Moldova’s unrecognized breakaway Transdniester region holds a presidential election on December 11 and, unexpectedly, the region's de facto leader finds himself fighting for his political life.
Transdniester broke away from the rest of Moldova after a brief war in 1992, and no countries have recognized it. But the de facto government is economically, politically, and militarily supported by Moscow.
Historically, elections in the region have been dull affairs. Here are a few reasons why things are different this time.
Why would an incumbent warn of possible election fraud?
There are six candidates running. But the race really boils down to a contest between incumbent President Yevgeny Shevchuk and a former head of the legislature, Vadim Krasnoselsky.
Shevchuk, 48, startled many people in 2011 when he defeated longtime leader Igor Smirnov, who was seeking a fifth term. The win was a surprise because Russia’s ruling United Russia party had openly endorsed a third candidate. Shevchuk's power base is largely in the security organs and the executive branch, backed by the region’s dominant state-controlled media.
Krasnoselsky, 46, is a former speaker of the region’s legislature, the Supreme Soviet. His political leverage derives from the Renewal party, which controls 23 of the 43 mandates in the legislature.
In early December, Shevchuk’s government publicly warned that the election could be stolen, a move that analysts see as a sign that Krasnoselsky wields considerable influence inside the region’s Central Election Commission.
If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote on December 11, a second-round runoff between the two top finishers will be held two weeks later.
What does Moscow think?
Predictably, all of the candidates are staunchly pro-Russian and favor the region’s ultimate unification with Russia. In addition, a Moscow-friendly candidate, Socialist Igor Dodon, won Moldova's presidential election last month, although the results of that election have not been finalized.
Moscow has not signaled a favorite in the Transdniester race. Russian media have been largely silent about the event, and no high-level Russian officials have publicly visited Transdniester during the campaign. Moscow has not been "particularly active" in this election, says Chisinau-based journalist Ernest Vardanian.
However, both leading candidates have ties to Russian officials, according to Transdniester-based political analyst and former lawmaker Anatoly Dirun.
"But both [leading] candidates have their own established contacts in Russia," Dirun told RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service. "For Krasnoselsky, these are contacts established through the legislature with the [Russian] State Duma, where United Russia has a majority. The president [Shevchuk] has contacts through his position with executive-branch organs in Russia."
What do the polls say?
The political system in Transdniester is notoriously opaque and the few opinion polls that exist are likely unreliable.
The latest poll by the Russian firm Socium Global Consulting -- it is unclear who ordered the survey -- concluded that nearly 53 percent of voters support Shevchuk, while about 31 percent back Krasnoselsky.
"At present, it is unknown how the voters are thinking, and that will only increase the tensions within both campaigns," says journalist Vardanian.
But with the Russian economy reeling from low global energy prices and Western sanctions, Transdniester has had to do with sharply reduced subsidies. Shevchuk has been forced to cut wages and pensions, and payments have often been irregular.
Public dissatisfaction is running high.
"It was better under Smirnov," one voter in the Transdniester capital, Tiraspol, told RFE/RL’s Moldovan Service. "If he were running now, we'd vote for him. We thought and hoped that if we brought in a young person, he'd do things differently, in a new way. But now we see that they only know how to cheat us more, how to take more from people. Now there is nothing left to take from us -- we are down to our bare hands."
Sherif is a massive holding company that has become the dominant player in Transdniester's economy. Founded by oligarchs Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly in the early 1990s, Sherif controls dozens of companies from media and telecoms to grocery retailers and gasoline stations. In 2015, its companies accounted for one-third of the regional government’s local tax revenues.
According to a June 2016 report by the independent investigative journalists' group RISE, Sherif is a "state within a state." In 2000, Sherif created the Renewal party, which now has a constitutional majority in the regional legislature and backs Krasnoselsky.
In December, RISE issued a follow-up report that found that more than one-third of the 43 deputies in the legislature have financial ties to Sherif companies.
Krasnoselsky was chairman of Interdnestrokom, Sherif’s telecommunications and Internet company, from 2012 until he entered the legislature in 2015. Sherif’s private television station, TSV, is said to have been campaigning nonstop for Krasnoselsky.
Sherif has been a shrewd political operator since it was formed on the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union. Local media have reported that ex-President Smirnov’s sons, Vladimir and Oleg, were silent partners in the firm, although those reports have never been confirmed.
Before becoming president, Shevchuk headed the Renewal party and is also believed to have had business ties with Sherif. As president, however, he appears to have tried to curb Sherif's power. For instance, he has called for legislation that would block deputies in the Supreme Soviet from holding outside jobs, an initiative that Renewal lawmakers rejected.
Will the election affect Transdniester’s relations with the Moldovan government?
In a word, no.
"As regards external policy, Transdniester doesn't have a lot of opportunities -- its positions in negotiations are determined by Moscow," says Polish political analyst Piotr Oleksy. "So, as far as relations with [the rest of] Moldova go, the situation won't change. At present, we do not foresee any concessions on the part of Transdniester in the Chisinau-Tiraspol dialogue."
Journalist Vardanian agrees.
"I don't see any likelihood of changing anything [in Transdniester]," he tells RFE/RL. "The most a new government -- or the government of Shevchuk if it is returned -- can do is to deal with the socialeconomic situation: That is, stop cutting wages and pensions, make payments regularly, stabilize the macroeconomic situation. That is all that Transdniester can do, whoever wins, and, of course, that can only be done with the backing of Moscow."