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.
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.md, Ziarulnational.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.