The development of both Donetsk and Transnistria have a strong tendency to be seen as vessels for Russia’s search for influence in a Post-Soviet world. Yet these states are just as much the result of local context and the geopolitical storm that surrounds them. However, whatever the causes of their tribulations, the burden of international abandonment falls on the people in these nations.
Ukranian footballing giants Shakhtar Donetsk’s success in the late 1990s was the initial inspiration for FC Sheriff Tiraspol’s business model. For example, the Transnistrian team (est. 1996) was the first Moldovan team to sign players from Brazil and Africa and is indeed one of only two teams in the country to not have to rent their stadium from the state. Like Shakhtar, the team has over the last decade enjoyed unparalleled dominance in its domestic league, will compete in the Champions League group stages this year, and has a state of the art stadium that has hosted international matches. And, perhaps coincidentally, both represent the capital cities of two de facto independent states in two separate post-Soviet Republics (although one more so than the other). But where did they come from?
The Donetsk People’s Republic, along with its cousin the Luhansk People’s Republic, are two of the most recent representations of the post-Soviet space’s continued political volatility, formed in 2014 following the Ukranian Euromaidan Revolution and now the centre of a bloody and protracted civil war funded in great part by Russia.
Transnistria, or the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic is a similar case, formed in 1992 after its own separatist conflict involving itself, Moldova, and the remnants of the Soviet armed forces. It has since been held in stasis by its lack of international recognition, financial attachment to Russia, and constitutional commitment to being an independent state. It even has its own flag, postal system, military, police, and constitution, and is the only country to have coins made of plastic. They are also linked by their most prominent eastern neighbour.
The presence of Russian culture and money in the two states encourages us to draw some handy comparisons politically. On the banks of the Dniester close to a third of residents define themselves as Russian in a state which uses Russian as its inter-ethnic language, and at last count 75 percent of Donetsk Oblast’s population cited Russian as their mother tongue.
The Kremlin looms large in their histories too. The Euromaidan movement in Ukraine emerged as a response to President Yanukovych’s backtracking on an agreement with the EU under pressure from Putin and led to his eventual ousting. Donetsk and Luhansk, both of which had voted over 80 percent for his presidency, decided that being Ukranian was perhaps no longer in their best interests and duly seceded. They now have their financial stability funneled in by Russia via South Ossetia, and their documentation is recognised by the Russian Federation.
Transnistria’s existence owes much to Russia as well, with the war which formed it being put to an end by the intervention of the Russian 14th Army in its favour, which maintains a presence in the region. Furthermore, in the wake of the state’s 2011 presidential elections, Kaminsky, the Russian favourite, lost out to the Renewal Party’s Yevgeniy Shevchuk, a development which displeased the Kremlin enough to pause its provision of humanitarian support, causing Transinstria to run a 72 percent budget deficit.
This naturally encourages us to label these awkward states as Russian controlled entities, part of the Federation’s attempt to maintain some sort of influence and buffer between itself and the rest of Europe. As such, it becomes only natural to see these places as the front lines of a European culture war. The Kremlin sees Ukraine’s move to Europe as a security threat, and therefore has set up the two East Ukranian republics to destabilise Ukraine, giving the US, EU, and Russia a convenient arena in which to ‘clash’. In a similar way, Transnistria is a Russian satellite state, an ‘open wound’ in Europe and a ‘Russia in Moldova’.
This interpretation is not wrong or misguided, but it does represent an eagerness to slip into a certain comfortable narrative. This narrative pits Russia against Europe in a grand and overarching realist conflict in which Donbass and Moldova sit as unfortunate shores onto which the geopolitical tempest inevitably smash. It is a narrative that encourages us to understand conflicts for their abstract ramifications and overlook the often more interesting and pressing local issues that push them into being. And although these issues do not in themselves define the conflicts, it is worth considering them as the backdrop to the wider geopolitical ramifications, as opposed to the other way round.
Back to football. The two teams that I referenced have one other very special thing in common, beyond the states that they (nominally) represent: their ownership. Both clubs are owned by a business or businessman who has had a key role in the politics and political development of the region.
In the Ukranian case, the man in question is Rinat Akhmetov, who, amidst the crumbling ruins of the Soviet Union, acquired nationalised industries at a discount price and made his millions. Donbass’ own billionaire spent a period as the owner of the country’s largest steel firm, a bid he won as a joint venture with the then-President’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and signed off by then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, one of the many dealings of Yanukovych’s ‘Donetsk Clan’. During the subsequent elections, the alleged corruption of the Yanukovych campaign ignited the Orange Revolution and the steel firm was nationalised and re-privatised.
He then in 2006 had a stint as a Party of the Regions representative in the Ukranian Parliament during another Yanukovych premiership (he went there once). Once his main man came into the presidency in 2010, Akhmetov’s personal fortune skyrocketed, with his mining and energy firm DTEK conveniently being the only bidder in a number of share sales concerning local Ukrainian energy companies. By 2011 he had effective control of the country’s energy market from mining coal to the power lines bringing people electricity.
It was this state-sanctioned corruption that led in great part to the Euromaidan protests in the mid-2010s. In this sense, it was the work of the Party of the Regions, and their perceived role in legitimising criminals by making them elected officials, that brought people into the streets.
