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The Referendum in Transdnistria

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April 15, 2003
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The results of the referendum

On 6 April 2003, the “constitutional referendum on the introduction of the private ownership of land” was held in the Transdnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova. On 7 April 2003, the Transdnistrian Central Electoral Commission ruled the referendum invalid according to the preliminary results. 153,140 voters took part in the referendum, which were only 38.92% of the overall number of voters, while the local law required a 50% turnout for the results of the referendum to be validated.

Of those who did take part in it, 52% voted for the introduction of the private ownership of land, whereas 44% opposed the proposed constitutional endorsement.

Beyond doubt, the results of the referendum represent a special phenomenon. This is because ever since the secessionist regime in Transdnistria exists there has been no precedents of the Transdnistrian authorities not getting their proposals approved. The low turnout has been explained by the fact that the organisers of the referendum did not have enough time to explain to the citizens the importance of voting for the private ownership of land. This could be a plausible explanation, more so as the agitation campaign in favour of private ownership of land started as late as February. In any case, there’s still a lot of vagueness about the whole thing.

How was the referendum perceived in Chisinau

On 4 April, on the eve of the referendum, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Moldova (CPM) called upon the citizens of Transdnistria via the government media to vote against the privatisation of land, giving as example the unfortunate experience of “poorly thought and rushed privatisation of land on the right bank of the Dniestr River”.

After the preliminary results of the referendum were made public, the CPM Central Committee expressed satisfaction at the fact that the “inhabitants of Transdnistria have demonstrated responsibility in the referendum”. To the CPM, the option of the Transdnistrians was a clear “NO” to the issue, and so it was to the very idea of holding it.

This was clearly an attempt to promote the idea that the Transdnistrians follow the CPM Central Committee rather than their authorities in Tiraspol. Probably, this particular case should have shown that, generally, things in Transdnistria change in a manner that the Transdnistrian authorities lose control over the Transdnistrian public opinion.

Indeed, one could believe that the ruling party in Moldova won one battle in the propaganda war that it is leading with Tiraspol. However, things are more complicated than that, and are determined by the fluctuating political circumstances.

Fluctuating circumstances and the results of the referendum

Under the current circumstances, the most important question is whether the Transdnistrian authorities really wanted their citizens to vote on the issue of land ownership. It could have been the case that the recent event took place because the Tiraspol elite itself was not so certain of how worthwhile it was to promote their proposal to introduce the private ownership of land.

Such assumptions are well founded. Firstly, one should not overlook the fact that the Transdnistrian regime was established as a “fortress for the preservation of Soviet values” during the collapse of the USSR. From this perspective, there is no doubt that there is a lot of ideological affinity and commonality of political and economic views between the current ruling party in Moldova and the Transdnistrian leaders. To believe that the Transdnistrian elite, who practically has not changed over the past 15 years, shares firm liberal views would be a major blunder. Rather, one can presuppose that the Transdnistrian leaders, just like the communists in Moldova, have to abide by the new economic and political circumstances shaped from the outside. Thus, the current Moldovan authorities carry on the economic policies initiated by the previous “democratic” governments, which the former so vehemently criticised while in opposition.

A telling example is the discrepancy between the views expressed in the recent address by the CPM Central Committee to Transdnistrians and the joint statement by presidents George Bush and Vladimir Voronin during the latter’s visit to Washington last December, in which the two Presidents “acknowledge the progress made by Moldova in its transition to the market economy, notably in the agricultural sector.”

The same is characteristic of the Transdnistrian authorities who in the last few years have been concerned with the issue of redistributing the property in the region. They kept no secret of the motives behind their proposal to legalise the private ownership of land. They put forward both political and economic arguments, such as, for instance, the fact that agriculture contributed only 1.5% towards the Transdnistrian budget and is collapsing due to the lack of investments which cannot happen as long as private ownership of land is not legalised.

More revealing are the political arguments published by the Transdnistrian official news-agency “Olvia Press”, which said that from the perspective of the efforts at conflict resolution through federalisation imposed from outside it is important that the ownership of property and land, which are major strategic resources, should be assigned to the Transdnistrian citizens, so that after the resolution of the Transdnistrian conflict the central federal authorities could not claim property in the region.

