Tag Archives: Transnistrian War

Former Transnistrian Leader Finds Refuge in Moldova Amid Growing Tension in the Region

Yevgeny Shevchuk, the former “president” of the separatist region of Transnistria, escaped prosecution by the current Transnistrian leadership on June 28, finding refuge in Moldova of all places. Despite speculation of his departure to Malta, Shevchuk appears to be living comfortably with his family in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau (Newsmaker.md, July 11). As the new leadership in Transnistria consolidates power in what is an intra-elite power struggle, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration on what it views as negative developments around Transnistria. Specifically, the Duma resolution blames Moldova and Ukraine for allegedly jeopardizing the security and stability of the region by introducing joint checkpoints on the Transnistrian segment of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and by obstructing Russia’s regional military presence (Duma.gov.ru, July 7). Soon after, reports revealed that Ukrainian counter-intelligence arrested Russian Army Colonel Valeri Gratov, who had been training separatists in Donbas and was about to be appointed to a leadership position in the Transnistrian security sector (Obozrevatel.com, July 9). All these developments point to growing volatility in the Transnistrian region.

After winning the “presidential” race in Transnistria last December (see EDM, December 16, 2016), Vadim Krasnoselski—who is backed by the most powerful local oligarch, the head of Sheriff Company, Victor Gusan—has been seeking to do away with any potential challengers. Despite losing the election to Krasnoselski, former “president” Shevchuk has retained some popular support and remains the leader of the weak but vocal political opposition in Transnistria. Shevchuk has a long and acrimonious history with Sheriff, having served as the company’s deputy director and then leader of its political wing, Obnovlenie (Renewal Party). Shevchuk was once a young and promising politician who brought Sheriff its first major political success in the “national legislative” elections of 2005. However, Shevchuk later fell out of favor with Gusan. Nonetheless, Shevchuk was able to win the 2011 “presidential” election as an anti-system independent against Gusan’s candidate, Anatolii Kaminski, who was also backed by the Kremlin’s United Russia Party.

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Once in power, Shevchuk challenged Gusan’s economic grip over the separatist region, but fell short of significantly weakening his opponent. Instead, Gusan was able to undermine Shevchuk’s own power by employing his vast wealth, control over the Transnistrian “legislature,” and capitalizing on Shevchuk’s own failures, particularly when it came to improving the worsening economic conditions in Transnistria. Yet, pulling Transnistria out of the downward economic spiral is a tall order, given the structure of its economy and the adverse regional context.  Thus, blaming Shevchuk for all of Transnistria’s woes, along with Moldova and Ukraine, is their default option. Still, the fact that Gusan and Krasnoselski allowed Shevchuk to flee Transnistria after stripping him of his “parliamentary” immunity most likely indicates Moscow’s reluctance to see Shevchuk convicted. Some of the charges levied against him cast a dark shadow over Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who serves as Putin’s special envoy for Transnistria and has been, in effect, overseeing Shevchuk’s alleged criminal activities, including the embezzlement of Russian assistance (Europaibera.org, July 2).

Against this background, the timing of the Russian Duma declaration comes as no surprise. The strong rhetoric against Moldova and Ukraine is, at least in part, aimed at deflecting attention from the intra-elite power struggle in Transnistria as well as from Russia’s own failed record in maintaining the pretense of political stability and economic prosperity in this separatist territory. After the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the Russian accusations of a “blockade” of Transnistria  (Mfa.gov.md, July 7), backed by an equally strong message from Ukraine calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region (Mfa.gov.ua, July 11), Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon predictably tried to have it both ways when reacting to the declaration of the Russian parliament. Dodon faced domestic ridicule after telling an insistent journalist to read between the lines of his rather vague statement (Newsmaker.md, July 7). Dodon’s Russian benefactors are not making his life any easier when Russian lawmakers threaten a Donbas-like scenario in Moldova (Newsmaker.md, July 7). Moreover, taking into account the latest incident of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) sending a seasoned Donbas operative to take a leading role in the Transnistrian security apparatus (see above), the threats coming from Russian lawmakers no longer seem empty.

