Report: Written by Mauro Orrù
Vadim Krasnoselski has emerged victorious from elections in Transnistria on December 11, nearly one month after pro-Russian contender Igor Dodon secured the presidency of Moldova.
Concealed along the border between southern Ukraine and eastern Moldova – of which it is officially part – the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a de facto independent state with its own currency, government and institutions. Unrecognised and neglected by the international community, the region asserted its independence from Moldova in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
However, what had begun as political detachment from Chișinău morphed into hard-fought hostilities which Boris Yeltsin and Mircea Snegur – then Russian and Moldovan presidents – ended with a ceasefire in July 1992, paving the way for long-lasting peace but leaving the conflict unresolved. The Russian enclave has since hosted forces from the Joint Control Commission, a body of Transnistrian, Moldovan and Russian soldiers to preserve the ceasefire.
As the divide from central government accentuated over the years, approximately 470,000 citizens of the PMR saw their living standards decline, with high levels of corruption and an inconvertible currency only few of the underlying causes. Economic turmoil made Transnistria ever more reliant on Russia, which in 2006 stepped up financial contributions to the region.
Now that fresh leadership has been restored across both sides of the Dniester river, Krasnoselski laid bare his desire to strengthen ties with Chișinău and secure a more prosperous future for his people: “We are ready to discuss various issues with our neighbours – economic, humanitarian, cultural, the recognition of our numerical symbols, documents and much more,” said the freshly elected president at his victory press conference in Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital.
Such remarks seem to elicit a sprinkle of optimism that Krasnoselski and Dodon’s Russophilia might come in handy at the negotiating table, especially in economic terms, but Krasnoselski was clear that “under no circumstances shall we discuss our political status.”
Thomas de Waal, Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe, told The Conflict Comment that “Krasnoselsky’s victory can be attributed mostly to the domestic politics of Transnistria rather than the politics of the conflict with Chișinău. The people of Transnistria did demand change but mostly because they felt that under the leadership of Yevgeny Shevchuk their economic condition had worsened.”
Between 2005 and 2006, Chișinău, Kiev and the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM), an advisory body that aims to protect economic interests across Moldova and Ukraine, agreed to impose restrictions on Transnistrian goods which did not undergo Moldovan registration procedures. The mole of Transnistrian exports plunged over the years and citizens sensed that the economy was taking a turn for the worse as Igor Smirnov ceded the presidency to Yevgeny Shevchuk in 2011.
Elena Terzi, an independent political analyst, told The Conflict Comment that “desire for change mainly stems from worsening economic conditions directly linked to the crisis in Russia. However, Transnistrian voters are not open to or asking for a return to Moldova. They have seen themselves as a state for over 20 years and have no history of being part of the Moldovan state outside of the Soviet Union.”
Mr de Waal suggested that “the parameters of what is possible in negotiations on the Transnistrian conflict are quite narrow. Chișinău can only offer limited compromise because the Moldovan public will not accept any deal that gives too much power to Transnistria and takes power away from the central Moldovan government.
What Tiraspol will accept is also limited by what its patron in Moscow will also accept.”Krasnoselski echoed his desire to reinvigorate ties between Tiraspol and Moscow, where he’s poised to pay his “first visit as the republic’s head” and “work on the integration of our economy in the Eurasian economic space.” Russia stepped up humanitarian assistance to the region since economic restrictions started to bite into living standards and it is rumoured to have provided up to 70 per cent of Transnistria’s annual budget.
Furthermore, as reports last month appeared to suggest that Kiev and Chișinău may be drafting a plan to curtail Russian military presence in the PMR, the consolidation of ties between Moscow and Tiraspol could well play into Putin’s hands. “Moscow could benefit just as much from something like a federal Moldova in which Transnistria has veto powers over foreign policy, forever blocking Moldova’s European aspirations. However, even with Dodon as president, and even if his party won the parliamentary elections in 2018, it might not come to that. The backlash and protests on both sides would be enormous,” said Ms Terzi.
Although Dodon is officially the new head of state, the Moldovan presidency is a largely ceremonial role with limited constitutional powers. The pro-EU majority that currently dominates parliament further restricts room for manoeuvre. “Within those parameters, it is hard for any one politician on either side to make a difference,” Mr de Waal suggested, given that “his constitutional powers are quite small and he has much less authority to negotiate on Transnistria than does the current government.”
The Foreign Policy Association of Moldova, a think-tank, warned that giving Russia excessive leverage on the region would pose security risks for eastern Europe as the 5+2 powers – Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, the EU, the US and the Organisation for Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) managed to resume talks on the conflict this summer, albeit with meagre results.
Unrest in nearby Ukraine may have contributed to scant progress in the negotiation process as Western officials preferred to be cautious about Transnistria. Mr de Waal pointed out that “a deal that is seen to give Russia too much influence in Transnistria could be seen to be a precedent for Ukraine,” where the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhanks could push for more autonomy from Kiev.
Ms Terzi suggested that Russia “was trying to take advantage of the German presidency in the OSCE and the reopening of 5+2 talks on Transnistria to put pressure on Moldova and weaken Chișinău’s negotiating position. Russia’s calculus is always to maintain control.”
Despite Dodon and Krasnoselki’s perceived Russophilia, major developments in what is probably the most neglected frozen conflict of east Europe are not in the horizon. “Things are unlikely to change significantly, Russia is just holding more cards now but still not a winning hand.” It looks like Transnistria may once again fall into oblivion.