The territory’s new “president” promises domestic reform and open borders. From Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.
After 20 years of former President Igor Smirnov's authoritarian rule, Yevgeny Shevchuk became the new leader of Transdniester last month.
Shevchuk took about 39 percent of the vote in the first round. More than 200,000 of the 250,000 votes cast in that round went against incumbent Smirnov, who had had a falling out with Russia over allegations of financial fraud. Moscow’s favored candidate, Anatoli Kaminski, won only 19.7 percent of the votes.
Even if Shevchuk’s victory was a surprise for Russia, which continues to have a high interest in the region, Moscow formally welcomed the shift of power. Transdniester's leader for decades, Smirnov had become increasingly viewed by Moscow as an obstacle to finding a solution to the protracted conflict with Moldova over the independence of the territory.
At his inauguration in Tiraspol, Shevchuk expressed his determination to convince international bodies to recognize the Transdniester’s statehood and to cooperate more closely with Russia. In addition, he added that Moldova and Ukraine will remain good, stable neighbors, and stressed that he would work with Chisinau to facilitate freedom of movement across Transdniester's borders with Moldova. Deeds followed words: on 17 January Tiraspol announced the cancellation of a 100 percent customs duty on goods imported from Moldova introduced in 2006.
The president's first move in office was to dismiss all of the previous administration's officials, including Smirnov's son, the region's former chief of customs service, who exercised strong influence over the region's economy.
Kalman Mizsei, a former EU envoy to Moldova, said Shevchuk's victory means a great shift toward democracy on the left bank of the Dniester and that the European Union should take note. “The citizens of this region expressed their will in a democratic way by electing a new leader who should be welcomed by the EU,” declared Mizsei, even though elections in Transdniester remain internationally unrecognized.
Two weeks after the elections, an EU delegation met with the new leader in Tiraspol. They discussed Transdniester's political and internal issues with an eye toward easing communication between Tiraspol and Chisinau. Shortly after the election, Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat and the head of the EU delegation to Chisinau, Dirk Schuebel, signed a five-year, 13 million euro agreement dedicated to financing trust-building between citizens living on opposite banks of the Dniester River.
LISTENING IN CHISINAU
Moldovan officials have not yet discussed any concrete actions with Shevchuk, but their declarations have inspired new hope for a settlement to the conflict. Deputy Prime Minister for Reintegration Eugen Carpov remained positive about the new leader of Tiraspol’s promises of open borders. "The fewer obstacles we have between us, the more trust-building measures will work,” Carpov said. He added that the change of power in Tiraspol and the end of the Smirnov era has inspired cautious optimism that now negotiations about Transdniester's status can go forward.
Political analysts remain skeptical, however, about the new political shift in Transdniester, which is not likely to bring any rapid change in relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol. Former member of parliament Oazu Nantoi said the new administration in Transdniester will be preoccupied with economic stability rather than with communication with Chisinau. "We cannot expect any miracles from the negotiation process. This is going to be a controlled and a well-defined strategy of Tiraspol,” Nantoi told journalists. Other experts say two obstacles to the conflict settlement are, on the one hand, the dependence of Tiraspol on Russia and, on the other hand, the dependence of Chisinau on the EU.
A TRAGIC COMPLICATION
Soon after Shevchuk was voted into power, an 18-year-old Moldovan was shot dead by Russian peacekeepers at a checkpoint along the de facto border. The incident raised tensions and fears in the local security zone.
Two hundred protesters from the security region showed up along the Transdniestrian border to demand the withdrawal of Russian troops and removal of checkpoints. The current peacekeeping mission was established immediately after the conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol in 1992. It is composed of 1,200 troops from Russia, Moldova, and Transdniester, and several Ukrainian observers.
Valeri Kuzmin, the Russian ambassador to Moldova, said the teenager was drunk and was driving a stolen car. The information was unconfirmed and later contested by the Moldovan police and provoked angry reactions from some Moldovans. Members of France's Moldovan diaspora protested the deployment of Russian troops in Moldova’s territory. Another protest was organized in front of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest. Organizers waved the Romanian flag and shouted “Russian army – go home!”
They say the incident demonstrates the need to change the peacekeeping mission into a civilian one, a move that Chisinau has demanded several times in negotiations with Tiraspol. Moscow has said it will withdraw peacekeepers only after identifying a viable solution to the Transdniestrian conflict. Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat repeatedly requested that the peacekeeping mission be changed, and the deputy prime minister told the press the issue will be discussed with representatives of the international negotiating team, which includes Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE, Chisinau, and Tiraspol plus the United States and the European Union as observers.
Germany and the United States have weighed in on the shooting. Washington urged the Moldovan and Russian authorities to avoid escalating tensions and called for a joint investigation into the case as well as the “demilitarization of the security zone.”
Nina Stanski, the new lead negotiator for Tiraspol, told journalists in Tiraspol that demands to oust the peacekeepers could derail talks scheduled for February.
"Chisinau does nothing but provoke Transdniestrian with its demands for the replacement of peacekeeping forces with an international mission of civil observers, a demand that will never by met by Tiraspol,” Stanski said.
But many voices in Kyiv, too, are urging Russian peacekeepers to leave the region. Andrei Parubii, an opposition Ukrainian lawmaker, said he saw similarities to tensions in Georgia. "There is the example of Georgia, which ended up in military conflict. That is why, as long as Transdniester keeps the Russian military, such incidents will continue to happen. It is in the interest of Ukraine to keep peace at its borders,” Parubii said.
Moscow supports Tiraspol's position and considers the peacekeeping mission on Dniester River to be a valid one, maintaining that a single tragic case should not undermine it. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, stated in a press release that the Russian peacekeeper who killed the Moldovan citizen acted in accordance with regulations.