Behind the success of Sheriff Tiraspol, an obscure conglomerate stuck in a pro-Russian enclave in Moldova
The Tiraspol club created a surprise by beating Real Madrid on the last day of the Champions League. A success that has shed light on Sheriff, the obscure company behind this team.
Vsurprise real madrid, Sheriff Tiraspol belongs to a nebulous conglomerate, entrenched in a pro-Russian separatist enclave in Moldova, Transnistria (or Transnistria), whose status remains debated on an international scale.
This strip of land seceded from Moldova in a short war after the fall of the USSR in 1991. It is kept afloat by 1,500 Russian soldiers and gracious deliveries of gas, with Moscow keen to have a beachhead. in Eastern Europe, faced with the successive enlargements of the EU and NATO.
This self-proclaimed republic also has state attributes: a currency, a police. And it cultivates a certain Soviet nostalgia, with its flag struck with a hammer and sickle or its statues of Lenin in Tiraspol, the capital.
But de facto, in control of the territory is Sheriff, a sprawling group whose logo, a five-pointed star of American sheriffs, is displayed everywhere.
Full of powers
Founded by a former policeman, Victor Gushan, it controls everything: energy, alcohol, steel, supermarkets, gas stations and of course the soccer club which made its Champions League debut this month, beating Shakhtar Donetsk before face Real Madrid on Tuesday.
“Victor Gushan is the person who has the most influence here, in the political and economic world”, notes Anatoli Diroun, director of the School of Political Studies of Tiraspol, determines that the Sheriff group sponsors and controls the party in power, Renewal.
Victor Gushan, who did not wish to be interviewed by AFP, founded his company in 1993 with another ex-policeman, Ilia Kazmaly, taking advantage of the privatizations of the period of savage capitalism that swept through the former USSR during the 1990s.
The company is taking over a number of companies, recalls Valeri Litskaï, an advisor to the then transdniestr president and former foreign minister.
“Sheriff won,” he said, “he offered the best prices and guaranteed” that the factories would run.
But Valeri Litskaï admits that the group had brutal methods, a past “not pretty, pretty”.
“There was a very hard fight,” he recalls, “in our cemeteries, the alleys are full of bandits”.
The former foreign minister admits that the authorities did not seek “to find out who was killing whom”. “It’s not very pretty to say, but it is the reality”.
Today, no one comes to disturb Sheriff’s domination. According to the investigative media RISE Moldova, the group collects a third of the territory’s budget.
Its companies export textile and steel products across Europe, as well as caviar to the United States and Japan. The president of the self-proclaimed republic does not have enough laudatory words for Sheriff, who financed his election campaign.
“They are creating jobs, they are investing,” Vadim Krasnosselski, the current president of Transdniestria, whose electoral campaign was financed by Sheriff, told AFP, “they are future and trusted partners”.
But the statistics available give another picture. The region has seen its population halved in thirty years, rising to 250,000 inhabitants.
In question, an exodus of the working population and of the youth because of too low incomes, 200 to 300 dollars (170 to 260 euros) per month on average, that is to say less than in Moldova, which is however the poorest country from Europe.
Russian gas against European influence
Andrei, 17, crossed in the streets of the city of Bender, says he will do as his elders and will go either to Russia or to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital.
“I do not see anything developing in Trasndniestrie”, he asserts.
According to Andrei Mospanov, from the ISPIRR analysis center in Tiraspol, young people are no longer turning only to the Russian protector, but also to the West: “There is a diversification of choices”.
The new Moldovan president, the pro-European Maïa Sandu, wants her country to join the European Union, calling for the Russian withdrawal from Transnistria.
But for old people of the old generation, like former Minister Litskai, nothing will change. “Russia gives us free gas and soldiers, and in return it has its zone of influence” in Europe, “we are very content with the status quo.”