Moldova: new generation, new politics?

Louis O’Neill
21 July 2009

Boris Yeltsin knew a little something about obtaining power, retaining power and, ultimately, relinquishing power gracefully when the time had come.  It was nineteen years ago this month at the 28th Party Congress of the Soviet Union that Yeltsin electrified the world by abruptly quitting the Communist Party.

With an act aimed at a country that respects courage and principle in its public figures, Yeltsin simply said, "In view of my great responsibility towards the people of Russia and in connection with the move towards a multi-party system, I cannot fulfill only the instructions of the party...As the highest elected figure in the republic, I have to bow to the will of all the people."  He then turned dramatically and quit the assembly without uttering another word.  Ten years later, with equal stagecraft Yeltsin would leave public life for good by resigning the Presidency of the Russian Federation to make room for new leadership.

Marian Lupu and Yevgeny Shevchuk were in their impressionable early twenties when Yeltsin bulldozed a way out of the previous monolithic system. Now, within a month of each other, these two young, reformist heads of legislature on opposite sides of the separatist conflict in Moldova have made similar bold moves to assert their independence from ossified leadership.  This represents not only a practical challenge to the power-structures on both sides of the Nistru River, but is also a reflection of the demographic change that, with each passing year, will play an increasingly important role in politics in Moldova and throughout the post-Soviet space.

On June 10, days shy of his 43rd birthday, Marian Lupu, the former speaker of the Moldovan parliament announced his own departure from the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova.  Lupu had been mulling this move for some time, but refrained from pulling the trigger until now.  He landed softly, being snapped up immediately as head of the Moldovan Democratic Party and placed first on its electoral list for the upcoming repeat elections on July 29.  In explaining his move, Lupu expressed outrage at the human rights abuses that followed April's post-election protests.  He claimed that the national interest could not be monopolized by a single party and used as an instrument of manipulation, dividing society into "patriots" and "betrayers."  

On July 8 Yevgeny Shevchuk, an ethnic Ukrainian two years younger than Lupu, rocked the political elite in Moldova's break-away Transnistrian region with a scathing indictment of the actions and policies of the region's eternal strongman, Igor Smirnov.  Shevchuk was elected as speaker of the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet in 2005 when his "Renewal" party, heavily backed by a local business conglomerate, successfully challenged Smirnov's faction for control of the legislature.  He refrained from running against Smirnov for president of Transnistria in December 2006, explaining that Transnistrian society didn't need a political challenge that might "lead to instability" in the separatist region.  Many observers thought then that he was biding his time and building his base.

What a difference one electoral cycle can make.  In a speech to the full Supreme Soviet in which he resigned his post as speaker, Shevchuk said that "corruption, nepotism and cronyism are like rust eating away at Transnistria."  He lamented that "loyalty to a personality" takes precedence over "the contributions of professionals."  Shevchuk savaged executive efforts at constitutional changes that would "make all elected officials dependent on one person," a system he likened to "monarchy or a sultanate" which will only "further Transnistria from the rule of law and governance by the elected, not appointed."  He said that these legal changes have as their "real aim the perpetuation of a group of people at the budgetary feeding-trough, which cannot be supported."  And in what looks like a preliminary campaign slogan, Shevchuk called for a future with the rule of law, "where the powerful are just, the weak are protected and all have work."

Transnistria, of course, is a project of Moscow and is deeply dependent on Russian support - financial, political and military - for its survival as a quasi-state between Moldova proper and Ukraine.  The region's natural gas arrears to Gazprom are now somewhere around $1.5 billion dollars.  Heavy industry, including the MMZ steel factory and a number of textile manufacturers, has been crimped severely by the economic crisis.  Even smuggling - most famously of chicken meat for tariff-free re-export to Ukraine and the EU - is down.  In his address, Shevchuk reiterated the economic danger to the separatist enclave:  "And what is most important is that the Transnistrian region has been falling from so-called 'self-sufficiency' to mass poverty, which is a threat both to every Transnistrian citizen and to the state itself."

