Transnistria is currently in the throes of a parliamentary and local election campaign. The main candidates talk of their loyalty to Russia and accuse their opponents of impoverishing the population of this unrecognised post-Soviet republic—the region is on the brink of an economic collapse.
The elections are due to take place on 29 November. As usual, electoral observers from Russia and fellow de facto states Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are expected to take part. Taking the lead from Russia, the Transnistrian authorities will conduct a single day of voting, whereby city councils, village council heads and the parliament will be elected on the same day. But, unlike Russia, Transnistria is hosting a real election for parliamentary seats, and not just imitating one.
Transnistria, a thin strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine, is the only territory in the world whose national symbol is still the Soviet hammer and sickle. State holidays include 7 November (the date of the October Revolution) and orthodox Easter. The republic’s principal symbol is Alexander Suvorov, the 18th century Russian military commander who founded Tiraspol (and now features on the republic’s currency).
For the past 25 years of its existence, Transnistria has existed under the dominating influence of Russia (although Ukrainian nationalists also took part in its campaign for independence). The Transnistrian authorities may frequently mention their desire to accede to Russia, but the lack of a common land border has proven difficult to overcome.
Tiraspol. Clay Gilliard / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 1990, when the territory was formed, Transnistria had a population of around 700,000-800,000. Nowadays, it is roughly 350,000-500,000. The rate of migration is high due to poor prospects and quality of life. A third of the population is Russian, a third – Ukrainian and third – Moldovan. Indeed, as Transnistria broke away from the Soviet Moldovan Republic in 1990-1991, Russian and Ukrainian communities were concerned that Moldova would join with Romania. In the years since, this hasn’t happened. Transnistria’s army is far more powerful than Moldova’s, though Moldova is 10 times bigger in terms of land mass and population.
A large proportion of Moldova’s Soviet-era industrial sector remained in Transnistria, including Tirotex, which claims to be Europe’s second largest textile company, and Moldova’s hydroelectric station, which provides half of Moldova’s electricity and is registered as Russian property. Meanwhile, Transnistria’s football clubs play in the Moldovan national league, and Tiraspol Sherif has won the league some 13 times.
In 2014, following the outbreak of conflict, Crimean annexation and separatist moods in Ukraine’s Donbas, there was much talk of how the Novorossiya project could in fact include taking the territory stretching from the Azov Sea along the Black Sea coast to create a land border between Transnistria and the Russian Federation.
Rumour had it that Transnistria might form a base for attacking Ukraine from the west. Indeed, the unrecognised republic still hosts a small Russian peacekeeping force, as well as Soviet arms dumps—potential supplies for pro-Russian militants. The Transnistrian authorities, in turn, promoted the idea that Ukraine or Moldova could attack them. In the end, none of these rumours came true.
Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who manages the country’s defence industry and known for his nationalist views, coordinates Russian aid to Transnistria. Despite Russia’s significant economic aid, free gas and pensions to Russian passport holders in the region, Transnistria has few real economic links to Russia: the majority of its exports go to the European Union.
Nina Shtanski and Evgeny Shevchuk. WikimediaCommons / Kodru. Some rights reserved.Yet a lot that might be considered uncharacteristic of Europe takes place in Transnistria. Nina Shtanski, Minister of Foreign Affairs, resigned in September after marrying Evgeny Shevchuk, the country’s president. With a career in politics in Transnistria, you can often transfer to Russia and continue. Russia’s State Duma hosts two deputies from Transnistria—Alena Arshinova (United Russia) ad Roman Khudyakov (LDPR).
Transnistria’s security services have a reputation, too. According to Sergei Ilchenko, an opposition journalist who spent several months in jail earlier this year, believes there are at least 100 political prisoners in Transnistria, with more political émigrés outside the country. (Ilchenko himself was forced to relocate to Moldova in July.) According Oleg Khvoshchevsky, head of the Union of Transnistrians in Ukraine, Transnistria is home to a huge number of security personnel: nine for every 100 citizens.
So far, Tiraspol has viewed the protests in neighbouring Moldova with caution: people are concerned by the presence of Romanian flags at the demonstrations.
Call me morbid
In the past 25 years, the region’s population has halved—mainly the young (and the enthusiastic) have left. Pensioners and people coming up to retirement age make up half of the current population. When several new kindergartens were recently built with Russian state money, people joked on social media that it would have been better if Moscow had given money for new morgues.
A significant proportion of Transnistrian citizens work in the state sector, rather than private. Due to the current economic situation in Russia, the Kremlin is yet to send a $100m payment to alleviate social problems as requested by Tiraspol. Thus, for this year, public-sector workers and pensioners are only receiving 70% of their already low wages and pensions. (The money owed is precisely that—the state’s debt to its citizens.)
