Tiraspol’s New Leader Shevchuk: A Man We Can Do Business With?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 18

Yevgeny Shevchuk and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov

Yevgeny Shevchuk’s victory in Transnistria’s “presidential” election is an opportune development for Russia, at the opportune moment. Moscow was slow to comprehend this, but will almost certainly act accordingly from this point onward. The Kremlin dumped Transnistria’s “president,” Igor Smirnov; supported the almost equally antiquated chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Anatoly Kaminski, for election as “president;” and behaved neutrally toward the younger Shevchuk, who won the election on a platform no less Moscow-oriented than those of his rivals. In that sense, any one of the candidates could have lost the election, but Moscow could not have lost it (see accompanying article).
Shevchuk’s accession coincides with the resumption of long-frozen negotiations on the Transnistria conflict. Moscow and Tiraspol seek international acceptance (short of outright recognition) of Transnistria as co-equal partner with Chisinau in an eventual settlement. With or without a settlement, international de facto acceptance of Transnistria is a shared goal of Moscow and Tiraspol. However, Smirnov was a heavy liability to any such effort, and Kaminski no asset either. The Kremlin will use a willing Shevchuk to promote those goals. Shevchuk will be billed with some justification as a de-Sovietized, “modern-manager” type, heading a local (though utterly non-Moldovan) team, instead of a team studded with Moscow’s direct appointees.
Moscow never favored a total or irreversible secession of Transnistria from Moldova. The unrecognized republic’s title, “Dniester-Moldovan,” corresponds with Moscow’s goal of re-uniting Transnistria and Moldova, under conditions that would enable Russia to exert predominant influence on a Moldova-Transnistria “federation.” That objective is now more topical to Russian policy (as part of Moscow’s policy in Europe) than at any time since 1992, with the exception of 2003 (when Moscow came close to imposing a “federal” settlement unilaterally). Shevchuk is clearly better qualified than his two defeated rivals to seek international acceptance for such an outcome on Moscow’s behalf.
Western diplomats also pin some hopes on Shevchuk. They expect his election to boost Tiraspol-Chisinau “confidence-building” and a Tiraspol-EU dialogue. With EU assistance, this could ultimately result in a delimitation between Tiraspol’s and Moscow’s interests.
This is the second time in Shevchuk’s career that Western interest in him picked up. The first time was during Shevchuk’s tenure as Supreme Soviet chairman, and his challenge to Smirnov (2005-2010). That phase overlapped with the deep freeze in the international negotiations on the Transnistria conflict. Western diplomats in Chisinau – and, ultimately, in Brussels – grew interested in Shevchuk as a potentially more constructive interlocutor. Simply in human terms it was assumed that Shevchuk could be more flexible, easier to deal with.
That faint hope (then or now) could not rest on Shevchuk’s track record; this was practically indistinguishable from Smirnov’s on conflict-resolution terms and the Russian orientation. Instead, Western overtures to Shevchuk banked on generational change and the replacement of Moscow’s carpetbaggers by a local nomenklatura, attuned to local interests. Parallel overtures were made at that time to Transnistria’s shadowy but influential “local business” – i.e., the “Sheriff” commercial conglomerate, whose political exponent Shevchuk was at the time. The idea was to woo those business interests toward some political accommodation and, ultimately, some form of reunification with Chisinau, in return for legalizing Transnistria’s business and offering it access to European markets.
Those overtures were undoubtedly worth undertaking; almost any avenue had to be explored in that deadlocked situation. The hopes attached to them, however, were not borne out in 2006-2011. Shevchuk registered those feelers, but remained unresponsive to them, sticking to Moscow’s line. Transnistria’s export-import business obtained Moldovan and European acceptance, but delivered nothing politically in return. Ultimately, “Sheriff” sacrificed Shevchuk to Kaminski and the power-sharing deal with Smirnov (see above). “Sheriff’s” political clout, while real, may have been overrated. This conglomerate controls the wholesale export-import trade in consumer goods and some light processing industry, but is hardly a match to Russia’s industrial giants operating in Transnistria. These include Gazprom, the Inter-RAO UES electricity concern, and Russian steel oligarch owners of the Ribnita steel plant in Shevchuk’s home town.
Transnistria owes some $2.5 billion to Gazprom for past deliveries, and the gas debt is growing each year. Gazprom makes no serious attempt at debt-collection, but holds that possibility open. The Russian government covers some 70 percent of Transnistria’s annual budget deficits, as Shevchuk conceded in a post-election interview (Zerkalo Nedeli, January 20).
Shevchuk’s electoral campaign and initial post-election speeches replicated his old hard line and the hard line of his rivals, regarding conflict-resolution. He could not have been elected otherwise, and could not retain Moscow’s support while consolidating his rule in Transnistria without re-confirming his loyalty. Shevchuk chose Moscow for his first post-election visit abroad and was received there by Russia’s presidential administration head, Sergei Ivanov (Interfax, January 3, 4). Having all but ignored Ukraine during his election campaign, Shevchuk followed up with a visit to Kyiv and was received there by Minister of Foreign Affairs Kostyantyn Hrishchenko (UNIAN, January 12). Ukraine is hosting a meeting of Shevchuk with Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in Odessa on January 27 (Moldpres, January 26).
Moldova (in common with the EU line and that of the US) does not recognize Shevchuk’s election as president, but accepts him as interlocutor in a dialogue. Shevchuk’s hardline campaign and post-election positions are consistent with his career-long record, but are not necessarily to be taken as a guide to his policies beyond the short term.