Posted: Dec 16, 2016
Author: Sergey Markedonov
Now that the new leaders of both Moldova and Transnistria have a pro-Russian orientation, Moscow must decide how to move the situation forward with less antagonizing the West.
In the presidential election that took place in Transnistria on Dec. 11, Vadim Krasnoselsky won 62.3 percent of the votes, or slightly over 157,000 total votes. Krasnoselsky, who is the current speaker of the Transnistrian Supreme Council, won a resounding victory over the (now former) head of the republic, Yevgeny Shevchuk, who received less than 28 percent of the votes.
This wide margin of victory might appear to offer Krasnoselsky a sweeping mandate to carry out his campaign promises, which included a revitalization of the economy and closer ties with Russia. However, even before his inauguration, the new President-elect faces a difficult political task: deciding how far to go in turning his unrecognized republic in the direction of Moscow and figuring out how to manage Transnistria’s divide with Moldova.
The good news is that new Moldovan leader Igor Dodon, who himself was just elected in November, appears willing to meet Krasnoselsky halfway. After the Central Election Committee announced the winner in the Transnistrian election, Dodon sent a congratulatory message to Krasnoselsky via Facebook.
“I sincerely congratulate Vadim Nikolaevich on his victory. We have accumulated a lot of questions to discuss. I believe that our joint efforts can break the deadlock in the Transnistrian settlement,» he wrote.
Transnistria’s Russia orientation
One of the main threads of Krasnoselsky’s campaign was the idea of building up cooperation with Russia. Along with criticizing the republican administration for its blunders and failures in socio-economic policy, Krasnoselsky talked about the ineffective way President Shevchuk’s team had worked with the Kremlin. And he promised to change the situation for the better. As Russian expert Aleksandr Guschin pointed out, Krasnoselsky went so far as to search out an endorsement from the Kremlin.
“Although officially Moscow remained neutral towards the candidates, the Transnistrian managers of Krasnoselsky’s campaign tried hard, and with success, to show that endorsement was given to the Chairman of the Supreme Council,” the expert wrote.
That was easily achieved, especially because the predecessor of the President-elect had alienated many members of the parliament and prominent public leaders who had worked on the team of the first head of Transnistria, Igor Smirnov. These leaders were then mostly pushed aside during the period from 2011 to 2016.
The socio-political dynamics were not in favor of Shevchuk, either, though not all the negative trends were due to his activity. For instance, the tightening of the control over the border between Ukraine and the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldavian Republic (TMR) had been an external factor that had further deteriorated Tiraspol’s complicated situation.
Nevertheless, the pro-Russian orientation remained a kind of consensus among the leading politicians of Transnistria. It was Krasnoselsky who managed to explore that political and electoral resource to maximum effect.
Will Russia finally commit to Transnistria?
There is another side to the coin, though. In this case, it is the inconsistent position of Russia. Moscow really considers pro-Russian Transnistria as an advance post of its regional security interests and a counterbalance to the efforts by the U.S. and the European Union to minimize its influence in the post-Soviet space and provide security for Europe.
At the same time, the TMR is regarded as a tool for deterring the rapprochement between Moldova and NATO, and preserving Chișinău’s neutral status. As a consequence, the Abkhaz–South Ossetian scenario (i.e. a breakaway republic supported by Moscow) has not been extended to Transnistria, while dialogue with Moldova has been maintained despite all the problems.
Due to the abrupt exacerbation of the relations between Moscow and Chișinău following the change of the status of Crimea and the conflict in the southeast of Ukraine, Transnistria’s situation has seriously deteriorated in transportation, logistical, political and economic terms.
The Kremlin fears an “unfreezing” of the conflict, including a possible military confrontation and complete degradation of the negotiation process, which would compel Moscow to react in a tough way, and thus, expose itself to additional risks, from economic sanctions to involvement in any armed strife.
