This year’s Champions League features an unlikely upstart: FC Sheriff, a club run by an eponymous company built on murky money in a pro-Russian separatist enclave in Europe’s poorest country, Moldova.

The future state, reminiscent of its Soviet past with an imposing statue of Lenin at the center of its administrative center, Tiraspol, separated from Moldova in a short civil war in the early 1990s. Thirty years later, the little-known region of Transnistria with its own border police, army, currency and hammer and sickle flag has not been internationally recognized but is backed by free Russian gasoline and around 1,500 soldiers .

The territory is effectively managed by the Sheriff Holding Company which sports a five-pointed sheriff’s star as its logo.

Photo: AP

Owned by former Soviet police officer Viktor Gushan, the conglomerate controls businesses ranging from a brandy distillery and caviar farm to supermarket chains and gas stations – and the football club is making waves in Europe.

“Viktor Gushan is the person who has the most influence here, both in politics and in economics,” said Anatoly Dirun, director of the School of Political Studies in Tiraspol.

Dirun, a former member of the sheriff-funded ruling Renewal Party, said besides business, the people of Gushan also hold all key leadership positions in the breakaway region, from parliament to the prime minister’s seat on the way. by the presidency.

Photo: AFP

Gushan founded Sheriff in 1993 with fellow police officer Ilya Kazmaly. The two 59-year-olds spent the following years buying up former Soviet factories and fighting their rivals.

Valery Litskay, former foreign minister of the separatist state and chief adviser to its first self-proclaimed President.

“The sheriff won the competition,” said Litskay, adding that they offered “the best prices and guarantees” that the factories “would continue to operate.”

The former official said the company had a “very dark criminal record”, adding that it had had a “fierce struggle” with its competitors.

“If you go to our cemeteries, you will see whole alleys of bandits,” he said.

Gushan, co-founder and president of the sheriff, declined a request for an interview.

Litskay said leaders in the region “have not followed who killed who”, adding: “Yes, it is not very pretty, but it is the reality of economic life.”

It is “better to have a corporation of police officers” than a “corporation of bandits”, he said.

As they came to power, the police started new businesses.

In 1997, they founded FC Sheriff, which earlier this month shocked Shakhtar Donetsk in their first group stage game and now face Spanish giants Real Madrid.

Dubbing Transnistria as the “Sheriff’s Republic”, the non-profit investigative association RISE Moldova found that in 2015, a third of all the money in the budget of the separatist enclave went to companies owned by the sheriff .

Its companies export products ranging from textiles to building materials across Europe and caviar to the United States and Japan.

Transnistrian President Vadim Krasnoselsky, whose presidential campaign was funded by the sheriff, hails the company as the “main taxpayer” in the region.

“They are creating new jobs, they are investing,” he said. “They are a reliable partner, they can be trusted.”

Their monopoly might not be a boon for Transnistria.

The region suffers from a hemorrhage of young people, with a population halved to 250,000 compared to around 500,000 in Soviet times, according to several estimates.

The main reason, analysts say, is Transnistria’s average salary of $ 250-300 per month, lower than the rest of Moldova.

In a 2006 referendum, 97% of the population of Transnistria wanted the region to join Russia.

There is now a “diversification of choices among young people,” said Andrei Mospanov, deputy director of the Tiraspol-based ISPIRR think tank.

Like all of his older friends, 17-year-old Mospanov said he plans to leave for college in Russia or Chisinau.

“I don’t see any development in Transnistria,” he said.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu said she wanted her country to join the EU and demanded that Russian troops leave Transnistria.

The separatist region still asserts its allegiance to Moscow. In Tiraspol, a billboard reads “Russia in our hearts”, while a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs on the wall of Krasnoselsky’s offices.

Negotiations to end the frozen conflict have stalled for years – and insiders say it’s because leaders are happy with things as they are.

“Russia gives us free gas and troops, and they get their point of influence” over Europe, Litskay said.

“We are very satisfied with the status quo,” he added.

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