Giorgio Comai – The presidential election in Transnistria

This is a guest post by Giorgio Comai, Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” fellow at Dublin City University

The presidential election that took place on 11 December 2016 in Transnistria, a de facto independent state within the internationally recognised borders of Moldova, ended with the resounding victory of the speaker of parliament, Vadim Krasnoselski (62,3%), over the incumbent president, Yevgeny Shevchuk (27,38%), the candidate of the Communist party, Oleg Khorzhan (3,17%), and others (including 3,4% who voted “against all”, which is formally one of the options given on the ballot). According to official data published by the local electoral commission, voter turnout reached 60,1% (corresponding to 252,659 voters), which is higher than both at the 2015 parliamentary election (47%) and at the previous presidential election in 2011 (58,88%).[1] There was, thus, no need for a second round, and Krasnoselski officially took office after an inauguration ceremony on 16 December.

The outcome was largely in line with the results of parliamentary elections in 2015 and with expectations on the eve of the vote. Krasnoselski was seen as the favourite thanks to his good connections in Moscow, strong support from Transnistria’s main economic actor (the Sheriff holding), and the economic uncertainty that has characterised Shevchuk’s rule.[2] Yet, the incumbent Shevchuk did fight to win the vote until the end, in an increasingly polarised context that at least in part explains the high turnout. Formally, the transition has been smooth so far, with a candidate winning a clear mandate, the electoral commission declaring him the president, and both the incumbent Shevchuk and the first Transnistria president, Igor Smirnov, being present at the inauguration ceremony.

Ensuring a smooth transition

An article published by the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” highlights the key role of Russian observers in defusing possible tensions, including remaining in contact with both of the main candidates on election day. Two days after the vote, Shevchuk flew to Moscow “invited by the Russian side” – as a concise press release put it – to hold a number of working meetings, where presumably he received instructions about how to ensure a smooth transition and was given reassurances about his own future.[3] On the same day, he signed a decree anticipating the inauguration ceremony to 16 December (a decree issued just a few hours earlier scheduled the inauguration on 27 December).

In his first meeting with journalists as president elect, Krasnoselski stated he would not take revenge on those working in the state media and security services who took sides with Shevchuk before the vote.  His words of reassurance should be seen in light of his commitment to keep stability in Transnistria during this period of transition. The fallout from the elections in the state media, the security services and other state institutions remains however to be seen, and in all likelihood there will be significant changes, in particular in senior positions. Immediate dismissals include the director of Transnistria’s public broadcaster, the head of the investigative committee, the republican prosecutor, as well as the head of Transnistria’s national bank.[4] The new configuration of power also implies that Transnistrian residents will have very little chance to hear any criticism of state institutions in the coming years, since both the Sheriff-owned TSV channel and the public broadcaster are due to support Kransoselski and the new government.

Developments

Krasnoselski’s victory puts an end to the institutional deadlock between president and parliament that stalled much needed reforms, in particular in relation to the ongoing currency crisis. After ensuring a strong majority in parliament at the 2015 vote,[5] the interest group around the Sheriff holding can now celebrate the victory of its candidate at the presidential election. In the short term, the renewed harmony between parliament, president, Sheriff, and Moscow is due to open the way for pragmatic solutions to long-standing problems that were hostage of the pre-electoral season. The newly installed government led by Aleksandr Martynov comes with a number of initiatives aimed at improving the economic situation in the territory.[6] But ultimately, Krasnoselski is not coming to power with fundamentally new recipes for enhancing Transnistria’s economy, or with a new foreign policy course.

When Shevchuk was elected five years ago, he was hailed as a reformist and there were even some hopes of an enhanced dialogue with Chişinău. No such hopes come with Krasnoselski. In line with his predecessor, Krasnoselski supports Transnistria’s integration (and eventual unification) with Russia. In spite of the monolithically pro-Russian rhetoric that characterised his campaign, however, he will also have to take a pragmatic stance and take all efforts needed to keep Transnistria’s export routes towards the West open. Limited room for manoeuvre is ultimately a defining characteristic of politics in de facto states, and in the next five years newly elected Krasnoselski will inevitably have to adapt to circumstances and external developments to keep Transnistria afloat.

Notes

[1]    An evaluation of voter turnout should take in consideration the fact that a significant share of Transnistria’s population effectively lives and works abroad (local scholars estimate that migrant workers make up about 20-33% percent of Transnistria’s population), and that it was not possible to vote from outside the territory.

[2]    See the previous post, The upcoming presidential election in Transnistria, for more background information.

[3]    In spite of accusations of corruption, also the first president of Transnistria Igor Smirnov has never been prosecuted after he has been voted out of office in 2011. He has been able to live in Tiraspol since then and has mostly remained out of public life (until the latest electoral campaign, during which he supported Krasnoselski), living – as he put it – the life of a pensioner. It seems likely that at least in the short term the younger Shevchuk will have the chance to spend more time with his wife Nina Shtanski (former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Transnistria) and their daughter.

[4]    The new head of the Transnistrian Republican Bank was until his nomination a senior manager in Sheriff-owned AgropromBank.

[5]    The well known connections between Sheriff and current members of parliament have also been recently highlighted by a report by a group of investigative journalists; in fact, 15 out of 43 members of the Transnistrian parliament are currently employed by Sheriff in managerial positions.

[6]    For a closer analysis of the economic issues the new government has to face, see Andrey Devyatkov’s analysis on Lact (18 December 2016).

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