Transnistria * | Freedom House

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Transnistria *

Transnistria *

Freedom in the World 2011

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Multilateral negotiations on Transnistria’s status remained stalled in 2010, as Russia continued to defend its troop presence in the region and the Moldovan central government wasmired in a constitutional crisis after inconclusive 2009 elections. Also during the year, the Transnistrian authorities imprisoned an independent journalist on espionage charges and temporarily detained a number of Moldovans who entered the territory. In elections for the Transnistrian parliament in December, the pro-Russian Obnovleniye (Renewal) party retained its majority.

The Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika (PMR), bounded by the Dniester River to the west and the Ukrainian border to the east, is a breakaway region in eastern Moldova with a large population of ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. In the rest of Moldova, where the dominant language is nearly identical to Romanian, the separatist region is commonly known as Transnistria. It was attached to the territory that became Moldova when the borders were redrawn under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1940. As the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1990, pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria, fearing that Moldova would unite with neighboring Romania, declared independence from Moldova and established the PMR under an authoritarian presidential system.

With weapons and other assistance from the Russian army, the PMR fought a military conflict with Moldova that ended with a 1992 ceasefire. A new Moldovan constitution in 1994 gave the territory substantial autonomy, but the conflict remained unresolved, and the separatist regime maintained a de facto independence that was not recognized internationally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and Ukraine have attempted to mediate a final settlement between Moldova and the PMR. In 2005, the United States and the European Union (EU) were invited to join the negotiations as observers, creating the so-called 5+2 format.
The latest round of formal multilateral talks collapsed in early 2006. In the absence of active 5+2 negotiations, Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin pursued bilateral talks with Russia and took a number of steps to bring Moldova’s foreign policy into line with the Kremlin’s. In March 2009, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev hosted Voronin and PMR president Igor Smirnov in Russia, and together they signed the so-called Moscow Declaration, which called for Russian troops in Transnistria to be replaced by an OSCE peacekeeping mission, but only after a political settlement had been reached. Critics of the document said it amounted to a Moldovan acceptance of the Russian troop presence, and argued that Russia could use its leverage with the PMR to delay a political settlement indefinitely.
An opposition victory in Moldovan national elections in July 2009 drove Voronin and his Communist Party from power, but the new government did not have the parliamentary supermajority needed to elect a president, and the country remained in a constitutional crisis for much of 2010. Meanwhile, Medvedev and newly elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych signed a joint statement in May 2010 that seemed to envision a continued Russian troop presence in Transnistria even after a political settlement had been reached. Under Yanukovych’s predecessor, Ukraine—with EU assistance—had imposed tighter customs controls along its border with Transnistria and the rest of Moldova, and the EU mission was extended by two years at the end of 2009. Transnistria’s economy relies heavily on smuggling.
In another sign of the Kremlin’s determination to maintain a foothold in the country, Russia imposed a ban on Moldovan wine imports after acting Moldovan president Mihai Ghimpu issued a decree in June 2010 that directly called on Russia to withdraw its troops. The decree’s main purpose was to establish a day of commemoration for the 1940 Soviet occupation that severed most of modern Moldova from Romania; it was later overturned after a court challenge by the Communist Party.
The pro-Russian Obnovleniye (Renewal) party kept its majority in tightly controlled December 2010 elections for Transnistria’s 43-seat legislature, increasing its share of seats from 23 to 25. Party leader Anatoly Kaminsky was reelected as speaker of the body. The official turnout for the balloting was 42.5 percent, somewhat lower than in previous elections.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Residents of Transnistria cannot elect their leaders democratically, and they are unable to participate freely in Moldovan elections. While the PMR maintains its own legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, no country recognizes its independence. Both the president and the 43-seat, unicameral Supreme Council are elected to five-year terms. Having won reelection in December 2006 with 82 percent of the vote, Igor Smirnov is now serving his fourth term as president. The international community has generally considered the presidential and parliamentary elections held since 1992 to be neither free nor fair, although they have not been monitored.