Tiraspol. Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.From January 2016, new trade rules come into force between Moldova and the European Union as part of the Association Agreement signed in June 2014. Transnistria, however, is yet to negotiate its participation in the talks over the free trade zone agreement between Moldova and the EU: Transnistria’s preferential trade tariffs will cease after the new year, and the republic will have to choose between introducing Moldova’s Association Agreement and DCFTA or losing European markets for its goods.
The closing of European markets will hit the republic’s economy hard, but Tiraspol views the ratification of DCFTA as a move towards economic subordination to both Chisinau and Brussels. The pre-election campaign has thus coincided with a distinctly uncertain economic future.
This election fight has involved two principle players so far—the Sheriff holding group and Evgeny Shevchuk.
First formed in 1993, the Sheriff group is often linked to former president Igor Smirnov, who ruled the country from 1991 to 2011. (The current owners are former local policemen.) Up to 20% of the country’s private sector work for the Sheriff group, and it includes the Tirotex textiles company, spirits manufacturer Kvint (one of the country’s most profitable companies), bread factories, petrol stations, oil storage, supermarkets, mobile and internet operator, banks and the Sheriff Tiraspol football club. The Renewal political party—the only party to have its own parliamentary grouping (18 out of 43 deputies)—is also considered a lobbyist for the group’s interests.
Transnistria’s current, rather youthful-looking president Evgeny Shevchuk began his career in the police force. Having cut his teeth in the tax police, Shevchuk moved to the Sheriff group, becoming deputy director of the company and a parliamentary deputy. In 2011, Shevchuk was elected the country’s second president—against the will of both Tiraspol’s Moscow ‘curators’ and his colleagues at Sheriff.
But though Shevchuk quickly made amends with Moscow, the tense relations with Sheriff continue. While the Sheriff group controls Renewal, Shevchuk is yet to successfully form his own political party—though there have been two attempts in the form of the ‘Workers’ Party of Transnistria’ and ‘Rebirth’.
Shevchuk’s team is thus standing in the November elections as independent candidates. The Communist Party of Transnistria, a branch of Russia’s Communist Party, is also loyal to Shevchuk, though its influence is minimal—there’s only one communist deputy in the current parliament.
Meanwhile, Shevchuk is believed to be the beneficiary of several enterprises outside of the Sheriff group’s control, and has gained the loyalty of the security services, including the Interior Ministry, KGB and presidential security team.
Both Shevchuk’s team and the Renewal party have declared partnership with Russia and international recognition of the republic as their aims. And while Renewal accuses Shevchuk of incompetent management and corruption, the president accuses Sheriff of non-payment of taxes (which, according to Shevchuk, is the reason behind declining living standards in the republic).
Anti-Sheriff election materials are distributed officially, and can be found in state institutions. At the end of summer 2015, Russian media published a series of clearly paid-for articles against Sheriff.
Despite the fact that the Transnistrian Central Election Commission has always been the ‘little brother’ to its infamous Moscow counterpart, elections over the past 25 years have been largely competitive. But perhaps this campaign will see the authorities break with (democratic) tradition. Earlier in the summer, the authorities tried (unsuccessfully) to evict the election commission from the building that it has occupied for 20 years, which, of course, hasn’t aided preparations for the elections.
‘The election campaign has kicked off amidst unprecedented pressure on the electoral commissions, public sector workers, and this is unsurprising,’ says parliamentary deputy Oleg Vasilaty, a leading speaker for the Renewal party.
‘The coming elections will choose the republic’s national representatives and local government, but are, in effect, a referendum on the direction that Transnistria has taken under Shevchuk.’
But Roman Konoplev, editor-in-chief of Dnieser.ru, a critical news site, believes that Shevchuk may well beat Renewal this November. ‘Renewal was created as the “party of power” in benevolent conditions. [Former president] Igor Smirnov spoke at its founding meeting. It was dreamt up as a kind of analog to United Russia, to support political stability. It’s unlikely that this kind of political project will be able to play the role of “strugglers for power” or “leaders of the opposition”.
‘This is just part of their wardrobe, like an expensive bag or cufflinks. They’re [Renewal] just scared clerks, with pockets full of dubious cash, and the KGB behind them. The slightest move there, a careless word here – and they’re in prison. This is why I’m doubtful of their capabilities. But if these people suddenly change Shevchuk for one of their own, that’ll be a good thing – like any change.’
Oleg Khoshchevsky, leader of the Union of Transnistrians of Ukraine, is forced to live in Odessa, next to his homeland, but continues to try and influence the situation there. He supports Transnistrian independence, but considers European integration, rather than a pro-Russian orientation, a necessity.
Khvoshchevsky tells me that pro-European views are marginal in Transnistria. There’s no political party to represent them, but a few candidates have put themselves forward at various levels ahead of the elections. For Khvoshchevsky, pro-European citizens in Transnistria must aim to receive a platform for their views in parliament this November.
Standfirst image: Tiraspol House of Soviets. Stefan Krasowski / Flickr. Some rights reserved.