Transnistria, a breakaway region of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, is voting for a new president. The frozen conflict can only be resolved together with Moscow, experts say.
One month after the presidential elections in Moldova, where the pro-Russian socialist leader Igor Dodon won, the internationally unrecognized separatist state of Transnistria is voting for its own president. Current president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, and parliamentary speaker, Vadim Krasnoselski, have the best chances of winning. A Russian poll has Shevchuk ahead.
A smuggler's paradise on the eastern edge of the EU
Transnistria, a region half as big as the Greek island of Crete, is a narrow strip of land along the Dniester River and the border to Ukraine. The self-proclaimed republic separated from Moldova after a military conflict in Moldova. A ceasefire was declared but a frozen conflict has existed since 1992. International diplomatic efforts – recently intensified by Germany – to resolve the conflict have not brought about any changes.
Today, about half a million people live in the breakaway republic whose flag still bears the Soviet hammer and sickle. The region relies on financial assistance from Russia to survive and Russian troops have been stationed there since the Soviet era. From an international perspective, Transnistria is one of the poorest regions in Europe and notorious for being a smuggler's paradise on the edge of the European Union.
Both presidential frontrunners strive to join Russia
This is the second time 48-year-old president Shevchuk is running for president. He began ruling Transnistria in 2011 when he succeeded Igor Smirnov, who had ruled the separatist Moldovan region for two decades. "People put high hopes in Shevchuk, but not all of them have been fulfilled," said Galina Schelar, a political scientist in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. The crisis in neighboring Ukraine has left its mark. Furthermore, tensions between the president and parliament have grown. "People are waiting for election day because tensions are running high," said Natalia Skurtul, a journalist in Transnistria. "Many are dreaming of the election campaign just being over."
Shevchuk's main opponent, Krasnoselski, enjoys the support of "Renewal", an opposition party that entered a partner relationship in the summer with the Kremlin party "United Russia." The 46-year-old Krasnoselski is backed by the powerful corporation "Sheriff" where he once worked as head of security. Sheriff operates a supermarket chain, gas stations, a mobile phone provider and a television station.
Both Shevchuk and Krasnoselski are in favor of joining Russia. The vast majority of Transnistria inhabitants voted for this in an internationally unrecognized referendum. In the Transnistrian capital, Tiraspol, there have been signs of movement toward Moscow. In September, the president issued a decree to adapt the Transnistrian legal system to the Russian one.
Experts say developments in the Transnistria conflict are possible
Russia, however, does not want to accept Transnistria. According to a foreign policy document signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of November, Russia aims to give Transnistria a special status within Moldova.
In his election campaign, Moldovan president Dodon promised to resolve the Transnistria conflict. However, observers say that this still depends on Moscow. Vassily Shiva, the former Moldovan Minister for Reintegration, believes that there is a new impetus to break the deadlock; no matter who the new president of Transnistria turns out to be. Dodon, a supporter of the Moldovan state and neutrality, is someone who would make it easier for Tiraspol to conduct negotiations. The foreign ministry in Chisinau recently expressed its desire to intensify talks in 2017 on Transnistria's status.
Yet, it is still unclear how the main points of contention, economic and diplomatic policies, will be dealt with. While Transnistria looks to Moscow, the present pro-West government in Moldova is seeking closer ties with the European Union.