In the center of Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, portraits of two former Bolshevik militants, Stefan Zdanovich and Aleksej Zarev, are proudly on display. Zdanovich was a fighter in the Russian civil war, while Zarev took part in the mutiny of the Battleship Potemkin during the 1905 Revolution. Both were born here, and here they lived and fought for workers’ and peasants’ rights – or such goes the official history. Since time immemorial, their yellowed gazes have watched over the passing cars along Ulitsa 25 Oktober, just a few meters from the ever-present bust of Lenin.
Above the portraits of Zdanovich and Zarev, still in downtown Tiraspol, towers a modern, luxurious building, with no signage but surrounded by a tall gate and protected by dozens of CCTV cameras. It is the headquarters of the Sheriff company, a behemoth whose turnover amounts to some $6 billion, or half of Moldova’s GDP and almost six times that of the whole of Transnistria. Perhaps this simple snapshot would be enough to explain what the separatist republic of Pridnestrovia, as they call it around here, actually is today: a small strip of land eternally adorned with workers’ symbols and red flags, in the shadow of which, however, someone is making a ton of money.
The story is more or less well known: after declaring itself independent from Chisinau in 1990 – and fighting a bloody “war of liberation” between March and July 1992 against the army of the then-newly-formed Republic of Moldova – for more than three decades Transnistria has been living a solitary and silent existence, bereft of any international recognition but firmly protected by a contingent of about 2,000 Russian soldiers.
Located near Odessa and at the gates of the European Union, this Moscow enclave nestled along the Dniester River still houses one of the largest arms depots in the former Soviet Union, totaling some 20,000 tons of war materiel, menacingly stored just a few kilometers from the Ukrainian border. As a result, for the past year and a half, the eyes of the world have been on the Tiraspol stronghold, which Putin could exploit as a base both to open a second front against Kiev and – in the not-too-distant future – to wage war on Moldova.
But to understand Transnistria, first of all, one must return to Ulitsa 25 Oktober and look at the imposing, unmarked office building that towers over the portraits of Zdanovich and Zarev. Founded by Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, two former members of the KGB, the Sheriff company now controls almost all of the country’s economic life. The only Transnistrian telephone company, Interdnestrcom, is owned by Sheriff, which also owns, in no particular order, a bank, two bread factories, a liquor factory, a chain of supermarkets and shopping malls, a gas station chain, a construction company, a publishing house and an advertising agency – not to mention FC Sheriff, the very rich and renowned local soccer team, which even managed to beat Real Madrid at home in 2021.
Together with the Russian flags, the company’s logo is ubiquitous on almost every building in the capital – except, paradoxically, on the one that houses its offices.
“Today, Sheriff and Transnistria are practically one and the same thing,” says Oleg Khorzhan, 47 years old, leader of the Communist Party of Pridnestrovia and former candidate for the presidency of the republic. In June 2018, after organizing a protest demonstration, Khorzhan was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and thrown in jail for four and a half years. His wife and eldest son were also arrested with him.
“At the last elections, those of 2021, the opposition was literally cut off from participating,” he recounts from the flag-draped cubbyhole that serves as his office. “After arresting me, the government forced the other minority challengers to get out of the way. Only sitting president Vadim Krasnoselsky, who, indeed, is a Sheriff man, stayed in the race. Do you want the truth? They don’t even need to buy votes anymore, because they have already bought every single state institution.”
Of course, the Sheriff oligarchs are on very good terms with Moscow in particular. Every year, $850 million in subsidies come to Tiraspol from the Kremlin’s coffers, to which immense amounts of effectively zero-cost energy are added. The play more or less works like this: Gazprom supplies both Moldova and Transnistria with gas. The latter, however, is not required to pay its own bills, which are regularly delivered to Chisinau. The result: an $8.5 billion debt hanging over Moldova’s finances, which in turn is passed on to Moldovan taxpayers.
So, while on the right bank of the Dniester people are shivering in the cold, on the left bank they can count on substantial surpluses of electricity, which since 2018 have been reinvested in a new business – the mining of cryptocurrencies. The computers used to obtain the highly valuable digital coins are stowed away inside an old, previously abandoned building in downtown Tiraspol. The facility is manned by armed men who prevent anyone from approaching, but the dull buzz of the processors is so loud that it can even be heard from the street.
“That trust – what a coincidence – is also run by Sheriff,” explains Moldovan journalist Ilie Gulca, author of a lengthy investigation published in the Chisinau press. “Over the years, many other investors have taken part in the deal. Capital came in from Russia, but also from some European companies.”
Thus, by combining such entrepreneurial verve with military power, Sheriff and the Kremlin have secured absolute control over every human activity across the Dniester.
The costs have been mostly borne by local workers, who are left with a $250 average salary and $90 average pension – which is why many have ended up packing their bags and emigrating. Such is life in the separatist republic of Transnistria, where the rights of workers and peasants look great, but only in street decorations.