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Analysis & Opinion
17.04.12 The Patron State
By Dan Peleschuk

The Patron State By Dan Peleschuk Several months after his election to the presidency of Moldova’s unrecognized breakaway state of Transdnestr, Yevgeny Shevchuk is beginning to settle into the position. Hailed by many as the new reform-minded leader bent on opening up the previously closed neo-Soviet regime, Shevchuk has come out swinging, visiting Moscow and pledging greater cooperation with Moldova. But Russia’s own overtures, especially on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, may leave Shevchuk with little room to maneuver.

Shevchuk had long been in the bullpen. His predecessor, Igor Smirnov, had held the territory on virtual lockdown since the region’s self-declared independence in 1990, and had operated a closed regime many critics said was “frozen in time,” citing its emphasis on industry and militarism, along with largely totalitarian politics. Rising through the ranks, first as a founder of the Renewal Party then as speaker of the local Supreme Soviet, Shevchuk seemed to carefully break free of the regime and make his own successful stand for pluralist politics in one of Eurasia’s unrecognized states.

His election to the presidency in late December pleased virtually everyone involved in the delicate balance of power over Transdnestr. For both Moldova and the European Union, it was a long-awaited shift in power that would potentially open the door to greater cooperation and more fruitful negotiations, which have once again kick-started this week in Vienna. And though not Moscow’s preferred candidate (the Kremlin picked Anatoly Kaminsky, another Renewal member and current parliament speaker), Shevchuk has proven to be a worthy ally for Russia, given his commitment to maintaining close relations and the signing of a cooperation protocol in recent years between United Russia and Renewal.

But perhaps observers should think twice before pitching Shevchuk’s election as a win-win situation for all. Lately, signs have begun to emerge that Moscow may be looking at Transdnestr with an eye toward pulling it closer into its post-Soviet orbit. The most visible example, experts say, was nationalist firebrand and former NATO Envoy Dmitry Rogozin’s appointment as the president’s special representative to the region. Rogozin, known to have both years of international negotiation experience and giant political ambitions, traveled to Chisinau and Tiraspol this week to reveal potentially worrying plans that Russia is not only going to keep its contested peacekeeping force there, but also to rearm it. “We see no grounds for reviewing our peacekeeping mission,” Rogozin said, RIA Novosti reported. “The mission will continue.”

Some analysts say Russia’s appointment of Rogozin, who controls Russia’s military-industrial complex as a deputy prime minister, to manage the conflict may in fact bode poorly for its potential settlement. According to Moldova expert Nicu Popescu, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the news was received poorly by Moldova and Europe as a sign that Russia isn’t serious about conflict resolution. “The understanding is that if Russia wants to patch up relations and be constructive, it’s not Rogozin it sends to deal with Transdnesr,” he said. “It signals that Russia is not willing or contemplating a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict.”

The Rogozin factor, however, may not result entirely in a doom-and-gloom scenario for wide-eyed Europeans expecting more dialogue on the issue. Some European officials, though reportedly confused over his appointment, recognize Rogozin’s diplomatic experience as a potential asset. Shevchuk, meanwhile, seemingly remains committed – officially – to closer contact with Chisinau. Several weeks ago, the leader signed an agreement with Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat to restore rail traffic between the two territories, which had long been suspended, a reminder of the simmering conflict. At a press conference in Moscow in early April, Shevchuk also signaled his readiness to discuss economic cooperation with Moldova during a meeting of the long-stalled “five plus two” negotiation process this week.

But wherever there’s a prospect for greater European integration, it seems that Moscow is one step ahead. During his business trip Rogozin also raised the issue of opening a Russian consulate in Tiraspol, officially cementing the heavy Russian influence that has single-handedly kept Transdnestr afloat since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Touting the now-familiar Kremlin rhetoric employed in such regions as Crimea and South Ossetia, Rogozin emphasized Russia’s writ there. “Former Soviet citizens have the right to choose the citizenship they want. The majority of them choose Russian citizenship,” he told Shevchuk in their meeting, RIA Novosti reported. “Russia as the legal heir of the Soviet Union bears complete responsibility for ensuring their security and well-being.”

Popescu sees Russian overtures as a possible reflection of a new age – or, at least, another age – of aggressive foreign policy under Putin. “There is a suspicion that Russia might actually, instead of now trying to reintegrate Moldova, basically use the Rogozin channel to realign Transdnestr as close as possible with itself,” he said, citing Shevchuk’s quiet discussion of possibly adopting the Russian ruble as a currency. “There is a kind of fear that Russia might go for a de facto annexation of Transdnestr the way it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the war.”

Other experts, however, remain cautiously optimistic about the prospect of conflict resolution. Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, sees both pluses and minuses in a strong Russian presence there. “As a strongly pro-Kremlin outpost on the doorstep of NATO and the EU, the region offers Moscow a narrow foothold in Central Europe and an indirect veto over NATO expansion in the Black Sea region,” he wrote on April 17 in World Politics Review. “Yet except for a handful of Russian oligarchs who profit from ‘gray market’ trading with [Transdnestr’s] hastily privatized enterprises, Russians are unhappy subsidizing the region through some $30 million in direct annual aid and more than $3 billion in unpaid gas debts.”
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