Until now, elections in Transnistria, a state that is not recognised by any other country in the world, were devoid of interest: for 20 ans, Igor Smirnov has always been the winner. But this time round he will face some competition [the central electoral office has registered six candidats] and everyone is in turmoil.

Smirnov is only placed second in the polls, behind Anatol Kaminski, the President of the Supreme Soviet [the local parliament], which has the support of Moscow.

Here, support from Moscow is more than a matter of posters of Vladimir Putin or statues of Lenin. Russia is funding civil servants’ salaries and additional pension payments.

In a primitive almost Medieval system, the money used to buy souls is transported in suitcases. In recent times, the additional pension payments have been directly distributed by the Supreme Soviet.

They do not amount to much — but for a pension of 50 dollars per month (approximately 38 euros), an additional payment of 15 dollars (11 euros) makes a significant difference. And this has shown through in the polls.

Berlin demands proof of good will

Moscow has been trying to prevent Igor Smirnov from entering the election race, in the hope that the elimination of its long-time servant will change the image of the country, which continues to be viewed as a Soviet bastion.

The Russians have engaged in talks with the Germans on a new configuration for European security [official status for Transnistria, and a settling of the deadlocked dispute in exchange for visa-free travel to the EU for Russian citizens].

But Berlin has demanded proof of good will: if Russia wants to be a credible partner, it must at least demonstrate that it is willing to resolve the conflict over Transnistria.

It will not, but it could trick the Germans by making them believe that it is attempting to do so, and sacrificing Smirnov appeared to be an efficient way of achieving this goal.

But the president of the unrecognised republic has refused to play ball, and Russia has responded by launching a criminal investigation of his son, who is accused of embezzling 5 million dollars of aid from the Kremlin to Transnistria.

The Kremlin is backing Kaminski, but if Smirnov remains in office, it will be able to say to the Europeans (read “to the Germans”): we tried to replace him, but he has the support of the people of Transnistria and we have no control over the situation.

Alternatively, if Kaminski wins, the Kremlin will be able to say: we have put a young reformist in power in Tiraspol, now you can deal with him. However, the problem is that Smirnov and Kaminski have similar political positions: independance with regard to Moldova and no possibility of reintegrating Russia.

Talks are a pretence

German pressure, which has been increasingly strong in 2011, has, at least on the surface, achieved some results. For the first time since 2006 [the date on which 5+2 format talks — with Moldova and Transnistria, plus the EU, Russia, the US, Ukraine and the OSCE — were suspended following a demand from Tiraspol], official negotiations between Chisinau and Tiraspol resumed in Vilnius on 30 November.

However, these discussions resemble a dumb show performed by Soviet commissars: they are pretending to hold talks and perhaps the Europeans will believe them.

But we are not convinced. Consider this figure: a 70% budget deficit. Transnistria is totally dependent on Moscow. When Soviet Moldova broke away from the USSR in 1991, 40% of its industry remained in Transnistria, which is home to only 10% of the population.

The factories run on Russian gas, and the bills have piled up to the point where the unrecognised republic’s debt has now reached 2.8 billion dollars (approximately 2 billion euros). In the event of a reunification with Moldova within the framework of a federation, Russia will demand the payment of this debt. Whatever happens, Moscow stands to win.

Transnistria’s economy is an artificial one: free Russian energy and exports to Europe, thanks to Chisnau’s diplomatic efforts and the negotiations it has conducted with the EU (750 Transnistrian companies, which have registered in Chisinau, are now exporting to the EU without paying tax to the Moldovan state).

If Russia really wanted change, all it would need to do is to cut off the free gas, and Transnistria’s pseudo economy would collapse after a few months. But why would it bother? It stands to gain no matter who is elected in Tiraspol, and the Germans are easily duped.

Follow the elections in Transnistria on Twitter with Presseurop's reporters on the spot: #Transnistria.