Europe’s small countries are among the most interesting on the continent. And Moldova, not really a Danube nation, not quite on the Black Sea, is one of the very best. Laurence Mitchell, a regular contributor to hidden europe reports from two very different cities: the Moldovan capital Chisinau, and Tiraspol, the ‘capital’ of the breakaway Transnistria (Transdniestr) region.
The bus from Iasi passes through the Moldovan border with barely a hitch. The passengers are mostly Moldovans returning to Chisinau, along with a couple of Romanians on business and a Japanese country- ticking enthusiast who insists on showing me his passport filled with the inky evidence of brief forays into Mozambique and Panama, Curaçao and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Japanese traveller may not be aware - to him it is just another passport stamp - but to most Europeans, Moldova is equally exotic: the sort of place that exists as much in the imagination as it does on terra firma. Perhaps it is no mistake that a recent spoof travel guide lampooned a country it called Molvania, a fictitious territory with a name that sounds uncomfortably familiar. In reality, Moldova - not fake Molvania or even Moldavia, which is a province of Romania - occupies a geographical no-man's-land between the Balkans and Ukraine, themselves both border zones of sorts. Moldova is a small, landlocked, fingernail-shaped country that in Soviet times was best known for its agricultural produce and fine wines, the best in the Soviet Union. These days, although its wine cellars continue to enjoy a good reputation, the country is probably better known for being the poorest in Europe.
The former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic emerged from the seismic political upheavals of the early nineties as a broken land — a territory split by a river, divided notions of ethnicity and conflicting hopes for the future. Chisinau automatically became the capital of Moldova, the Romanian-language region west of the Dniester river, while on the east bank, tidy, provincial Tiraspol became the de facto capital of Transnistria (more accurately, Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic — PMR for short), a maverick splinter of the erstwhile Soviet territory that is yet to secure any recognition from the international community. Such a split did not really benefit either side: Moldova was left with much of the agriculture and the moral high ground, while Transnistria had the bulk of the industry, the fastest route to Ukraine and the favour of Russia.