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Former parliament speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk defeated longtime incumbent Igor Smirnov and a Russian-backed candidate, current parliament speaker Anatoly Kaminsky, in the December presidential election. Shevchuk pledged to reduce barriers to trade and travel with Moldova while promoting Transnistria’s independence and close ties to Russia. All of the parties to the multilateral talks on Transnistria’s status had agreed in September to resume active negotiations after a five-year lull, and an official meeting of the group was held on December 1, with further talks set for February 2012. Also during the year, Transnistrian authorities, under international pressure, pardoned a journalist and a former tax inspector who had both been imprisoned as Moldovan spies.
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 essentially 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 continues to maintain a de facto independence that is not recognized internationally. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 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 formal multilateral talks collapsed in early 2006 and remained dormant for the next several years. 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. However, an alliance of pro-European parties swept Voronin and his Communist Party from power in Moldova’s July 2009 elections, and international pressure for renewed talks on Transnistria’s status subsequently increased.
The pro-Russian Obnovleniye (Renewal) party maintained its majority in Transnistria’s December 2010 legislative elections, winning 25 of 43 seats. Party leader Anatoly Kaminsky was reelected as speaker.
As the December 2011 presidential election approached, Russia’s ruling party endorsed Kaminsky’s candidacy. In October, the Russian presidential chief of staff openly urged longtime PMR president Igor Smirnov not to seek a fifth term, arguing that the territory needed new leadership. Analysts said the Kremlin was seeking a more pliable figure to engage in renewed 5+2 talks.
Smirnov was eliminated in the election’s first round on December 11, taking 24 percent of the vote in a field of six. Former parliament speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk led with 39 percent, followed by Kaminsky with 26 percent. Smirnov claimed numerous electoral violations, but his complaints were rejected by the election commission. He later said he would accept the results in the interest of unity and stability. Shevchuk went on to win the December 25 runoff against Kaminsky, securing 74 percent of the vote.
Shevchuk had stepped down as speaker in 2009 after a disagreement with Smirnov over constitutional reform. He was expelled from Obnovleniye in July 2011, and formed the Vozrozhdeniye (Revival) movement to back his presidential bid. He ran on pledges to tackle corruption and improve the economy, and after the election, he laid out plans for reducing barriers to travel and trade, including with Moldova. Shevchuk also said he would work toward international recognition of the PMR, maintain strong ties with Russia, and also pursue good relations with Moldova and neighboring Ukraine.
The parties to the 5+2 talks agreed in September 2011 to resume formal negotiations, and a first official meeting was held on November 30 and December 1. The next gathering was set for February 2012.
Residents of Transnistria cannot choose 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. In June 2011, the legislature approved constitutional amendments that created a relatively weak post of prime minister and set a two-term limit on the presidency. The latter provision was not retroactive, leaving four-term incumbent Igor Smirnov free to run again. While the December presidential election was not recognized internationally, it featured increased competition and a somewhat broader choice for voters compared with previous polls.
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 close relationship with the ruling party in Russia.
Native Moldovan speakers are not represented in government. PMR authorities detained the mayor and a councilman in a contested border village for several days in March 2011, reportedly because they had displayed a Moldovan flag. As in previous years, the authorities did not allow voting in Moldovan elections to take place in PMR-controlled territory in 2011, but the large number of PMR residents with Russian citizenship were free to vote in Russia’s tightly controlled parliamentary elections in December.
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. The EU assists Ukraine and Moldova in efforts to maintain customs controls along their mutual border. 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, Yevgeny Shevchuk reportedly accused the government of corruption, nepotism, and economic mismanagement. Russia suspended social subsidies, such as funding for pensions, for several months in 2010 and 2011 because of transparency concerns. In 2011, Russian prosecutors sought to question Smirnov’s son, Oleg Smirnov, about his alleged embezzlement of over $5 million in Russian aid.
The media environment 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. In an apparently coerced video recording televised in May, he confessed to spying for Moldovan authorities. He was sentenced in December to 15 years in prison, but was pardoned under international pressure in May 2011 in exchange for an admission of guilt. Sheriff Enterprises, which dominates the private broadcasting and cable television sectors, is the territory’s only internet service provider. The government is not known to restrict internet access.
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 overturned in recent years. Unregistered groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, have difficulty renting space for prayer meetings and face harassment by police and Orthodox opponents. There are no legal exemptions from military service for conscientious objectors, leading to criminal punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.
Although a small minority of 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 access to their trials was restricted. Cazac purportedly confessed in June 2010, but both his and Vardanean’s confessions were widely seen as coerced. Cazac was sentenced to 14 years in prison in February 2011, and reportedly refused to admit guilt to win a pardon. He was pardoned nonetheless in late October. Human rights groups have received accounts of torture in custody, 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 over 30 percent of the population. Ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians together account for some 60 percent. A significant minority of the region’s residents hold Russian passports.
Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by the PMR authorities.
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.