TIRASPOL, Moldova—On a temperate spring evening at Sheriff Stadium on the outskirts of Tiraspol, the 1,500 or so supporters in attendance are treated to a crisp sunset. It lends an ethereal glow to the otherwise colorless action taking place on the field below. With 17 league titles in 19 seasons, things have become repetitive for fans of FC Sheriff Tiraspol.
The soccer club plays in the de facto separatist state of Transnistria, a tiny strip of land located on the eastern bank of Moldova’s Dniester River. Since 1990, Transnistria has governed itself independently of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, fortified by a permanent Russian military presence and annual financial aid from Moscow.
The republic is a living museum of Soviet iconography, from the imperious statue of Lenin standing guard at the steps of Tiraspol’s parliament building to the hammer and sickle Transnistrian flags that flutter from the walls of the city’s crumbling gray buildings.
This is also the site of a colossal Soviet-era weapons dump. The village of Cobasna, in the territory’s north, houses what is widely estimated to be Europe’s largest ammunitions stockpile. Porous borders, corruptible officials, and hundreds of miles of lawless frontiers have made Transnistria a haven for illegal arms trading for nearly three decades.
The east bank of the Dniester has long been a smugglers paradise, across which the rich and powerful have laced together a dark network of business interests. That network includes Transnistria’s biggest soccer club.
FC Sheriff is the plaything of oligarchs. The club’s owner and founder, Viktor Gushan, is a former officer of the Soviet KGB security agency. Today, he is president of the Sheriff corporation—Sheriff LLC—a behemoth holding company that monopolizes and controls almost every aspect of life in Transnistria.
Sheriff owes its fortune to the illegal trade in cigarettes, alcohol, and food that has been made possible by the poorly regulated border between Transnistria and neighboring Ukraine. The Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine, a stop-off point for produce from across Eurasia, is not much more than 50 miles from the Transnistrian border, a maritime gateway to a world of illicit riches.
In 1997, Gushan and his business partner at Sheriff, Ilya Kazmaly, did what any self-respecting Russian oligarchs would do with such millions: They established a soccer club. The club’s dominance over the last two decades, secured by Sheriff LLC’s sweeping monopoly over the republic, has turned Moldova’s Divizia Nationala into a meaningless sham. No other club can compete against FC Sheriff’s riches. Yet the club’s home games attract barely a fraction of the over 12,000 capacity of the $200 million Sheriff Stadium—such is the mechanized efficiency with which the team steamrolls opponents.
There is, however, a process of change under way in this corner of Eastern Europe. The 2014 war in Ukraine, and the subsequent partition of the country near its eastern border with Russia, has prompted a reevaluation of border policy and the ease with which criminal enterprises operate here. There is new motivation among Ukrainians to tame the wild frontiers that facilitate separatist causes.
Anatolii Dirun is an associate professor of political science at Tiraspol Interregional University. He has observed a tightening of Kiev’s resolve to secure regional borders since 2014. “What’s happened in Crimea and in Donbass has completely transformed Transnistria’s relationship with Kiev,” he explained. “There are two reasons for that. The first is that Ukraine has completely changed its attitude toward Tiraspol. Crossing of the border between Transnistria and Ukraine has become more controlled. For example, after 2014, Ukraine stopped Russian men of military age from entering Ukraine. So, any Transnistrians with Russian citizenship were affected by this.”
Another shift in the territory’s relationship with Ukraine has been economic. “Trade negotiations have been negatively affected by the war in Ukraine because, between 2014-17, nobody there was buying our products,” Dirun said. “That market was shut down.” The situation is improving now, but “the Ukrainian market is still not as attractive as it was five years ago,” he added.
In 2017, the first checkpoint to be jointly administered by both Kiev and Chisinau was installed along the sprawling 250-mile border between Ukraine and Transnistria, between the villages of Pervomaisc and Kuchurgan. Monitors estimate that 70 percent of illegal trade between Tiraspol and Odessa was crossing the border at this point. Sheriff controls this market. Now, its formerly untouchable supply lines are, for the first time, under threat.
Octavian Ticu is a Chisinau-based historian and a former sports minister in the Moldovan government. He links the squeezing of contraband channels directly to the changing fortunes of Sheriff LLC—and, subsequently, its soccer club. “Because of the civil war, the position of Ukraine is different. Moldova too has taken a different approach to Transnistria. The golden age of FC Sheriff is over as a result,” Ticu told Foreign Policy.
The pinching of contraband channels has come at an opportune moment for Transnistria. In 2014, the government in Chisinau signed a trade deal with the European Union, guaranteeing tariff-free access to EU markets. The deal extended these promises to Transnistrian businesses, provided that they were registered on the west bank of the Dniester and submitted to customs checks by Moldovan officials.
