TIRASPOL, Moldova -- Think of the end of the Soviet Union as the Big Bang of recent politics. The successor states are the new planets -- large or small, and subject to varying amounts of gravitational pull from Russia. And then there are the asteroids, in this case composed of breakaway republics, autonomous regions and disputed territories. Fragmentary relics of a derelict empire, they seem vaguely distant until they threaten to collide with larger bodies.

One such asteroid, bordering the Ukraine, calls itself the Pridnestrovian-Moldovan Republic. Elsewhere, this somewhat unwieldy name is shortened and anglicized to Transnistria or similar variations, meaning "across the Dnestr River." Transnistria has its own capital, Tiraspol, as well as a national flag, army, police force, currency and parliament. However, it isn't recognized by a single sovereign state. In fact, the international community recognizes the territory as part of Moldova, one of the Soviet successor states.

Transnistria is no beauty spot. Tiraspol, for example, presents an exceedingly bleak picture of a city whose infrastructure is coming apart at the seams. Large masonry cracks deface public buildings and apartment blocks. Roads, many of them potholed, are not much better. The few shops stock limited supplies of low-quality merchandise. In many ways the city seems frozen in time, with bronze Lenins still watching over parks and offices. The red passport of the former Soviet Union is the "official" one of this self-proclaimed republic and the streets in Tiraspol are still named after such dead communist heroes as Josef Sverdlov and Karl Liebknecht.