The Winds of Change in Transnistria
BUCHAREST—The landslide victory of former speaker of the Parliament Yevgeny Shevchuk in the December 25 Transnistrian presidential elections came as a surprise to observers in Moldova, Russia, and the West. Shevchuk, who won 74 percent of the vote in the run-off, overcame the challenges of the Moscow-backed candidate Anatoly Kaminski and the incumbent of 20 years, Igor Smirnov, who lost in the first round. Transnistria’s new leader is widely seen as representative of a younger generation, having proposed constitutional reform in 2009 to limit presidential powers. Shevchuk had focused his campaign on fighting corruption and nepotism, which resonated well in a region where people are struggling to overcome economic hardship and where the leadership was often accused of embezzling funds meant for humanitarian purposes. His first order of business after being sworn in as president was to dismiss over 80 state officials, including the heads of government and law enforcement agencies, appointed by Smirnov. The coming to power of a reform-minded leader represents a long-awaited change in Transnistria, and marks a period of newfound optimism, not just for this disputed region, but also for neighboring Moldova. Although the Moldovan government did not recognize the legality of these elections, its officials are now hopeful of a more constructive dialogue. Moscow also welcomed the shift of power, having lately seen Smirnov as an obstacle to finding a solution to the protracted but frozen Transnistrian conflict. Although Shevchuk was not the Kremlin’s number one pick, he was nevertheless reassured that Transnistria can continue to rely on Russia’s friendly assistance and cooperation. Shevchuk is also believed to be on good terms with officials in Kiev and is seen as a more progressive figure in Brussels. He was one of the few Transnistrian officials whose five-year travel ban to member states of the European Union was lifted at the beginning of 2008. He is also described by former EU Special Representative to Moldova Kalman Mizsei as a modernizer, and someone who should be welcomed by the European Union. The election of Shevchuk sets the stage for a new dynamic in the region. Although he shares his predecessor’s stance on Transnistrian sovereignty, there are already clear signals that relations between Transnistria and Moldova will gradually improve. In his inaugural speech, Shevchuk promised to establish good neighborly relations with Moldova and Ukraine and to ensure the free movement of people across the frontier. He also noted that Transnistria needed to modernize and better integrate with regional economies, which would be impossible without better relations with Moldova. It now remains to be seen whether Shevchuk will follow up his rhetoric with concrete actions. Change will not come quickly, and it is highly unlikely that Transnistria will reunite with Moldova in the near future. But with another round of talks scheduled for February, and with a more reform-minded leadership in Transnistria, Moldova might finally have a serious interlocutor in its efforts at finding a solution to this long-standing conflict.
Dinu Toderascu is Program Officer with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bucharest.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.