Russia slams Transdniester president’s grip on power

Moldova’s breakaway republic of Transdniester is holding presidential elections in early December. With its current president in power for over 20 years and running for reelection, Russia says the status quo is stalling the republic’s development.

President Igor Smirnov has held the reins of power for the entire 21 years of Transdniester’s disputed existence. His decision to run for a fifth term is being criticized by Moscow as a “mistake.”

“Smirnov has created an atmosphere of personal power that has put the republic into a state of deep social and economic crisis,” said the head of presidential administration, Sergey Naryshkin.

“There is a huge gap between ordinary people who are struggling and Smirnov's inner circle, who are only getting richer,” Naryshkin added.   

The republic asserted its independence from Moldova in 1990, just a before Moldova itself split from the Soviet Union.  Life has been tough there ever since.  
The breakaway region is a tiny strip of land with a population of half a million bordering Ukraine.  It behaves like a real state, complete with its government, military, currency, and constitution. But Transdniester has always been viewed by Moldova as part of its territory, meaning continued political tension.

In 1992, a war broke out in which hundreds died as Moldovan forces fought separatists before an internationally-brokered ceasefire brought an uneasy peace. Since then, continued efforts by Russia and the international community to move the Moldovan and Transdniestrian authorities towards dialogue have not borne fruit, leaving tensions dangerously high.

Some Russian politicians believe the breakaway region’s leadership is an obstacle to a negotiated solution and accuse it of corruption.

“Transdniestrian authorities and President Smirnov personally will do their best to keep power as long as they feel OK with the situation. Smirnov virtually controls everything in the republic. His family members hold all significant posts. He is living a life of luxury in comfort, literally, while you can barely say the same about this region’s residents,” said Russian MP Aleksey Ostrovsky.

For ordinary people, life is tough. Average earnings of just three dollars a day for those lucky enough to work, coupled with high unemployment, make the region one of the poorest in Europe. It is also a dangerous place to live – in the absence of international controls, Transdniester is a haven for smugglers of all kind, and a center for illegal arms trafficking.

Opponents say the run-up to the election has brought a climate of heightened political fear, with the current regime in no mood to relinquish power.

“We live in an atmosphere of fear and threat. There are many cases of political pressure, blackmailing and violation of laws in an attempt to discredit other candidates,” said Transdniester MP, Pyotr Pasat.

“People and parties openly criticizing the current authorities are being put on the run,” he added. “All this has placed in serious danger the whole democratic election process.”

Just under two months before the poll, it is clear that the struggle for power will be far from a kid-glove affair. Some even warn it could be a flashpoint, the latest twist in the difficult history of this troubled region.