Oleg Khorzhan, leader of the Communist Party of Transnistria — the Russian-occupied region of Moldova — was found shot dead in his home on July 17. The Russian press was quick to blame the West, which (given its long history of distortion) is normally a strong indicator of Russian involvement. No arrests have been reported.
But the Communists opposed the Putin-loyalist regime as insufficiently pro-Russian. Rather than a Russian intelligence operation, it’s more likely that Khorzhan became the target of powerful internal elements. Russia seems content to let internal rivalries between its supporters play out as long as order remains.
The pool of suspects is narrower than it would have been a decade ago. Transnistria has suffered an “extreme and devastating” population decline that is more severe than anywhere else in Southeastern Europe, as residents flee and birthrates plunge. In all likelihood, it now has fewer than 300,000 people. Surrounded by Moldova on one side and a heavily armed and none-too-friendly Ukraine on the other, its future is now less certain than at any point since the Kremlin organized its breakaway in 1992, despite a Russian-officered garrison of 1,500. Transnistria’s ruling elite well understand their dilemma.
Far from its portrayal as “stuck in the Soviet past,” Transnistria looks more like modern autocratic Russia than its communist predecessor. As in Russia, once the Soviet Union had collapsed state enterprises became the domain of a handful of oligarchs with close ties to the security services. Unlike in Moscow, no strongman emerged to subjugate the business elite, which ultimately became so powerful that the biggest business, Sheriff — founded by two former policemen in 1993 and whose logo is a lawman’s badge — now enjoys extensive influence over the state through its Renewal ruling party.
Transnistria’s second president, Yevgeny Shevchuk, who came to power in 2011, had attempted to curb its power, looking to expand taxes on the firm and weaken the power of deputies in the Supreme Soviet, a majority of whom belonged to Renewal party.
But Sheriff outmaneuvered Shevchuk in 2016, securing an alliance between Renewal and Putin’s United Russia party. The alliance helped Sheriff loyalist Vadim Krasnoselsky to win the presidency and Renewal to win a supermajority in the Soviet. The party stripped Shevchuk of his immunity, and the territory’s investigative committee charged him with bribery, corruption, and embezzlement as he fled to Moldova proper.
Under Krasnoselsky, the scope for opposition shrunk further, with the anti-Sheriff Communist Party becoming a prime target. In 2017, the party claimed that there had been an assassination attempt on Khorzhan. The next year, the state administration denied a request by the Communists to hold a rally and arrested Khorzhan when it proceeded anyway.
Once released late last year, Khorzhan restarted his agitation against the ruling regime, claiming in an interview “the influence [of Sheriff] is limitless.” On July 9, he signed a cooperation agreement with the Moldovan Civil Congress party — a radical splinter of the Russian proxy Communist Party of Moldova. Khorzhan had earlier been labeled a traitor for meeting with Moldovan president Igor Dodon. One week later, he was dead.
The Transnistrian response has been muted. Telegram channels tracking protests in the region have reported extensively on the murder but not on any protests — though that may change at his funeral scheduled for July 24. The Communists, never that popular to begin with, have been marginalized to the point of irrelevance. Khorzhan, in his final year, appealed to Russian authorities to intervene more directly in Transnistrian affairs, to recognize the “rotten regime” and act. But with a war on Transnistria’s border, the Kremlin wants stability and not much else.
Khorzhan’s murder sends an unmistakable signal to those who would challenge that.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which specializes in data and analysis on how states manipulate the web.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.