The business empire of a Russian tycoon in North Macedonia, built largely on political connections with the former government, seems to be going through a slump — at least if an abandoned church construction site in the capital Skopje is any indication.
Sergei Samsonenko, originally from Rostov-on-Don in Russia, owns a plethora of businesses in the Balkan country, from betting parlors to hotel and construction firms, although he is most famous for the ownership of Macedonia's biggest football club, FK Vardar, and the male and female versions of Vardar Handball club. Samsonenko has promised to sell them in 2017 but hasn't fulfilled his words thus far.
His fortune seems to have waned since the Russia-backed political party VMRO-DPMNE lost the 2016 elections after ruling for a decade. The right-wing populist government combined a particular brand of Macedonian nationalism with an Orthodox Christian identity. The party is so intertwined with the church that its statute even has a clause establishing that, in an event of a dissolution, all its properties would go to the Macedonian Orthodox Church — Ohrid Archbishopric, or MOC-OA.
Research by the Investigative Reporting Lab, a Macedonian outlet that is part of the non-profit, cross-national network The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), revealed that Samsonenko's businesses experienced a boom after he donated 1,8 million euros (over two million US dollars) to MOC-OA. This money allegedly financed the construction of a Russian-style church in the municipality of Aerodrom, in the capital Skopje.
But according to a report by local news site Ako.mk, construction of the Holy Trinity Church, as it's called, ceased in 2016 — shortly before the VMRO-DPMNE was voted out of power. The last residents of the site seem to have been two guard dogs who went without food for days, and their howling disturbed the neighborhood. Without supervision, the left-over building material has been gradually removed by thieves.
A blessing worth millions of dollars
The church's foundation stone ceremony took place in June 2014. It was attended by the Russian ambassador and high Macedonian government officials, notably the then-Secret Service Chief Sasho Mijalkov. A first-cousin of then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, Mijalkov was considered to be one of the most powerful men of the previous government.
According to the Investigative Reporting Lab, soon after Samsonenko's generous donation to MOC-OA, local authorities granted him a 35-year concession to rebuild and then operate a local public sports center. The center was then upgraded with a new hotel named “Russia”. The municipality facilitated the concession by changing zoning laws, in addition to waiving communal taxes associated with the construction of the sports center, the hotel, and the church.
Investigative Reporting Lab's research revealed that, in 2015, the Samsonenko's company that had donated to the church turned a profit of around 747 thousand euros (around 840 thousand US dollars). And an investigation conducted by independent outlet NovaTV during that year alleged that some of the capital related to Samsonenko's investments moved through shell companies from Cyprus and Belize, which in turn were also connected to other cronies of the regime.
The church site is now abandoned — just like its website, which displays no recent news and is full of unfinished sections. Incidentally, the website doesn't list Samsonenko in the list of donors. Instead, it cites Father Metodij or Mefodii, a Macedonian priest living in Russia who briefly became internet-famous in 2012 after trying (and awkwardly failing) to kiss Vladimir Putin's hand while on camera.
Meanwhile, investigations on the corruption of the former ruling VMRO-DPMNE, which has helped Samsonenko's businesses to thrive, have resulted in several politicians being sentenced in court. That includes the former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who fled to Hungary in November 2018 in order to avoid a two-year prison sentence. His cousin, former Secret Service Chief Sasho Mijalkov, was sentenced last week to three years in prison for election fraud.
Samsonenko has not been publicly mentioned as a target of such investigations so far. Vardar, the football club which he owns, narrowly avoided suspension from UEFA at the end of January after he paid outstanding debts, including payroll obligations. In February, after the team suffered a controversial defeat, Samsonenko again announced that he will sell the club.
Regarding the Vardar Handball Club, in December Samsonenko said he will remain owner until 2020. The team is a national champion and has good international standing, including winning the European Handball League during 2016-17 season.
Vardar ultras, a hooligan group supportive of VMRO-DPMNE, have played a prominent role in the June 2018 unrest following signature of the agreement between Greece and Macedonia that allowed the latter to join NATO and the European Union as long as it changed its name to North Macedonia.
Similar unrest against the agreement took place in Greece, where another Russian tycoon from Rostov-on-Don, Ivan Savvidis, owns a big football club — in this case, Thessaloniki's PAOK. Another story by OCCRP alleges Savvidis funded Macedonian opponents of the name change, including the football hooligans who have rioted in Skopje. Savvidis denies it.