Andrey Devyatkov: Musical repercussions of elections in Transnistria

At the end of November a festival called “Russia and Transnistria: bound by one fate” took place in several towns of Transnistria. The festival consisted of a series of concerts given by two famous Russian singers – Iosif Kobzon and Valeria. Their visit to Transnistria ended in a scandal. Mass-media and political commentators close to one of the candidates – Vadim Krasnoselsky – accused Evgeny Shevchuk of organizing “feast in time of plague”. They assumed that about 1 million dollars was paid to Russian artists in the framework of political campaign of the current president. The moment was used to portray the leader of the executive as a waster of resources which at the moment are scarce in the break-away republic due to severe socio-economic crisis. In response to this Iosif Kobzon gave an interview to the First Transnistrian Channel and sent a telegram to president Shevchuk stressing that he does not support anybody in this election campaign. Besides he lashed out at a representative of the Supreme Council which allegedly called Kobzon in front of his visit and encouraged him not to come to Transnistria.

Actually the situation is very piquant: the photo on which Kobzon and Krasnoselsky are portrayed together at one of the events in Moscow was used for printing the so called People’s program which is Krasnoselsky’s election manifesto. Kobzon was a suitable figure for this material not just because he is a famous Russian artist but because he is a Russian deputy representing the party United Russia. The People’s program contained an assumption that Krasnoselsky’s electoral agenda is actually a program of United Russia. So the current scandal with Iosif Kobzon undermines this aspect of his campaign.

The party “Renewal” cooperated closely with United Russia on the eve of parliamentary elections in Russia in September this year. That time the Transnistrian party which has an overwhelming majority in the Supreme Council practically guaranteed the electoral results of United Russia in the break-away republic. In acknowledgement of this the delegation of Transnistrian parliamentarians was invited to the congress of United Russia in Moscow. Besides, Vadim Krasnoselsky gave one press-conference at the counseling office of United Russia in Tiraspol. Much has been at stake.

So why did this visit of Russian artists cause so much discontent? Of course the key reason is that Evgeny Shevchuk used this festival in his own political campaign by appearing together with famous Russian figures in front of the cameras. And it was exactly Iosif Kobzon who was a central personage in the election materials of Krasnoselsky.

By the fact there are many unknown facts around this story, so the full-fledged analysis is hardly possible. Nevertheless some preliminary conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, it is still unclear who organized and financed this festival. The government of Transnistria argued it was not financed from the budget resources. The artists by themselves pointed out that they did not receive any royalty from these concerts. Having in mind that a similar concert was organized in September by the First Transnistrian Channel (controlled by Evgeny Shevchuk) with the participation of another famous Russian singer Lev Leshenko we can assume that technically the preparatory work was done this time by the same political camp. It does not matter actually from which “extra-budgetary sources” the event was financed.

But it would be an oversimplification to argue that the Russian artists really got something for their work and that they are telling lies. Iosif Kobzon and Valeria belong to Russian artists who have close relations with Russian authorities and often visit territories being politically prioritized by Moscow (like Eastern Ukraine and Crimea). Kobzon visited Transnistria in 2014 on May 9. That time his concert was attended by both Transnistrian prime-minister Tatyana Turanskaya and the speaker of the Transnistrian parliament Michail Burla. The concert did not cause any negative sentiments and was presented i.a. by the channel TSV which is close to the party Obnovlenie. The concert in 2014 took place in parallel to the visit of Dmitry Rogozin and there were no reasons to argue that somebody from Transnistrian forces paid or simply was interested to pay for this event.

Could it mean that Russia is supporting now one of the candidates in these dramatic elections by assisting his campaign? The answer is no. What we can see is a clear political message about stability Russia is again sending. In his interview Iosif Kobzon argued that the situation in Transnistria is quite unstable at the moment and he came to calm it a little. There are some signals that the key candidates could be preparing for a forceful scenario if the elections will end not with a result which would suit them. So the visit of Russian artists (as well as Russian electoral observers) is more than well-timed.

Besides, this festival could be seen to some extent, even if unintended, as a balancing act towards a quite assertive campaign of the party “Renewal”. Russia seems to keep a jealous eye on electoral campaigns in various countries where Moscow’s image was or is currently (mis)used by local political forces. The story with using the photo of Iosif Kobzon in the electoral campaign is not the only one example where some “red lines” were crossed. The channel TSV made a series of reports in which it was argued that the speaker of Transnistrian parliament got support of various political figures in Moscow, for example by referring to the fact that he was sitting close to Vladimir Putin at a reception in honor of National Unity’s Day at the beginning of November. Additionally, various Russian mass-media, also quite influential ones, have published materials or showed reports which obviously promote Vadim Krasnoselsky. It should be noted that Evgeny Shevchuk has also widely used the pro-Russian discourse and “opportunities” during this campaign but he did it more carefully. One of the reasons is that his financial capabilities seem to be far more modest.

But the scandal by itself will hardly be useful for both political camps. The arguments about “feast in time of plague” can be plausible for many Transnistrians. At the same time the People’s program of another candidate is also substantially damaged. After the elections the formal stability of governmental structures will be probably reinstalled but the negative feelings will be long-playing in people’s minds.