Transnistria?!? You might say, “I’ve never heard of it!” That’s not surprising, because Transnistria is a tiny breakaway state sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. It gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. At this time, 2/3 of the country wanted to retain their ties with the West and the rest of the country wanted to retain their ties with Russia. War broke out in March 1992, and in July there was a ceasefire, forming Transnistria, which has its own government, parliament, police, postal system, and currency.
Economics: Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, yet in the city area where we are in Tiraspol I see little to indicate poverty (other than the squatty potties, of course :-) When we have traveled outside the city, though, the houses and buildings do indicate significant poverty.
Politics: Political corruption is a huge problem in Transnistria. There are widespread allegations of fradulancy in presidential elections among the 43-seat legislature. There is a business monopoly called “Sheriff” that literally controls the day-to-day life of citizens. When you visit Transnistria, you see a ton of buildings – gas stations, grocery stores, and even a football stadium under this “Sheriff” label. The Sheriff also owns the country’s only phone, television, and Internet service. It goes by the name Sheriff because the people who work for it were at one time members of the Russian KJB army. When I have asked local people about it, they admit that the Sheriff isn’t good, but there isn’t much they can do about it because the Sheriff owns a monopoly over all other businesses.
Crime: Corruption and organized crime are serious problems in Transnistria. Transnistria is believed to be a place where a large amount of arms are produced, but no one really knows because international organizations don’t recognize Transnistria’s independence, so it’s difficult for them to investigate. In addition to this, goods are passed back and forth between borders unregulated, which leads to an abundance of smuggling.
As a tourist, Transnistria is actually very safe. Very few people I meet have actually seen a foreigner in Transnistria. Young men are required to serve in the army for two years, and many police the city, which means that the petty crime rate is little to none. I even saw a woman leave her purse on the bus while she stepped off to smoke a cigarette – she was more concerned about saving her seat than about having the items in her purse stolen! There is also little drug use in Transnistria, although alcoholism is widespread.
Church: 91% of Transnistria adheres to Eastern Orthodoxy, while 4% is Roman Catholic (Source) We’ve heard that the authorities generally respect the rights of all registered church groups but deny registration and building space to smaller religious groups. Churches that are active here are persecuted, such as Tiraspol Church, the charismatic church that we are working with here in the city. When we worshipped with guitars downtown, they told us to stop, and they also don’t like all of the outreach initiatives that the church does to bless to city. During the worship services we attend, I’ve noticed the irony between how freely the people in this church worship, and the political oppression.
People: All that being said, from a tourist’s perspective you see little of the corruption or crime that exists. I’ve actually been blown away by the generosity and openness of the people that I’ve met. In fact, yesterday the older woman sitting beside me on the bus started a conversation with me, then finding out that I don’t speak Russian, she pulled out two walnuts from her bag and just gave them to me. I was in a bakery one afternoon, and when the store owner found out that I was American, she smelled all of the pastries to find the best one for me. I complimented a university student’s necklace and she took it off and gave it to me. My favorite afternoon was last week when I had to get my teeth filled and the dentist took us to the back and gave us champagne and chocolate to celebrate his birthday. The people here are so generous!
It’s crazy to think that Transnistria has survived for 14 years without support from Moldova or the rest of the world. The BBC did an awesome documentary on Transnistria a few years ago; you can watch it below if you’d like to learn more about where we’re serving this month: