Smirnov’s Proposed Pridnestrovien Annexation Referendum is No Benefit to Ukraine:
Possible ‘Orange’ Scenario Next Door – But From Which Side?

November 10, 2011
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Igor Smirnov, longtime president of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, raised some eyebrows, and not only in Ukraine, when he recently suggested that Pridnestrovie might hold a referendum on uniting with Ukraine as an autonomous region. Mr. Smirnov’s proposition was floated in early November with Ukrayina Moloda (Україна молода) in advance of Pridnestrovie’s December 11 presidential vote, where he is being challenged by Anatoly Kaminsky, head of the opposition Obnovleniye (“Renewal”) party; and by former parliamentary speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk.

Mr. Smirnov, a longtime client of Moscow, is now in disfavor because his former patrons evidently have gotten sick and tired of seeing their aid being siphoned off, in turn jeopardizing Pridestrovie’s prospects. Instead, the Russians clearly now support Mr. Kaminsky and Obnovleniye, which has a party-to-party alliance with Russia’s ruling United Russia party. Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin has openly accused Mr. Smirnov of corruption and “unwillingness to yield the way to new political forces” (i.e., Mr. Kaminsky and Obnovleniye). Further piling on, Russian law enforcement agencies have launched a criminal investigation against Mr. Smirnov’s son and his daughter-in-law for embezzling Russian financial aide to Pridnestrovie. On cue, the Russian media has opened a slash-and-burn anti-Smirnov campaign.

The only president Pridnestrovie has ever known is not giving up without a fight, however. Pridnestrovien authorities have struck back, arresting an alleged ring of Russian-sponsored political technologists (including some Ukrainian citizens), accusing them of anti-Smirnov and pro-Kaminsky activities. Moscow has been accused by pro-Smirnov media of planning a Ukraine 2004-style “Orange Revolution” to overthrow Mr. Smirnov and install Mr. Kaminsky, as a lead-in to surrendering Pridnestrovie to Moldova via the “5+2” negotiating format (Moldova, Pridnestrovie, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), plus observers from the United States and the European Union).

In this context, Mr. Smirnov’s Ukraine referendum suggestion may be seen as a trial balloon for switching his sponsorship from Russia to Ukraine, as part of a larger strategy to stay in power. That prospect, and allegations of an “Orange” scenario on Ukraine’s western border, deserve further examination.

‘Orange’ Pridnestrovie?

The suggestion that Moscow is pursuing an “Orange Revolution” scenario in Pridnestrovie is implausible on a number of points. The most obvious one is that the essence of a planned and executed “spontaneous democratic revolution” as a political technology perfected by the United States and allied NGOs (notably, the Soros organizations) is the slight-of-hand that turns a small and disciplined cadre of trained activists into the self-anointed nucleus of “the people.” Such a nucleus – “Otpor!” in Serbia (2000), “Kmara” in Georgia (2003), “Pora” in Ukraine (2004) – has been replicated with varying degrees of success in other places (most notably in Egypt this year as the “April 6 Youth Movement”), with assistance from Serbian mentors from the Otpor! offshoot, the Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS).

Otpor! and its CANVAS progeny, complete with the clenched-fist symbol, owe more to V.I. Lenin’s concept of a party of professional revolutionaries than to traditional American ideas of representative government. Ironically, there isn’t much evidence that post-communist Russia has mastered the political technologies involved or even has sought to do so, other than trying to counter them when employed by the Washington/Soros forces.

Perhaps more relevant, there’s no reason to suggest that Moscow needs to resort to such mechanisms in Pridnestrovie. The simple fact is, the only reason Pridnestrovie has not been forcibly absorbed into Moldova (and thence, in all likelihood, eventually into Romania) is Russian support. The people of Pridnestrovie are well aware of that, limiting opportunities for an Otpor!-style ersatz version of “the people” when the attitudes and interests of the real people are obvious. So for aspiring presidential candidates, an essential credential for the job is uncompromising opposition to absorption, which in turn means demonstrating continued support from Moscow. For years, Mr. Smirnov has been able to play the “Russian card,” to his profit and that of his family and cronies.

Now that Moscow is unwilling further to tolerate rampant kleptocracy in Tiraspol, it is clear to everyone in Pridnestrovie that Russia’s preference is for Mr. Kaminsky and Obnovleniye. Voters will go to the polls aware than a Kaminsky victory, and a reformist government under Mr. Kaminsky and Renewal, is Pridnestrovie’s best bet for staying out of Kishinev’s clutches and for negotiating an eventual settlement under the “5+2” format with Moscow’s full backing. Such backing is less certain if either Mr. Smirnov or Mr. Shevchuk comes out on top. Mr. Smirnov, for obvious reasons. Mr. Shevchuk, because he is exactly the kind of leader in the new mold the west likes to work with – a “technocrat” and “pragmatic reformer” who can be expected to be more pliable than either Mr. Smirnov or Mr. Kaminsky.

Who Will Make the Run-Off?

That’s why Mr. Smirnov and Mr. Shevchuk are emerging as a superficially improbable Pridnestrovien version of a Russian-style “tandem,” with the idea of keeping Mr. Kaminsky out of a run-off with Mr. Smirnov. From the West’s point of view, a Smirnov-Shevchuk run-off would be a perfect “heads I win, tails you lose” choice to foist on the voters. Either Mr. Smirnov wins, thwarting Moscow and leaving Pridnestrovie in tatters, under a tainted and weakened leader who can be bullied by Kishinev and Bucharest into eventual submission. Or Mr. Shevchuk wins, also thwarting Moscow and leaving little choice but to accept a settlement on terms the west will dictate to him. If an “Orange” scenario does emerge in the Pridnestrovien race, it will come from western forces in support of Mr. Shevchuk, or not at all. Look for the telltale CANVAS fist.

But western-oriented CANVAS-niki wouldn’t have the same opportunity in the event of a Smirnov-Kaminsky match-up, which would be a real contest between Moscow’s former but now alienated and unviable client and the current one who can count on solid support. For Pridnestrovien voters, that would be a no-brainer.

Pridnestrovien Referendum No Benefit to Ukraine

Mr. Smirnov’s attempt to throw a curve into the mix by raising the question of a referendum to join Ukraine is perhaps a further validation of Moscow’s reasons for dumping him. Certainly there is historical basis for Pridnestrovie’s gravitation towards Ukraine (the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, 1924-1940), not to mention demography. But any move in that direction at the present time, however unlikely, would simply perpetuate Mr. Smirnov’s profitable control of his personal fiefdom in an autonomous region remaining under his tight control. How that helps Ukraine is unclear.

In any case, given Kiev’s relative passivity and unwillingness to engage meaningfully on Tiraspol’s behalf in the “5+2” context, Pridnestrovie would exchange Russia for Ukraine as its patron at its peril. While western governments scoff at Pridnestrovie’s claims to statehood, as they do those of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, there is at least a legal argument for such assertions under the Soviet Constitution and relevant Soviet law (notably the April 3, 1990, law on secession, Register of the Congress of the People’s Deputies of USSR and Supreme Soviet of USSR, issue No. 13, p. 252), as well as international law and practice. (This contrasts sharply with the recognition of the putative independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija, a claim which has exactly zero legal basis and is simply an exercise of naked aggression by the same western governments.)

Nonetheless, everyone is aware that Pridnestrovie’s joining Ukraine without a negotiated solution to its status would open a new Pandora’s Box in the post-Soviet space, with incalculable consequences – not least for Ukraine’s own autonomous republic of Crimea. It’s another headache Ukraine doesn’t need.