‘No’ means ‘Yes’, or How to Interfere in the Internal Affairs of a State Without Agreement: Russian Federal Elections in Transnistria

‘No’ means ‘Yes’, or How to Interfere in the Internal Affairs of a State Without Agreement: Russian Federal Elections in Transnistria

[Lucia Leontiev is a PhD candidate in international and human rights law at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa (Italy) and Maastricht University.]

Between 17 and 19 September 2021, Russian federal elections were held. For the realist, the results of the elections were not a surprise, as the Kremlin-supported party, United Russia, won the majority of seats in the parliament (Duma). However, an optimist could have expected a different outcome, given the rise in anti-Kremlin voices. It is also true that these results are not free from people’s discontentment or critiques regarding the committed irregularities in the electoral process. Aside from these issues, another issue arose – the issue of opening voting polls in the post-Soviet breakaway territories, such as Transnistria, without the approval of the Moldovan constitutional authorities. It has become common practice for the Russian Federation to open voting polls in Transnistria. It happened in 2016, 2018 and this year was not an exception. This year also consolidated the already established trend of increasing the number of voting polls in the region – from 22 voting stations in 2016 to 27 in 2021. In this context, it is relevant to inquire whether the opening of voting polls in the Transnistrian region is a violation of international, as well as national, norms. 

Transnistria, Russian Legislative Elections and the Opening of Voting Polls Saga

Transnistria (Pridnestrovskaia Moldavskaia Respublica) is a self-proclaimed territorial non-State entity that has over time developed and consolidated State-like features. Perceived as a separatist region that seceded from the Republic of Moldova, its independence claims are not endorsed by the international community and to date, no sovereign State recognises it. The territory occupied by the Transnistrian authorities is located within the internationally recognised borders of Moldova and falls under Moldovan jurisdiction. The Transnistrian authorities are largely supported by the Russian Federation, which maintains a military presence in the region. Moreover, this support was constantly reaffirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in its case-law concerning human rights violations in Transnistria, including by human rights non-governmental organisations. One could add here that the majority of the people living in the Transnistrian region of Moldova have the citizenship of both Moldova and Russia.

Given this peculiar situation, both the pro-Russian Moldovan parties and Russian political power show interest in the Transnistrian electorate, as the electorate overwhelmingly supports the pro-Kremlin party and the President. As such, with the upcoming Duma elections in Russia, the Russian Federation Embassy in Moldova requested that the Moldovan constitutional authorities open voting polls in the territory of Moldova, including 27 in the Transnistrian region. The constitutional authorities welcomed the opening of voting stations in the Moldovan region under their control, but requested that the Russian Federation abstain from opening voting polls in the Transnistrian region of Moldova. The main argument behind this request was the constitutional authorities’ acknowledgement of the lack of control over the Transnistrian region and the inability to ensure the necessary conditions, such as security, for the conduct of elections in accordance with democratic standards. However, despite the constitutional authorities’ consistent objection, Russian authorities in coordination with the Transnistrian separatist authorities opened the voting polls. 

The Russian Federation’s unilateral action was met with robust criticism. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova condemned it due to its incompatibility with the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova and the existing bilateral agreements. A similar message was tweeted by the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova, Nicu Popescu. 

An even stronger message came from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who condemned the opening of voting polls in the Transnistrian region of Moldova as it conflicted with the clear and contrary position of the constitutional authorities. Again, reference was made to the Russian Federation’s violation of international law norms, such as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Moldova. In light of the above, the opening of voting polls in Transnistria deserves closer scrutiny in light of the international and national legal framework.

International and National Norms and Standards Concerns

The Russian Federation opening voting polls in the Transnistrian region of Moldova without the consent of the constitutional authorities is a violation of both international and national norms. Without any doubt, it impacts Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. These basic international law principles on which the international legal order is founded, enshrined in the UN Charter as well as the Declaration on principles of international law friendly relations and co-operation among States, call upon States to uphold other States’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and to abstain from interfering into their internal affairs. Opening polling stations without the agreement of the constitutional authorities of Moldova is a direct rejection of these principles. According to article 1 (1) of the Constitution, the ‘Republic of Moldova is a sovereign, independent, unitary and indivisible state.’ Further, article 110 (2) of the Constitution provides that the Transnistrian region may be assigned special forms and conditions of autonomy while preserving and maintaining Moldova’s territorial unity and integrity inviolable. Moreover, the organisation of the electoral process on Moldovan soil falls under the authority of the Moldovan Central Electoral Commission. By overlooking all these regulations, the Russian Federation reaffirmed the already established pattern of its relations with Moldova and the Transnistrian region. 

Although the Russian Federation denies any factual control over the secessionist authorities and region, the former are cooperating with the latter. Additionally, opening polling stations in coordination with the Transnistrian separatist authorities is further proof of Russia’s control and influence over the Transnistrian region. It is worth noting that effective control over the Transnistrian region is an important element for engaging the responsibility of the Russian Federation for human rights violations. The European Court of Human Rights established that it is not necessary to determine whether this control over the local administration is a detailed one. The survival of the local administration ‘as a result of military and other support entails State’s responsibility for its policies and actions’ (para. 106). Thus, this control may be of a political, economic and military nature, a fact which led the European Court of Human Rights to assert that Russia exercises a factual jurisdiction over the region (Ilascu, Catan, Mozer). 

Against all these drawbacks, to justify its actions, the Russian Federation might argue that it was compelled to fulfil its obligation of ensuring that its citizens abroad had the right to vote. However, opening voting polls abroad implies not only compliance and respect of the above-mentioned principles and norms, but also requires a capacity to ensure a free and fair electoral process, in accordance with democratic standards. This is to say that simply opening voting polls is no guarantee of the right to vote. Consequently, opening polling stations in the Transnistrian region is not only illegal but counterproductive for Moldo-Russian relations, as well as for the Russian citizen whose right to vote might be jeopardized, given that the Moldovan constitutional authorities cannot ensure the electoral process complies with international standards, due to their lack of control over the Transnistrian region. 

In conclusion, the opening of voting polls in the Transnistrian region without the agreement of the Moldovan constitutional authorities falls outside the international and national legal framework. It proves once again the support and control that the Russian Federation has over the local authorities. Moldova shall uphold its positive obligations and condemn the actions of other States which support and maintain a separatist regime. As for the Russian Federation, it shall uphold international principles and norms, and respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Moldova. But given Russia’s dubious past, it is uncertain whether Russia will uphold any kind of international principles. Moscow is likely to continue its staunch position towards Transnistria regardless of international norms, to pursue its hegemonic agenda. 

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