The election of Yevgeny Shevchuk for President of Transnistria was accompanied by a number of noteworthy developments both inside the unrecognized republic and abroad.
A short time before the presidential election in December 2011, the position of the prime minister was introduced in Transnistria. The president nominated Pyotr Stepanov, who had worked in Russia until 1987 before moving to Moldova. In 1996-2005, he managed Tiraspoltransgas, a Transnistrian gas transportation enterprise, and was closely linked to Russia's Gazprom. For the past six years, he headed the Ministry of Industry. He appears to be the only individual to have made the transition from the old government to the new one relatively unscathed. His candidacy was supported by leading politicians, including Anatoliy Kaminski whose presidential bid was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Shevchuk focused on strengthening his own power. His broom sweeps clean and fast, hardly missing any officials. In fact, many officials preferred to resign on their own or even leave Transnistria altogether like the former Minister of Public Health Ivan Tkachenko and ex-Governor of the Central Bank Oksana Ionova rather than waiting to be formally handed their walking papers.
As was expected, Shevchuk's new broom also swept out relatives of the former president, Igor Smirnov, who had ruled the country for many years. Shevchuk fired Smirnov’s elder son Vladimir who ran the Customs Committee — arguably the most lucrative post in the republic while other presidential decrees dismissed the ministers of defence, internal affairs, state security, foreign affairs and education. Transnistria’s Interior Ministry was for the first time headed by a woman – Nina Shtanski, who has a degree in law from Tiraspol University. She is preparing to defend a dissertation about settling the Transnistrian conflict at the Department for World Political Processes at the Institute of International Relations run by Russia’s Interior Ministry. Shevchuk put three more women in charge of ministries: Maria Miroshnik in the Ministry of Justice, Alena Shulga in the Ministry for Economic Development and Elena Gyrzhul in the Ministry of Finance. Moreover, Natalia Rusanova was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Shevchuk appears to be pinning hopes on young, uncorrupted cadre.
The dismissal of Vladimir Antyufeyev, formerly also known under the assumed names Vladimir Aleksandrov and Vadim Shevtsov, who was the Minister of State Security for many years, was anticipated with certain anxiety. Antyufeyev worked in the Department of Criminal Investigations in Riga and actively participated in the political struggle in Latvia in the early 1990s on the side of those who opposed the republic’s independence. After the collapse of the abortive coup staged by the Gang of Eight he was forced to flee Latvia where a criminal case was opened against him. Latvian and Moldovan law enforcement agencies are searching for him, and there is an international warrant for his arrest.
In the wake of his disappearance, a fierce struggle erupted over his post. According to some information, Russia’s FSB tried hard to keep Antyufeyev in place, but this proved impossible for many bureaucratic reasons. Antyufeyev spoke against Shevchuk prior to the presidential election, essentially accusing him of sabotage in the interests of the West and surrendering Transnistria to Moldova. By definition, Shevchuk could not work with such a minister, but Antyufeyev postured defiantly claiming that it was unreal for the new government to kick him out.
Because of his dismissal, special task units of the Interior Ministry were put on alert and given combat weapons. The government had reason to be apprehensive. Antyufeyev menacingly said that he was not leaving of his own accord: “I thought that the elected president was more independent and strong. I can say that many a foreign intelligence service will raise a glass of wine or whisky today on the occasion of my resignation.” “I’ll be back,” he promised.
Despite the fact that Shevchuk traveled to Moscow and appeared to succeed in establishing some contacts there, the Kremlin still decided to test the strength of the young Transnistrian government and also demonstrate that it had to both listen to Russia and do what it wants in terms of appointments. Because Moscow's candidate conceded the election, it decided to suspend financial aid. Moscow halted $300 million in aid and grants to develop agriculture and small and medium business. According to Speaker Kaminski, the Russian side is citing several reasons for its approach: Transnistria is still forming its government, while the Russian Federation is on the eve of the presidential election which will be followed by the appointment of a new Cabinet of Ministers. Moreover, the banking sector of the unrecognized republic also raises questions. This is probably why representatives of Russia’s Central Bank and Customs Service have come to the region with a checkup. A group from Russia’s Investigation Committee is also expected to visit.
It appears that Moscow’s decision to cut off financial aid was prompted by Shevchuk’s exceedingly energetic efforts to build contacts with Moldova. Moreover, the developments are so rapid that Moscow simply cannot keep up.
And surprisingly for Russia, the Ukrainian factor also played a role. Kyiv quickly arranged for Shevchuk and Prime Minister Vlad Filat of Moldova to meet in Odesa. Shevchuk spoke to the media after the meeting and said he was hopeful that negotiations could become a platform for normalizing relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau. At the same time, he noted that they had to focus on economic relations: “We favor the tactic of small steps to unblock relationships between people and economic relations. … In this way we can create a platform for further changes.”
In turn, the Moldovan Prime Minister assured that Moldova would continue to work to restore full-fledged train connections through Transnistrian territory and overcome problems with communications. In their joint press release, the sides thanked Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostiantyn Hryshchenko “for facilitating its organization.” Hryshchenko thanked the two sides for openness. “We support continued constructive dialogue and will facilitate it in every way,” he said.
Both Tiraspol and Chisinau began talking about the “Yanukovych plan” for settling the regional conflict which is planned to later be discussed in the 5+2 format (Moldova and Transnistria as the sides of the conflict; Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE as mediators; and the EU and the USA as observers). Evidently Kyiv is the only participant in the negotiation process perceived by both Moldova and Transnistria as equally distant from either side, while others are seen as belonging to the “support group” of one or the other party.
Success in settling the Transdnistrian conflict is important to the Ukrainian government not only as a kind of response to Moscow’s unconstructive position in gas negotiations but also for other, internal reasons. Popular support for the Party of Regions and President Viktor Yanukovych has obviously plummeted. It is vain to expect the economic and financial situation to improve rapidly. Instead, Yanukovych’s team is hoping to be able to at least present its foreign policy achievements to both Ukraine and Europe.