Transnistria Charts a New Course

December 20, 2011
Darren Spinck
Director of Public Affairs and Policy
American Institute in Ukraine

Despite reported attempts by the presidential administration of Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR) leader Igor Smirnov to rig the results of the recent PMR presidential election, the electorate of Transnistria chose a new path forward on December 11. Smirnov’s attempts to steal the election backfired, as he garnered a mere 25% of the vote; a clear indication the voters in Transnistria want a political settlement for their status and have become wary of PMR’s economic stagnation and Smirnov’s corruption. Dismayed by the course Smirnov has steered Transnistria in during his 20-year rule, voters instead selected the West’s favored candidate, Yevgeny Shevchuk (38.5% of the vote), and the Russia-leaning Speaker of the Pridnestrovian Supreme Soviet, Anatoliy Kaminsky (26.5% support), as the two leading vote-getters for the December 25 election run-off.

Smirnov, who initially contested the official ballot results of PMR’s Central Election Commission, lost the support of Russia for his blatant siphoning off of Russian aid, which was designated for helping stabilize the PMR’s economy as well as for his desperate and irrational call on a referendum for Transnistria’s union with Ukraine. As Ukraine struggles with its own path for economic integration - a choice between improving relations and increasing economic growth with its neighbors and trading partners by joining the Customs Union, or the possibility of an uncertain future and continued economic stagnation with an economically and politically turbulent Europe - the last thing Kiev needs is another headache with PMR.

However, Ukraine, as a member of the 5+2 talks (Moldova, PMR, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe [OSCE] plus observers from the United States and the European Union), has not taken nearly as active a role as Russia has to ensure the rights of PMR’s people. Kiev can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect that Washington and Brussels can, nor should, alone lead the mediation on the future of Transnistria. Instead, the Yanukovych administration must work closely with Moscow to ensure Kishniev no longer restricts PMR trade or limits other access to and from Transnistria. When Transnistria’s presidential election results are certified sometime after December 26, Kiev should immediately begin talks with Tiraspol and either president-elect Shevchuk or Kaminsky on finalizing PMR’s status.

With Smirnov no longer in Transnistria’s future, PMR’s voters will have a clear choice to make - Shevchuk, a candidate who supports the US/EU vision of PMR (autonomy within Moldova) or Kaminsky, who supports modern, independent statehood for Transnistria. While both candidates favor democratic change in Transnistria, there are definite differences separating both men’s visions for PMR’s future.

Shevchuk, who some analysts describe as a capable technocrat, has been described as “ambiguous” on the topic of PMR independence as far back as 2006. In many ways, Shevchuk resembles the West’s favored “orange” presidential candidate from the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, Viktor Yushchenko. Like Yushchenko, Shevchuk fancies himself as a “pragmatist” who can move Transnistria toward a Euro-Atlantic orientation, i.e. a pro-Romanian/pro-Moldovan tilt. As Shevchuk certainly owes much of his success during this presidential campaign to those favoring PMR’s integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions, it is likely that his vision for Transnistria’s future will fall in line with those in Washington, Brussels, and Kishniev. Quite simply, final status talks under a Shevchuk presidency would likely result in a an autonomous Transnistria within Moldova and muddled talks on becoming a part of Europe - not an independent and modern PMR state.

Unlike Smirnov’s prior vision of independent PMR, which focused on authoritarianism, corruption, and crony capitalism, Kaminsky’s presidential administration would demonstrate the viability of Transnistria as an independent economy. However, Kaminsky, who unabashedly supports the preferred PMR final status view as Russia, would certainly be loyal to Moscow, unlike Smirnov who thumbed his nose at his former patron once objections were raised to the level of corruption in Tiraspol. Under a Kaminsky presidency, his administration would likely remain unapologetic on the issue of an independent PMR and the guarantee of rights for all people - Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans - within Transnistria.

With Transnistria’s voters charting a new course for PMR with the ouster of Smirnov, the electorate must choose its next leader carefully as the future status of PMR continues as one of the most intractable territorial questions remaining from the breakup of the USSR. As Brussels continues its discussions on possibly contracting, not expanding its EU membership roster, it is highly unlikely that Moldova, let alone Ukraine, will receive an invitation for membership any time within the next 20 years. Because of this, voters must be certain whether latching itself to Moldova’s weakened economy is the right course for PMR. A Shevchuk presidency would almost certainly lead to this scenario, while a Kaminsky administration would hold out hope that an independent PMR would become a modern state with economic growth due in large part to integrating its economy with its larger neighbors including Russia and Ukraine.