The new electoral cycle in Moldova will begin in February 2019. Unlike in previous elections, the voting set to take place on the 24th of February will create more preconditions for the changing of the existing status quo with regards to the breakaway region, known as the Transnistrian region. For the first time, after more than two decades of Moldova’s independence, the separatist region has obtained the chance to impact Moldovan politics from the inside through a democratically elected parliament. Moreover, after almost nine years of the EU-associated majority in the Parliament, pro-Russian forces have real chance to celebrate a victory. If the latter gets the power to shape the future government, then the Russia-suggested idea of the ‘federalisation’ of Moldova, as a means to settle the ongoing conflict, might be implemented.
The parliamentary elections will grant access for Transnistrian politicians to influence the Moldovan decision-making process. The main Moldovan political parties (Democratic Party, Socialist Party and the Electoral Bloc “Now”) may now register their candidates in the elections of behalf of Transnistria, as a way to increase their weight in the future legislative. The region will get representation in Moldova’s parliament due to the electoral reform of June 2017.
The latter switched the country from the proportional to mixed voting system, which mostly favours the oligarchy-linked, and pro-EU self-styled, Democratic Party and the pro-Russian Socialists. Conducted with lack of wide public and political consensus, the reform also harshly contradicted the commitments under the macro-financial assistance arrangement with the EU. According to the new electoral circumstances, 50 out of 101 seats of the legislative are filled, as in the past, on the party lists basis. The remaining 51 are mandated and decided within the single-member constituencies, out of which two were designated to the separatist region. Forty-seven voting stations were set for the population of the region, including in the demilitarised zone, otherwise called Security Zone, for which the electoral body demanded to ensure security on voting day. The direct election of the president in 2016, re-introduced after 18 years of presidents’ appointment by the legislative body, showed a very small participation of the region’s population - only 6.964 voters in the first round, and 16.728 in the second one. This represents a tiny fraction of the region’s population (less than 8%) included in the electoral database of the constitutional authorities - 222.253 persons. Even with such little mobilisation, the voters from the breakaway region were still involved in irregularities, such as the organised transportation to the voting station during the 2016 presidential elections, by the team of the incumbent pro-Russian President Igor Dodon. A larger scale of similar irregularities, triggered by the interest to elect the two Transnistrian delegates to the Moldovan legislative body, could favour electoral gains for the political forces that aspire to reset the relations with Moscow, hardly possible without serious (geo)political concessions.
The positive outcome of the elections for the Socialists and other pro-Russian politicians could serve as a catalyst for a new geopolitical reality in Moldova. Such a scenario would be even more probable if the region’s voters manage a more dynamic participation. There is a high probability that a government controlled by the Socialists would inspire another plan of ‘federalisation’ of the country. According to the 2003 plan, the Transnistrian region should receive a special juridical status within a federalised Moldova, and a ‘veto power’ on the Moldovan foreign policy. The President Igor Dodon, whose Socialist Party disposes of substantial resources to win the elections, already openly expressed a willingness to find a political solution at any costs already in 2019-2020. This could mean a resuscitation of the ‘federalisation’ idea, which was actively favoured by Dodon in the past. The president implied that a referendum for resolving the conflict could be called whether his political party (Socialists) takes over the reins of power or not. As for now, this clashes with the agenda of the Transnistrian de facto authorities that seek a full separation from Moldova and closer adhesion to Russia, invoking the results of the 2006 unrecognised referendum of the region.
However, it will take huge efforts to change these two solidified realities. On the one hand, the separatist region will need to operate within Moldova-EU trade liberalisation arrangements, which are economically beneficial to Transnistria. Given that at least 1/3 of the Transnistrian exports go to the EU, the region accepted to gradually align with a set of EU norms. Russia presented no objection to the transposition of various EU’s trade-related principles by Transnistria starting from 2016 – though it did object against the Moldovan constitutional authorities when they signed the Association Agreement with EU in 2013, which applied various trade restrictions on Moldovan imports. On the other hand, the breakaway region should learn to adjust by taking into account the current political and security dynamics of Ukraine. The anti-corruption reforms and the security preventive measures of Moldova’s neighbour put the region’s population and business under some constraints. Counteracting the attempts of Russian aggression to spread to the Southwest, Ukraine introduced a strict border control regime for the region’s male population. Concomitantly, the anti-corruption policies in place since 2015-16 in the Odessa region, which borders with Moldova’s breakaway region, affected illegal operations, mainly smuggling, favourable to the local oligarchic regime, controlled by ‘Sheriff Holding’. Joint Moldovan and Ukrainian attempts to set common checkpoints on the Transnistrian segment starting from 2017, and with EU assistance, can further limit the region’s illegal practices. However, the poor control of the borders and the trade flows to the region, and the perpetuation of corruption in customs service of Ukraine and Moldova, continue to enable large scale smuggling with the participation of Transnistrian region, accounting for approximately half a million Euro in 2016 alone.
Though the conflict settlement is said to have made “a real, tangible progress” according to the new OSCE presidency undertaken by Slovakia, there is limited hope for the reintegration of the country without withdrawing the illegally stationed Russian forces from the separatist region. If in the aftermath of elections, the pro-Russian forces succeed in dominating institutions of power, with the support of the Transnistrian delegates, they will attempt to prioritise Russia’s interests, which since 2003 contain the unfulfilled goal of federalising Moldova. The same may happen whether the willingness of the governing Democratic Party to stay in power persuade them to partner either with the entire Socialist Party or with the deserters fleeing it.