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Political newcomer linked to Russian tycoon shakes up Uruguay's election

Sartori at a presidential rally. Photo: Mauricio Zina/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Montevideo, Uruguay — A small, stable, even boring democracy deep south in South America, Uruguay rarely makes international news. But in a region where Chinese and Russian influence is growing rapidly, and which has long been considered part of the the U.S. sphere of influence, a new political figure is sparking attention.

Why it matters: Juan Sartori, a 38-year-old businessman, only recently burst onto the political scene, but sits second in the polls for the main opposition party ahead of presidential primaries on Sunday. His sudden interest in politics, massive campaign spending and mysterious family backstory have opened eyes in neighboring countries, and beyond.

Sartori has lived for most of his life in Switzerland, purportedly studied at Harvard (there are disputes about this), and founded a company, Union Acquisition Group, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

  • He made big investments in the marijuana business in Uruguay, which was the first country to fully legalize the drug. He's also a primary owner of the English soccer club Sunderland.

But it's the fact that his father-in-law is a Russian tycoon, Dmitry Rybolovlev, that has drawn outsized attention to Sartori's campaign.

  • Rybolovlev made his millions during the post-USSR privatization frenzy, lives in Monaco where he owns the local soccer team (the sport seems to be a family interest), and has been in the news lately after being charged with corruption in a massive alleged art fraud.
  • According to the Telegraph, his divorce in 2015 was “the most expensive divorce in history." Among his many possessions is Skorpios Island, where Jackie Kennedy married the Greek mogul Aristotle Onassis in 1968.
  • Technically, the Island belongs to Rybolovlev´s daughter, Ekaterina, who was also married there — to Sartori.

What to watch: Sartori has spent around 10 times as much as any other candidate. If he wins Sunday's primary, he could well be Uruguay's next president.