As Western sanctions take their toll on Russia, the price of annexation and proxy war in Ukraine may be proving too high for the maintenance of Russia’s empire in the so-called “near abroad.” Outposts of Russian power in the ex-USSR have, in the post-Soviet era, included self-declared independent republics (separatist states) in ex-Soviet states, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), and Transnistria (Moldova). Transnistria – sometimes referred to as “Trans-Dniestr” or “Transdniestria” – is especially remote from Moscow. A sliver of land sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova, it does not even share a border with the Russian Federation. Moldova is the small, ethnically Romanian country of which every member of the United Nations (including Russia) recognizes Transnistria to be a formal part.
Yet despite the Kremlin’s official stance toward Transnistria as part of Moldova in the post-Soviet era, Russia has maintained troops in the region, once home to the Soviet (then Russian) 14th Army. The continued Russian troop presence in Transnistria in violation of international treaty obligations appears to be a deterrent to further NATO expansion in the region, particularly in light of Moscow’s continued denials. Transnistria’s economy is notoriously opaque, long a source of trade in arms and other illegal goods, and the Russian military is convenient protection for such activity. On a cultural level, the ancient history of the small capital – Tiraspol – as a “Russian city” has raised suspicion that, like Crimea and Sevastopol, Transnistria (population just over half a million) could become another object of a Russian military operation to reconstruct the USSR by force.
Unfortunately for Russia, such a prospect now looks prohibitively expensive in light of the damage to the Russian economy caused by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. What, then, happens to Transnistria? Will Russia attempt to bargain the region away, perhaps to devote more resources to supporting Crimea? The Kremlin’s loosening grip on Transnistria is good news for the new Ukrainian state, since Transnistria has loomed as a southwestern front for a potential three-pronged, full-scale Russian invasion (in addition to eastern Ukraine and Crimea). That threat appears to be dissipating.
The following article from the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta implies that the writing may be on the wall for the most populous (and westernmost) pro-Russian separatist state of the ex-USSR…
Moscow may give up the unrecognized republic in exchange for recognition of Crimea
26 January 2015 ~ Svetlana Gamova
For the first time, Russia has refused to give Transnistria financial assistance, which the region’s leader, Yevgeny Shevchuk, asked for in Moscow. A source in the Supreme Council of Transnistria [parliament – Ed.] told Nezavisimaya Gazeta (NG) that Tiraspol had expected to receive $100 million to cover payment of pensions and other social obligations. According to the director of the Moldovan Center for Strategic Research and Policy Consulting, Anatol Taranu, the refusal was dictated by the change in the Kremlin’s attitude to the breakaway republic, which could be given away in exchange for recognition of Crimea as Russian.
NG has already written about the fact that there is no money in Transnistria to pay salaries and pensions (see 20 January 2015 issue). We also reported that a delegation would visit Moscow to ask for $100 million for the unrecognized republic, so that the Transnistrian authorities could close gaps in social and economic areas. NG’s source in the Transnistrian Supreme Council says the Transnistrians’ requests to the Russian government have been refused. According to a source, “in Moscow, dissatisfaction has been expressed with the charter flights that fly Transnistrian President Yevgeny Shevchuk, and reference has been made to economic difficulties in Russia.”
Anatol Taranu remarked to NG that “Moscow is changing its views as a whole on Transnistria, which used to be called an outpost on the way to the Balkans. This is what Crimea has become… Russia is in a difficult situation in connection with Crimea, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the economic crisis in Russia itself. Unrecognized Transnistria is becoming a burden for Moscow.”
“It is moreover true that the economy of Transnistria is in critical condition – a series of enterprises there are standing or functioning at partial capacity, and are also operating on cheap or free Russian energy resources. Tiraspol owes the Russian Federation $5 billion for gas. Electricity is supplied to local factories from the Russian-owned Kuchurgan Power Station [a 2,520 megawatt power plant in Transnistria fueled by gas, oil and coal, and operated by Moscow-based company Inter RAO – Ed.]. Besides, the big scandals associated with Russian money and the family of former Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov have not been forgotten, giving rise to a belief among the population that things are not getting better,” said Taranu.
The expert noted media reports that Russian investors have started to leave Transnistria, indicating a decrease in the profitability of enterprises as well as a change in Moscow’s position toward the pro-Russian region.
In support of this version of events, ex-Ambassador of Moldova to the Russian Federation Anatol Taranu recalled the words of Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin in the State Duma. “The Dniestr Moldavian Republic is our partner, and we have signed a series of interagency agreements under which we provide practical assistance to many areas of Transnistria. But officially, regarding the Transnistrian settlement, where we are actively involved in the “5+2” and other formats, we believe that Transnistria – as our partner – must be a special district with special guarantees of status within a single Moldovan state,” Karasin was quoted as saying to the Russian news agency TASS.
Taranu drew attention to the word “district”: “This term is only ever used to refer to Transnistria in Chisinau [the capital of Moldova – Ed.]. And the fact that it came from the mouth of the deputy head of the Foreign Ministry of Russia can be interpreted as a signal,” said the Moldovan expert. “In Moldova today, half the population has a pro-Russian stance. If Transnistria is returned to the control of Chisinau, this category of citizens will increase. It is unclear why Russia did not understand this before, and did not look after the unrecognized republic,” he added.
Supreme Council of Transnistria member and Center for Modeling and Strategic Development Vice President Dmitry Soin told NG that, “the withdrawal of Russian investors from Transnistria is an alarming omen for my people.” According to the Transnistrian MP, the Moldova Steel Works (MMZ) – one of the main budget enterprises – could be returned to the state property of Transnistria. For now, MMZ still has a Russian owner. “The reason may be a Ukrainian blockade of the region, the abolition of benefits in connection with EU sanctions against Russia, and the loss of civilian markets. For Transnistrians, who could always count on the help of the Russian state and Russian investors, this means possibly remaining on a starvation diet,” said Soin.
The day before, the Transnistrian news agency Tiras, citing its own sources, had reported that, “powerful Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov is leaving Transnistria, and soon the Moldova Steel Works in Rybnitsa will become the property of the local authorities.” The agency notes that the Rybnitsa Cement Plant is up for sale. “These are alarming symptoms not only for the economy but also for the future of Transnistria. For example, the metallurgical and cement plants are the main enterprises of the city of Rybnitsa. Their work was only possible thanks to the efforts of the Russian side. Now, the very existence of these plants is highly questionable,” writes Tiras. The management of MMZ neither confirms nor denies this information. We were unable to obtain comment from the press service of Metalloinvest, which owns MMZ.
Meanwhile, observers in Chisinau considered it unlikely that Alisher Usmanov would part so easily with his property, the Moldova Steel Works in Rybnitsa, which worked steadily last year. Shares of MMZ can now be sold at a profit, but certainly not to the Transnistrian authorities, whose treasury is empty. This opinion is shared by the director of the Center for Strategic Studies and Reforms, Galina Shalar. As she told NG, “If MMZ actually changes investors, then it’s no more than a question of ownership. When a similar situation occurred with the Kuchurgan Power Station, it turned out that one Russian owner had been replaced by another. The same thing could happen here.”