The result was a massive swing in the direction of trade, with 58 percent of Transnistria’s reported $49 million in exports going to the EU in the first three months of 2016, and only 6 percent to the Eurasian Economic Union, a club containing five former member states of the Soviet Union that Moscow established as a counterbalance to Brussels. In 2015, by contrast, only 27 percent of exports made their way to the EU.
Moscow accuses Chisinau of attempting to start a new conflict on the Dniester by blocking trade routes and destabilizing the situation in Tiraspol. In retaliation, it made threats of trade action against Chisinau, and then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin drew up a raft of agreements with Transnistria’s president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, promising closer cooperation on trade, manufacturing, agriculture, and transport. It even opened a Transnistrian diplomatic office in central Moscow in January, one step away from bestowing Russian recognition on the breakaway republic.
More worryingly for Moldova, since 2016 the Russian army has performed military exercises along the Dniester that involve crossing into Moldovan-controlled territory, in flagrant disregard of the acknowledged terms of the peace settlement with Tiraspol agreed in 1992.
It’s all part of a response to a regional power shift that has driven Transnistrian industry into alliance with its Moldovan cousins. Somewhere between Brussels and the Pervomaisc-Kuchurgan crossing, Chisinau has backed Tiraspol into an economic ditch, assisted by a radical policy change in Kiev largely motivated by fear of escalating separatist tensions at home.
As long as Ukraine remains cut off from its own eastern borderlands, the Russian-backed self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, don’t expect to see any cooperation in any enterprise that feathers Russian interests in the region—including allowing cheap cigarettes to flow from Odessa into Tiraspol.
As for FC Sheriff, its hegemony on the field remains untouched—for now. It led the Divizia Nationala by a healthy margin after the first quarter of the season and is unlikely to be stopped from racking up yet another league title unless its patrons lose interest in bankrolling its success.
After all, it’s hard to see what the attraction is for Gushan and the corporation to continue funding FC Sheriff. The club pursues a policy of signing promising young players from Africa and South America, with the hope of moving them on to wealthier rivals in Russia, Ukraine, and beyond. Other clubs in Eastern Europe have become successful stop-off points between far-off leagues and the promised land of European soccer, most notably Ukraine’s FC Shakhtar Donetsk, a team that has sold millions of dollars’ worth of South American talent to teams in England, Spain, and Italy.
This season, FC Sheriff’s squad boasts 12 overseas players compared to just eight from Moldova—soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, doesn’t recognize Transnistrian citizenship. Among that number are players from as far afield as Brazil, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso.
Despite some initial success in transferring players to teams in the Russian Premier League, recently the club has found it almost impossible to attract buyers for its foreign imports. The Divizia Nationala has not proved an effective shop window, and FC Sheriff has failed to become a talent factory supplying Europe’s top leagues.
Petr Lulenov is a member of the Transnistrian Football Federation and a former general manager at the local club FC Dinamo-Auto Tiraspol. “The problem at Sheriff is that the players they bring in are not patriots. There is a certain arrogance of the foreign players. They are not motivated,” Lulenov argued. “Football should be more than money. But for the guys who finance Sheriff, it’s just the next business project. They created the football project to make money. But it doesn’t even make money now.”
It’s left the club scrambling to squeeze every last cent of value out of its assets. On April 3, the team’s star, the Belgian Ziguy Badibanga, walked out on them after a standoff with club management. “Badibanga was a really good player for Sheriff,” Lulenov said. “But he refused to sign a contract extension, which meant that Sheriff wouldn’t be entitled to a transfer fee for him when he was sold. So, they banished him to the reserve team, to try and put pressure on him to sign.” Badibanga called the club’s bluff, and on April 3 he left as a free agent. The club received nothing.
As Transnistria slips away from Russia economically and toward the West, the soccer union between Transnistria and Moldova is getting stronger. Transnistrian soccer clubs are already full members of the Football Federation of Moldova. The Moldovan national team has played international matches on Transnistrian soil—complete with the national anthem and the flying of the Moldovan tricolor. Annual charity matches are held in Tiraspol to raise money for veterans of the 1992 conflict between the two banks of the Dniester.
Andriy Smolensky is a former employee of FC Sheriff, where he was responsible for obtaining immigration clearance and employment permits for foreign transfers. He believes in the expediency of allying with Chisinau if it means a better future for this isolated, gray pseudostate.
“Most people would prefer an independent Transnistrian state,” he said. “But that is unlikely to be achieved. So I personally would favor a loose federation with Moldova.” Bloody-minded, petty nationalism, it seems, is no longer the currency it once was in Tiraspol.