Tiraspol

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Tiraspol
Population: 144,000
Mayor: Andrei Bezbabchenko
Main industries: light industry including furniture, electrical goods production, and textiles, as well as car manufacturing and food production.
Founded in 1792
Interesting Fact №1: Tiraspol was founded on the same day as Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, on Oct. 14.
Interesting Fact №2: The city is home to football side FC Sheriff Tiraspol, the most successful Moldovan football side in recent times and plays in the Europa League.
Sister cities: Trondheim, Norway; Eilenburg, Germany; Tskhinvali, South Ossetia; Severodvinsk, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia.

TIRASPOL — The stuffy minibus carrying passengers from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, cranks to a halt at the border with the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic. A throng of Russians, Moldovans and Ukrainians jostle for position in the passport control queue inside a small hut just beyond the demilitarized buffer zone.

On the other side of the window sits a curvaceous woman with long bleach-blond hair wearing a khaki military uniform. Her face is expressionless except for the blood-red lipstick but she suddenly comes to life on seeing a British passport, warning, "You need to leave by 9 p.m."

Visiting Transdnestr, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or simply the PMR, conjures thoughts of James Bond movies, heavy weaponry and one of the world's most secretive states.

In reality, Tiraspol is the capital of a rebel region whose independence is only recognized by two other only partially recognized states, Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But despite the lack of formal recognition, Transdnestr has its own government, currency, passports, police and army, and for all intents and purposes it functions as a separate state.

Local Businesses

Kvint (wine and spirits producer). 38 Ulitsa Lenina; +373 5339-6170 ; eng.kvint.biz. Kvint is a local wine and brandy distillery exporting to the Commonwealth of Independent States market and beyond. It started operating from a warehouse on Vokzalnaya Ulitsa in 1897 by producing vodka from locally made grape wines. Tastings and tours are available.
Sheriff (oil and gas, retail, television, publishing, automobile). 81/11 Ulitsa Shevchenko; +373 5336-3110; sheriff.md. Sheriff is a huge conglomerate formed in the early 1990s by ex-security services officials. It owns almost everything from the local football team and a television station to filing stations, car showrooms and supermarket chains, as well as having some political influence in the past. It is also the largest employer in the region with about 12,000 employees.

Transdnestr occupies a narrow sliver of land between Moldova to the west and Ukraine to the east. Its population of about 550,000 is evenly split between Moldovans (32 percent), Russians (30 percent) and Ukrainians (29 percent). The two main cities worth visiting are Tiraspol, the Soviet-inspired capital, and neighboring Bender, which has a more cultured, laid-back feel to it.

After crossing the unofficial border, patrolled by Moldovan and Transdnestr soldiers, as well as Russian peacekeepers, the old minibus shuttles its resilient passengers onward toward Tiraspol.

Through the window the landscape reveals clapped-out Ladas, propaganda posters proclaiming the republic's independence, and makeshift markets selling everything from clothes to spare car parts. It is otherwise gray and nondescript. But there is a certain thrill at arriving in a place you feel you should not be, where rumors abound of the mafia, weapons smuggling and the KGB.

Recent history has generated this myth, which in turn is making Transdnestr an increasingly popular place to visit because of its very uniqueness, particularly for those fascinated by disputed territories and political black holes.

As the Soviet Union fell apart and Moldova swiftly promoted its own non-Soviet national identity and language, the mainly Russian-speaking diaspora to the east of the Dniester River, forming Transdnestr, feared alienation and declared the region's secession from Moldova in September 1990.

A conflict followed, taking the lives of about 700 people, and despite a cease-fire being agreed in 1992, the region has remained one of several post-Soviet frozen conflict zones manned by Russian peacekeepers. The other areas are Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The war has left a heavy imprint on Transdnestr, as well as continued international isolation, much to the frustration of ordinary people who struggle to get by. "It is all happening at the political level, but it is ordinary people who suffer," said a guide at the Tiraspol National United Museum.

For MT
Alla Melnichuk,
Director of the Tiraspol National United Museum and author of the words to the Tiraspol city anthem.
Q: Who is Tiraspol's best-known resident?
A: Soviet academic and organic chemist Nikolay Zelinsky, who created the first working gas mask in 1915. We have a house museum in honor of him.

