Accessibility links

Breaking News

Moldova Pushes Back Against Russian Election Plans In Transdniester

More than 96 percent of the 74,000 votes at 24 polling stations in Transdniester in 2018 were for Vladimir Putin, well above even what critics say was a fraudulently bloated overall margin of victory.
More than 96 percent of the 74,000 votes at 24 polling stations in Transdniester in 2018 were for Vladimir Putin, well above even what critics say was a fraudulently bloated overall margin of victory.

CHISINAU -- After weeks of quiet deliberation, Moldova's pro-European government has rejected a Russian request for polling stations in the separatist sliver of Moldovan territory between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border during voting next month to formalize Vladimir Putin's presidential reelection.

The decision won't have any meaningful effect on Russia's March 15-17 presidential election or even on the Kremlin's ability to harness pro-Putin sentiment among the estimated 220,000 Russian citizens in Transdniester. But Moldova’s pushback is another sign that countries on Russia's periphery are committed to countering Russian influence amid its unprovoked war on Ukraine, even complicating routine and previously ignored transgressions.

Moldova is not among the 29 countries that, along with the EU, have been explicitly deemed by Russia as "unfriendly" for "hostile" actions against its diplomatic representation abroad since 2021. But its pro-European president and government have worked closely with the West in support of Ukraine, sped up its EU membership bid, and even fought off what they alleged was a Russian intelligence plan to destabilize Moldova.

Chisinau has issued fairly perfunctory objections in past years to Russia's defiant end runs to get ballots to its nationals in Transdniester, where secessionism is already bolstered by a small contingent of Russian troops whose stubborn presence dates back to 1992.

Current and former Moldovan officials acknowledge they are virtually helpless to stop the shuttling of ballots from Russia via its embassy in Chisinau and then onwards to the heavily Russian-speaking region of Transdniester. A former deputy prime minister for reintegration, Alexandru Flenchea, has described the ballots entering the country from Russia via diplomatic mail and then "transported to Tiraspol in the trunks of Russian Embassy cars."

More than 96 percent of the 74,000 votes at 24 polling stations in Transdniester in 2018 were for Putin, well above even what critics say was a fraudulently bloated overall margin of victory. Three years later, Russia opened 27 Transdniestrian polling stations for Russia's national legislative elections.

Russia's March presidential election, which Putin is easily expected to win, is the first since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. With Moscow complaining loudly of security and staffing obstacles to Russian citizens voting in Moldova and dozens of "unfriendly" countries, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry sat on its hands as a Russian deadline for establishing polling stations ahead of the election passed. Finally, on February 7, Moldova said no.

"We have forbidden the organization of [the] presidential election anywhere outside of diplomatic missions, but if an attempt is made to organize the polls anywhere else, this will be counterproductive," Foreign Minister Mihai Popsoi announced.

"The state of the Republic of Moldova is more resilient now than ever," Popsoi, who was appointed just nine days earlier, said. In response to the question of what the Moldovan authorities would do if Russia tried to open polling stations in defiance of the prohibition, he vowed that they "will try to counter actions that are detrimental to this decision."

In response, a pro-separatist Transdniestrian news agency reported that by "preventing the opening of polling stations," the Moldovan authorities were "grossly violating the rights" of the 220,000 Russian citizens living in the region.

Oazu Nantoi, a lawmaker for the ruling coalition's Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS), said that "until now, Moldovan authorities were participating in a show" when it came to holding Russian elections in Transdniester. Even if Chisinau said no, he said, it "closed its eyes" and failed to act. In the current international context, he added, the Moldovan government had finally "found courage" and political will.

The Russian Embassy in Chisinau
The Russian Embassy in Chisinau

"Chisinau imitated dissatisfaction, and Russia behaved as it wanted," Nantoi told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service days before his country rejected Russia's request for more polling places. "Now, the Republic of Moldova is in a completely different situation."

As if to underscore Chisinau's commitment to fighting malign Russian influence, Interpol Moldova announced on the same evening as Popsoi's declaration that it was seeking the arrest by Russian authorities of fugitive Moldovan businessman Ilan Shor, whose pro-Russian political party was banned last year as a threat to national security.

"I think this is really a symptom of just how times are changing," Peter Wolf, a principal adviser with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), said of the public back-and-forth recently between Moscow and some foreign capitals over how and where Russians abroad could gather to vote.

In most cases, Wolf said, election organizers and host countries can find some level of acceptance, even if they are not entirely friendly.

"I think that now it's just one of those things where you can create [a] problem if you want to," he said. "But in the past, I think those things were relatively low-profile."

Russia Scaling Back

International law and diplomatic practice permit voting inside diplomatic premises like embassies and consular missions after notifying the host country. But opening additional polling stations requires the consent of the host country, which must ensure safety at such venues.

Transdniester proclaimed independence from then-Soviet Moldova in 1990 out of concern that Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania. In the spring of 1992, in the final days of the U.S.S.R., Moldova declared independence, and Chisinau and Tiraspol fought a brief but bloody war. Over 1,000 people were killed before the conflict was quelled by the Russian military. Moscow still maintains about 1,000 "peacekeepers" in the region.

