Since declaring its independence from Moldova in 1990, the so-called Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (referred to in English as Transdniestria) has had only one leader – Igor Smirnov. For more than two decades he has managed to win support from Moscow and stave off Moldovan attempts at reintegration. But in 2011 he lost support from Moscow, and his rule came to an abrupt and surprising end on Christmas Day 2011 when Evegeniy Shevchuk won a landslide victory in the region’s elections. Could this usher in a new era that could facilitate the settlement of the Transdniestrian problem, or is it just a new face on an old regime?
The change of leadership in Tiraspol opens up ample opportunities for incremental progress on confidence-building measures and could give a fresh start to the formal 5+2 negotiations (involving Moldova, Trandniestria, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine, plus the United States (US) and the European Union (EU)) which resumed on November 30, 2011, after an almost six-year hiatus.
However, transforming these opportunities into results will require a mixture of patience and more constructive engagement from all parties and mediators. New initiatives should be taken to intensify dialogue and contacts between communities in Moldova and Transdniestria, and both sides should be encouraged to lay out a vision for a common future.
The EU should use its economic leverage in Moldova and Transdniestria to move the parties towards political compromise, and to encourage stability and political reforms on both sides of the Dniestr River. Germany, the EU, and the US should continue to raise the Transdniestrian issue in their bilateral relations with Russia in order to give a high-level push to the resumption of constructive dialogue.
The OSCE Troika (Lithuania, Ireland, and Ukraine) should work together to ensure the good work done in 2011 by Lithuania to restart the formal 5+2 negotiations continues through Ireland’s 2012 chairmanship and on through Ukraine’s, which will have the unique position of being both chairman and mediator in 2013. Moldova should seize the opportunity to reach out to Tiraspol, and resist the temptation to up the ante.
Evegeniy Shevchuk has been seen as the preferred successor for Igor Smirnov by many westerners since he became deputy speaker of the Transdniestrian Supreme Soviet in 2000. He is young, modern, pragmatic, and he was born in the region. He is an ethnic Ukrainian, with good links to both Kiev and Moscow. After his first election to the Supreme Soviet in 2000, Schevchuk’s star rose rapidly with the help of the Renewal party, the political arm of the Sheriff company, which controls large parts of the Transdniestrian economy. However, Shevchuk avoided an open confrontation with Smirnov until early 2009, when he initiated a comprehensive reform of the Transdniestrian “constitution” as way of positioning himself as Smirnov’s successor.
However, Shevchuk overestimated his position within Sheriff/Renewal. At the time, the leadership of Sheriff wanted an evolutionary transfer of power from Smirnov to a Sheriff-chosen successor rather than an open confrontation. Shevchuk fell out of favor, losing his post as speaker of the Supreme Soviet in 2009 and then as chair of the Renewal party in 2010 to the less charismatic Soviet apparatchik Anatoly Kaminski.
For some time, it was not clear if Kaminski, who is neither as popular nor as politically astute as Smirnov, would seriously challenge Smirnov in the 2011 elections. When he did, he was helped by open support from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and United Russia and by a smear campaign against Smirnov orchestrated by Moscow. The latter included attack ads on Russian TV and penal cases against Smirnov’s son Oleg and his daughter-in-law Marina for alleged embezzling of Russian humanitarian aid. Apparently, Moscow had come to the conclusion that Smirnov, who was difficult to control and accused of corruption, was more of a burden than a help in promoting Russian policy in the region.
The anti-Smirnov campaign brought the old leader down. Smirnov polled only 24.8% of the vote in the first round of elections, coming in third after Shevchuk (38.6%) and Kaminiski (26.5%). As it turned out, the massive anti-Smirnov campaign did not help Kaminski. Instead, Transdniestrian voters opted for a real change by casting their vote en masse for Shevchuk. He won 73.9% of the vote in the run-off with Kaminski (19.7%) on December 25th, and was inaugurated on December 30th.
One of Shevchuk’s first moves was to fire the entire cabinet. Shevchuk’s challenge now is to consolidate his power base. This will require shoring up support from Moscow, since he was not their first choice, yet is clearly popular and pro-Russian; bringing the intelligence and customs services, the Ministry of Interior, and the military under his control; and building a new team, including by bringing back some of the old players, since the talent pool is pretty shallow. He will also have to patch up his relations with his former colleagues from the Renewal party and Sheriff since the former controls a majority in the Supreme Soviet, which needs to confirm the new head of government to be proposed by Shevchuk, while the latter controls a good part of Transdniestria’s economy.
What does Shevchuk’s victory mean for the Transdniestrian settlement process? Shevchuk reiterated during the campaign and during his first days in office that he will continue to promote Transdniestrian independence and close ties with Russia. It is worth recalling that in 2006 he promoted the idea of placing Transdniestria under an international protectorate and then, after a couple of years, letting people decide its future status in an internationally-monitored referendum. This proposal, modeled on Kosovo, hardly points in the direction of reintegration.
Thus, one should not expect a radical change in Tiraspol’s goals on the status question–at least not in the short term. However, at least the tone, and even some tactics, may change. One can expect from Shevchuk and his new chief negotiator more openness and perhaps new proposals in relation to confidence-building measures like freedom of movement.
Progress will also depend on Chisinau’s approach. Will they reach out to Shevchuk, or will they try to take advantage of a new regime and its negotiating team?
As refreshing as the demise of Smirnov may be for the Moldovans, they are now slightly wrong-footed by proving incapable of electing their own president for more than two years. Furthermore, it is hard for them to demonize the new Transdniestrian leadership as criminals, despots, and pawns of Moscow as they have done in the past.
In short, there is a new and surprising opportunity in the Transdniestrian settlement process that should be seized. It will take time for Shevchuk to sweep out the old and bring in the new, and his room to maneuver is limited by the need to maintain close relations with most of the power brokers that exerted influence in the past, such as Russia, Ukraine, the Renewal Party, and the Sheriff Company, as well as other power structures. Nevertheless, he should be given a chance. Moldova, the EU, the US, the OSCE, and all those with a stake in a more stable and prosperous region should promote dialogue and confidence-building measures to help overcome twenty years of inertia that is hurting the populations on both sides of the Dniestr river.
Claus Neukirch is the former Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova.
In the above photo: Evegeniy Shevchuk