Regime Development and Patron–client Relations: The 2016 Transnistrian Presidential Elections and the "Russia Factor"

By Kolstø, Pål; Blakkisrud, Helge | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Regime Development and Patron–client Relations: The 2016 Transnistrian Presidential Elections and the "Russia Factor"


Kolstø, Pål, Blakkisrud, Helge, Demokratizatsiya


In December 2016, the internationally non-recognized breakaway republic of Transnistria2 organized presidential elections. In media reports, Transnistria - with its Lenin monuments, Supreme Soviet and KGB - is frequently depicted as "the last outpost of the Soviet Union," still mired in its Soviet past.3 In the December elections, however, for the second time in a row, the Transnistrian presidency shifted hands to the opposition in open, multi-candidate elections - a feature frequently held up as the yardstick of successful transition in emerging democracies.4

Having failed to win international recognition, Transnistria has for the past 25 years found itself in legal limbo. In the literature, such de facto states are often written off as mere puppets in the hands of their patrons, with limited or no room for independent political agency.5 Yet in the previous round of Transnistrian presidential elections, which took place in December 2011, Moscow did not manage to get its preferred candidate elected. This time around, the Kremlin refused to announce any preferences ahead of election day.

What does this tell us about the nature of the Transnistrian political regime? Is Transnistria a Soviet relic and/or hapless Russian puppet, as some commentators would have it? Or, taken to the other extreme, do the December 2016 elections tell of a nascent democracy in which position and opposition routinely change hands? This article explores regime evolution in Transnistria through the prism of the 2016 presidential elections. First, drawing on the literature on hybrid regimes and elections that has been developed to explain post-Soviet regime trajectories, we ask what the recent campaign can tell us about regime evolution in Transnistria. Second, arguing that, in the case of Eurasian de facto states, this literature must be complemented by a discussion of the role of the patron state, we then turn to the importance of the "Russia factor" in the electoral outcome. We conclude by arguing that Transnistria's considerable dependency on its Moscow patron means this factor always looms large - but not necessarily in the ways that might be expected.

The article builds on a comprehensive media survey of the local and Russian press in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. While local media outlets in Transnistria are strongly partisan, Russian ones generally provide more balanced coverage of Transnistrian politics and may thus to some extent serve as a corrective. We supplement the media analysis with findings and insights from fieldwork and in-depth interviews in Tiraspol in June 2016, which involved a wide range of politicians, government officials, experts, and media commentators.

Elections, Regime Change and Patronage

The clash of transition theory and the idea of worldwide democratization with the stark realities of post-Soviet regime evolution6 has given birth to a substantial literature on post-Soviet hybrid regimes.7 A key contribution to this literature comes from Vladimir Gel'man, who has developed a model for explaining post-Soviet regime stability and trajectories of change. Here, Gel'man defines "political regime" as a political game consisting of two basic elements: first, a set of actors who "possess available resources and pursue certain strategies for achieving their goals," and second, a set of institutions, or what he refers to as "the rules of the game," which impose restrictions on - or provide incentives for - the actors in question.8 Intra-elite conflict that leads to a destabilization of the status quo of a political regime equals regime change. While regime change may entail protracted power struggles, it will at some stage gravitate toward a new equilibrium, whether in the form of a competitive (pluralistic) model based on a "struggle according to the rules" (that is, a democratic regime) or as a non-competitive, authoritarian "winner-takes-all" regime.9 Unlike the transitologists, however, Gel'man rejects the idea of "regime consolidation": renewed elite conflict may make any equilibrium reversible. …

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