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Elections In South Ossetia, Transdniester Pose Prickly Problems For Moscow

  • Robert Coalson

South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity (left) and Transdniester's Igor Smirnov (wearing sun hats at an event in South Ossetia in June 2009) may no longer fit into Russia's plans for their regions.

South Ossetia's Eduard Kokoity (left) and Transdniester's Igor Smirnov (wearing sun hats at an event in South Ossetia in June 2009) may no longer fit into Russia's plans for their regions.

The December 4 State Duma elections in Russia are not the only voting that is on the Kremlin's mind these days. Moscow has taken an active interest in the recent presidential poll in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia and in the vote coming up next month to elect a president in Moldova's de facto independent region of Transdniester.

The two cases have some intriguing parallels. Both regions are heavily supported financially and politically by Moscow. In both cases, entrenched ruling elites have enriched themselves by skimming off much of Russia's aid to their regions.

South Ossetia has been headed by Eduard Kokoity since 2001. Although he is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, he has been laboring to install a handpicked successor. In Transdniester, Igor Smirnov has held the reins since 1990 and is now seeking a fifth term. The Kremlin has made no secret of the fact that it would like to see a younger leader take over from the 70-year-old Smirnov.

But there are also crucial differences. In South Ossetia, everyone is pro-Russian in the final analysis and Moscow has considerably more leeway for imposing its solutions. Independent South Ossetian journalist Timur Tskhovrebov says Moscow should be pushing for political development in the region instead of backing one favorite or another.

He says that if Moscow doesn't work for "the development of democratic, honest elections," it's "just going to get more of the same. By putting all their hopes into Kokoity, they got a little fiefdom and now they are paying for that. The same will happen with [pro-Moscow candidate Anatoly] Bibilov. Bibilov has never been a politician. He has always just been a manager."

Alla Dzhioyeva has emerged to challenge the Kremlin's candidate in South Ossetia.

Alla Dzhioyeva has emerged to challenge the Kremlin's candidate in South Ossetia.

Bibilov, the region's minister of emergency situations, gained about 25 percent of the vote in the first round of South Ossetia's election on November 13 and will face former Education Minister Alla Dzhioyeva in a second round in two weeks.

The Kremlin Seeks Change

In Transdniester, Moscow is eager to demonstrate to the West some progress toward a resolution of the long-standing conflict, and Smirnov, who insists on independence for his region or, at least, for union with Russia, has come to be seen as an obstacle.

Political analyst Grigory Volovoi, who is based in Transdniester's capital, Tiraspol, says Moscow's main goal in the region is to be able to promote its own settlement agenda. "I think it's important that Russia wants to have a more flexible, more loyal politician to settle the Transdniester problem," he says. "They need a Transdniester that will consider all the negotiation processes as a part of the solution to the issues that Russia is putting in front of Moldova and Transdniester."

Last year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a memorandum on the creation of a joint EU-Russia commission on security issues. That memorandum also specifically named Transdniester as a conflict that could and should be resolved in short order. Linking the two issues has increased the pressure on Moscow to show progress.

"Changing the leadership [in Transdniester] is a tool with which Moscow can show that it can regulate a conflict in a modern, civilized way, without military intervention," RFE/RL Russian Service commentator Vadim Dubnov says. "There is the formula 5+2 -- the work of this standing forum basically only interests Russia. Because Russia needs to show an example of its influence in the world -- maybe not a very significant example, but one that is right on the border of the European Union nevertheless."

Oleg Smirnov, banker and son of Transdniester's longtime leader, has come under pressure.

Oleg Smirnov, banker and son of Transdniester's longtime leader, has come under pressure.

The formal 5+2 talks on the Transdniester conflict include three mediating powers -- Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- and two observers -- the United States and the European Union -- in addition to the two conflicting sides. Chisinau and Tiraspol agreed in September to resume the talks, which had been stalled since early 2006.

As a result, Moscow has been increasing the pressure against Smirnov. Russia's Audit Chamber has been probing the alleged misuse of funds intended for Transdniester and prosecutors have raided a firm headed by Smirnov's son. Smirnov's daughter was recently barred from running for the Russian Duma on the A Just Russia party list. Last month, Russian presidential chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin publicly urged Smirnov to withdraw from the race and endorsed Transdniester parliament speaker Anatoly Kaminsky to replace him.

RFE/RL's Dubnov says the problem with all these long-standing conflicts is that the leadership becomes invested in the status quo, stuck in a dead end. "It seems as if everything could somehow be settled, that some sort of formula could be found. But nothing came of it," he says.

"Because, as it turned out, only Moscow really wanted it. The situation isn't a problem for Chisinau, and it certainly isn't one for Transdniester," Dubnov adds. "Smirnov really has only one problem -- that the conflict might somehow be resolved. Sooner or later the leaders of such places end up in a dead-end situation, just like Kokoity did."

No Clear Favorites

So far, Dubnov says, Smirnov has continued to stubbornly hang on, insisting to voters that Moscow opposes him because it wants to see Transdniester once again a de facto part of Moldova. He recently proposed holding a referendum on unification with Ukraine, in a move that observers see as a bid to gain a new patron in Kyiv.

But in the cases of both South Ossetia and Transdniester, the political dynamic is more complex than simply the notion that the Kremlin is backing one candidate against an entrenched leader. Oleg Kusov, an analyst for RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, says he thinks there has been no fundamental decision at the highest levels of the Russian government regarding the South Ossetian election.

"I'm not sure that the Kremlin, at the highest levels, is really very concerned about South Ossetia -- they have enough of their own problems now," Kusov says. "And so, there are some people within the [Russian] presidential administration who are pushing one or another candidate, but observers think Bibilov has the best chance; he has more administrative resources.

"There are, of course, those forces in Moscow that were backing Dzhambolat Tedeyev -- otherwise he wouldn't have been so radical or risky in his actions," he continues. "But to what extent they are managed from a single center, I wouldn't hazard a guess. Most likely, it is a matter of separate, competing political groups within the presidential administration who are all pushing their own candidates. We aren't talking about politicians, but about bureaucrats."

In Transdniester, Oazu Nantoi, head of the Moldovan Association of Political Scientists, also sees ambiguities. "Igor Smirnov, as before, has the support of -- is relying on the support of -- the so-called state security minister, [Vladimir] Antifeyev. I assume that the state security minister -- who is an officer in the Russian secret service -- doesn't give in to sentiment and is not playing games."

While not recognizing Transdniester's elections or endorsing any candidate, the Moldovan government is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of having a new interlocutor in Tiraspol. Eugen Carpov, deputy prime minister for the reunification of Transdniester, tells RFE/RL's Moldovan Service that it is important to get beyond the legacy of the 1992 war that led to the region's separation. He notes that the political elites in Chisinau have changed since the era of former Communist President Vladimir Voronin.

"Today in the Republic of Moldova, we have totally new political elites in the government, in parliament, and in all our structures," Carpov says. "We no longer have people living with the phobias of war, of enemies, and with thinking it is necessary to protect certain interests through armed methods."

written on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Moldovan and Russian services. RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus also contributed
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

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