Transnistria has a new “President”, Moldova still has not. In December Transnistria surprised all observers by holding something close to a real competitive election for the first time in twenty years. Even more surprisingly, veteran local strongman Igor Smirnov found his local election machine was no longer working, and a new generation of Transnistrians, with greater travel opportunities and better access to information via new technology, voted for the 43 year old chair of parliament Yevgeny Shevchuk, formerly one of the leaders of the pro-business Renewal party, bypassing Moscow’s supposed favourite Anatoliy Kaminski – ironically also backed by Renewal.
Meanwhile, Moldova yet again failed even to schedule elections to the vacant post of President (empty since 2009) at the first spring session of parliament on 16 February. In the run-up to the second round of “5+2” negotiations in Dublin on 28-29 February (Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE, plus the EU and USA as observers), the contrast is stark.
There has been some “renewal” in Transnistria since the election, albeit fairly superficial. Igor Smirnov’s son Vladimir has been removed from his lucrative position as head of the Customs Committee. The notorious “Minister for State Security” Vladimir Antiufeiev, long wanted on an international arrest warrant for his role in the murder of civilians by Soviet forces in Latvia in 1991, has been forced out with some degree of force, making sinister threats “to return”.
Shevchuk has also ousted the head of the central bank Oksana Ionova after claiming that ninety per cent of Transnistria’s foreign exchange reserves had disappeared. But most attention has been given to the new “Foreign Minister”, the thirty-four year old Nina Shtanski, whose personable good looks have helped produce a stream of diplomatic visitors across the river Nistru to Tiraspol.
At a time when a degree of “Moldova fatigue” is hitting Europe, as the initial reforms of the governing Alliance for European Integration (AEI) have slowed down in the last year, there is a real danger than Tiraspol might suddenly leapfrog over Chişinaŭ, and Shevchuk and Shtanski gain the kind of diplomatic attention once enjoyed by Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat.
In fact, relatively little has yet changed in Transnistria on the ground. Shevchuk has appointed new first ministers, but below their level the Smirnov system is still intact. Transnistria has promised to drop a 100% tax on Moldovan goods that it unilaterally introduced in 2006, but it has promised to do so before. A pledge of freer movement of people turns out to be freer movement for Transnistrians. That said, a January meeting in Odessa between Shevchuk and Filat, hosted by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, led to talks on restarting rail and telecom links.
But at this early stage, too much diplomatic attention to Transnistria may not be a good thing. The Transnistrians are less likely to be the next Europeans than the next East European “Titos”. They are seeking some balance in their relationship to extract resources from both sides, as Russia has threatened to reconsider its generous support after Kaminski’s defeat. The energy, budget and salary subsidies the locals call Putin’s allowance’ (nadbavka) may be cut back.
Although the EU may suddenly think it can advertise its virtues directly in Transnistria, Chişinaŭ feels strongly that any EU aid should go to both sides of the Nistru. Transnistria already often wins out in marginal competition: many residents on both sides have two passports, and some “Moldovan” villagers take more generous Transnistrian pensions.
Diplomatic breakthroughs are always possible, but in this case probably not yet. Russia still supports the status quo, although it is definitely true that there is a window of opportunity for Chişinaŭ and Tiraspol to begin rebuilding their relationship while Moscow’s attention is focused on domestic problems. Confidence-building measures should come first; then 2013 may be a year of more change, when Ukraine is chair of the OSCE.
Meanwhile, the other beauty contest to find a Moldovan President rumbles on, because the issue is linked to too many other things: all three parties in the AEI fear losing out in a game of musical chairs once a president is appointed, particularly Mihai Ghimpu, leader of the Liberals, who in the original deal was supposed to be chair of parliament – though Ghimpu has been given most freedom in setting the choice. One theory that is gaining ground is that Moldova needs “President Anybody” – a non-political choice of some venerable poet or historian. Two names that were left in the mix were former Health Minister Ion Ababii and Veronica Bacalu, who works with the IMF. But a fleeting chance to schedule a vote on 29 February – given leap year traditions that allow for unusual propositions once every four years – was missed and 15 March looks more likely.
But Moldova is under triple pressure: from the new faces in Transnistria, from the EU which wants to see Moldova push harder on actually implementing reforms, and from the local Communist resurgence which threatens the AEI if there are new elections. Progress remains elusive, but finally seems possible.
Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
This Week in the East is a weekly commentary by research fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) for New Eastern Europe.