Q: How has the city changed in recent years?
A: The number of factories has fallen while the amount of shops, small traders, stalls and salons has simply shot up. The education system is more varied, and teaching is done in three languages: Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian. The media also is more developed, with two television channels as well as newspapers and radio stations broadcasting in three languages.

Q: What is the legacy of the Transdnestr conflict on the city?
A: Any military conflict involving tens of thousands of people cannot happen without consequences, especially of a psychological nature. The main feeling about those days is that we were attacked by people with whom we had studied, celebrated and grieved. We feel we were victims of a mass betrayal of everything that we considered important.

Q: What makes Tiraspol unique?
A: People pay immense respect to all parts of Tiraspol's past, its heroic chapters as well as the tragic ones, including the victims of Stalin's purges.
Also, a particular mentality has formed here over the centuries of various nationalities living together peacefully. It is generally accepted that a person is valued according to his trade, neighborliness and human qualities. Tiraspol has never experienced any interethnic conflicts.

— Thomas Marsden

Transdnestr survives on financial assistance from Russia, which maintains a 1,200-member peacekeeping mission here and acts as the region's main protector, providing subsidies and a counterbalance to the EU's backing of Moldova on the world stage.

Without this support, and with little foreign investment, the export-oriented Transdnestr economy would fall apart. Local GDP in 2012 reached about $1 billion, or about $2,000 per head, equivalent to neighboring Moldova.

The economy chugs along thanks to a few Soviet-era industrial plants heavily dependent on the economic climate surrounding its trading partners, but also thanks to Sheriff, an enormous conglomerate with interests from filling stations and supermarket chains to television, mobile telephone networks and a football club.

Transdnestr's strong links to Russia date back to 1792, when Tiraspol became an outpost of the Russian empire following the Russo-Turkish war. The region was subsequently settled by a number of ethnicities including Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Jews and Germans.

Since then, Transdnestr served as a strategically important military base for the Soviet Union's 14th Army, which, following the Soviet collapse, left the region heavily militarized. In a 2006 referendum, the population overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence from Moldova and an eventual union with Russia.

The Russian connection is particularly evident in Tiraspol, where ethnic Moldovans are a disproportionate minority forming only 15 percent of the population. On a recent day, music blaring from a car carrying Russian peacekeepers broke the silence on Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya, the city's main boulevard. A statue of Lenin dominates the square outside the red-and-white Soviet-realist presidential palace. Emblems on posters and buildings still feature the communist hammer and sickle.

However you choose to describe Transdnestr — "non-state," "breakaway republic" or "frozen conflict zone" — visiting the capital of this heavily armed slice of territory to the east of the Dniester River is like heading back to the U.S.S.R.

What to see if you have two hours

Take a stroll down Tiraspol's wide and mostly deserted main boulevard, Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya, to really experience the ex-Soviet enigma or open-air museum many consider Transdnestr to be. Call in at the Tiraspol National United Museum (46 Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya; +373 5339-0426; tourism.mfa-pmr.org/tir_muz; Sunday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) to learn about the region's history and the War of Transdnestr. Then wander around the Heroes' Cemetery, an open square with a memorial just outside, to experience the legacy of the war and gain an understanding of what makes this region tick.

Opposite the museum is the Soviet-style presidential palace with the imposing statue of Lenin outside. Beside this is the enormous Suvorov Square, with a statue of Russian General Alexander Suvorov, who founded the city in 1792.

Walk back down Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya to find the neo-classical House of Soviets, home to the city administration, with a bust of Lenin outside, and the National Theater.

If you would rather not visit the main sights, then you can relax and stroll in the tree-lined Victory Park or take a tram ride from Tiraspol to the neighboring city of Bender, located just 20 to 30 minutes away.

What to do if you have two days

Visit the Kvint factory (38 Ulitsa Lenina; +373 5339-6170; eng.kvint.biz) to see the home of the famous brand of Transdnestr brandy and wine. Kvint is considered a national treasure here. A shop is located nearby where you can buy Kvint products. Tours can be booked in advance through local tour operator WorkTravelBusiness Ltd. (8 Vokzalny Pereulok; +373 7788-8508; discoverpridnestrovie.com).

For MT
Nikolai Malyshev,
Director, European Agency for Economic Research, Reconstruction and Development, an NGO in Tiraspol.
Q: What does your NGO do?
A: Our agency helps to develop market and economic infrastructure in Transdnestr, it promotes Transdnestr on foreign markets, and it attracts investors here.

