Transnistria prefers autocracy and Putin

Transnistria prefers autocracy and Putin. By Dan Hannan.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, he planned to seize its entire coastline, denying Ukrainians their Black Sea access and linking up with his forces in Transnistria.

Instead, the failure of Russia’s troops has left the self-proclaimed republic in a precarious state. Its border with Ukraine is closed, and the effectively free Russian gas, which has kept it afloat, seems certain to be turned off. Transnistria’s oligarchs are starting to see greater business opportunities to their west and have begun to press for a settlement with Moldova.

Moldova, however, is currently in Putin’s bad books. It recently elected its first unequivocally pro-Western government under the clever and charming Maia Sandu, a Kennedy School graduate. Russia has responded by hiking the price of its natural gas. If global prices stay where they are, it is hard to see how ordinary Moldovans will get through the winter. Their energy bills will absorb pretty much the entirety of the average national household income.

Moldova’s Russophile parties will have their solution at the ready — take to the streets and turn this government out of office, they will say. We’ll get the cheap gas back again! Heck, we might even get some kind of reunification with Transnistria, whose electorate would then bolster the majority of the pro-Kremlin parties!

All of a sudden, Ukraine would find itself facing a hostile army on its western flank, and the war would look very different.

How, you might ask, could anyone vote for pro-Kremlin parties at a time like this? … It might seem incomprehensible to us that anyone would want to live in a society where free newspapers are closed down, opposition politicians jailed, and dissidents murdered, but some people do. What we see as autocracy, they see as order, patriotism, and the laudable elevation of the collective above the individual.

The appeal of cheap energy is real. But that would not be enough were there not also an anti-Western and illiberal streak in the Moldovan electorate — as there is in most post-Soviet republics, including Ukraine.

Pro-European politicians in these countries tend to attribute this tendency to media propaganda. Almost all the Moldovan politicians I have spoken to this week lament the failure of their predecessors to challenge, by launching new Russian-language channels, the pro-Kremlin tone of the existing Russian broadcasters.

Propaganda — or, to put it less pejoratively, the dominant ethic of any given society — certainly shapes people’s views. Whereas all the Russian speakers I spoke to in Ukraine this week were vocally anti-Putin and pro-democracy, Russian speakers in neighboring Moldova showed no such inclination.

No one would be pro-Putin if it were not for the appeal of the tribe, the longing, deep in our DNA, for the kind of hierarchical societies in which we have lived since we diverged from other apes. Putin’s autocracy would be immediately recognizable to almost any king going back to Hammurabi. It is the West’s open societies that seem odd. This is why collectivists claim that they alienate us from our true natures. Yet, however odd, they have delivered prosperity along with democracy, knowledge along with freedom.