Time passes so slowly in Transnistria that, thirty years later, it is still where it was. In limbo. More so on Sunday. Even more so if the next day is a holiday – Victory Day – and even the traditional military parade has been suspended for security reasons. But the long lethargy has been shaken by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, definitely, by the attacks two weeks ago in its capital, Tiraspol.
The day before, a Russian general had announced plans to push the front into Transnistria. Something that many locals would welcome with relief, as it would break their relative isolation, but that others fear could turn them into a battlefield.
Whoever thinks that a country that became independent – from Moldova – by armed means is a difficult country to intimidate, is mistaken. In one of the few cafes far from the central artery – the one with the statue of Lenin and the Memorial with its eternal flame and its World War II tank – the owner shows images captured by a security camera on his mobile.
They correspond to the moment when two individuals - who fled by car and have not been captured - unleashed a grenade launcher against the building of the former KGB, causing significant damage, as verified by this envoy, although without serious casualties. A Russian propaganda station was also hit. The Transnistrians see behind a Ukrainian hand, while Russia's rivals are convinced that these are false flag attacks.
Although Transnistria is broken in international law, its inhabitants consider themselves to be people of peace and are shocked. Nikolai, despite being a meditation teacher, admits that this caused him "an anxiety attack that lasted a week." "If the war catches up with us, I'll go elsewhere with cryptocurrencies," says twenty-eight-year-old Nikolai. "That's something that only Putin knows," mutters the cafe owner. Alex, another customer, recalls that in Transnistria everyone they speak Russian and very few Romanian, a language that the vast majority do not even understand."Tiraspol has been linked to Russia since its foundation in the 18th century, never to Bucharest," he says.
Leaving is less difficult than it might seem. While half the world takes pity on a pseudo-republic that is not on the maps, the Transnistrians shamelessly display, not one, not two, but a minimum of three passports and sometimes up to four or five. In the case of Nikolai, the local – useless except in South Ossetia or Abkhazia – Russian and Moldovan. Others have Ukrainian and even Romanian, depending on where their grandparents are from.
They are not the only ones who play with trick cards. In the same way that Russia has flooded the Ukrainian Donbass with passports, Romania has distributed its passport to more than half of Moldova, which, in turn, has lavished its passport on Transnistria – due to ancestry and because there are still a few dozen Romanian-speaking peoples, who there it continues to be written in Cyrillic characters.
Nikolai's complaint has nothing to do with the outside world, but with the opaque world of the long strip officially called the Dniester Moldavian Republic. Five hours by car, end to end. "If you stand out a bit, they step on you," he confesses, in a veiled reference to the two former KGB agents, owners of the two or three ubiquitous brands in the territory, such as Sheriff -the team that defeated Real Madrid at the Bernabéu- in a country in which “international franchises are completely absent”.
Sheriff is after gas stations, well-stocked supermarkets and many other interests, some under other names, such as the mobile operator. Equally ubiquitous is Kvint, the winery that has been producing famed vintage cognacs for almost a century, even though the label reads, for legal reasons, Republic of Moldova.
In Pridnestrovia -the third name of the thing- you don't have to be afraid of getting lost, even if both Sheriff and Kvint confuse you. In the aforementioned café, the following consensus takes hold: "People aged forty and above are in favor of the war, because it is reported on television, where there is a lot of propaganda. But the younger ones do it through social networks and we see it else".
Closer to the former than the latter would be Anya, who has already visualized the incorporation of Transnistria into Malorosiya, Lesser Russia, and who only hopes that it will be painless, as soon as the Russian army knocks on the door, she believes that before six months. "This has gone on too long already."
On the bus from Chisinau to Tiraspol, the silence is so thick you could cut it. Moldova does not recognize secession or the border, so it does not fly any flag before the transnistrian passport control – this one with the hammer and sickle on its own banner, which no one else recognizes, just like what happens to its banknotes, with reasons more typical of the Duchy of Liechtenstein than of nostalgic assumptions of communism.
Tiraspol is a polygonal city, where weeds threaten to bury its antediluvian swings. Before reaching it, even before crossing the mighty Dniester, the evidence of having entered another world unclogs the pores. Especially when you are lucky enough that the first car you come across is a very old faded blue Lada and that the first trolleybus is a legacy of the Soviet Union. In the background, old women still with knotted headscarves, as if they were about to exceed the objectives of the five-year plan.
The old bus ends its journey in front of the imposing railway station, where trains no longer stop and where the grass begins to cover dozens of dead tracks, as it also covers the playgrounds with Soviet swings and others even larger and more abandoned, where children are lacking to blow so many thousands of dandelions. Blocks that were born badly with Brezhnev, now risk being swallowed by the jungle of border wheat – not green – as if it were a temple of proletarian Cambodia.
The gleams of modernity and some ostentation - hardly clean wheat - take a few hours to fade the spell of being in 1984. Transnistria is not and will not be, for a long time, any new destination for leisure. The Union, here, is the desired union with Russia, ever closer, as something further south may be for many the reunification with Romania.
This same Sunday, the Russian army has bombed for the first time Ukrainian artillery positions located on the edge of the "border" with said territory. Russia's sullenness has an additional reason: the air blockade prevents the rotation and return of its soldiers to the Kolbasna arsenal, with 20,000 tons of ammunition and weapons, and now almost entirely in local hands. Time is ticking in Transnistria, that powder keg shaped like a fuse.