Shevchuk: Like a fish in a net
“Finally, I would like to add that I see in Transnistria a huge amount of communal and social tension. We have very little time, really very little time, if we want to do something about it. Otherwise, it may lead to a demographic catastrophe or the outbreak of massive social unrest for the country. Something may explode…”
July 29, 2013 - Piotr Oleksy - Articles and Commentary
With these words, Sergei Panteleyev, the director of the Moscow Russian Diaspora Institute, concluded his speech. These remarks caused great consternation among the organisers of the recent conference: “Transnistria on the Road to Eurasian Integration”.
And it would be so beautiful…
Eurasian integration is a national idea in Transnistria – the cure for all the evils that, according to the Transnistrians, have been created by the Euro-regions, the “Transnistrian” Eurasian region would also include Gagauzia, Bălți and perhaps the Odessa oblast. Listening to the pronouncements of most Transnistrian politicians and experts, however, it is obvious that this is just another slogan that gives the illusion of fixing the current situation for the republic; in reality no one has any idea how it would function. It is certainly why Panteleyev warned that the socio-economic situation must be improved immediately – otherwise little will remain of this “beautiful” idea.
In Transnistria (except for government employees) it is hard to find someone who, in private conversation, will speak positively about the 15 months since Vladimir Smirnov’s resignation. “The factories are at a standstill, week after week more and more people are leaving, the leadership is incompetent, there is increasing state pressure on social organisations and the media,” an opinion which can be heard from different sides. There have been changes in Transnistrian society; and they are not very pleased with the new government.
The conclusion is that President Yevgeny Shevchuk has become the victim of a combination of factors (international and domestic) outside his control as well as the weakness of his own team. All of this creates the net. “When a fish finds itself in a net, it begins to thrash. Once to the right, once to the left – just to do something. In doing this, it performs a series of nervous movements, thus we see the emphasis on the opposition or the intensifying of Moldovan relations,” a journalist friend explained to me recently.
Packing their bags
The scale of emigration has always been a problem for the unrecognised Transnistria. It is difficult to assess exactly how many people actually live in the quasi-state, how many have already left and how many only stay there – all of this is fluid. Today, however, an increasing number of people have made note of the stream of people leaving the country, emigration is tangible.
“Out of my 20-person high school class in Transnistria, three people remain,” Sasha, a law student, told me.
“I’m waiting until my son finishes school and goes to university, then I’ll leave. I’m already looking for work elsewhere,” said a friend of mine who works at a university.
Of course, it cannot be said that there are no young people in Transnistria. The vivid descriptions of the escape of the young generation contrast to the scenes in Tiraspol or Bender; cities which are full of teens and young adults. The statistics are ambiguous, however: for every two working people, there are three pensioners. After finishing the Transnistria State University, which gives students a fairly good education, the young graduates have large ambitions that are not easy to achieve: maybe they can find a decent paying job, but not everyone wants to work in a Sheriff shop (one of Transnistria’s largest companies with business in many sectors of the economy) or drive a taxicab. And there are no state jobs.
It is hard to say that Shevchuk and his team are to blame for everything: the deterioration of living conditions had begun during Smirnov’s time, but the prospect of change kept many people here. When, after a few months, it turned out that the new team was in no state to change their situation (rather the opposite – getting a job has become increasingly more difficult), people have begun to pack their bags.
It was said from the beginning that Shevchuk came to power without a team, and it was also clear that Smirnov’s collaborators had to have been removed quickly. Critics quickly began to rebuke the president for throwing out experienced officials and replacing them with young boys and girls with uncertain pasts. Now, the incompetence of the new government is one of the main topics of conversations. People from schools or cultural institutions, who for years have been working with the authorities on numerous projects, say vice-ministers or director change every minute.
“What they don’t say about Smirnov’s people is that they were mostly former directors of large factories, people educated in the best Soviet schools. People who, for all their faults, tried to think ahead or just knew what they were doing. Now, the people who came of age during the criminal nineties, who were educated here, are in charge. These perspectives and experiences are not comparable,” a sociologist friend explained to me. “It is also a question of style: the new government has really angered people. How much Smirnov’s team stole will probably never be known, but no one ever knew where the president or ministers went for vacation. Today, the new elites flaunt their wealth: photographs from exotic vacations or of new, expensive cars are immediately put up on VKontakte and Facebook. A person can compare that to his own situation and his blood boils,” he continues.
Managing the Transistrian economy requires more alchemy than creative accounting and Russian gas has done its part to save the situation. Transnistria sells raw materials to entrepreneurs and citizens without giving money to Gazprom (hence the massive Moldovan gas debt). This allows it to get by. That is why it is also hard to understand President Shevchuk’s recent decision to raise the price of gas for the largest Transnistrian industries, including for the steel mill and cement factory in Rîbnița. The famous steelworks was the country’s second-largest taxpayer and both factories are extremely important for providing jobs.
In raising the price of gas, Shevchuk definitely counted on higher income for the state budget, arguing that in this way he wants to gradually privatise the Transnistrian economy by weaning it off of Russian aid (gas prices in Transnistria are lower than in Russia itself). In the end, however, raising the price of gas has led to a spike in production costs and Transnistrian goods. Rising prices coupled with the global economic crisis (particularly the slowdown in the Russian construction market) has led to the cessation of orders flowing into Rîbnița. Now, the factories stand idle and salaries are paid in part or not at all.
Society is not the same
The breakaway territory is more than 20 years old and its society is clearly changing. “We once were like a fist: Transnistria, the republic and its recognition were the most important,” recalls Misha, a journalist. “Now you see a huge social divide: who is for Shevchuk and who is against; who is for industry; and who is for other sectors of the economy; and so on. Rîbnița and Dubăsari want more independence for themselves, Bender claims to be the heart of Transnistria, while Tiraspol wants to run everything,” he continues.