Q: What are the advantages to investing in Transdneistr?
A: Among the advantages you should note Transdnestr's advantageous transportation position for both European and Asian markets, the development of rail and port infrastructure in nearby cities in Moldova and Ukraine and a valuable work force with basic training and skills. Often the unrecognized status of Transdnestr is considered a disadvantage, but the result for businesses is that Transdnestr is well positioned to export to both western and eastern markets.

Q: Which sectors have the most potential for investors?
A: Agricultural goods, including eco and organic foods, top the list. Investors should also consider mechanical engineering, production plants, sewing and textiles industries, construction materials, alternative energy and leisure and medical services. We need assistance renovating our economic and social infrastructure. Socially responsible businesses are especially welcomed.

Q: What should travelers know about local culture before visiting?
A: Transdnestr's culture is a multilayered coloring of Russian, Ukrainian, Cossack, Moldovan, Bulgarian, Gagauz, Armenian, German, Jewish and Polish cultures, which have fused into a particularly strong symbiosis of multinational friendship and inter-relations. Often it is impossible to determine whether this or that dish belongs to one particular cuisine or whether a person speaking one language or another attaches himself to one nationality. Therefore tourists who are open-minded in their judgments and in what they say will be welcomed with hospitality and have an unforgettable time.

— Thomas Marsden

Many tourists who do not speak Russian seem to prefer guided tours, and there are many tourist operators ready to help. Transnistria Tour (+373 6942-7502; transnistria-tour.com) runs a number of themed tours in Tiraspol, including: Soviet Tour; Classic Tour; Ecotour; Art Tour; Brandy Tour; Football Tour; Bicycle Tour. Tours cost $16 to $34, depending on the size of the group.

If you would rather stay clear of tours, then you can visit the Fortress of Bender (Tighina) just across the Dniester River from Tiraspol. It was originally a small Moldavian fort built to protect medieval Moldavia's eastern border, but was subsequently conquered and expanded by Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1530s. It also houses a small museum showing weapons and a diorama depicting its attack by a Russian army.

Six kilometers from Tiraspol, in the village of Chitcani, is the Noul-Neamts Monastery (2 Ulitsa Lenina; Chitcani village; open daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.), which boasts four colorful churches and the highest bell tower in Moldova. The monastery was founded in 1861 by Romanian monks fleeing increasing pressure from local authorities.

The countryside north of Tiraspol is picturesque and is known by the locals as the Kremlin Garden because the fresh produce was flown direct to Moscow during the Soviet period.

What to do with the kids

If your children are sports lovers, take them on a tour of the FC Sheriff football complex, which includes Moldova's most impressive stadium as well as training pitches, a rehabilitation center and a hotel complex. The tour is run by Transnistria Tour (+373 6942-7502; transnistria-tour.com) and prices start at $20.

Nightlife

Tiraspol has a reputation for good nightlife with a number of night clubs, bars and restaurants dotted around the city, although you will be unlikely to cross paths with many other tourists or English speakers.

Sverdlovskaya Ulitsa is home to two of the most popular. The four-star Hotel Russia (69 Sverdlovskaya Ulitsa; +373 5333-8000; hotelrussia.md) has a modern cocktail bar and nightclub in the basement that operates from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., while Plazma Disco (47 Sverdlovskaya Ulitsa; +373 7790-2606) is a popular nightclub that only admits women aged 25 and over and men aged 30 and over.

Further afield, the nightclub Equator in Bender (11 Ulitsa Kalinina; +373 7773-3205) comes highly recommended by locals.

If clubs are not what you are looking for, then the City Palace of Culture (51 Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya; +373 5337-7756; tirascult.org) hosts symphony orchestras and other cultural events, and the Drama and Comedy Theater (130 Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya; +373 5339-2248; melpomena-pmr.idknet.com) has a variety of theatrical performances.

Where to eat

Andy's Pizza (72 Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya, among other locations; +373 5338-4252; andys-pizza.com) is a fresh, modern-looking chain with three restaurants in Tiraspol serving a mixture of pizza, pasta, salads and steaks, and playing host to everyone from local families to members of the city administration.