It seems obvious that the momentary uncertainty of the political future of the Transdnistrian elite, caused by the pressure from the outside to solve the secessionist conflict through the federalisation of Moldova, forced the regional authorities to initiate in early 2003 the referendum on the issue of land ownership.

Meanwhile, after the referendum was declared, a number of important changes occurred which introduced more clarity and optimism as to the future of the Transdnistrian regime and its current elite. We could refer principally to the statement by the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin who insisted to “grant Transdnistria a properly guaranteed status” when he met the Moldovan president Voronin in February 2003. The visits to Moscow in February 2003 of the Transdnistrian leaders have had extremely encouraging results for them as well. The Russian deputy Foreign Minister Veaceslav Trubnikov, for example, stated as a result that “Russia is seeking an arrangement that would include military guarantees for the resolution of the Transdnistrian conflict”. Russia has even started negotiations with Ukraine and the OSCE on “military guarantees” for the resolution of the conflict. Yet, the most impressive has been the statement by Aleksandr Novojilov, Special Ambassador of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Committee for Political and Security issues of the European Union. He said “Russia does not intend to leave its citizens living on the banks of Dniestr River on their own”. Other Russian officials made encouraging statements of economic nature for the Tiraspol authorities in relation to possible financial compensations for the withdrawal of Russian munitions and weapons from Transdnistria.

Things have taken a very dangerous turn in this sense, a situation heralded by the particularly harsh public statements made recently by Mark Tcaciuk, the political adviser to the president, with regard to the Russian officials’ actions in support of the Transdnistrians. This has been an almost incredible development, if one takes into account the fact that the current Moldovan authorities show off their strategic partnership with Russia on any occasion, but also the fact that after the reshuffling of the presidential administration in the summer 2002 the presidential advisers categorically refrained from any political declarations on any sort of political issue.

Other contingency factors are as important, but the Moldovan leaders seem to have lacked the courage to explore them, unlike Azerbaidjan, Georgia and Ukraine did during the Iraq crisis. At present, the Russian authorities are amazed at Georgia’s partnership with the US, as if they do not know who was the one to encourage separatism on Georgian soil. Thus, in the new regional situation that emerged in the aftermath of the Iraq war, Moldova is the only CIS state where Russia still can be a regional power able to impose its will, which thing Russia will continue to do given the coming presidential and parliamentary elections there.

After so many positive signs and statements by the “main guarantor”, the Tiraspol administration simply could not help it. The first thing they did was to take vengeance on the Moldovan authorities for the latter’s call upon the EU and the USA to ban entry of Transdnistrian authorities on their territories. The Transdnistrian authorities reacted by declaring 14 highest Moldovan officials personae non grata on Transdnistrian soil. This move had an obviously mocking message, the text of the document reiterating almost literally the text of the Moldovan authorities’ letter to the EU and the USA, and its asymmetric nature was a hint to the model of asymmetric federation proposed by President Voronin. Moreover, they overturned a major propaganda act put up by the Chisinau authorities, namely the attendance by President Voronin of the football match between the Moldovan and Dutch teams within the European Championship preliminaries, which took place on a stadium in Transdnistria.

Politics is a practical thing, and President Voronin wanted to attend the match in his quality of “main supporter” of the national team of Moldova, formed by players from both sides of Dniestr. Voronin was prevented from attending, and the administration in Chisinau was shown once over how certain of themselves the leaders in Tiraspol are, despite their statements that the Transdnistrian region is going through an extremely difficult time due to the “economic and diplomatic blockades imposed by Chisinau”.

The reasons behind Tiraspol’s provocative behaviour clearly stand out: their confidence in Russia’s backing.

