Second-class citizenship?

von Karoline Winter

“Серпастий, молоткастий советский паспорт.”

“Sickle, hammer, Soviet passport.” With these words Andrej Smolenskij proudly presents his Transnistrian passport to us. From the outside the document looks like a normal passport, while inside each page has sickle and hammer imprinted exhibiting a Soviet nostalgia Transnistria is associated with. Andrej, our tour guide in Tiraspol, tells us that the Transnistrian passport functions like a personal diary since it documents all the important stages of a person’s life including marriage and the birth of children. He is proud to be Transnistrian and several times during our tour he stresses the state’s right of existence. However, when it comes to the practical points in life, the Transnistrian passport loses its value and appreciation.

In Transnistria most people hold the Russian or Moldovan citizenship – and passport – some people even have both. Andrej, for instance, has three passports – Transnistrian, Russian and Moldovan. In his view, the most clever people apply for both citizenships to gain the most benefits. Among those is the right to vote, as we have experienced during our stay in Tiraspol, and the right to travel. As Transnistria is not recognised as a sovereign state, people with a Transnistrian passport are not allowed to travel abroad. Thus, their proudly held passport rather functions as an internal ID card. In contrast, Moldovan or Russian citizenship entitles a person to the same privileges as their compatriots living in Russia or Moldova, including travelling to other countries.


The topic of travelling, in fact, is highly relevant considering that Transnistria includes only a tiny part of territory. To leave this area to the east, meaning Ukraine, people need another passport. Crossing the borders of Transnistria from inside to outside requires not to be Transnistrian. What sounds absurd at first, becomes more comprehensible after having been to this unrecognised state between Moldova and Ukraine. Our group has experienced the pragmatism that appears to rule the country’s daily life. This pragmatism does not stop when it comes to travelling and making business abroad. Although people seem to be proud of their Transnistrian state they are aware of the fact that other passports entail much more privileges. The Romanian passport, which is often given to Moldovan citizens, is considered as the jackpot among passports as it entitles the person to travel to all the EU countries without having to apply for visa or going through other annoying bureaucratic procedures. While the number of Transnistrians holding Russian citizenship is estimated to be roughly 250.000 (out of the 450.000 people living in the country) there are no official numbers for holders of Moldovan or even Romanian citizenship.

Travelling from Ukraine to Transnistria, through Moldova and back to Ukraine, made me think about the value of a passport and the hierarchies that exist among these documents. While the Transnistrian passport is worth less than a Moldovan, my German one seems to still rank highest. For sure, we had to wait at the borders, sometimes even for hours without really knowing why. Yet, we could be certain that we can enter all of these East-European countries without needing any special documents, securities, or even an invitation. Comparing this privileged situation to those of Moldovans, Ukrainians and other non-EU citizens, I realise that the borders we cross are highly selective and much harder to cross for others. My German passport allows me to go almost everywhere I want without even having to think about additional documents, whereas others have to try and get more than two other passports in order to be able to move sort of freely. At the periphery of the European Union I am confronted with the value of a document that I have never really questioned before. My passport that testifies my German citizenship – with all its privileges – stand in stark contrast to the three passports of a Transnistrian citizen who, sometimes illegally, has to get hold of more passports to enjoy the freedom I can take for granted. As we cross the many borders between recognised and unrecognised states, the notion of second-class citizenship swirls through my head.

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