7 Pyatnits (Seven Fridays, 112 Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya; +373 5339-2210) is a restaurant located on Tiraspol's main boulevard that is popular with members of the Transdnestrian Supreme Soviet, the republic's parliament. It has an expansive menu covering Moldovan, Ukrainian, European and Japanese cuisine, but the chicken in a honey and mustard sauce is most highly recommended. Main courses cost about $7.

If you prefer something a bit more local, then try Kumanek (37 Sverdlovskaya Ulitsa; +373 5337-2034; kumanek.com), a highly rated restaurant serving traditional Ukrainian dishes, or La Placinte (75 Sverdlovskaya Ulitsa; +373 2226-5431; laplacinte.com), a Moldovan chain serving Moldovan national cuisine for about $5 for a main course.

Where to stay

Perhaps surprisingly for a city with so few tourists there is a decent range of accommodation available, although it is not as cheap as you might expect.

At the top end, the four-star Hotel Russia (69 Sverdlovskaya Ulitsa; +373 5333-8000; hotelrussia.md) is the most luxurious option with a double starting at about $100. It is modern and glamorously furnished with a cocktail bar in the basement.

Ten minutes from Ulitsa 25 Oktyabrya is another highly recommended four-star hotel named CityClub Hotel (18 Ulitsa Gorkogo; +373 5335-9000; cityclub.md), which has spacious and clean rooms starting at $90 for a standard double and a well-equipped fitness suite.

Slightly cheaper is the VVP Club Hotel (26 Komsomolskaya Ulitsa; +373 5335-5545; vvpclub.com) with a standard double from $52. The rooms here are small and cosy, but there is also a large outdoor swimming pool, billiard room and cafe, and breakfast is included.

Conversation starters

Given the sensitive political status of the region, it is best to steer clear of discussing the issue of nationality or to suggest that all Transdnestr residents are Moldovan.

Beyond this, the locals are happy to talk about anything, including sports, culture and Soviet nostalgia. Russian is the main language in Tiraspol, but young people will no doubt be eager to practice their English.

Culture tips

Transdnestr has its own currency, the Transdnestr ruble (roughly 11 rubles to the dollar), which is essential in order to pay for anything. Moldovan leu, euros, dollars and Ukrainian hryvna can be changed inside Transdnestr at the railway and bus station. There is only one ATM in Tiraspol, so it is advisable to have enough cash to cover your trip. A meal costs about $7 and a taxi ride about $3.

Taking pictures of certain government, military and cultural sites, including monuments and roads is not allowed, nor is drinking alcohol in public.

If you do have the opportunity to meet the locals, expect to be overwhelmed by Old World hospitality. Meals are not to be rushed and homemade wine should be sampled if offered. Speaking a few words of Russian will be greatly appreciated.

Dress respectfully if you visit any monasteries or churches, as you would in Russia. Orthodox Christianity is an important part of life, particularly in rural areas.

How to get there

There are no visa requirements for EU, U.S. or Russian citizens, who can enter by filling in a migration card at the border.

Tiraspol can be reached easily from Chisinau by taking a minibus from Chisinau's central bus station. Buses run every 30 minutes from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. It takes about an hour and a half to reach Tiraspol and costs just a few dollars.

The bus stops at the border with Transdnestr, at which point passengers must hop out and fill in a migration card. Border guards have had a reputation for asking for bribes in the past, but this temporary visa is free and you should not have to pay.

You must keep the migration card during your stay and then hand it back to the border guard as you leave.

If you plan to stay more than 10 hours, then the procedure becomes slightly more complicated because you need to register with the OVIR, or migration office, in Tiraspol (2A Ulitsa Kotovskogo; +373 5335-5047; open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), which involves providing the address of where you will be staying. If you are staying in a hotel, then the hotel should do it for you.

Trains running between Chisinau and Odessa, Minsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow stop in Tiraspol every day. The train ride from Moscow lasts 26 to 27 hours, with an economy-class ticket costing $120 to $130. If you arrive by train, you need to fill in the migration form at the police station located at the train station in Tiraspol.

There is no airport in Transdnestr, so the nearest international airport is in Chisinau. Flights from Moscow start from $280 and take about two hours to reach Chisinau. Air Moldova and Siberia Airlines provide a direct service from Domodedovo Airport.

Contact the author at bizreporter@imedia.ru