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Separatist Transnistria to sell rare $20,000-a-kilo white caviar

At a sprawling complex on the site of a former Soviet collective farm in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, workers are harvesting caviar — and striking it rich.

Shooting out from behemoth beluga fish are glistening obsidian orbs that the firm Aquatir exports for hundreds of dollars around the world from the tiny pro-Russian enclave.

But the real treasure is in the company’s rare albino belugas, which are set next year to produce a gold-tinted white caviar tasted only by the wealthiest people on the planet.

“We got very lucky,” advertising manager Viorica Grimakovskaya tells AFP during a tour of the 30-acre (12-hectare) premises.

Worth some $20,000 ($17,000 euros) per kilogram, according to Grimakovskaya, the white caviar is packaged in containers made of pure gold to match the roe’s colour and sold only at auction set a year in advance.

Aquatir — which was founded in 2006, 15 years after a brief civil war that saw Transnistria break away from Moldova in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse — stumbled on some 20 of the albinos when purchasing their first stocks.

“They had just arrived into the world and we immediately brought them here,” Grimakovskaya recalls.

“If we had waited just a little bit, they wouldn’t have been sold to us.”

The company was founded to take advantage of the newly lucrative business of farming the delicacy, after a 2005 ban on sales of wild beluga caviar from the Caspian and Black Seas.

Now Aquatir’s albino belugas are finally mature enough to start producing the exclusive roe, but in the meantime the company has been doing just fine.

– From US to Japan –

In vast air-conditioned buildings that look like plane hangars, 450 tonnes of belugas, Russian sturgeons, sterlets and besters churn water — and profits.

The fish, which are not killed when their roe is harvested, produce some seven tonnes of black caviar each year, sold for $22 to $90 per 50 grams (1.75 ounces).

With offices also in Germany, Aquatir exports the delicacy to countries ranging from Spain and Switzerland to Israel and Indonesia. Shipments also reach as far as the United States and Japan, and are planned for Dubai.

The company sells barely any of its products at home — a would-be state that has not been recognised internationally and is propped up by free Russian gas and some 1,500 troops.

“It’s not so easy to sell caviar to Transnistrians,” Grimakovskaya says.

That’s because the separatist enclave in Europe’s poorest country has an average wage of $250-$300 per month.

For those buying the caviar abroad, its taste comes with a hint of controversy.

Aquatir is owned by Sheriff, a conglomerate with an economic and political monopoly on Transnistria, long described as a hotbed of smuggling and corruption.

The group also owns the FC Sheriff football club which shocked Shaktar Donetsk and European giants Real Madrid in its first two matches in this year’s Champions League and faces former champions Inter Milan later this month.

With its fish able to live more than a century, Sheriff has a long time before its gold rush slows.

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