The majority party in the legislature is Obnovleniye, which has pressed the government for business-oriented reforms but—like other parties operating in the territory—is generally viewed as part of the PMR establishment. It is associated with Transnistria’s monopolistic business conglomerate, Sheriff Enterprises, and maintains a cordial relationship with the ruling party in Russia. Obnovleniye leader Yevgeny Shevchuk, who became speaker of parliament after the 2005 elections, stepped down in July 2009 after a disagreement with Smirnov over constitutional reform. He was replaced as party leader and speaker by Anatoly Kaminsky.
Native Moldovan speakers are not represented in government and are under constant political pressure. As in previous years, the authorities did not allow voting in Moldovan national elections to take place on PMR-controlled territory in December 2010, though a few thousand Transnistrians were able to cast ballots at special voting sites on the west bank of the Dniester.
Corruption and organized crime are serious problems in Transnistria. The authorities are entrenched in the territory’s economic activities, which rely in large part on smuggling schemes designed to evade Moldovan and Ukrainian import taxes. Russia also has a major stake in the Transnistrian economy and supports the PMR through loans, direct subsidies, and low-cost natural gas. Upon resigning as parliament speaker in 2009, Shevchuk reportedly accused the government of corruption, nepotism, and economic mismanagement. Russia suspended social subsidies for several months in 2010 because of transparency concerns.
The mediaenvironment is restrictive. Nearly all media are state owned or controlled and refrain from criticizing the authorities. The few independent print outlets have small circulations. Critical reporting draws harassment by the government, which also uses tactics such as bureaucratic obstruction and the withholding of information to inhibit independent media. Independent journalist Ernest Vardanean, who had worked for outlets including a Moldovan newspaper and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested in April 2010, and in a video recording televised in May he confessed to spying for Moldovan authorities. He was sentenced in December to 15 years in prison. Sheriff Enterprises, which dominates the private broadcasting and cable television sectors, is the territory’s only internet-service provider.
Religious freedom is limited. Orthodox Christianity is the dominant faith, and authorities have denied registration to several smaller religious groups, at times in defiance of court decisions. Other court rulings in favor of minority faiths have been routinely overturned. Unregistered groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, have difficulty renting space for prayer meetings and face harassment by police and Orthodox opponents.
Although several thousand students study Moldovan using the Latin script, this practice is restricted. The Moldovan language and Latin alphabet are associated with support for unity with Moldova, while Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet are associated with separatist goals. Parents who send their children to schools using Latin script, and the schools themselves, have faced routine harassment from the security services.
The authorities severely restrict freedom of assembly and rarely issue required permits for public protests. Freedom of association is similarly circumscribed. All nongovernmental activities must be coordinated with local authorities, and groups that do not comply face harassment, including visits from security officials. The region’s trade unions are holdovers from the Soviet era, and the United Council of Labor Collectives works closely with the government.
The judiciary is subservient to the executive and generally implements the will of the authorities. Defendants do not receive fair trials, and the legal framework falls short of international standards. Politically motivated arrests and detentions are common. Both Vardanean and tax official Ilie Cazac, another espionage suspect arrested in March 2010, were reportedly denied access to lawyers of their choice, and OSCE representatives were not allowed to attend Vardanean’s trial. Cazac purportedly confessed in a June letter, but both his and Vardanean’s confessions were widely seen as coerced. Cazac’s case remained pending at year’s end. Human rights groups have received accounts of torture in custody in the PMR, and prison conditions are considered harsh and unsanitary. Suspicious deaths of military conscripts occur periodically amid reports of routine mistreatment.
Authorities discriminate against ethnic Moldovans, who make up about 40 percent of the population. It is believed that ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians together form a slim majority, and as many as a third of the region’s residents reportedly hold Russian passports.
Outsiders are frequently detained and questioned by the PMR authorities. Among those held temporarily in 2010 was the head of Moldova’s election commission, who was traveling from Ukraine to central Moldova.
Women are underrepresented in most positions of authority, and domestic violence against women is a problem. Transnistria is a significant source and transit point for trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution. Homosexuality is illegal in Transnistria.