Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 9

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin went on television in Moscow on January 12 to urge his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to oust Russian citizen Igor Smirnov’s “gang” from power in Transdniester.

Voronin, who goes to Moscow more frequently than any of the CIS country presidents, was on a stopover there, this time en route home from vacation in Finland. In an interview with NTV, he named two prerequisites for settling the Transdniester problem. First, realization by all concerned that “the issue can not possibly be settled with the criminal-bandit Smirnov regime.” And, second, a “conferral of far-reaching prerogatives and guarantees” to be negotiated “without Smirnov” but with the successor authorities in Tiraspol, once the Smirnov regime is forced from power.

Describing that group’s raison d’etre as purely criminal–the organized smuggling of alcohol and cigarettes, arms and drugs via Transdniester–the Moldovan president called for “closing this contraband corridor. Once this is done,” he predicted, “Smirnov and his supporters and those who feed on him will disappear.” Voronin insistently expressed the wish that Putin “instruct Smirnov to leave Transdniester. That would resolve a great deal,” he said, “and without any complications.” Reminded of Smirnov’s own declaration last year that he [Smirnov], as a Russian citizen, regards Putin as his president, Voronin used this televised appearance to reassure the Kremlin that ousting Smirnov would not be deemed interference in Moldova’s affairs, and that it can be done short of using force.

Voronin’s remarks appear designed to neuter the thesis, common in Russian military and political circles in and out of government, that Smirnov’s group performs a valuable geopolitical service for Russia by holding on to the outpost in Transdniester. That conviction explains Moscow’s consistent support for Smirnov over the past ten years. Voronin’s message since he came to power in Chisinau last year has been that those in Smirnov’s group are nothing more than criminal profiteers, support for whom discredits Russia itself, and that negotiations with the group is not merely pointless but downright harmful, because it deepens the deadlock. Voronin first took that position–in very outspoken terms–in an Izvestia interview last July. He has to date resisted suggestions from Moscow and even from some Western diplomats to fall back into the “negotiating process” with the current leaders in Tiraspol.

The change that Voronin brought to Chisinau’s position is probably the only bright spot on his otherwise bleak record after less than a year in power. He has confounded predictions that, as a communist president, he would go in for a quick fix with Tiraspol on terms close to Smirnov’s. The Kremlin, as well as some officials at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)–which, along with Russia and Ukraine, mediate the Chisinau-Tiraspol negotiations–had pressed Voronin to continue meeting, “negotiating” and signing documents with Smirnov, if only to keep “the process” going.

Most recently, Moscow and some OSCE officials–pending the arrival of a new OSCE mission chief in Chisinau–have been calling for the resumption of negotiations in the “pentagonal format” of Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, Chisinau and Tiraspol. Such a format would, supposedly, allow Chisinau to avoid losing too much face by returning to face-to-face “negotiations” with the Smirnov group, whom it has described as criminal. Tiraspol is keen on negotiation as a substitute for legitimacy.

For its part, the European Union at Christmas urged “the sides”–Chisinau and Tiraspol–to resume the negotiations “at the top” and “as soon as possible in order to achieve a lasting settlement.” Thus far, however, the only “lasting” thing–ten years–has been the trap of the “negotiating process” with Smirnov–and with Moscow in the driver’s seat as “mediator” between its own proxies and Moldova.

Voronin’s position–as staked out from June-July 2001 to date–marks a sharp break with that of his predecessors Mircea Snegur and Petru Lucinschi. Their personal and political weaknesses, loss of hope in Western support, and ultimately tolerance of corrupt links between Tiraspol and Chisinau, had made those two presidents drift along without a policy. To all intents and purposes, they came to treat Moldova’s de facto partition as the status quo. Unlike them, Voronin–a Transdniester native, and a politician willing to bank on Moscow–viscerally rejects such a status quo. In this respect–but only in this respect–Voronin shares the view of Chisinau’s anti-Communists and leading experts on Transdniester, who had for years been describing Smirnov’s group as unacceptable, and the negotiations a travesty.

The goal of removing Smirnov from power, however, begs the question about an alternative political force in Transdniester. At present, no such force exists. The primary group actively opposing Smirnov and able, to a very limited extent, to make its voice heard in Transdniester is a local Communist faction, loyal to the Chisinau-based Party of Communists and its leader Voronin. Moldovan democratic groups and other political forces have been hounded out of Transdniester years ago, and have not risked returning since. They, as well as international organizations promoting human rights and democracy, face an uphill task of identifying and supporting a democratic political alternative in Transdniester (NTV, January 12; Basapress, January 11-12; see the Monitor, September 7, November 21, 26, 28, December 12, 13, 19).