Neither Moldovan politicians, be it Speaker Andrian Candu or President Dodon, nor the country’s Prosecutor General (Independent.mdZiarulnational.md, June 30; Agora.md, July 10), have shown any interest in Shevchuk. Despite enjoying immunity from criminal charges of separatism based on the standing agreements in the Transnistrian conflict settlement negotiations, Shevchuk could, nonetheless, be prosecuted in Chisinau for economic crimes and other offenses. However, it is widely known that each former Transnistrian leader has only been able to accumulate and siphon off large amounts of money due to cooperation with either Moldovan or Ukrainian authorities. It is, in part, thanks to this “support network” that Shevchuk was granted refuge in Moldova. He is reported to reside in a luxury apartment complex in central Chisinau under heavy protection, thought it remains unclear whether the unmarked guards are protecting a high-value asset or holding a high-priced hostage. Meanwhile, speculation is mounting about Shevchuk’s future not just in Transnistrian politics, but also in Moldova proper: he may run for parliament if Moldova’s de facto ruler, billionaire Vlad Plahotniuc, is successful in pushing the controversial electoral system reform introducing single-member districts. Finally, the handling of Shevchuk’s case potentially sends a powerful signal to Transnistrian elites that they are increasingly at the mercy of the Moldovan leadership. In reaction, Moscow is likely to increase direct control over the region, which can only lead to escalation of an already precarious situation.

Shevchyuk Filat

Photo: Moldovan Prime Minister Vladimir Filat and Transdniestrian leader Yevgeny Shevchuk met on 20 June 2012 on the margins of an OSCE conference on confidence-building measures held by the OSCE Mission to Moldova, with the support of the German Government, in the German town of Rottach-Egern.

 

Note: The article was written for the Jamestown Foundation and can be accessed here.

Moldova’s Reintegration Policy: Challenging the Status Quo

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a series of armed conflicts in the periphery, which later became frozen, only to perpetuate instability in the regions concerned. Moldova’s region of Transnistria is a case in point. Following a brief war and a number of settlement proposals from Russian and Ukrainian representatives, the separatist entity continues to undermine Moldova’s territorial integrity. Economic developments in Moldova, and especially in Transnistria, show that neither side is better off as a result of the secession. The Gagauz experience, albeit imperfect, is nonetheless a successful example of peaceful conflict settlement. Moldova’s European integration ambitions offer increased incentives for cooperation. Thus, a pathway towards a political settlement becomes imperative, since for the past quarter century the status quo has been detrimental to both parties. Economic and geopolitical developments in the region present a window of opportunity. The Moldovan Government and Parliament need to be ready to capitalize on this rare chance.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought fifteen new sovereign entities to the international stage. This process, however, led to several ethnic, political and territorial conflicts across the former USSR. Moldova is a case in point, as pro-Romanian nationalist sentiment was growing following the return to Latin script in August 1989; Russian speaking minorities felt threatened. The heavily industrialized and mainly Russian speaking eastern region of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic – Transnistria – feared a potential union between Moldova and its kin-state Romania. Thus, on September 2, 1990 it seceded from Moldova and pledged direct allegiance to the crumbling USSR.  The turmoil surrounding the USSR’s collapse allowed local Transnistrian elites to channel the anti-nationalist sentiment towards building a platform of resistance that would become a de facto state – the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), alternatively named the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic. As the newly formed ‘PMR’ was asserting its ‘sovereignty’ over Moldovan law enforcement, an armed conflict erupted in March 1992, which ended in a Russian mediated ceasefire in July of the same year. The five month military standoff claimed around 1000 lives and left 3000 wounded on both sides. The war has since become a symbol of Moldovan aggression, a sentiment adamantly cultivated by the Transnistrian authorities. Conversely, the Moldovan leadership and media blame Russia and its 14th Army for backing the separatists, a fact confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights. However, facts are of little help when debate on the issue is highly politicized by all parties to the conflict.

Moldova declared its independence on August 27, 1991 and became a member of the United Nations on March 2, 1992, with only nominal control over the separatist region – a situation that still lingers to this day. Despite having proclaimed its own statehood, Transnistria remains unrecognized. Unlike in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, not even Russia dared to recognize Transnistria. Thus, if only for this reason, the Transnistrian conflict offers more hope for a sustainable solution based on reintegration than any other major ethno-political conflict in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But the local situation is even more favorably distinct from the conflicts in the Southern Caucuses given the absence of deeply entrenched animosity among the major ethnic groups, the positive effects of geographic proximity to the European Union, and, most importantly, the powerful incentives for economic cooperation despite the current political divide. Yet for over two decades, economic cooperation has been hindered by the lack of a political framework that would allow businesses to capitalize on those incentives. Transnistria is exporting the majority of its products to the European Union, thanks to the autonomous trade preferences that Moldova has benefited from. The new Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) between the European Union and Moldova offers increased opportunities for Transnistria, should it choose to follow its economic interest instead of engaging in political brinksmanship. Hence, if economic cooperation is to bear fruit, a pathway towards a political settlement needs to be agreed upon.

