Pridnestrovie’s Smirnov Playing Final Cards as Ukraine Stands on Sidelines

November 28, 2011
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

On December 11, citizens of the Pridnestrovien Moldovan Republic (PMR) will cast ballots for president. Longtime leader Igor Smirnov is running for reelection despite his repudiation by Russia, Pridnestrovie’s vital source of support and only meaningful protection against forcible incorporation into Moldova. Its patience with Smirnov’s corrupt regime exhausted, Moscow has publicly shifted its support to Obnovleniye (“Renewal”) party leader Anatoly Kaminsky, who has been endorsed by Russia’s United Russia party and Prime Minister (and likely future president) Vladimir Putin. Also vying to succeed Smirnov is former parliamentary speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk, considered a pro-western “reformer” and potential “Orange” candidate.

Having been dumped by his former benefactor, Smirnov has popped various rabbits out of his hat as the vote approaches. He has suggested a referendum to annex Pridnestrovie to Ukraine as an autonomous region, a status it held from 1924-1940 as part of the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR. He recently met with Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, agreeing to a resumption of the “5+2” talks on Pridnestrovie’s status (with whatever tacit understandings that only can be guessed at) in Vilnius this week.

Meanwhile, Smirnov has pulled out the stops on what can only be called “direct action” to secure his reelection – or at least his qualification for a run-off against either Kaminsky or Shevchuk – by whatever means necessary. Indications are growing that when all else fails, Smirnov, who effectively controls the Pridnestrovien state apparat, including the elections machinery, will simply rig the results. Reports are building of preparations for falsifications of ballots to steal the election for Smirnov, an expedient unnecessary when Moscow supported him and Pridnestrovien citizens could vote for him with assurance that his tenure equated with backing from Russia. Concerns are rising about harassment of opposition political candidates and attacks on free media, especially those oriented toward Obnovleniye. He also is biting the hand that formerly fed him, arresting political consultants from Russia as well as sending his security forces to detain and beat a television crew.

At this juncture it is difficult to say whether these measures signal Smirnov’s ability to hang onto power no matter what or the desperate flailing of a drowning man. His eyes on are fixed on the run-off, in which he hopes to be paired with Shevchuk – to whom Smirnov has been quietly funneling support – in a choice that writes Moscow (in the person of Kaminsky) out of the Pridnestrovien equation. From the West’s point of view, a Smirnov-Shevchuk run-off would be a perfect no-lose proposition. Either Mr. Smirnov wins, thwarting Moscow and leaving Pridnestrovie in tatters, under a tainted and weakened leader who can be bullied by Kishinev and Bucharest into eventual submission. Or Mr. Shevchuk wins, also thwarting Moscow and leaving little choice but to accept a settlement on terms the west will dictate to him.

Meanwhile, as has been the case in the past, both under the “Orange” Yushchenko administration and under the current one, Kiev sits on its hands, effectively favoring Smirnov by default. While Moscow has been forthright in its concerns about Smirnov’s corruption and non-viability as a leader who can resist Pridnestrovie’s absorption by Moldova, Kiev has been fastidiously silent. While Russia insists on a role as guarantor of Pridnestroive’s rights in any negotiated settlement, Ukraine – also one of the five full participants under the “5+2” formula – has not, effectively ceding the initiative to the United States and European Union, which are only the “+2” observers. While ethnic Ukrainians, along with ethnic Russians and Moldovans, are one of the three largest constituent peoples of Pridnestrovie, Ukraine has withheld support, and even seemed to side with Kishinev in efforts to strangle Priednestrovie’s access to the outside world, first and foremost through Ukraine.

The coming weeks are shaping up as the most fateful for Pridnestrovie and the Pridnestrovien people since the messy breakup of the Soviet Union. It remains to be seen whether Smirnov’s machinations will prove to be the final word on the outcome.