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Expectations and Reality Collide in Tiraspol

June 9, 2013 - Kamil Całus - Bez kategorii

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In January 2013, Yevgeny Shevchuk, the president of Transnistria, completed his first year as head of this unrecognised state. But has the young politician managed to fulfil any of the domestic or international expectations during his first year in office?

Since coming to power in early 2012, both the people of Transnistria and the international community have had some well-defined expectations for the newly elected president, Yevgeny Shevchuk. However, domestic expectations inside Transnistria were completely different from those set abroad. While the people of Transnistria had primarily hoped for a decrease in the levels of corruption and a higher standard of living, the international community expected the new head of state to become much more open towards the West, and to show greater flexibility on the issue of the status of this unrecognised republic.

The fact that it was Shevchuk who won the election a year ago, although quite unexpectedly to foreign observers, came as no surprise to the citizens of this quasi-state. The transfer of power was surprisingly peaceful, accompanied by no real resistance from the old guard or much social enthusiasm from among the people. Still, the political line-up in Transnistrian politics has changed considerably. The fact that the president has focused most of his efforts on the economy during his first year in office is evidence that establishing a strong position for himself as a domestic policy maker remains his greatest priority.

A dissident with a past

“It can be easily seen that Shevchuk was not entirely ready for his leadership role. He didn't have his own political team and he only really started to build it after he was elected,” says Nikolay Babilunga, a Transnistrian historian. Shevchuk came to power presenting himself as a lone sheriff who promised to reintroduce law and order. But he is no novice to Transnistrian politics, and first challenged Igor Smirnov (the previous president of Transnistria, who held the post for 20 years) during the 2006 presidential election. Shevchuk was the leader of Obnovlenie – a new party on the Transnistrian political scene at the time – and took on the monopoly of power held by the directoriat (President Smirnov's government whose members all came from the Soviet Communist Party).

Obnovlenie was the political arm of the powerful “Sheriff” – one of the largest and most influential businesses in Transnistria. Winning a majority of seats in the Supreme Council of the Transnistrian Parliament was Obnovlenie's first success, enabling Shevchuk to assume leadership of the party, but he soon fell victim to Smirnov and the corrupt system in Transnistria. After Shevchuk stepped down as a candidate in the 2006 presidential race (mostly due to Smirnov’s strong support from Moscow), Smirnov quickly made a deal with Obnovlenie, essentially removing Shevchuk’s political influence. From then on, this young politician has portrayed himself as a Transnistrian dissident and a victim of the political system.

It was only after Igor Smirnov fell out of favour with his Russian patrons, however, that Shevchuk stepped in again to run for president in the 2011 presidential election. Officially, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party supported Anatoliy Kaminski as their preferred candidate. Kaminski was the chairman of the Supreme Council of Transnistria and Shevchuk’s successor as the leader of Obnovlenie. However, this didn't mean that Shevchuk’s coffers were empty. He was said to have received considerable financial assistance from Modest Kolerov, an influential political technologist, the former vice-chief of Putin's administration, and currently the head of the Russian Regnum news agency.

Shevchuk’s victory in the election was mainly due to the fact that the people of Transnistria were truly tired of the difficult economic situation and the deepening social inequality in the region. Many believed that Shevchuk could change something for the better, break down the old regime and improve the standard of living for ordinary people.

The Transnistrian Saakashvili?

Shevchuk’s lack of power base presented a real problem for the newly elected president. Almost immediately after the election, Vozrozhdenie (the party supporting the policies of Shevchuk) was solicited into helping with the situation (it is worth noting that both Russian names – obnovlenie and vozrozhdenie – are quite similar in meaning and can both be translated as “rebirth”), and was expected to attract a large number of new people into Transnistrian politics. It was also supported by some members of the old camp of President Smirnov (while others joined Obnovlenie, and others left politics altogether). In this way, a bipartisan system was born in Transnistria, with clear divisions of power in which one party held legislative power, while the other held the executive power.

Shevchuk’s biggest priority was not political, however, but was meeting the majority of expectations set by the Transnistrian people who had brought him to power, with the primary goal of reducing corruption. In little over 20 years of its existence, Transnistria has seen a new class of people emerge within its society; those who are closely connected to the state apparatus. These officials enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle and preyed on small businesses. They controlled the customs and borders agencies and facilitated smuggling. Igor Smirnov, the former president, didn't try to stop these practices in any way as he believed the stability of his government was dependent upon the existing system. Thus, Shevchuk's new government simply had to declare war on its own administration and the country’s top officials.