These social changes and the emergence of new preferences did not, however, begin with Shevchuk. It was quite the opposite: they brought him to power. Young Transnistrians, despite still looking toward Moscow, see the relations of the state with citizens differently. Smirnov’s departure caused Western organisations to become interested in Transnistria, there appeared to be a new area for cooperation and several organisations working towards the development of civil society and human rights were established.
It is difficult to talk about a boom of these groups, but a few interesting initiatives can be listed. One example is “Club 19”: a cultural club which has discussions on human rights, communal issues (such as stray dogs) and organising concerts with western bands. All of this is done in a pleasant, family-friendly environment. Both the sponsors and organisers hoped that the new government would be a partner in their activities. However, it turned out to be the opposite: new initiatives were regarded with suspicion, and there are exhausting state inspections (from fire safety to financial). The president even instituted a law prohibiting Transnistrian social organisations from receiving any foreign funding.
“In Russia, at least you can register as an ‘agent’ and somehow work. Here, they want to completely forbid it!” says Julia, who recently was the head of the Proriv youth organisation, which was shut down a few months ago.
For some time, Dmitri Soin, the leader of the Proriv party, has been in Odessa. He was forced to leave due to a real threat for his arrest – Soin is wanted by Interpol for murder. The matter was once raised by Moldova, but in Russia and Ukraine he is safe. Soin is not a particularly important politician, but is quite loud and knows how to care for his own image. Today, he is a deputy of the Supreme Council and a businessman. He has been very critical of Shevchuk from the beginning; and it didn’t take long before the courts ordered the closure of Proriv. Soin managed to get to Odessa “for consultations” and there established the Association of Transnistrians in Ukraine. He denies that he fled the country, he plans to return. His colleagues are not so sure.
“Soin is no shining example, I myself would never vote for him, but his case says a lot,” Sergei, a young journalist explains to me. “The new regime does not want any kind of opposition, they don’t like people in Transnistria who want to think for themselves and say so out loud,” he continues. “The authorities view everything in black-and-white: you are either with us or against us. In the first version, we will try to make life difficult for you: if you are a well-known businessman or a well-known and symbolic figure you can feel confident. If, however, something on you can be found, and there is always something, you’ll end up like Soin or Konoplev [Roman Konoplev is the editor-in-chief of the dniester.ru internet portal, he left Transnistria in May 2012 – author’s note],” emphasises the journalist.
Workers at international institutions also argue that both Shevchuk and the star of his government, Foreign Minister Nina Shtanski, are in favour of strong-arm governance – the country should be top-down. It seems, however, that Shevchuk does not understand the changes that have taken place in Transnistrian society and hoped in some way to become the new Smirnov. However, that is not what the people want and the young president lacks the charisma of his predecessor.
Opposition in Tiraspol
The opposition in Transnistria can be divided into two groups. The main movement is the Obnovleniye (Renewal) party, and the second movement includes prominent politicians, activists and publicists (sometimes it is difficult to separate them). What is interesting is that the opposition often attacks Shevchuk from the extreme pro-Russian position, often accusing him of excessive deference to Moldova (and to the West), and even treason.
The Obnovleniye party has a majority in the Supreme Council (the legislative body). At first, it seemed that a bipolar political system would be created in Transnistria. There was talk of war between the president and parliament. As a result of this conflict, the republic was without an adopted budget for several months. Now, however, Obnovleniye’s activities are extremely passive, suggesting the possibility of a fusion of the two camps. This party was founded as the political arm of the Transnistrian conglomerate company Sheriff, which has a monopoly in most industries (Shevchuk himself was once the head of this party).
The deputies of the party are businessmen, more or less attached to Sheriff. As it turns out, these links do not provide a protective umbrella. Many deputies, especially those with their own businesses, do not want to mess with the authorities. I myself witnessed an inspection by the tax authorities in one of Sheriff’s supermarkets. The clients in the shop were counted, new ones were denied entrance, the computers and accounting books were confiscated. In accordance with the law, the shop was closed for three days, and certainly incurred huge losses. In this way, Shevchuk shows who is the master of the house, that he can even hinder the interests of Sheriff.
Shevchuk sends a signal: “Cooperate with me and you earn more, oppose me and you will have problems.” This argument is aimed at the Obnovleniye activists and the owners of Sheriff. At the last party congress, the mood was very peaceful and was dominated by slogans of cooperation for the good of the republic. A supporter close to the president also appears to be Mikhail Burla, the party leader and the president of the Supreme Council.
Yevgeny Shevchuk has found himself in an unenviable position. He governs an unrecognised state, politically and economically dependent on Russia, and has no control over its most important industries (which belong to Russian oligarchs). Society has begun to change; the new regime is not seen as a prophet. The lack of experienced managers and people with vision has paralysed the government’s action. Friendly relations with the West (political “small steps” in relations with Moldova) have not brought tangible results, and thus receive no social support. The president definitely misses the times when “Transnistria was like a fist”.
When I left Transnistria, my friend took me to the airport in Odessa. We spoke about Transnistria’s environment: the beauty, the lushness and the deep green landscapes. Several minutes after crossing the Ukrainian border, Vasily said: “Look, the colours are different here, this environment looks different.” I started to wonder aloud how this could be: maybe the Dniester creates a particular microclimate here, with a certain kind of humidity. Vasily interrupted me: “No! It means that we have a young president, it is for him that everything grows like that!” He summed up the discussion. The hitchhikers sitting in the back snorted with laughter. It’s hard to resist the feeling that for Transnistrians, Shevchuk’s youth is his final “trump card”.
Translated by Gina Kuhn
Piotr Oleksy is a PhD student at the Institute of Eastern Studies of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.