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It was a bizarre moment: a team that nobody had ever heard of had beaten reigning world champions Real Madrid 2-1.
FC Sheriff Tiraspol made history twice that night in 2021, also becoming the first-ever Moldovan side to reach the group stages of the UEFA Champions League.
A team that was barely 26 years old, formed in the rubble of the Soviet Union, had taken the world by storm. But who were these men in black?
The answer rests with a man called Viktor Gushan, a shadowy figure who has come to dominate pretty much anything and everything in the slice of land known as Transnistria.
A breakaway region in Moldova recognised by almost no one, Transnistria has an unlikely history, with Gushan at its centre.
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Gushan is a former KGB agent, a man who worked as a policeman and a spy in the Soviet Union.
When Transnistria pushed for independence in the wake of the fall of the union, Gushan was on the frontline of the Transnistrian war that followed, fighting on the side of the separatists.
He was, it is thought, involved in the eventual capture and arrest of members of the Ilașcu group, individuals who wanted Moldova to join with Romania, many of whom were later sentenced to death.
Gushan came out of all of this unscathed, and in 1993, together with Ilya Kazmaly — also a former KGB agent — founded the Sheriff holding company, today the second-largest company in Transnistria behind only the Moldova Steel Works.
Initially active in the cigarette and alcohol trade, Sheriff soon expanded to encompass almost every business venture in Transnistria imaginable, and today reigns supreme over most aspects of life.
“He owns the supermarkets, the WiFi, the petrol stations, all the good stuff,” Keith Harrington, an expert on the region, told Express.co.uk. “Sheriff essentially owns everything.”
Through this vast empire, Gushan has become one of the wealthiest people in the former USSR, his fortune estimated to be an estimated $2billion (£1.5billon).
The oligarch also has businesses in Ukraine, Cyprus, and Germany, and when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Gushan expanded his business there, too.
How might he have been able to do this? According to Romanian journalist Matei Rosca, writing in the Daily Beast, Gushan “is thought to maintain continuing links to the Kremlin”, hinting that his work is intricately tied up, or at least reliant on, Vladimir Putin.
In an investigative piece, journalists Roxana Frey and Jonas Mueller-Töwer went one step further and said Gushan was, in fact, “Putin’s Sheriff”.
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And, in another investigation looking at Gushan, Skhemy (Schemes), a joint venture of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and UA:Pershy television, found that Gushan has Ukrainian citizenship as well as land and property ownership in the Kyiv and Odesa regions of the country — although it is unclear whether he is still in possession of these things since war broke out.
Through firms linked to him, he is thought to control a 600-square-meter dwelling in Odesa which he uses as a holiday home, a piece of land some 6,000 square metres big that includes two docks, security buildings, a garden, vineyards, a gazebo, and a guesthouse.
He allegedly owns other properties and land in an area that straddles the Danube River in Odesa, property which is listed as recreational in the government real estate registry.
The reports suggested he also owned land outside Kyiv that is designated as agricultural.
“Citing anonymous sources at the State Migration Service, the journalists found that a person recently visited one of Gusan’s properties after crossing the border using a Ukrainian passport with the same name and date of birth as the tycoon,” the publication’s report read.
In 2021, Gushan controlled around 60 percent of the economy of Transnistria. But his influence goes further than that.
Sheriff — and, by extension, Gushan himself — was greatly facilitated by the former Transnistrian President Igor Smirnov, a Russian-born former engineer who won power in the region’s first-ever elections, and who is largely seen as the closest thing Transnistria came to a dictator.
Sheriff was given favourable tax reductions and exempted from customs duties in return for supporting Transnistrian government policy, with some members of Smirnov’s family believed to have been given top jobs in the company.
A massive corruption scandal ensued, and when Smirnov lost Transnistria’s elections in 2011, soon, all mention of Sheriff’s involvement with him disappeared from Transnistria. Gushan, it seems, wanted the region to forget about their ties.
A new party, Obnovlenie, the Renewal party emerged, with Mr Harrington saying it was simply a front for Sheriff to promote itself and ensure it maintained a monopoly in Transnistria.
It seems to have worked: just five years after the Renewal party came into existence it won an absolute majority of seats in Transnistria’s parliament, some 23 out of 43, with many more going to natural allies. Today, it holds 29 out of 33 seats.
“The parliament is owned by Sheriff,” Mr Harrington said. “Now, the only opposition is the Communists, and they’re very small. What we’re seeing is Sheriff andGushan becoming really comfortable in their positions.”
That position became yet more comfortable this year when the leader of Transnistria’s Communist Party, Oleg Khorzhan, was found dead in his own office. Now, the only opposition party was left without its leader, a man who had rallied against Renewal for years and had already had several attempts on his life.
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While a comparatively unstable region, Transnistria has for years consistently held relatively free and fair elections. This changed with the election of Vadim Krasnoselsky in 2016.
Supported by Sheriff in the run-up to the ballot, Mr Harrington said the company “essentially owns Krasnoselsky”, Gushan and his colleagues using him as a way to achieve their own business and political goals in the region.
It is unclear what all of this might mean for Transnistria’s future, Moldova, and even the surrounding European region. But what is certain is that Gushan’s influence continues to grow, business by business, politician by politician.
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