Had Tottenham Hotspur arrived in Moldova’s eastern city of Tiraspol for their recent Europa League fixture by road rather than by air they would have been greeted by an almost unique phenomenon in international diplomacy.
Travelling from the Moldovan capital Chisinau to the city that homes league champions Sheriff requires visitors to cross perhaps the only international check-point in the world that brings you out in the same country that you thought you were leaving, at least in any legal sense.
The Moldovan dispute with breakaway autonomous region Transnistria, sitting between the Dnistria river and the south-western tip of Ukraine, could well be described as Europe’s forgotten conflict – dormant since 1992 when a brief war over sovereignty that defined the immediate post-Soviet period fizzled out into a polite ceasefire. Thereafter the dispute thawed and twenty years of détente (more from the Cold War lexis later) have left this corner of Europe politically and ethnically stable, certainly in comparison to the seemingly endless blood-letting that accompanied the break-up of the Yugoslavian empire.
But through football some of the ambivalence surrounding the Transnistrian identity still pervades and Tottenham flew to the ‘capital’ Tiraspol to take on a side that all of Europe deems to be champions of Moldova and nowhere else. European football’s governing body, like the UN, refuses to recognise the Transnistrian claim to independence and as Brussels and Moscow begin to dig in their heels in a high profile tug of war over the future of the former Soviet rump states the region’s football and its politics are being drawn into the full glare of the watching world.
Culturally and economically Tiraspol is a curious stopping-off point between the Soviet past and the liberal capitalist present, and Sheriff play a conspicuous role in that dichotomy. The gleaming new Sheriff Stadium not far from the ‘border’ with Moldova was put up in 2000 off the back of supplies and sponsorship from companies in Canada, Switzerland and Russia and the club’s accession to dominance in the domestic game has been largely a product of corporate investment both at home and from abroad.
Walk the streets of Tiraspol however and this philosophy of free trade slams up against an aesthetic that keeps 70 years of communism very much alive to locals and a handful of curious visitors. Quite what Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas and his expensively assembled team of superstars would have made of the hammers and sickles that still adorn the public space, as the beady eyes of Lenin bore down on them from his plinth outside the government building, would make for a telling glimpse into a western take on an almost dead culture.
To say that Tiraspol is stuck in time would be to lazily disengage from the complexities that have brought the Transistrians to this point in their history and to patronise the emotions that keep them there. But a glimpse into the region’s international relations exposes a community at best unsure of the next step in its national story and at the mercy of a brewing diplomatic storm. Football too may yet have a role to play in the changing face of eastern European politics.
The footballing relationship between Moldova and Transnistria is fragmented. Less than half of the Sheriff first team squad are eligible for the Moldova national team, with the club relying on imports from Africa and South America for the back-bone of the side that romped to the national title last season and is now holding its own alongside Tottenham in Europe. In a football eco-system with scant resources for bringing in foreign talent that statistic represents a marked shift from the norm – only city rivals FC Tiraspol shun the native Moldovan with such alacrity.
Even more remarkable in a country that looks to the home-grown product for the survival of its domestic game is that just two of the Moldovan squad that notched the young republic’s finest hour with a 5-2 thrashing of Montenegro in Podgorica last month came from all-conquering Sheriff. June’s 2-1 victory over Kyrgyzstan at Sheriff Stadium was the national team’s first match in Transnistria since 2008, despite the arena being in substantially better nick than the crumbling national Zimbru Stadium in Chisinau, and the incoherence between Moldovan football and its breakaway cousin is a reflection of the political stand-off.
That stand-off has its roots in the break-up of the USSR and takes the form of an independence movement that, unlike the majority in the collapsing former empire, never made it to maturity. The region is governed de facto from Tiraspol, and resists subjection to Chisinau with a gorgeous stubbornness which includes issuing passports and currency neither of which are recognised or exchangeable anywhere else in the world. All telecoms manufactured and sold in the region are fitted with a chip that disables them once outside the border and anyone apprehended without official visa documentation obtained from the military-manned crossing posts is at the mercy of the Transnistrian penal system.
But whatever indifference that exists across the Dnistria is becoming slowly punctured by the shrapnel spinning off from an increasingly combustible relationship between Moscow and the west. With the economic allegiance of a handful of former Soviet satellites up for grabs, in 2013 Cold War politics have rarely felt so current and Transnistria is at risk of becoming a pawn in the wider battle for supremacy between Putin’s Russia and an increasingly eastward-looking EU.
Earlier this month both Moldova and Ukraine were all set to sign agreements with Brussels to cement trade routes and political ties as part of a long-term programme of opening up the former Soviet bloc to the advantages of union with the west, before domestic upset derailed those plans and turned each towards a proposed customs agreement with Vladimir Putin.
That leaves Transnistria facing down a one-way street, with its bid for independence tightly bound up in Moscow’s diplomatic wrangling with NATO. Russia argue that if the fledgling Kosovan state in the Balkans, strategic as it is in the easterly interests of western peace-keepers, is allowed to secede from pro-Putin Serbia then so too should Transnistria be given sanction to breakaway and further cement its historically close ties with Moscow.
Putin already holds post-Soviet Armenia in a headlock over the protection that Russian forces supply to the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh and the feeling is that national identity is being manipulated in the name of a continent-wide struggle. All the more reason then why the footballing independence of Transnistria and Sheriff is to be cherished for what it adds to the power of small states to resist by-proxy imperialism.
Sheriff, toiling against tough opposition in the Europa League, will likely find their interest in Europe ended before Christmas but Transnistria sits on the periphery of a diplomatic conflict that is only likely to intensify as the stakes between Brussels and Moscow soar.
The club may be Moldovan in the eyes of UEFA but in standing as a beacon of the separatist cause Sheriff provide a conspicuous reminder that the Transnistrian identity comes with cultural capital, and is not about to be swallowed up into Putin’s long-game as Eastern Europe’s political geography is re-mapped.
By Robert O’Connor