The first front in the new president’s war was with border control, aiming to repeat the success of former Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who also fought corruption. Shevchuk couldn't afford, however, to fire all the border agency staff and hire new officers in their place. This would have been too drastic. Instead, he enacted new rules to enforce the border. Foreigners were given the right to file complaints against Transnistrian customs officers, and if evidence of forced bribery was discovered, the officer in question could be fired. At the same time, the salaries of customs officers were raised with the goal of making their jobs sufficiently attractive to not risk losing them to bribes. The initiative has been partially successful; crossing the Transnistrian border is less of a nuisance these days, although there is still extortion and bribery.

The lone sheriff

Shevchuk’s most difficult challenge, of course, is the fight against corruption at the highest levels of government. Shevchuk has had to act very carefully, facing strong resistance on the side of the officials. However, some serious measures are slowly being taken; starting with the government’s announced 25 per cent reduction in state employment, claiming that the inflated public sector is a financial burden on the state.

Obnovlenie, which holds the majority of the seats in the Supreme Council, has not been particularly supportive of Shevchuk's government. Shortly after the presidential election, Anatoliy Kaminski stood down as the chairman of Obnovlenie and was replaced by the lesser known Mikhail Burla, whose main challenge was to defend the party line on the one hand, while on the other try to avoid an all-out war with Shevchuk.

The past year, however, has been wrought with conflict between the president and parliament. According to some experts, Obnovlenie’s focus is to deprive Shevchuk of his function. This conflict has not yet developed into a total war, and there are many areas in which the legislative and executive bodies have worked together, such as being able to reach a consensus on foreign policy matters.

The second most important expectation of the electorate, which consists of healing the economy and improving the standards of living, seems to be even more difficult for Shevchuk to achieve. Since most financial transactions in Transnistria are made by companies registered in tax havens, the state doesn't benefit much from the revenue of local businesses. Curbing such practices would be against the interests of the owners of those businesses, most of which are owned by Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. Alisher Usmanov, for example, one of the richest Russians and a media magnate closely connected with the Kremlin, owns a large part of the shares of a metallurgical plant in Ribnita, fundamental to the local economy. Shevchuk has a difficult dilemma in this regard. Any action threatening the interests of a Russian businessman might cause the Kremlin to withdraw its shaky support for Shevchuk, and could prove decisive for the president's future.

To help his fight against corruption and his economic initiatives, Shevchuk has invested a lot effort into creating a strong image of himself. In this tiny quasi-state, personal visits by the president can play just as big of a role as media coverage does, and Shevchuk has made a point of visiting almost every village during his first few months in office. The image of a lone sheriff fighting crime has brought about a lot of jokes on the internet. There are caricatures showing Shevchuk’s face with John Wayne’s body, sometimes including satirical comments. But most Transnistrians support their president and see him as their best chance for restoring “law and normality”. The only flaw in the young president's image is the fact that he is not married. His opponents have used this fact to disseminate gossip about his supposed homosexuality, something that would be discrediting in a conservative, Orthodox society. In reply, Shevchuk promised to get married by the end of 2012. This promise hasn't been kept, although the president continuously emphasises his deep faith and devotion to the Orthodox Church.

Small steps abroad

A new leader behind the wheel in Transnistria was welcomed with great caution, and at the same time with some expectations, by both the European Union and Moldova, the country which still claims Transnistria as part of its territory. The prime minister of Moldova, Vlad Filat, was very complimentary, calling Shevchuk “a well-prepared, flexible person”.

Indeed, Shevchuk quickly gained the reputation of a pragmatist who is willing to negotiate. One of the first decisions he made concerning mutual relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau was removing a restrictive customs tax on goods imported from Moldova. The tax dates back to 2006 as an act of revenge against the economic embargo by Moldova. Shevchuk’s move was meant to act as the start of a policy of “small steps” towards a constructive dialogue in solving the common economic and social problems of Moldova and Transnistria.

The negotiation process, which had been frozen for a long time, is now taking place at a faster pace than ever before. Less than a month after the presidential inauguration, Shevchuk met the Moldovan prime minister in Odessa, where the two reached an agreement on resuming freight traffic in Transnistria. They also began talks on introducing uniform licence plates in both countries which would enable vehicles registered in Transnistria to cross into Moldova and EU countries.

This new approach in foreign policy was also revealed by a cabinet reshuffle. Several days before the Odessa summit, Nina Shtanski, an attractive and dynamic young lawyer (aged 35), was nominated by the president as foreign minister of Transnistria. Shtanski quickly became the face of the new, liberal and non-confrontational politics of Tiraspol. The change in foreign policy can be explained by the president’s relative independence from the Kremlin, with Shevchuk showing signs that he would act in the best interest of his electorate rather than Russia. This claim had some solid basis and, in fact, many of Shevchuk's decisions made in the first months of his term ran contrary to Russian interests. Many experts read this as the president’s attempt at loosening ties with Moscow.

