Freedom in the World
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In a shift from the intransigence of his predecessor, newly elected president Yevgeny Shevchuk engaged in multilateral talks on Transnistria’s status and took steps to ease trade and travel across the Dniester River during 2012. Nevertheless, the territory continued to rely heavily on Russian aid and patronage. In recognition of this relationship, the European Court of Human Rights in October held Russia legally responsible for human rights abuses by the separatist regime.
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 area’s 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 has since maintained a de facto independence that is not recognized internationally. Roughly 1,000 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria to guard Soviet-era ammunition depots and uphold the ceasefire. 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 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.
Founding PMR president Igor Smirnov, whom Moscow had urged not to seek a fifth term, was eliminated in the first round of the December 2011 presidential election, taking 24 percent of the vote in a field of six. Former parliament speaker Yevgeny Shevchuk led with 39 percent, followed by Kaminsky, who had Russia’s endorsement, with 26 percent. Shevchuk went on to win the runoff against Kaminsky, securing 74 percent of the vote.
Shevchuk had fallen out with Smirnov in 2009, was expelled from Obnovleniye in July 2011, and formed the Vozrozhdeniye (Revival) movement to back his presidential bid. Although he was committed to maintaining strong ties with Russia, he pledged to tackle corruption and laid out plans to reduce barriers to travel and trade with Moldova.
In January 2012, Shevchuk eliminated a 100 percent customs duty on goods from Moldova. He alleged in February that 90 percent of the PMR’s foreign currency reserves had been transferred to foreign accounts in the weeks before Smirnov left office. PMR authorities in June accused Smirnov’s longtime security chief, Vladimir Antiufeyev, of ordering the destruction of secret documents during the period surrounding the December 2011 election. In another sign of the shift in leadership, Shevchuk in October secured the resignation of incumbent prosecutor general Anatoly Guretsky, with whom he had reportedly clashed.
Meanwhile, in the wake of his defeat, Kaminsky resigned as parliament speaker and head of Obnovleniye in June 2012. He was replaced in both posts by his deputy, Mikhail Burla.
Formal 5+2 negotiations, which had resumed in November 2011, continued during 2012, and Shevchuk also met regularly with Moldovan prime minister Vladimir Filat for bilateral discussions. The latter talks focused on restoring commercial, banking, and telecommunications links between Transnistria and the rest of Moldova, and yielded the reopening of freight rail routes across the Dniester in the spring.
Separately, Moldovan president Nicolae Timofti used his September 2012 speech at the UN General Assembly to reiterate calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria. The Council of Europe and the OSCE issued similar resolutions during the year, with the latter envisioning a multinational civilian observer mission to replace the Russian forces. Moscow has consistently rejected such proposals in recent years.
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. While the December 2011 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, Obnovleniye, is associated with Transnistria’s monopolistic business conglomerate, Sheriff Enterprises, and maintains a close relationship with the ruling party in Russia. All of the PMR’s political establishment, including nominal opposition parties, supports the separatist system and Russia’s role as patron.
Native Moldovan speakers are not represented in government. While the authorities do not allow voting in Moldovan elections to take place in PMR-controlled territory, residents with Russian citizenship had access to two dozen polling stations for Russia’s tightly controlled presidential election in March 2012. PMR president Yevgeny Shevchuk strongly endorsed the candidacy of Vladimir Putin.
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. In October 2012, the deputy director of Moldova’s Information and Security Service (SIS) alleged that criminal groups used the PMR’s banking system to launder proceeds from trafficking in persons, drugs, and arms. PMR officials strongly denied the claims. The EU assists Ukraine and Moldova in efforts to maintain customs controls along their mutual border. Russia has a major stake in the Transnistrian economy and backs the PMR through loans, direct subsidies, and natural gas supplies. Transnistria has not paid the state-owned Russian energy giant Gazprom for gas imports since 2007, building up a debt of about $3.5 billion. Shevchuk said in September that the PMR’s budget deficit of some 70 percent is largely supported by Russian assistance. Oleg Smirnov, son of the former president, remained under investigation in Russia in 2012 over his alleged embezzlement of 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. 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. Unregistered groups 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 alphabet, 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 harassment from the security services. An October 2012 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights found Russia liable for the PMR’s restrictions on Moldovan-language education, ordering Moscow to pay about $1.4 million in damages to 170 Transnistria residents who had sued in 2004 and 2006.
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. 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 the ethnic Moldovan plurality. Ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians together account for some 60 percent of the population. An estimated 150,000 residents hold Russian passports, and about 100,000 have Ukrainian passports, though many are believed to have multiple citizenship.
Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by the PMR authorities. In an incident that raised tensions along the de facto border, a Russian peacekeeper shot and killed a motorist in January 2012 as he returned home to Transnistria from Moldova and reportedly ignored commands to stop at a checkpoint. A Russian military court found the shooting lawful in July, but in December Moldovan authorities said their investigation remained open.
Women are typically underrepresented in positions of authority, though Shevchuk’s government included several female deputy premiers and ministers. Domestic violence against women is a problem. Transnistria is a significant source and transit point for trafficking in women for the purpose of prostitution. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are reportedly subject to discrimination.