An interview with Anatoly Dirun, presidential candidate in the Transnistrian elections, about the future of Transnistria, its relationship with Moldova, and football diplomacy.
The presidential elections in the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (TMR) are due to take place on December 12, 2021. In early October, we spoke with Anatoly Dirun, a candidate for President of Transnistria, a de jure region within the Republic of Moldova. On November 15, the Transnistrian Electoral Commission banned Dirun from running on the grounds of non-compliance with certain technical requirements. Therefore, we conducted a follow-up interview in early December, considering this new situation (see the end of the present interview).
Anatoly Dirun is a lecturer at the Department of Socio-Economic Disciplines of the Interregional University of Tiraspol. His current area of academic interest is the comparative study of political parties in unrecognized states. Dirun is also Director of the Tiraspol School of Political Research. From 2010 to 2015, he was a member of the parliament of the unrecognized TMR. In 2015, he left the Obnovlenie (Renewal) party founded by Vadim Krasnoselsky, the current President of the TMR, to focus on his academic work. Over the last five years, he has taken part in international academic mobility programs in Romania, Germany, and the USA.
This interview was conducted by Petru Negura, a research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Georg Forster Program) at the IOS.
Petru Negura: Anatoly Dirun, please could you say a few words about who you are.
Anatoly Dirun: First, I am a university teacher and a scholar. However, my sense of civic responsibility did not allow me to sit back and do nothing. I joined forces with several colleagues, and together we analyzed specific negative trends that have emerged and developed in our republic. As a group, we had the intellectual and organizational capacity to elaborate an alternative development plan (for Transnistria) and propose it to the citizens, providing people with an alternative, a distinct pattern of governance. To do this, we drew on scientific findings and practical experience. This led to me announcing a new civic movement called the New Republic and launching a manifesto entitled “Demonopolization of Transnistria.” In this document, we outlined the steps that need to be taken for Transnistria to overcome the systemic crisis it finds itself in. We want to use the opportunity presented by the presidential election campaign to disseminate our program of modernization and demonopolization of Transnistria. At the moment, I am running as a candidate for the position of President of Transnistria.
Negura: If you get elected as president, would you have enough support in the Supreme Council (parliament) of Transnistria?
Dirun: We have several supporters among the members of the Supreme Council. But Transnistria is a presidential republic. The president’s prerogatives would suffice to put the demonopolization program into practice.
Negura: What do you mean by “demonopolization”?
Dirun: By “demonopolization” I mean the reform of the sociopolitical system in Transnistria to improve the well-being of society. The reforms aim to increase economic development, streamline the social protection system, and thus improve the living standards of citizens. Because of the lack of reforms in the political and administrative systems in the past, the average salary in Transnistria is now lower than in the Republic of Moldova. The low prices for gas and electricity maintain the competitiveness of our system. We cannot always count on being able to purchase fuel at a discounted price. Vadim Krasnoselsky has stated that Transnistria is prepared to acknowledge the debt for the gas consumed by the republic (about seven billion US dollars in 2021). The question is, who will pay the bill?
Negura: How do you think demonopolization will solve these problems?
Dirun: In our view, demonopolization means modernizing the economy and promoting economic competition by drafting a series of legislative amendments to eliminate and prevent monopolies. It is no secret that the economic system in Transnistria is a monopolistic economy. This system had a specific role 10–15 years ago. Today, however, the republic’s economic model is outdated and inefficient. It does not contribute to the economic well-being of the average citizen or of society. The first step towards the demonopolization is, therefore, to create the right conditions for economic competition and thus for the free market.
The second measure proposed by our program is to increase political competition and thus to promote political pluralism. Transnistria needs a multi-party system. Political parties in Transnistria have no real presence in society. Over the last 30 years, Transnistrian society has undergone significant changes: a middle class has emerged, small and medium-sized businesses have developed, and medium-sized and large-scale farms appeared. There is, however, no political force to represent the interests of these new social groups. As our research shows, there is a need for at least three political parties in Transnistria.
Negura: However, the political climate in Transnistria is not conducive to such pluralism.