A significant sign was the Moldovan-Transnistrian agreement reached during the 5+2 Vienna summit in April 2012 (5+2 is the format of negotiations with Moldova and Transnistria on conflicting sides, with Russia and Ukraine holding the status of guarantor states. The EU, the United States, and the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE] act as observers). According to this agreement, Moldova accepted the equal status of Transnistria in the negotiations process. In the past, Moldova had argued that it was unacceptable that an unrecognised state and a separatist region could be treated on equal terms. In return, Tiraspol agreed to grant equal status to all the other participants of the negotiations, which infuriated the Russian side. Up to that point, Russia and Ukraine, acting as guarantors of the negotiations process, enjoyed more rights than the EU or the US.

Since the Vienna summit, however, Moscow has decided that it will no longer turn a blind eye to the policies of the new Transnistrian administration. In order to wield influence over the region, the Kremlin then created a new position of the Russian Special Representative for Transnistria and appointed Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister, to hold this function. Rogozin is no stranger to protecting Russian interests against western approaches. Between 2004 and 2006, Rogozin acted as Putin's “Special Representative for the Kaliningrad District” and took care of Russian interests when the Baltic republics were joining NATO and the EU. A similar situation can now be seen in the case of Moldova and its aims at integration with the EU.

Rogozin and other Russian officials have since made a strong presence in Tiraspol, having a visible influence on Transnistrian foreign policy. Bilateral meetings between Filat and Shevchuk have become less frequent. Planned visits have been cancelled and the talks regarding licence plates, which were launched last year, have come to a standstill. The most recent bilateral meeting took place in September 2012. Officially, the visit took place in a friendly atmosphere, although the Transnistrian leader's declarations left no doubt that the relations were deteriorating. Shevchuk's willingness to compromise seems to have all but disappeared. In October 2012, Transnistria reintroduced the customs tax on goods brought over from Moldova – a symbolic event ending the improvement in bilateral relations.

The honeymoon is over

Nina Shtanski has quickly become the second most important person after the president. Most recently Shtanski was appointed deputy prime minister – highlighting the importance of foreign policy to the administration. In November 2012, under the watchful eye of Russian diplomats, Shtanski lead the development of a new document outlining Transnistria’s foreign policy goals for the coming years. According to the document, the biggest priority for the unrecognised republic is now economic and political integration with the Russian Customs Union. Relations with Moldova were pushed into the background, with guidelines ruling out any practical possibility of unification with Moldova unless Moldova decides to abandon the idea of integration with the EU and joins the Customs Union as well. Thus, it seems that Transnistrian foreign policy has gone from a short period of limited freedom back to full dependence on Russia. Additionally, Transnistrian foreign policy is becoming an instrument of the Kremlin to persuade Moldova to give up its efforts towards integration with the EU.

By handing over foreign policy to Russia, Shevchuk has disappointed both Moldova and the EU who expected the new leadership to bring about a serious breakthrough in the negotiation process. However, in all honesty, such expectations were truly naive. Regardless of his ambitions and openness, it seems that the Transnistrian leader isn't able to conduct any sort of long-term foreign policy without a green light from Moscow. If the Kremlin decides to use Transnistria as a political instrument to achieve its own goals, Tiraspol has little choice but to go along. Being economically fully dependent on Russia, the quasi-state would most probably not be able to survive even a month without Russian support.

This kind of submissiveness does not endanger Shevchuk's political interests, although it might run contrary to his ambitions. The new policy of joining the Customs Union, reflecting the interests of Russia, has met enormous public support in Transnistria. According to local statistics, the number of people supporting integration with the Customs Union nears 100 per cent. Even if this number is inflated, there is no doubt that the majority of Transnistrians support the idea of integration with the East; economic and political integration with Russia is an acceptable path for Transnistrians. In this quasi-state, the myth of the Great Russian civilisation, with Transnistria being an essential part, is still very much alive. Attempting any revolutionary changes in this area would be self-defeating for Shevchuk as he could lose his strongest asset: the support of the people. In reality, remaining loyal to Moscow in terms of foreign policy allows him to solve the necessary and urgent internal problems being faced by Transnistria today.

Translated by Agnieszka Rubka

This article first appeared in New Eastern Europe Issue 2(VII)/2013  "Painful Past, Fragile Future". For more from this issue please visit: http://www.neweasterneurope.eu/current

Kamil Całus is a specialist on Moldova at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw and a PhD student at the Institute of Eastern Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

Piotr Oleksy is a PhD student at the Institute of Eastern Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

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