This is an updated version of an article originally published in May 2011.
“Don’t ask what Trans-Dinister can do for you. Ask what you can do for Trans-Dinister.”
We are driving on Andrei Smolensky’s favorite street. This is the only one in Tiraspol that cannot land its Land Rover on holes and broken concrete.
“They used a new technology to make it that way,” he said, almost with pride. “I could run up and down all day.”
Trans-Denister’s tiny de facto republic – sometimes known as Transnistria – is a place frozen over time.
In its capital, Tiraspol, hammer and sickle motifs from the former USSR proudly appear on billboards and in government buildings. Seeing a huge statue of Lenin outside the parliament is a sign of the pride and nostalgia the city feels for its Soviet past.
The present also brings pride.
On Tuesday night, the city’s football club – FC Sheriff Tiraspol – pulled off the biggest Champions League ever, 13-time European champions beat Real Madrid.
This is their first season in the biggest club competition in Europe – and the two matches in the group stage have a 100% record after their previous win over Shakhtar Donetsk.
Just as the sheriff sets foot in the unknown, so does elite European football. This is the first time the Champions League has been played in the ‘unknown’ de facto republic of Europe.
Under international law, a thin Silver Trans-Dynasty on the border with Ukraine, belonging to the Republic of Moldova, is a country formed in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
In 1992, Russian-backed forces fought a separatist war here. When it was over, about a thousand people were killed and the land east of Moldova’s Dinister River was separated to form a self-proclaimed new state that was not recognized by the international community.
The Trans-Dynasty takes its ‘independence’ from Moldova seriously. It uses its own currency, the trans-Danish ruble, which is not found or exchanged anywhere else in the world and which sits outside the international banking system. In Tiraspol, the phone signal from Moldova does not register, although the ‘border’ is only 20 kilometers away.
The region has a reputation for corruption, organized crime and smuggling. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US foreign policy think tank, described it as a “safe haven for smugglers.”
Millions of dollars are believed to have been smuggled across its border with Ukraine in recent years. Yet in Tiraspol, buildings are collapsing and cracks have appeared in the streets. The capital is a picture painted in Soviet gray.
Smolensky worked here as a broadcaster, sending Russian-funded German-language programs to Europe and the United States that “spread the message” of what Trans-Dynasty was trying to achieve.
Prior to that, he was employed by the Sheriff Company, the largest private firm in the region. He worked at the company’s football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol with immigration-related paperwork for signing abroad.
The debutants of the Champions League have played in the Moldovan Football League since 1999. They are ruling kings on peasant lands. The sheriff’s company’s annual turnover is almost double the state budget, and it finances the club directly from its huge asset reserves. The rest of Moldovan football is relatively poor.
While the rest of the top division plays on a sports field rented from municipal authorities, the sheriff’s home is a specially built $ 200 million (£ 154 million) arena on the outskirts of Tiraspol. They have won 22 league titles in which they have competed.
The name Sheriff is synonymous with power in the Trans-Dynasty. The Sheriff’s Company was founded in 1993, apparently as a charity aimed at providing financial support to local state police veterans in the post-Soviet period.
Today, it dominates everything from food retail to banking, from the media to politics. Despite a nominal personal business concern, it gained a large majority in the local parliament in December 2020 through its political party, Obnovlenie – Renewal.
There is no formal connection between the Trans-Danish government and the FC Sheriff, but its position of political and economic power is unwavering.
But football clubs were not always in their own way. Peter Lulenov is a member of the Trans-Danish Football Federation. He says that before winning this season’s Champions League qualifiers, the sheriff’s blueprint for European success had been failing for years.
“Signing foreign players from South America and Africa, raising their prices and then selling them to Russian clubs was the club’s business model,” Lulenov said.
But due to the weakness of the domestic league and the lack of subsequent competition, the model was not enough to raise the standard of players.
“It was also expected that teams from Russia and Ukraine would come and use the club’s facilities and this would help create a bigger football competition,” Lulenov said. “But that’s not the way it looks. The football club is operating at a huge loss.”
Instead of transfer fees, the current squad has shown their worth for the Sheriff on the pitch. The 10 clubs in the XI that started the Champions League play-off first leg win against Dinamo Zagreb have been contracted since the end of the European campaign 12 months ago.
The sheriff has rarely relied on local talent, but a recent relaxation of the Football Federation of Moldova rules has allowed nationwide quota-related clubs to pack their squads with signatures from abroad. In 2019, the club had 11 Moldovan passport holders in their books; This season, it’s only six. Two of them are backup goalkeepers, the other two are fresh players from the club academy.
