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From Russia with Love: Murder in Transnistria

Updated: May 23

Cyrus Larcombe-Moore

On the Dniester River's eastern bank lies Transnistria, a territory where black-market trading and Soviet nostalgia run large. De jure Transnistria is part of the Republic of Moldova; de facto, nominally, it is occupied by Russia. However, one company, Sheriff, controls everything in this shard of Eastern Europe. Now, a recent murder has stoked political tension in the already destabilised territory.

On the 17th of July, the leader of the separatist region's communist opposition, Oleg Khorzhan, was found dead in his home. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Transnistria, Khorzhan’s body was discovered by his wife next to an “open and empty safe” with “signs of violent death”. Some reports have described the body as having multiple stab wounds. However, the Moldovan police have reported that he was shot dead. A homicide investigation is now underway.

Moldova’s Reintegration Policies Bureau stated that it had notified the national law enforcement institutions in order to investigate the case in “accordance with [Moldovan] legislation.” The Bureau has also suggested that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe create “a neutral commission of inquiry, under the auspices of the OSCE Mission to Moldova”.

It was only eighteen months ago that Khorzhan was released from prison, after four and a half years in the Moldovan government’s Administrative-Territory of the Left Bank of the Dniester.

On the 2nd of June 2018, Khorzhan organised a rally in the Tranistrian capital of Tiraspol, leading to several arrests. Khorzhan's subsequent attempt to secure the detainees' release resulted in a physical altercation with the police. Afterwards, Khorzhan wrote a statement denouncing the police's actions as a disproportionate use of force and a violation of his rights as a member of the Supreme Council. Four days later, on the recommendation of head prosecutor Anatoly Guretskyn, Khorzhan lost his parliamentary immunity and was arrested. His party called the assault allegations an “absurd accusation” and accused Tiraspol authorities of political persecution.

Caught between Moldova, the European Union (EU) and The Russian Federation, political insatiability plagues Transnistria.

The EU is currently Moldova's largest trading partner and the biggest outside investor into the country. In 2018, it accounted for 70% of its total exports and 56% of its total trade. Yet, in that same year, due to what the EU described as a "backsliding in democratic principles and the rule of law", the union reconsidered its assistance to Moldova. However, following a change of government in November 2019 and based on "initial positive progress in the rule of law", the EU resumed payments and disbursed the first instalment of macro-financial assistance to the Eastern European nation.

The Union proceeded to launch an €8 million programme to contribute to the prevention and fight against corruption, notably through increasing the level of citizens' participation in decision-making. The EU has said that it was “working with those in the Republic of Moldova who support the reform process”. This, by definition, does not include the people of Transnistria.

In March of this year, the Transnistrian government claimed it thwarted an assassination attempt on its current president, Vadim Krasnoselsky, which they alleged was organised by Ukraine's national security service. It said Ukraine’s SBU ordered the assassination attempt but then did not provide supporting evidence for the claim. The SBU rejected the allegation, saying it “should be considered exclusively as a provocation orchestrated by the Kremlin.”

Furthermore, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Moldova’s leaders have repeatedly accused Moscow of conducting campaigns to try and destabilise the country, which was a Soviet republic until 1991 and became a European Union candidate last year. Russia has historically boycotted the import of Moldovan wine, a major sector of Moldova’s economy. Doing so in 2006 and 2013 respectively, Russia had hoped to send a message to Moldova that aligning with the EU would bring about only negative economic consequences for the small nation.

According to the 2022 GNI per capita data from the World Bank, besides the at-war Ukraine, Moldova is the poorest state in Europe. Currently it sits six from the bottom in all of Europe for the United Nation’s most recent Human development index information. The Moldovan peoples struggle for economic and political stability seems to go on in perpetuity, partly because of the influence of the Russian enclave of Transnistria.

The Sheriff holding company owns everything from football to oil and gas supply in Tiraspol, even providing customs exemptions for products purchased through the company. The corporation-turned-government was formed by two former KGB officers, Viktor Gușan and Ilya Kazmaly. Gușan was supposedly known as “The Sheriff” during his time in the Soviet Union’s secret service, giving the company, formed in 1993, its name.

Sheriff has grown to include nearly all forms of profitable private business in the unrecognised country, with some commentators saying that company loyalists hold most major government positions. Anatoly Dirun, director of the Tiraspol School of Political Studies, has stated that "Viktor Gușan is the person with the most influence here, both in politics and economics."

The territory has its own border police, army, currency, and hammer-and-sickle-emblazoned flag and is supported by 1,500 Russian “peacekeepers”. Transnistria has been recognised internationally by only two other regions - the de facto Russian enclaves in Georgia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Transnistria is a bastardised anarcho-capitalist state, propped up by the Russian Federation. Moldova may not yet be a part of the European Union but it is in the Schengen area, meaning Transnistria functions as a centre for black-market trading and the illegal manufacturing of goods which are then moved into Europe. It deals weapons, people and illicit commodities with easy access to but no direct influence from the market of the EU all within its system of free market anarchism.

Communists and capitalists do not mix. If it is the Transnistrian government that has killed Oleg Khorzhan, it will certainly have been under the influence of market forces.

Image: Novikov Sergej

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