In the new situation, Russia intends to keep some room for maneuver by conditioning its actions on the possible steps of its partners in the “5+2” format and calibrating its stand on the prospects of the PMR to Chișinău’s position. [The “5+2” format has existed since 2005, and includes Transnistria and Moldova in addition to the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the U.S. as mediators – Editor’s note].
As far back as October 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an open lecture on foreign policy problems: “If Moldova loses its sovereignty and is absorbed by another country, or if Moldova changes its military-political status from a neutral to bloc-related one, then the Transnistrians have every right to make an independent decision on their future. And we shall stand by that basic position which was the beginning of everything, and which everyone agreed on.”
The current Moldova-Transnistria context
However, those comments by the Russian foreign minister were voiced in a context that was very different from today’s agenda. At that time, a coalition was in power in Chișinău that aimed to strengthen the ties with the European Union and the U.S. On the whole, it was sympathetic towards the position of Kiev, while it strove not to come into an open confrontation with Moscow.
However, today Moldova has a president who won under a slogan of strengthening relations with Russia while abandoning the country’s clear-cut pro-Western choice. In contrast, the Socialist party that gave a boost to Dodon studies with interest the Austrian and Swiss models of neutrality, trying to fill their Moldovan analogue with real political-legal substance.
On Nov. 17, just four days after his election victory, the new President of Moldova said that the Transnistrian conflict could be resolved in a matter of one and a half to two years.
“Why do I say so? Everyone — Russia and the West alike — needs a positive example of how an agreement can be reached,» he said. «After Crimea, Georgia and many other events, an example is needed of how frozen conflicts can be resolved.”
However, strongly Moscow and its ally Tiraspol wish to postpone the final definition of the status of PMR, it is hard to refuse the proposals and initiatives of a politician who positions himself as a supporter of Eurasian integration and strengthening ties with Russia. More so, Moscow would be partnering with a politician who has a mandate for that from his voters.
Meanwhile, neither Dodon nor his party can afford to give up the idea of the territorial integrity of the country, since the voters’ support was driven, among other things, by the hopes for a peaceful settlement of the problem of Transnistria, only not on the path of Euro-integration but through joint efforts with Russia.
Herein lies a difficult dilemma for the new Transnistrian leadership. The “unrecognized citizens” pin their hopes on it, as they expect an improvement of their socio-political situation through building up integration with Russia. Russia itself is in no hurry to change its stand on the problem of recognition of the PMR, while Moldova wishes to reverse its foreign policy without giving up the integration of the left and right banks of the Dniester.
In this situation, refusing to conduct peace negotiations would look unjustified, while an accelerated settlement of the conflict without resolving many status-related and informal problems would create risks for the political future not only of Krasnoselsky, but also of those Russian diplomats who are involved in disentangling this knot.
The situation is all the more difficult to disentangle due to the change factor. In 2011, when Shevchuk took over the presidential post from the veteran PMR leader Igor Smirnov, many observers predicted a breakthrough. The new, young president was regarded as an alternative to the “red director.”
However, to the disappointment of many, Shevchuk turned out to be no great enthusiast of the accelerated “return” to Moldova. Five years later, experts say that the financial holding company, Sherif, which has supported Krasnoselsky, is tied to Chișinău economically. And generally, in comparison to other de facto state formations, Transnistria is more closely integrated into the European Union’s economy.
But economic reasons are not at all the same as political agreements. Moscow, which has considerable problems in its relations with the U.S. and the EU, will hardly extend unilateral concessions on Transnistria without linking them to compromises by the West over Crimea, the Donbas and Syria.
Such “selective solutions” look doubtful out of the general context. It is another matter that contacts between Krasnoselsky and Dodon, who both are new leaders (though known as politicians for years already), may make the negotiation process more active and more pragmatic by channeling it into the implementation of less complex initiatives. That is not so bad if one sees the settlement of the conflict as a complex process rather than a momentary publicity campaign.