Dirun: The current parliament is dominated by the Obnovlenie (Renewal) party and the representatives of the Sheriff company. The Sheriff company funds Obnovlenie. This parliament has the lowest level of legitimacy in the 30 years of the republic’s existence. Five years ago, the election turnout was 48 percent. Last year, the turnout was 27 percent. People’s interest in taking part in the elections has declined so dramatically because no alternative was proposed in these elections. Trust in the elections and thus in the legitimacy of state institutions is now extremely low. This low level of trust among the electorate is accompanied by a low level of legitimacy of the republic at the international level. Politicians in Moldova are aware of this situation and exploit it. Vlad Kulminsky (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Republic of Moldova at the time of the interview) has stated that the people of Transnistria want to be reintegrated into the Republic of Moldova. Given the low legitimacy of the Transnistrian parliament, Chisinau is offering guarantees of stability and development for Transnistrian citizens. For Transnistria, this is a serious challenge. One way of addressing this challenge would be to develop a multi-party system. The reform of the judiciary is another necessary step. We have set out which direction this reform should take, with the first step being the development of a mechanism for electing top-level judges. There is also a need to ensure the autonomy of the local authorities. Without these reforms, improving the efficiency of the economy, education, and health system will not be possible. When a single party monopolizes the parliament, it will never decide to foster economic competition but instead will adopt laws favorable to the monopoly. To “restart” Transnistria, as we put it, the political system must go through this stage of demonopolization.
Negura: Demonopolization sounds like a powerful message. How is this message received in Transnistrian society? Are the forces that imposed the economic and political monopoly creating obstacles?
Dirun: What I am saying now did not emerge overnight. I have consistently adopted the same position over the years. In 2005, after completing my doctorate, the Obnovlenie party invited me to reconfigure the party. I became, in a way, the executive director of the organization. At first, the Obnovlenie party was a progressive force compared to President Smirnov’s old team. At the time, small and medium-sized businesses saw the Obnovlenie party team as representing a step forward in developing the market economy and parliamentary democracy. Other political parties appeared on the regional political scene. The parliamentary elections had a competitive character. With Igor Smirnov losing his mandate in December 2011, the authoritarian model in Transnistria came to an end. Once Smirnov had left, our task was to renew the state institutions. People needed to believe in the procedures and rules since they are the basis of institutional development. In 2012, we drafted a set of laws on the development of local autonomy. We have also started several legislative initiatives, which aim to support small and medium-sized businesses, political parties, and non-governmental organizations. From 2015, these projects have been part of our demonopolization program.
I have discussed this with my counterparts in Obnovlenie and members of the Sheriff company. None of them were against the demonopolization program. I participated in various discussions about the relationship between power structures and business. I spoke out against the conflict of interests among some members of parliament who were also representatives of Sheriff. They would never pass laws that go against the company’s interests. One solution to this situation is the development of political parties. The state should support other parties as well. The voters must have the right to choose. This is one of the critical points of the demonopolization program for Transnistria. Of course, there might be obstacles, not being registered for elections, for example, but we will remain persistent.
Another feature of the demonopolization program is to return the state to the people. The state created the monopoly by supporting the Sheriff company since its inception in the 1990s. Back then, this was important. Now the state needs to revise its governance principles. This does not mean that Sheriff must disappear, but that it must operate under conditions of political and economic competition. The company founded a football club that has won games in the Champions League. Why would Sheriff now want to operate in a competitive local environment?
Negura: But is FC Sheriff not also a product of political monopoly?
Dirun: I cannot agree here. FC Sheriff plays in the Moldovan championship. There are several football clubs in Moldova, each of them with sponsors. For a while, Lukoil financed the Moldovan FC Zimbru. Sheriff has invested in football. I see nothing reprehensible about this. The Sheriff team won the Moldovan championship and motivated other Moldovan teams to win. Yes, FC Sheriff has more money. It can buy talented players, but this is where the principles of competition come into play. The Sheriff company cannot influence the conditions of competition. FC Sheriff proves it is worthy of its title by playing on the field. Who the players are is another story. The Moldovan Football Federation has removed the limit for recruiting “mercenaries.” I am not sure whether this is good or bad. But the Moldovan Football Federation received a lot of money after FC Sheriff entered the Champions League. The money now goes to the development of children’s football. No, there is not a level playing field. Sheriff Tiraspol’s budget far exceeds the budget of FC Milsami Orhei, for example. But “Sheriff’s budget is not comparable with that of Real Madrid CF. These are the rules of the competition: equal access on unequal terms.
Negura: But apart from the budget, how else do you explain the success of FC Sheriff?
Dirun: I am not a football expert, but I can say that the success of FC Sheriff is mainly because the club was determined to play in the Champions League. The club aimed not only to win the Moldovan Championship but also the Champions League. Therefore, the club, the club’s president, and its main sponsors have all channeled their efforts into achieving this goal within their budget. They worked on this for many years. They understood how the football market functions. They know where to buy cheaper players and sell them for more money. FC Sheriff’s success is not a coincidence, but the result of hard and systematic work.
