On Dec. 11 the unrecognized republic of Transnistria will hold elections. Whoever emerges as the winner will likely work to deepen Transnistria’s relations with Moscow.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's Presidential Envoy for Transnistria, left, and Yevgeny Shevchuk, Head of Transnistria, during a news conference following a meeting in Tiraspol in July, 2016. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Dec. 11, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), or Transnistria, will hold its presidential election. To date, the PMR has not been recognized by any state - not even Russia, which supports it both politically and economically. And there is little chance of the republic’s political or legal status changing radically as a result of this election.

Accordingly, the election results will hardly be recognized as legitimate. At most, there will be a show of “appreciation” of the motives behind the expression of the will of the “unrecognized citizens.”

Yet, the lack of official recognition is no reason to ignore the role that Transnistria plays in defining the configuration of the border between the post-Soviet space and the European Union. Whatever opinion one might have of the leaders of the unrecognized republic, their participation in the negotiation process (where their status is recognized by all the parties including Moldova, Ukraine, the EU, the U.S., and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) is essential for the settlement process of the Transnistrian conflict to ever gain momentum.

The phenomenon of Transnistria cannot be reduced to issues of security or the competing foreign policy interests of the various players. Of interest is its internal dynamics. The republic is the oldest in the family of the de facto political formations in the post-Soviet space.

Also read: "Transnistria: 25 years without recognition"

The PMR was declared in September 1990. By comparison, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic did the same in September 1991, South Ossetia held a referendum on exiting Georgia in January 1992, and Abkhazia adopted a decision on the repeal of the Constitution of the Abkhaz Republic as part of the Georgian Pepublic in July of the same year.

According to political analyst Aleksandr Guschin, Transnistria “provides an example of an unrecognized state that has been able to secure effective operation of the state structures as well as development of the social life and economy.” Naturally, there are reservations here concerning the unresolved conflict, attempts by Moldova and Ukraine to change the status quo to their own advantage, lack of international recognition, and many other factors.

However, the fact remains that the PMR has existed for over a quarter of a century. Although they have conducted discussions in Tiraspol for many years about the opportunities and conditions for the republic’s participation in a joint project with the “maternal state,” the Transnistrians have come a long way separating themselves from  Moldovan policies. [Tiraspol is the capital of the unrecognized PMR – Editor’s note]

This does not refer to economic and humanitarian ties, though. In this respect, Transnistria compares favorably with Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.

In this regard, elections in the PMR are not only a competition among various politicians but also a demonstration of the very fact of the vitality of that state formation despite negative predictions about its future. The presidential and parliamentary campaigns in Transnistria also provide a sort of platform for competition with Kishinev. Both the elites and the ordinary residents of the PMR strive to prove that their standards are not any lower than those of Moldova, a country oriented to the strategic interaction with the European Union.

In that context, the significance of the December election should not be underestimated. The presidential campaign in the PMR has proceeded almost in parallel with the Moldovan presidential race. In fact, it will be completed just weeks after the election of the new Moldovan leader, Igor Dodon, in mid-November.

As a matter of fact, the victory of Dodon, who placed his stake on the normalization of relations with Moscow and promotion of Eurasian integration, has limited significantly the opportunities for the Transnistrian candidates to mobilize the “patriotic resources” that would have inevitably been stirred up if the representative of the pro-European forces Maya Sandu had won in the second round in Moldova.

As it stands now, any winner of the election in Transnistria will have to conduct a dialogue with a politician for whom Moscow is not an existential threat. In a certain sense, this is a much more difficult task because the logic of confrontation is more habitual and more easily comprehended by both Kishinev and Tiraspol.

Who, then, are the favorites of the current campaign? President of the PMR Yevgeny Shevchuk, who is completing his first term, is participating in the election. Five years ago, he replaced Igor Smirnov, the “patriarch” of Transnistrian politics and, in a sense, one of the “founding fathers” of unrecognized sovereignty. In 2011, Shevchuk won a difficult electoral struggle (which took two rounds to determine the winner) not only against him but also against Anatoly Kaminski, the then speaker of the Supreme Council and the main beneficiary of the parliamentary campaign of 2010. Yet, Kaminski was not able to repeat his parliamentary success.

A lot has changed over the five-year term of Shevchuk. And the changes are not at all in favor of the current president. On the one hand, he has not been able to secure recognition of the republic by Russia. On the other hand, over the years of his rule, the socio-economic situation has deteriorated, with inflation growing, unemployment rising, and the paychecks of state employees being cut.

In Shevchuk’s defense, one can mention the negative effect of the Ukrainian crisis. Pressure from Kiev has weakened the positions of the PMR, which does not have a common border with Russia but shares a border with Ukraine.

Still, the deterioration is an obvious fact. Also, a split between the Shevchuk administration and the Sheriff group has aggravated in recent years. The Sheriff group is the largest Transnistrian holding of private companies, which provides a major part of the republic’s total budget.

The results of 2015 parliamentary elections were arguably the largest defeat of the president as his party Vozrozhdeniye did not do well, with most of the parliamentary mandates landing in the hands of the opposition. The opposition party Obnovleniye, associated with the Sheriff group, took 34 out of the 43 seats in the Supreme Council while the voter turnout was quite high (4 percent higher than at the elections of 2010).

Thus, the parliament virtually became a platform for criticizing the president and his policies. It is no wonder that against that background, the current speaker of the supreme legislature Vadim Krasnoselski has come to the forefront. It is Krasnoselski who now acts as Shevchuk’s main competitor. And, according to sociological surveys, he seems to have better chances. On the other hand, polling has failed more than once - even in recognized states.

Also read: "Revealing the post-Soviet identity complex in Transnistria"

Both candidates make active use of populist arguments in their respective campaigns. While Shevchuk exploits “anti-oligarch” slogans, Krasnoselski puts an emphasis on the worsening conditions of the “ordinary citizens.” Adding to the picture, communist Oleg Khorzhan also speaks a lot about “workers’ rights,” even if he has little chance of winning.

The focus of the electoral debates has centered on the current social problems rather than strategic prospects of the development of the PMR. The candidates resort to rather harsh rhetoric and appeal to Moscow as their chief ally. In that regard, they are one and the same. However harshly they treat each other, there is no question of their departing from the pro-Russian choice, and none of them is associated with prospects of a “pro-European turn.”  

In this situation, it is very important for the Kremlin to keep a level head and not become a sponsor of one or another Transnistrian influence group. Much more important is the quality and peaceful character of the election, the winner of which will work to deepen the relations with Moscow.

It is no less important to think about developing a quality strategy for Transnistria’s future that cannot be reduced to the simplistic formula of just getting by. The republic has accumulated various interesting experiences, all of which must be leveraged for its effective development.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.