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Located at the crossroads of several major empires (Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian), Moldova has for centuries had a challenging history, which has left the country not only economically crippled but also cruelly divided along ethnic and linguistic fault lines. Those very divisions are coming into play yet again, now that Moldova is torn apart between the European Union and the Russian driven Eurasian Union. It is not at all surprising that many Moldovan citizens would naturally gravitate towards Russia in pursuing their ethnic, linguistic, historic, cultural, and even economic interests. That is why, in a democratic society where there are a plurality of viewpoints, it’s important to engage and to have an informed public discussion on the country’s future, so that even those who disagree with a certain policy vector may feel at least included, if not quite fully persuaded, by their fellow citizens. Inclusive public discourse is paramount if the country is ever to bridge the gap that has been holding it back for so long. Jurgen Habermas’s influential theory of ‘communicative action’ describes well the benefits of sincere collective public engagement in a deliberative democracy, which, normatively speaking, Moldova certainly should strive to become one day. However, for effective communication to take place, a number of conditions need to be met. First and foremost, participants in a genuinely inclusive deliberation need to demonstrate an ability to empathize. Secondly, public actors need to a share a ‘common lifeworld.’ And finally, discourse must be undertaken openly with all actors having equal access to the discourse. Certainly Moldova, and even more so Transnistria, has a long way to go before they are even close to these, admittedly, ideal conditions. Unfortunately, political parties tend to do little to project this sort of inclusion and openness. Quite the opposite, they tend to exploit existing societal differences for political gain, instead of engaging in what Habermas calls ‘communicative action.’

Such short-sighted and reckless behavior by political parties and elites in general has made a successful reintegration policy less likely to be implemented in the near future, or even to have a chance to be put forward. In the last decade or so, too many politicians have grown accustomed to the existing status quo and have become unwilling to spend their political capital on making reintegration a national priority. Without political activism, a Transnistrian settlement will sink further down on the long list of issues that voters care increasingly less about. Unfortunately, politicians seem to be doing very little to reverse that trend. The wishful hope that conflict settlement will come along with European Integration, almost by default, is certainly more of a self-reassuring excuse than a sound government policy. Ironically, politicians bound by electoral cycles fail to realize that time is of the essence, in more ways than just one.

For almost a quarter of a century now, the Republic of Moldova, including Transnistria, has failed to realize its development potential, largely because of separatism. Yet the current economic difficulties, augmented by regional political turbulence, present a focusing event that may make Russia a more lenient partner and Ukraine a more understanding one. These developments are also boosting the position of moderate forces in Transnistria, eager to engage in a constructive dialog in order to benefit from the new economic opportunities presented by Moldova’s closer ties with the European Union. As we have seen time and again, overtly relying on policy entrepreneurs coming from abroad is a defeatist’s strategy – one that is prone to so many shortcomings that it can only lead to failure. Therefore, the Moldovan Government and Parliament, as well as the broader political elite, need to become more pro-active in challenging the status quo rather than surrendering to it. To that end, we recommend the following measures:

  • Central Government should appoint more representatives of ethnic/linguistic minorities (Ukrainians, Russians, Gagauz, Bulgarian, Jewish, Roma, etc.) to national offices.
    • It should work with Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, the United States and the OSCE towards boosting confidence-building measures and increasing economic opportunities for reintegration.
    • A portion of Moldova’s international donor assistance should be channeled to jointly agreed upon social, educational and infrastructure projects in Transnistria.
  • Parliament should review/repeal the 2005 Law on Special Status of Transnistria.
    • Political parties in Parliament should draft and implement a comprehensive national reconciliation strategy. Constructive input from non-parliamentary parties should also be taken into account to ensure a broad national consensus.
    • A bilateral committee should be set up together with Transnistrian lawmakers to draft a framework towards a political settlement that would grant the left bank broad autonomy in a reintegrated, but decentralized or even federalized Moldova. Civil society experts from both banks of the Nistru should also be included in the process.
  • Civil society experts, from both banks of the river, should provide input into the process of drafting a national reconciliation strategy. Civil society groups should hold state institutions accountable with respect to the strategy implementation.

 

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Disclaimer: This is just the introduction and conclusion of a book chapter I have written in NATO Science for Peace and Security Series by IOS Press in the Netherlands, which is pending publication. The book is a follow up to an advanced research workshop on”Best Practices and Lessons Learned in Conflict Management: NATO, OSCE, EU and Civil Society” funded by NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme and organised by the Slovak Foreign Policy Association along with partners in Ukraine and Germany  in June 2015 in Bratislava, which I attended on behalf of the Foreign Policy Association of Moldova. The views expressed are mine alone.