From this point of view, it seems obvious that the Transdnistrian authorities did not need to promote their own initiative to hold the referendum on land ownership, which they felt they had to launch during a time of great incertitude for them. The Tiraspol leaders know very well the significance of the issue of land ownership in an authoritarian regime. At the same time, for political and image reasons, it was misplaced to cancel the referendum. Therefore, it seems that the Transdnistrian authorities let it happen “at God’s will”, so that later they can get the most of its propagandistic character. Hence, what in Chisinau was viewed as the defeat of Transdnistrian leaders could soon bring completely unexpected results.

The propagandistic potential of the “lost” referendum

One can suppose that if the Transdnistrian authorities truly wanted the results of the referendum to be validated, they would have taken the necessary efforts, and the participation rate would have been close to the one in the referendum in Chechnya, where almost 96% of the voters showed up for the poll.

Indeed, it is extremely suspect that under extremely difficult economic circumstances the Transdnistrian leaders have engaged in a costly political venture, which, above all, supposedly revealed their lack of control over the public opinion in the region.

Under these circumstances, it is obvious that the results of the referendum bear a huge propagandistic potential for the regional authorities. Firstly, 52% or the absolute majority of citizens who took part in the poll opted for the private ownership of land. Interestingly, the majority of those who took part in the poll were rural inhabitants, who are affected directly by the issue of land ownership. This result could help the authorities, if necessary, to attract investors in the region speculating on the fact that the region is much more advanced and ready for economic reforms than generally thought.

Secondly, it is significant that the Transdnistrian regime created a “democratic” precedent of holding a referendum, which did not endorse their would be proposal. With regional elections in October 2003 in the autonomous entity Gagauz Yeri in the background, and the propaganda methods used by the Moldovan authorities in the current electoral campaign, the Transdnistrian referendum appears as an example of expression of citizens’ free will.

Given that in about 10 months we will be called to a referendum to decide the adoption of the Moldovan federal constitution, one can easily understand that the recent Transdnistrian referendum was a “general rehearsal” and that the story with the unexpected outcome of the democratic vote could repeat. Certainly, this could happened if, subject to outside pressure, the Constitutional Board joining representatives of Chisinau and Tiraspol drafts a federal Constitution which the Tiraspol leaders will not like.

For the Transdnistrians to be certain that they can block the adoption of a Constitution that they do not like, it is necessary for the referendums to be held in Moldova and Transdnistria separately.

It seems that things will evolve according to this very scenario. On 4 April 2003 the Moldovan Parliament adopted hastily and with little debate the “Protocol on the establishment of the mechanisms of adoption of the federal Constitution”. The Protocol mentions only the fact that “the text of the Constitution will be developed by a joint Moldovan-Transdnistrian Board, which will guarantee full participation to the parties’ representatives, and will be observed by experts from the guarantor states (Russia and Ukraine), OSCE and other international observers”. The Protocol provides that the referendum on the adoption of the Constitution be held no later than 1 February 2004, and the elections to the Federal bodies before 25 February 2005. Curiously, the Protocol does not include any reference to the principles according to which the federal Constitution is to elaborated. Even more curious is the fact that the Protocol refers only to the “obligation of the Moldovan and Transdnistrian leaders to guarantee all necessary condition for the holding of the referendum according to the OSCE and Council of Europe standards”, but says nothing of the method of organising it, whether it will be in a single national circumscription or in two circumscriptions, that is in Moldova and Transdnistria separately.

At the same time, on 9 April 2003 the Supreme Soviet in Tiraspol adopted a similar paper, which in its very title specifies that the referendum is about the establishment of a “federation on contractual basis”, invoking the Declaration of Intent of 5 December 2002 signed by the guarantor states, the OSCE and Transdnistria, but not Moldova. It is difficult to grasp the meaning that the Tiraspol leaders ascribe to the term “contractual federation”. Yet, there is no doubt that they mean the principle of “the equality of parties”, which principle would help them argue that the referendum is held separately in the two “equal subjects”. Otherwise, this will be a breach of the principle of the “equality of parties”, given that the electorate of Moldova is five to six times larger than the Transdnistrian one. Then, if the referendums are held separately, the results of Transdnistrians’ “freely expressed vote” could be very similar to the ones registered on 6 April 2003.

The territorial-administrative reform of the Republic of Moldova Two Years in Government — Political Achievements