There are four distinct political groups in the Transnistrian elite vying for influence with the Kremlin and access to the subsidies from Moscow that keep the region afloat.  The Russian leadership has been skillful at playing them against each other and has signaled that it continues to examine various options for succession in Tiraspol.  

The first is, of course, the clan of 67-year-old president Igor Smirnov.  Although his fortunes may have ebbed and flowed sharply in the last several years, he remains the face of Transnistria and its generalissimo.  Next is the union of the monopolist Sheriff company and Shevchuk's "Renewal" party, which has advanced by fusing political acumen and good relations with Kiev to holdings in energy, foodstuffs and gambling.  Smirnov and Shevchuk have competed hard before top Kremlin officials to be the conduit for Russia's multi-million dollar monthly budgetary support to Transnistria.  

Transnistrian vice president Alexander Korolev, the third force, has positioned himself as a hard-liner and heir-apparent to Smirnov.  His group has support among the Transnistrian "siloviki," with trucking and construction interests, and in the military-industrial complex.  Korolyov is attractive to similarly minded forces in Moscow who have consistently stood against any resumption of the Transnistrian negotiation process.  The fourth and weakest group is built around former deputy minister of state security and current Supreme Soviet member, Oleg Gudymo.  He represents a loose swing coalition of the disaffected - those veterans of the Transnistrian conflict who have neither profited in the "official" structures nor thrived thanks to the Sheriff company:  pensioners, the military and some former members of the security services. 

A number of parliamentarians in Transnistria expressed support for Shevchuk's move and called it courageous.  Most significant were the effusive words of long-time MP Galina Antyufeeva, who remarked that "everyone was moved by what was said.  Parliament in under threat and everyone needs to think long and hard about Shevchuk's action....All that was done here was done for the benefit of the people...This very brave step was a surprise for all of us."  Of course Mrs. Antyufeeva's husband, Vladimir, is the powerful head of the Transnistrian security services with strong and direct ties to Moscow.  Her interview on the matter was not by chance.

When Lupu and Shevchuk headed their respective legislatures, there was hope among diplomats for confidence-building meetings between them, to forge an alternative channel for dialogue, reconciliation and possible Transnistrian settlement in one country.  The Sheriff group, for example, has long wished to expand into right-bank Moldova and beyond, and would likely benefit from a settlement that would bring its business operations into an internationally recognized field of action.  Unfortunately, this potential was never fully realized because both men were constrained by their respective maximum leaders and by powerful external and internal forces that wish to maintain the status quo.

Now, both have thrown down the gauntlet.  If Lupu's strategy works, he will be the darling of the EU and the next president of Moldova by the autumn.  Shevchuk has shown himself to be both a Transnistrian patriot and his own man, while dissociating himself from the corruption and economic calamity bearing down on the region.  Transnistrian presidential elections are set for the end of next year.  If Shevchuk is successful in dethroning Smirnov, we may see two young and confident leaders interested in improving relations across the Nistru.  For sure Moscow will remain deeply involved in Transnistrian affairs and will continue to have a powerful, and likely blocking, voice.  But for those who say that Transnistria is a monolith and its actors mere marionettes - remember, sometimes the puppets can yank the strings and make room for new possibilities.


Other openDemocracy Russia articles on Moldova:

Moldova: time to take sides, by Vessela Tcherneva, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/idea/moldova-time-to-take-sides

Transdniestria and Moldova: unloved, unresolved, by Andery Kalikh, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/transdniestria-and-moldova-unloved-unresolved

Stiffening Moldova's judiciary, by Louis O'Neill, http://www.opendemocracy.net/russia/article/stiffening-moldovas-judiciary

Moldova: recession hits a frozen conflict, by Louis O'Neill, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/moldova-recession-hits-a-frozen-conflict

Moldova: the Twitter Revolution that wasn't, by William H. Hill and David J. Kramer, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/moldova-the-twitter-revolution-that-wasn-t

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