The war in Ukraine has meant there will be fewer polling stations for Russians living abroad. In January, the Russian Foreign Ministry complained that its polling presence around the world might have to be sharply curtailed, despite a dramatic exodus since the start of the full-scale war on Ukraine nearly two years ago. It blamed the risk of diminished voter access on fears for the safety of Russians in "unfriendly" countries and on dozens of forced consular closures and reduced embassy staffing amid ongoing diplomatic tensions.

Russia backtracked slightly when Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on January 26 that "polling stations will be open in all countries in which there are diplomatic missions and consular offices of our country, including 'unfriendly' ones."

She cited plans for 300 polling stations outside of foreign capitals -- so potentially at consulates but not in cities where Russia maintains embassies. That is down by one-quarter from the 400 or so foreign polling locations that Russia operated for the 2018 presidential vote.

Russia's March presidential election, which Putin is easily expected to win, is the first since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Russia's March presidential election, which Putin is easily expected to win, is the first since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Zakharova blamed forced closures of "almost 30 of our institutions abroad" and other measures by host countries for a "significant reduction" in embassy staffing, "primarily in the Baltic countries, Moldova, Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Finland." She cited "threats to voters in unfriendly countries" and "provocations," including illegal demonstrations outside Russian embassies and consulates.

Moldova was no different. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on January 26 it would field fewer polling stations in Moldova this time around.

No Mail-In Votes

Russian election laws oblige officials to finalize their list of all polling stations at least 45 days before an election -- which was late January for the March 15-17 vote. Russia's Central Election Commission may unilaterally establish polling places up to five days before the election.

Russia is among the 70 or so countries -- many of them from the former Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia, Wolf says -- that require in-person voting by its citizens abroad, rather than electronic or mail-in ballots.

According to Russia, there were some 2 million registered Russian voters living outside the country as of July 2023. Some 444,000 Russians voted from abroad in the 2018 presidential election, with support among them about 7 percentage points higher than the nearly 78 percent he received nationally.

But nearly 1 million Russians, including many who oppose Putin and the war in Ukraine, have moved abroad since the 2022 full-scale invasion. The European Union has imposed curbs on Russian immigration, leaving a handful of destinations, including Armenia and EU candidates Georgia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, to absorb most of the European influx.

In some cases where relations are "problematic," Wolf says, the international community can play a crucial role in mediating or even organizing voting outside of diplomatic premises. But he added that a large domestic population that has foreign passports and voting rights abroad presents problems beyond the usual issues involving large migrant-worker and refugee populations.

"And I guess that's true in Transdniester, because you have so many Russian citizens there," Wolf said. "But you also have similar cases, of course -- think about Serbs or Croats living in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

He noted that in Bosnia's case, "there are plenty of embassies and consulates" to accommodate Serbian and Croatian voters. He also noted international assistance in some circumstances, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe helping organize Serbian polling stations in Kosovo until Pristina quit the arrangement last year.

Russia has circumvented local authorities to put polling stations in places where its troops control territory, especially when such areas border Russia -- for example, in Crimea and the four other Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Moscow has already said it will have polling stations in those five regions, which it claims to have annexed over international objections.

A police officer checks a polling station in Simferopol, Crimea, ahead of Russia's last presidential election on March 17, 2018.
A police officer checks a polling station in Simferopol, Crimea, ahead of Russia's last presidential election on March 17, 2018.

It's been the same in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since a five-day war left Russian soldiers defending breakaway authorities that comprised about one-fifth of Georgia in 2008. Moscow and Tbilisi still have not resumed diplomatic relations.

Farther south, in the Balkans, officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- which Moscow has not listed among its "unfriendlies" but where it has run diplomatic cover for secessionist Milorad Dodik in the majority-Serb republic that makes up half the country -- have also refused to welcome Russian polling stations. A source in the Bosnian Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL's Balkan Service late last month that the Council of Ministers had not approved Russia's request due to unnamed "legal deficiencies."

The Russian Embassy in Sarajevo did not respond to an inquiry about plans to organize outside voting for resident Russians.

In Serbia, a mostly Orthodox country with closer ties to Russia and nearly 30,000 Russian nationals, neither the authorities nor the Russian Embassy responded to an RFE/RL inquiry about the possible opening of additional Russian polling places.

There was no information available in neighboring Montenegro, which is on Moscow's "unfriendly" list and has around 25,000 registered Russian residents.

The Foreign Ministry of another "unfriendly" Balkan state, North Macedonia, noted in a response to RFE/RL that there is "no provision that excludes the possibility of other countries conducting elections in their diplomatic and consular missions on the territory of North Macedonia."

Written and with reporting by Andy Heil, based on reporting by RFE/RL Moldovan Service correspondents Mircea Ticudean and Denis Dermenji and with contributions by RFE/RL's Balkan Service
  • 16x9 Image

    Denis Dermenji

    Denis Dermenji is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mircea Ticudean

    Mircea Ticudean is the foreign affairs editor for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.

  • 16x9 Image

    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.