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Dec. 11, 2006
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The Permanent President
// When Will the West Come Knocking at Mr. Smirnov's Door?
Although there is nothing in the world that is eternal, there are some “eternal presidents.” Transdniestrians have again elected as their president Igor Smirnov, who has been in power since 1991: an alarmingly long time. However, 2006 did feature the twist that this time the permanent leader of the self-declared republic was basically elected twice in one year. Mr. Smirnov was chosen for the first time this year in September, during the referendum on independence. The referendum, in which the republic’s population was ordered to support Transdniestr’s absorption by Russia and, by doing so, to say no to rejoining Moldova, was actually a vote of confidence for Mr. Smirnov. After that, yesterday’s elections were nothing but an empty formality – just another PR opportunity.
However, what is making this former director of a Soviet factory into the unsinkable leader of yet another of the unrecognized states in the post-Soviet landscape? It appears that the unimpeachability of Igor Smirnov’s position is ensured by a power vertical carefully constructed over many years to yield his opponents no ground. This is both true and untrue. The fate of Mr. Smirnov’s presidency rests in large part not on local realities but on geopolitics. Speaking more concretely, it depends on how long the world’s superpowers are prepared to suffer the region’s current status quo of virtual independence. A clear pattern can be discerned: the possibility, however hypothetical, of Igor Smirnov’s departure is brought up for discussion immediately upon the appearance of any hint, no matter how weak, that Transdniestr’s status could be reconsidered. That happened at the beginning of last year, as well as three years ago, when the most recent proposal from Moscow concerning the normalization of the situation in Transdniestr, known as the Kozak plan, almost made it off the drawing board. The adoption of the Kozak plan would have meant political death for Igor Smirnov: after all, the basis of the plan was a conception of Moldova as a sovereign federal state that would have included Transdniestr as a federal territory (independence for the region was not even discussed). However, geopolitics crashed the party; Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, acting “on his friends’ advice,” said no to Moscow; and Igor Smirnov heaved a sign of relief. Of course, six months later, in order to consolidate his position, he was obliged to concoct his “referendum” project. After that, however, the question of whether there is an alternative to the Transdniestr’s “eternal president” faded from view.

Whether that is for long or not remains to be seen. Today Igor Smirnov has grounds to say that the fate of yet another permanent president, Adjarsky leader Aslan Abashidze, who was forced to flee to Moscow in the wake of the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, does not threaten him in the foreseeable future. However, after the accession in 2007 of Moldova’s neighbor Romania to the European Union, the West will undoubtedly intensify its efforts to resolve the conflict over Transdniestr. Signs of that are already visible. So a safe refuge for Igor Smirnov in his dotage is far from guaranteed.

Sergey Strokan

All the Article in Russian as of Dec. 11, 2006

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