She just sits in the middle of the violence and she prays that events will somehow go away. Alas, that seems unlikely and this superlative small, if somewhat authoritarian, territory surely lies in jeopardy if the war in Ukraine continues for any significant period longer.
Pridnestrovia is the unsung success story of Bessarabia, pointedly wealthy and with a content population living amidst of culture of Soviet kitch and memorabilia simply because they know how warm their lives are faring compared to any of their downtrodden, crime-ridden, corrupt neighbours with their dysfunctional institutions. In Pridnestrovia, every knob on the door of every courthouse is kept shining and every barista and barman is kept cheery, because of the economic miracle their palpably economically highly literate President has been able to deliver for them. Plus they are good at football. It would seem virtually a tragedy to watch the dismantlement of this success story when there are so few success stories in the region and indeed the areas on every side of Pridnestrovia are blighted with one sort of institutional malaise, accursed war or other species of poverty. But as of today, nobody has a solution and it is not even clear in which direction the thinking about how to deal with Pridnestrovia's invidious position as tiny, successful neighbour to Ukraine's plight ought to be dealt with.