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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Stakes in Transdnestr

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Sunday's parliamentary election in the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic immediately sparked controversy. Leaders in the capital, Tiraspol, and unofficial observers from a number of countries, including Russia, concluded that the vote was free and fair. By contrast, the United States, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe dismissed the election as not just illegimitate but harmful, as it could serve to legitimize the rule of Igor Smirnov, Transdnestr's ruler since 1991.

Though Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had called for the use of elections to mediate between the pro-Russian separatist regime in Transdnestr and the Moldovan government, it's clear that no election in Transdnestr now can be truly free and fair: The people in power also run the elections and count the votes -- just as in most countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. But it's also clear that regime change through a popular "orange revolution" is out of the question for the foreseeable future. In fact, the ongoing confrontation with Chisinau -- not election results -- is Smirnov's main source of power.

Yet even elections conducted by the Smirnov regime could help gradually to ease the political deadlock in Moldova and to create better conditions for a peaceful solution to the 15-year conflict. An average of four candidates contested every seat in the Supreme Soviet in Sunday's election. Just over half the seats in the parliament went to the Renewal party, which topped Smirnov's Republic party and the Union of the Defenders of Transdnestr, closely tied to the local siloviki. As a result, new, pragmatic politicians associated with the republic's financial and industrial circles joined the political elite. People living on the "front line" along the Dnestr River enjoyed a limited freedom of choice, although no change of leadership at the top was in the cards. The first signs of pluralism were in evidence. The task now is to develop them.

Russian companies -- including state-owned companies -- have invested heavily in Transdnestr, and they could play a key role in this process. Moscow could persuade Tiraspol to observe accepted political norms without abandoning its position on Moldova's territorial integrity or the urgent need to find a political resolution to the conflict. This would benefit Transdnestr, further the peace process and serve the goals of Russian foreign policy.

The steady democratization of Transdnestr, including elections at all levels of government and rotation of the top leadership, is in Russia's interests. A democratically elected leadership in Tiraspol would be better able to defend the region's legal interests in negotiations with Chisinau and, in future, within a unified Moldovan state.

The prospect of a democratically elected leadership in Tiraspol that would no longer embarrass Moscow with its hard-line practices and criminal past is especially important for Russia. The democratization of Transdnestr's government would also contribute to the legitimization of Russian-owned property in the region. This is Russia's chief practical interest in Transdnestr. Finally, democratization would make it easier for Russia to find reliable partners on both banks of the Dnestr.

The democratic renewal of Transdnestr also presents a good opportunity for cooperation between Russian and Ukraine. Practical cooperation on this issue would improve the overall climate of Russian-Ukrainian relations and promote stability throughout the northern Black Sea region.

While the United States and the EU sent no official observers to Sunday's election, both could support Russian and Ukrainian efforts to promote democratic elections as way to spur gradual democratization of the political process in Transdnestr. The contingent of 1,500 Russian soldiers guarding an aging arsenal in the region is not the issue. What Transdnestr needs is a way to safeguard the fragile structure of a unified state in a climate of continued mutual distrust.

If Russia, Ukraine and the West closely coordinate their efforts, they could achieve a peaceful resolution suitable to both sides in Moldova. Combining the plans put forward by Yushchenko and Dmitry Kozak, President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, would create a basis for agreement. If Russia and Ukraine work in tandem in Transdnestr, their efforts will encourage mutual understanding within Moldova and beyond. The Transdnestr conflict presents Russia and the West with a test of their ability to work together and resolve conflicts in Europe. This is a test they can't afford to fail.

Dmitry Trenin is head of the Expert Council at the Carnegie Moscow Center.