Negura: What is the significance of the success of the Sheriff Tiraspol team for Transnistria?
Dirun: The success of Sheriff Tiraspol is a historic event for the entire Moldovan football community. FC Sheriff has had a lot of success in the Moldovan Championship. Sheriff Tiraspol is also a Moldovan team. Yes, it is based in Tiraspol and we consider it a Transnistrian club; however, it is difficult to imagine FC Sheriff as part of a diplomatic strategy to represent Transnistria as a republic abroad. The success of FC Sheriff drew the attention of the international community to Transnistria. This interest is two-sided: the journalists who come to Tiraspol to see what kind of team this and what kind of country that team comes from have written about what they have seen: they have reported on monopolies, on the 1990s, on the specific background of FC Sheriff. There may come a time when foreign journalists will come to Tiraspol and no longer write about Sheriff as a monopolistic company but will report on other things as well. Yes, from the point of view of football diplomacy, this is a big step forward for Transnistria. But FC Sheriff put on a great performance for their fans on both banks of the Dniester. At least for that, we can say “thank you” to them for that.
Negura: If you are elected president of Transnistria, how do you envisage the relationship between Transnistria and Chisinau, and the relationship with the European Union developing?
Dirun: Until 2006, a total of 70 percent of Transnistria’s exports went to Russia via Ukraine. In 2005, based on the EUBAM mission, Ukraine introduced trade restrictions for Transnistrian companies that were not registered in the Republic of Moldova. As a result, relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol became tense. The European Union proposed a mechanism under which Transnistrian companies could sell their products on the markets of the European Union. This agreement was in place until 2014 when the EU-Moldova Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) entered into force. Under the DCFTA, Transnistrian companies are given preferential treatment for exporting goods to the European Union. Since then, the structure of Transnistrian exports has changed dramatically in favor of the European Union.
I believe that Transnistria’s relationship with the Republic of Moldova and with the European Union must develop based on the interests of the people. If these relations are in the citizens’ interests, they must continue; if these relationships contradict people’s interests, they must be changed. Thirty years of experience shows that for every crisis, there are compromise solutions. These relations must serve the interests of ordinary citizens in both Transnistria and Moldova.
In lieu of a conclusion: The follow-up to the interview, conducted on December 3, after Anatoly Dirun had been banned from running in the presidential elections:
Negura: What do you think about the fact that you have now been banned from running in the elections?
Dirun: This is not my first day in Transnistrian politics. For five years, I was a member of Tiraspol City Council. For ten years, I served as a member of the Transnistrian parliament. I was one of the leaders of the Obnovlenie party, responsible for the information and the organization’s ideology.
The results of the parliamentary elections in Transnistria on November 29, 2020, clearly showed that big businesses would not tolerate competitors. Let me remind you that in the elections to the Supreme Council, of 33 members of parliament, 23 were candidates from the Obnovlenie party and the Sheriff company. As a result, for the first time, Transnistria had a parliament in which only one party was represented.
Therefore, from the moment of my nomination as a presidential candidate for Transnistria, I assumed I would simply not be registered, for technical reasons. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened. However, the only ones who lose from such a decision are the voters and the leadership of Transnistria. Victory without a fight for Vadim Krasnoselsky is, in fact, a manifestation of weakness and fear of competition. There will be a high level of mistrust among the citizens towards such a leader. And this is dangerous for the statehood of the republic.
Negura: What are your plans for the future, especially regarding politics?
Dirun: Before the start of the elections, we announced the creation of the New Republic movement. During the elections, we concentrated all our efforts on the presidential campaign itself. The elections showed that an effective organization is needed. Our message should be clear and close to the citizens. Many problems need to be addressed and this is something we plan to do by combining the efforts of all our supporters.
For now, I will return to my usual work, which includes, first and foremost, academia.
Negura: Thank you, Anatoly.
 Since 1991, Russia has supplied gas directly to the Transnistrian region. This gas has been instrumental in maintaining the viability of Transnistria’s economy. To date, the level of debt incurred for the gas Russia has delivered to the republic has reached seven billion US dollars.
 Transnistria’s economy and politics are thus dominated by the Sheriff company. See below.
 Sheriff is one of the largest companies in Transnistria. It operates in various fields: gas stations, supermarkets, television, construction, advertising, production of spirits, etc. Sheriff also funds the football club of the same name as well as the Obnovlenie party.
 Igor Smirnov served as the president of the self-designated Transnistrian republic from 1991 to 2011.
 The football club originating from Orhei, a medium-sized city in northern Moldova.