Instead, the team is a patchwork of nationalities and cultures. The Champions League squad includes players from Malawi, Trinidad and Tobago, Uzbekistan, Ghana, Brazil, Luxembourg and Peru. Given the unusual political status of the Trans-Dinister, there is no sense that the sheriff truly represents Moldova.
Speaking to ordinary people on both sides of the Nister River, it seems that the division of the country serves no one but the political elite.
This is an echo of the Ukrainian authorities. Yulia Marushevska, head of the Odessa Regional Customs Department, said in 2016: “[The situation] Suitable for banners and high-ranking officials in Chisinau and Kiev.
“This is a matter of political will, for both the Ukrainian authorities and the Moldovan authorities.”
Border controls have been tightened since the crisis began in Ukraine in 2011. In July 2017, a customs post, jointly operated by Ukrainian and Moldovan authorities, was set up in the border village of Parvomis-Kachurgan.
The European Observatory on Illicit Trade (Eurobusit) estimates that 0% of the illicit trade passing through the Trans-Dynasty previously entered and exited the crossing on its way from the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
Meanwhile, a free-trade agreement between Moldova and the European Union in 2014 included trans-Danish businesses in its scope and exports have shifted dramatically from Russia and to Moldova and the West.
It seems that despite the stagnation of 29 years, there are signs of greater cooperation.
“This conflict is not completely frozen, but it is a conflict of frozen solutions,” says Octavian Tiku, a former minister in the government of Octas and Moldovan.
“Moldovan has an interest in trans-Danes, they behave well together in business.”
Outside the capital, football does what it can to alleviate the horrors of the past.
In the town of Benderi, just a few kilometers inside the Moldovan border but under trans-Danish control, a military roadblock led by khaki-clad soldiers signals vehicles to crawl as they flow in and out of the city.
A mounted tank points its barrel triumphantly towards the cloudy sky. The Cyrillic character on one side carries a call to the arm: За родину! – For the country!
Located on the shores of Nister, it is the city of crossfire.
Alexandru Guzun was due to play for FC Tigina in Bendry Club against FC Constanturul, the day the tension in the war began. The date was March 2, 1992.
“Did you know that you’re well into the city and what you can think of when you see a street bomb exploding?” He said.
Gujun was scheduled to meet with his teammates at a hotel before traveling together to the club’s home ground at Dynamo Stadium. That way it doesn’t work.
“The hotel was on the river bank. Because where it is located, Tiraspool is only a few kilometers away and we were physically in the middle of the fight because of the arrival of Moldovan troops from the other side.”
Once inside the hotel, it quickly became clear that there was no way. As bombs and shells exploded around them, Gujun and his colleagues left the only way open for them – downstairs.
“All we could do was take them to the basement. All we needed was. We would take them one by one to pick up supplies for the first-floor hotel restaurant and take them down again for everyone. The three of us were stuck there that day,” he said.
“On the second day of the siege, some pacifists who were not on the Moldovan or Trans-Danish side came to the hotel. They made a white flag from the top floor. These guys lived underground with us.
“We learned that there was an agreement between the two sides for a ceasefire to allow people inside the hotel to escape. I don’t believe it could have happened without the boys carrying the white flag.
“But we still had to make it from the hotel across the bridge. Just because we agreed to a ceasefire, it doesn’t mean no one will shoot you. No one will investigate. The bridge was full of bullet holes.”
Guzun left FC Tighina at the end of that season and moved to Ukraine. Most of his teammates followed. 1 It took years for the city to recover from the misery it suffered in the first half of 1992. The ceasefire ended the conflict in July of that year.
Back in Tiraspol, the power of the FC sheriff is so intense that they are unlikely to be overtaken by their poorer rivals in the Moldovan league anytime soon.
Last season’s Divisia Nationale title ended with 32 wins and just one defeat in 36 matches, as the team lost by 16 points.
A stale, uninteresting dominance prevails in the league. Now the hope is that tours of the Champions League and Real and Inter Milan will bring some necessary excitement into the predictable scene of the Sheriff’s annual title procession.
“Football clubs will never break up,” Lulenov said. With a TV-rights disruption from UEFA and the ongoing support of Sheriff Behemoth, he is probably right. But the roads in Tiraspol are still cracked.
“Peace and prosperity, that’s what we want,” Smolensky said, shaking to avoid another gap in the ground.
“When you have it, everything else takes care of itself.”