The breakaway republic of Transnistria declared independence in 1990 as the Soviet Union dissolved. But no government recognizes it and the international community supports Moldova's territorial claim over the region.
The parliament building in Tiraspol reflects Transnistria's communist air
Transnistria, a small strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine, is often described as one of the world's last bastions of communism. It's a theme that resonates throughout the capital, Tiraspol.
The city is like an open air museum dedicated to the Soviet Union. There are colossal statues of Lenin, monolithic government buildings, and a mammoth square filled with monuments to dead freedom fighters. Gigantic billboards are adorned with Transnistria's coat of arms bearing the hammer and sickle.
The president of this breakaway republic is Igor Smirnov -- who looks eerily like Lenin. He's been in power for the last 16 years, pursuing pro-Moscow policies.
"Here, parliamentary democracy isn't really the ideal," says local journalist Viktoria Gladkowskaya. "The people living here have gotten used to having a strong president -- maybe not exactly a tsar, but at least someone who has an answer to every question, who's like a father figure to the whole country. And Smirnow really does a great job playing that role."
Pseudo democracy rules Transnistria
A multi-party system was only introduced here two years ago. But it is unclear how free and fair elections are.
Many view Transnistria's president Igor Smirnov as a father figure
Political scientist Valerii Gavriluca says the opposition appears to have adapted to the authoritarian nature of politics in Transnistria.
"We're dealing with a pseudo democracy here, bordering on an authoritarian regime," Gavriluca says. From 1992 until 2006, Transnistria was an authoritarian state, she explains.
"Power lay entirely with the President, who's basically elected for life," Gavriluca says. "The constitution was built around him. Transnistria would be different if there was a real government and prime minister. But at the moment, ministers are just advisors to the president."
Not an ethnic conflict
The majority of people living in Transnistria are Slavs, either Russians or Ukrainians. Around 30 percent are ethnic Moldovans. In 1992, Transnistria clashed with the Moldovan government over its declared independence. Some 1,000 people on both sides lost their lives.
Tiraspol's city hall boasts classic communist architecture
Around 1,500 Russian troops stationed in Transnistria still enforce the peace negotiated at the end of that conflict. For years, Europe's top security body, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has tried to negotiate a political settlement of this frozen conflict. But it has had little success.
"I think this conflict is very different from others," says Matti Sidoroff from the OSCE in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. "This is not an ethnic conflict." Both sides had Russian, Moldovan and Ukrainian speakers.
"People know each other and traditionally have had a lot of things in common, especially in Soviet times," Sidoroff says.
EU should play a larger role
But contact has become more difficult as Transnistria built up a border at the main crossing point. This led Moldova to do the same.
Crossing the Moldovan -- Transnistria border involves passing through various checkpoints, paperwork, and patience. Cars are often searched. The region's isolation makes it the perfect location for all kinds of illegal smuggling activities, such as weapons, drugs and human trafficking.
Many feel the EU should support Transnistria more
But Transnistria's economy is beginning to open up. Inflation is still high and nearly half a million people have left the country to look for work. Yet the steel and textile industries have begun selling to markets outside just Russia, including many EU countries. Sociologist Sergei Schirkow says it's a start, but believes the EU could be playing a much bigger role.
"It's really important to encourage development in Transnistria," Schirkow says. "It is possible to form economic and educational partnerships. The problem is that the EU only talks to Transnistria via the Republic of Moldova. But that's not very effective because there are huge bureaucratic hurdles on both sides."
He says the EU should build up relations with Transnistria on a regional level.
Is Russia up to no good?
Another important player in this frozen conflict is Russia. It has never recognized Transnistria and the Kremlin says it would like to see a peaceful solution to the issue. But the presence of Russian soldiers and arms depots on Transnistrian soil are a major sticking point in negotiations.
Many villagers ín Transnistria revere Lenin
Like many Moldovans, Igor Munteanu, the Executive Director of the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, is suspicious of Moscow's real aims.
"Of course, the duplicity of the Russian policy is a well-known phenomenon to everyone in Europe," Munteanu says. "It tries to escalate the hostilities in order to push and oppress the Moldovan leadership to accept a continuation of the presence of military troops for the coming 40 years."
This would probably not only be a risk and threat to Moldovan statehood, but also a threat to the EU and NATO, he says.
Comparisons have been made between Transnistria and South Ossetia -- the rebel enclave in Georgia -- which Tbilisi and Moscow went to war over in August. For the Moldovan government, it was an indication that moves to re-establish control over Transnistria could have disastrous consequences.
Since then, a new round of talks to resolve the conflict has been abandoned following disagreement over where to hold them. And upcoming elections in Moldova mean attempts at further negotiations will be put on hold. The stalemate over a country that no one recognizes looks set to continue.