Furthermore, Andrew Wilson highlights the key role played by Yanukovych’s ‘Family’ (literal and metaphorical) in taking base issues such as perceived injustice and cultural distinctiveness, and weaponising it into violent separatist feeling. Akhmetov is also charged by the Republic’s original governor with having financed the separatists, others say he exploited his de facto control over the region as a bargaining tool to ensure his business interests, which may or may not be true.
What is true is that when the threat of the Donetsk People’s Republic became a serious possibility, he turned into a unionist and even organised militias to fight against local forces. He fell foul of the separatists and he ejected himself from Donetsk, perhaps pushed, perhaps in order to protect his numerous foreign assets and to rebuild his personal fortune. In a BBC Sport report on Shakhtar Donetsk, its fans left in the region feel betrayed by Akhmetov, as their symbol of pride (who only this year beat the mighty Real Madrid) play their games and represent their region from Lviv.
Meanwhile in Transnistria people live in the shadow of a rather more successful power grab. Sheriff Tiraspol are owned by the company Sheriff, which, alongside the club and its stadium owns most of what there is to own in Transnistria. It was set up in 1993 by Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly in order to turn the smuggling of goods across the border from the Black Sea and Ukraine into a formal business and due to the isolated nature of the state, it grew into a monopoly. Following secession, the state was obliged to privatise and its assets were divided neatly between Russian asset owners and Sheriff. Over time, Sheriff reached a saturation point economically, with no space within the state to grow, and no possibility of being able to trade beyond the borders of Transnistria. Its formerly privileged position alongside de facto dictator Igor Smirnov brought it into eventual conflict with him, and they became in the early 2010s the opposition to the government.
Transnistria’s story is in this way caught up and to a great extent defined by the wranglings of powerful men seeking to maintain their influence. This EU report on Transnistria highlights this as being key to the breakaway of this corner of the former USSR from Moldova: it was traditionally more industrialised than the rest of Moldova, meaning its economy was oriented more towards Moscow and Kiev than Chisinau. As a result of this, there was secondly a greater concentration of larger enterprises, meaning more businesses led by men with great influence. Naturally these entrenched oligarchs had a strong Russian bias, and thus so did Transnistria.
Yet once the economic realities of doing business in a de facto state became clear to Sheriff, it grew apart from Smirnov and poured its support into rival political party, Renewal. Over the years Renewal grew in power and eventually overtook Smirnov in the 2011 presidential election, despite losing out to Yevgeny Shevchuk. The election of Shevchuk marked a brief pause in the Sheriff versus Smirnov wars as the former Renewal candidate waged war against Sheriff himself, running on behalf of the ‘protest electorate’. He was, however, voted out in 2016 and in 2017 had his legal immunity removed by the parliament, making him liable for prosecution on a number of criminal counts. He allegedly escaped across the Dniestr to Moldova on a boat.
In any case, Transnistria has since been run by Renewal and the Sheriff-supported Vadim Krasnoselsky, who, amongst other acts, has attempted to sue Moldova for war crimes and haserected statues of imperial Russian generals. Meanwhile, Sheriff Tiraspol wins the Moldovan league at a canter every year and sometimes squeezes past teams from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Luxembourg in European qualifying. And although in “the European competitions, nobody will ask how you came to be in first place, they know only that you are the champions”, it remains ‘a monument to bloated ambition’ - much like Transnistria itself. However it is not Sherriff that suffers from this.
People still live in Transnistria, and for them the grander geopolitical and personal machinations of their country’s existence tend to take second place to the rather awkward need to survive in a de facto state that nobody wants to help. This comes up again and again in articles seeking to tell the story of the people of Donetsk and Transnistria.
In Transnistria, the discourse of statehood is centred largely around the state being not Moldovan, and as a result of its history, yearns to distinguish itself by focussing on nostalgia for a Soviet or Russian past. Hence the prevalence of both Soviet institutions and Imperial Russian flags and statues in the state - one military commander is photographed with both Soviet, Transnistrian, and Imperial Russian flags adorning the walls of his office. ‘Welcome to nowhere’, said a local to the photographer.
In Donetsk, one local resident notes that ‘normal life collapsed in the first few months of the conflict, I felt panic, fear, hatred. Since then, I’ve adjusted.’ They turn up their TVs so the sound of shelling does not distract them from their movies, children know not to play in abandoned minefields, and those that are not part of the 13,000 dead live life in a place where ‘the temporary is permanent’.
One Transnistrian notes, on the subject of national pride, that ‘I work here. I live here. My family is here. I just stick with everything that goes on here. I don’t care if we’ll be a part of Moldova or a part of Russia, I’m not that interested in that. All I care about is my salary, how to pay the bills and how to feed my children.’ Her child’s great wish in life, for what it counts, is to have a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, an impossibility owing to the lack of recognition for their homeland internationally. As one student who stayed in the country to harvest strawberries noted, “if I don’t do it, who will?”
At the heart of every crisis, there are people trying to survive, and powerful forces deciding that the wellbeing of people is secondary to their own desire for power, influence, and capitol. And the more that individual people are overlooked in the story of crisis, the more selfish power plays by elites are normalised, continuing the cycle. Of course the faultlines of Europe and politics run through these increasingly left-behind corners of Eastern Europe, but that need not be an excuse to let tragedy be blindly left as the norm. What replaces the drive of capitol in this world is anyone’s guess, but let us never forget the pain it can cause.
Jonathan Casewell is a graduate of the MSc in Nationalism Studies at the University of Edinburgh with a keen interest in questions of banal or everyday nationalism. And he is one of De Facto’s explorers.