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Dec 13, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

In Eastern Europe, Russia's Influence Creeps West

In Eastern Europe, Russia's Influence Creeps West
(JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Russia is gaining ground in Eastern Europe as the West grows distracted by the problems arising inside its own borders. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Transdniestria, the breakaway territory of Moldova where a recent presidential election led to a substantial political shake-up. In the region's Dec. 11 vote, incumbent President Yevgeny Shevchuk lost to parliamentary speaker and Moscow proponent Vadim Krasnoselski, who won 62 percent of the popular vote. Combined with the November election of a pro-Russia presidential candidate in Moldova, Krasnoselski's victory could spur movement in the ongoing stalemate between the Moldovan and Transdniestrian governments — and in Russia's long-standing effort to increase its influence over its neighbors.

Transdniestria, home to 500,000 people, holds far more strategic significance than the size of its population might suggest. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the region sought to break from Moldova as the newly independent country strengthened ties with its ethnic and cultural kin in Romania. Transdniestria, a Soviet-era industrial hub mainly populated by Russians and ethnic Slavs, resisted this process. After waging a brief war against Moldovan security forces in 1992, the region won its autonomy with the help of the Russian military.

In the decades since, Transdniestria has remained effectively independent from Moldova, a fact that has exacerbated tension between Russia and the West as the Kremlin continues to provide military and political assistance to the breakaway territory. When a coalition that favored ties with Europe over Russia took power in Moldova in 2009, this tension only worsened, particularly as the government in Chisinau sought closer integration with the European Union. Russia responded by imposing economic restrictions on Moldova, and negotiations over Transdniestria's political status ground to halt.

But the recent elections in Transdniestria and Moldova may soon revive the talks. Krasnoselski campaigned on the promise of reaching a settlement in the territory's ongoing conflict with Moldova, an aim Moldovan President-elect Igor Dodon has expressed a willingness to pursue as well. (Shevchuk, by comparison, preferred to leave Tiraspol's relationship with Chisinau unchanged, but because of persistent economic troubles and rampant corruption, he fell out of favor with Transdniestria's electorate and the Kremlin.) Dodon has pledged to meet with Krasnoselski in the coming weeks, and because both men have deep connections to Moscow, the Kremlin may prove more supportive of the peace talks than it was under Shevchuk.

Nevertheless, several roadblocks could prevent a major breakthrough in the Transdniestria conflict in the near future. For one, Moldovan politicians are still divided over what the territory's status should be, an issue on which Dodon and the Western-leaning parliament and prime minister disagree. Krasnoselski even acknowledged the unresolved dispute, noting after his electoral victory that "not everything depends on the president in Chisinau." Meanwhile, Russia itself will be leery of allowing the talks to advance too quickly. From Moscow's perspective, any deal that involves the reduction or removal of Russian troops in Transdniestria is probably off the table, since the Kremlin wants to protect its military posture in the region. Moscow also wants to preserve its role as the conflict's primary arbiter.

The dual leadership changes will leave room for Trandsniestria and Moldova to make some important tactical adjustments to their relationship, though. A friendly rapport between Krasnoselski and Dodon will breathe new life into the negotiation process, which includes issues such as trade, transit and cross-border migration. As a result, economic ties between the country and the breakaway territory probably will improve as the trade barriers between Chisinau and Tiraspol (as well as Chisinau and Moscow) are eased in the year ahead. Though Moldova is unlikely to reincorporate Transdniestria completely, given Russia's resistance to the idea, Moscow may be open to making more modest amendments to the region's political status.

The elections will have important repercussions in Eastern Europe as well. Mounting challenges in the European Union and an impending political transition in the United States have created a chance for Russia to fill the void left by a distracted and divided West. Countries throughout Eurasia have been forced to re-examine their ties with Washington, Brussels and Moscow as they adapt to a world in which the West has given the impression it will become less involved in certain regional affairs. And judging by the election of pro-Russian presidents in Transdniestria and Moldova, it seems that the Kremlin has seized the opportunity to quietly extend its reach westward.

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