Parliamentary elections in Transnistria could have implications beyond just Moldova, extending all the way to Ukraine and Russia.


People walk by posters advertising the Party of Communists of Moldova, in Chisinau. Photo: AP
The rapidly developing events in the Middle East and the Russian-Turkish confrontation completely overshadowed the parliamentary elections held in the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldovan Republic on Nov. 29.

Nevertheless, elections in Transnistria are important for several reasons. Most obviously, these elections have a direct impact on any settlement of the Transnistrian frozen conflict. Moreover, they could also have an indirect impact on the resolution of the Ukraine crisis. It should be remembered that Ukraine shares a 250 mile-long border with Transnistria and views the unrecognized entity as an outpost of the “Russian world” and a tool of Moscow’s foreign policy.

Finally, the Transnistrian conflict has had a significant impact on relations between Russia and the European Union, which is keen to untangle these two ethno-political knots on its borders. Moreover, as a member of the EU, Romania is a key player in Moldovan matters. Although the country’s new president Klaus Iohannis is pursuing the "divided nation" discourse less energetically than his predecessor Trajan Basescu, it is still having an impact on the political debate not only in Romania, but also in Chisinau. 

The importance of elections in Transnistria

The parliamentary elections in Transnistria have their own intrinsic value, too. Any election campaign in an unrecognized republic has special symbolism. Besides the race between the various candidates, such elections contain an element of competition with the “mainland” to which they formally belong. Elections in de facto entities are a kind of signal to the world: “Despite the international community’s refusal to grant us independence, we do exist.”

Regarding the November campaign of 2015, there are a number of substantive points. The elections to the Transnistrian Supreme Council were the first major election campaign under President Yevgeny Shevchuk. Recall that he came to power in December 2011 after a hard-fought victory in the second round of the presidential race, defeating both then President Igor Smirnov and Supreme Council Speaker Anatoly Kaminsky (who left his post in June 2012). The 2015 parliamentary elections were thus a kind of test for the head of the republic, in which Shevchuk and his team did not perform convincingly.

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Voter turnout was 47 percent, up 4 percent compared to the previous ballot in 2010. However, 34 of the 43 seats went to the incumbent’s opponents. Control of the Supreme Council largely passed to the opposition party Renewal, linked to the holding company Sheriff. The value of this enterprise to the unrecognized republic cannot be overestimated. Sheriff accounts for around half of Transnistria’s total revenue, and employs a significant part of the population.

But is Renewal’s success simply the result of its financial clout, which the presidential team tried to highlight during the election campaign by exploiting the topic of oligarchs and their “dominance”? 

That would be a simplification. Shevchuk was up against a combination of factors. Expectations had been high after his victory four years ago, when Smirnov (in office since the collapse of the Soviet Union) was unseated, leading many to think that a new dawn was breaking. But there was no miracle. Moreover, the new team repeated many of their predecessors’ mistakes. 

No doubt the current social and economic situation helped the opposition. In this context, it is worth noting that the existing complexities are the result not only of governmental miscalculations, but also the pressure on Transnistria exerted by Moldova and Ukraine, which intensified in the wake of the Crimea crisis and the conflict in the Donbas region. 

But equally serious challenges lie ahead. In January 2016, EU trade preferences for Transnistrian goods will come to an end, which could give rise to fresh social and economic problems. In the absence of a common border between Transnistria and Russia, this will isolate the region even further.

As a result, there are various possible scenarios. According to one, the winners of the parliamentary elections may attempt to build on their success and begin a campaign to oust the president ahead of time. They will be motivated by the need to consolidate victory, or else by the end of next year they will have to share responsibility for the situation in Transnistria with the presidential team. If the unrecognized republic were to have UN member status, this algorithm would be the most likely. 

But in the absence of recognition and its stubborn determination to forge its own path, there may be other options. Recall how in 2011 many Western experts were falling over themselves to pronounce that the "young technocrat" Shevchuk would be more tractable in talks with Chisinau. But this did not happen, for the reason that the various segments of the Transnistrian political class are united on basic foreign policy issues, including making its strategic choice in favor of Russia. 

 Also read: "Transnistria: 25 years without recognition"

Incidentally, this tradition predates November 2015. The behavior of Yevgeny Shevchuk and his team over the past four years shows that a change in personnel at the top does not imply fundamental changes in the republic’s status or foreign policy.

What will change in relations with Russia?

Nonetheless, ever since Renewal’s victory in the parliamentary elections Russian media have been brimming with reports of how the new-look State Council will be more pliant in talks with Moldova and the EU. It is worth remembering here that the “Renewal-ists” signed a cooperation agreement with Russia’s “party of power” United Russia in November 2007. And it was Renewal’s candidate Kaminsky who enjoyed the Kremlin’s de facto support in the presidential elections four years ago. 

In this regard, it would be overly simplistic to label the party as anti-Russian. Moreover, taking into account Moscow’s traditional reluctance to “rock the boat,” especially when under external pressure, the Transnistrian elite can wait until the next — presidential — elections. All the more so given that both Chisinau and Kiev will try to make the most of the internal complexities of Transnistria. 

As for the EU and the U.S., at present they have no desire to escalate the conflict. Rather, they are relying on economic sanctions on Russia itself and pressure on Transnistria, calculating that the sum effect will make both Moscow and Tiraspol amenable and receptive to concessions. 

Until now, the West has seen a Moldovan victory as the only possible settlement of the conflict, not a real compromise between the two banks of the Dniester River. But will that scenario play out? The answer hinges on the effectiveness of the managerial and political decisions taken by Transnistrian politicians.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.