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A Timeline of Federal-Buffalo Relations

A brief history of the West’s struggle with Ottawa from 1879 to 2020.

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1879: Manitoba joins the Dominion of Canada as a province and elects a minority Conservative government. 

Louis Riel (source: Wiki Commons)

1885: The Northwest Rebellion is launched by Louis Riel against federal power in the Northwest Territories over treatment of the Métis peoples and several First Nations. Ottawa sends a militia to crush the rebellion and hang Riel.

1904: Northwest Territories Premier Frederick Haultain petitions Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier to create a unified province of “Buffalo” with the same rights as other provinces over natural resources.

1905: Ignoring Premier Haultain, the federal government creates the separate provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan with direct control over natural resources by Ottawa. All other provinces are allowed to control their own resources.

Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first premier, forms a majority Liberal government.

Walter Scot, Saskatchewan’s first premier, forms a majority Liberal government. 

1920: The Progressive Party is founded, winning 21 per cent of the vote in its first election and sending 58 MPs to Ottawa, mostly from the West.

1921: The upstart United Farms of Alberta sweeps to power in its first election. The Liberals never form government in Alberta again. 

1926: The United Farmers of Canada is founded, sending large numbers of MPs to Ottawa from the West and rural Ontario.

1929: The Great Depression hits the Prairie provinces hardest, leading many major Eastern Canadian business interests to pull out of the region. 

1930: Alberta and Saskatchewan acquire at long last dominion over their own natural resources, a right that had been denied to them but not to the other provinces. 

Bill Alberhart

1935: The Social Credit League comes to power with a massive majority government just months after being founded, and without an official leader. “Bible” Bill Aberhart becomes premier. The new party is dedicated to fighting Eastern control over the Alberta economy and a radical monetary policy.

The federal government creates the Canadian Wheat Board, forcing Western grain farms to sell their harvests exclusively to the state monopoly. Eastern farmers are exempted from the monopoly and are allowed to sell on the open market.

1938: Aberhart establishes the Alberta Treasury Branch (ATB) as an alternative to the Eastern banking interests that had largely pulled out of the Prairies. A constitutional crisis ensues when the federally-appointed Lt. Governor threatens to fire the elected government. 

1943: Aberhart dies and Earnest Manning becomes premier, moving the Social Credit League away from radical monetary reform and toward a more orthodox conservative outlook. 

Tommy Douglas

1944: Tommy Douglass leads the socialist Canadian Commonwealth Federation (precursor to the NDP) to its first victory in Saskatchewan, largely on a mandate of fighting against Eastern business interests.  

1957: John Diefenbaker of Saskatchewan becomes prime minister on a populist wave. The Liberals never again attain major federal support on the Prairies. 

1968: Pierre Trudeau becomes prime minister and goes on to win a majority Liberal government, and achieves a limited breakthrough in Alberta.

1969: The federal government passes the Official Languages Act, alienating many Westerners. 

Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau & former Premier Peter Lougheed

1971: Peter Lougheed becomes the first Progressive Conservative Premier of Alberta, ending 36 years of unbroken Social Credit rule. 

1972: Pierre Trudeau is returned with a minority government, and with no MPs from Alberta. The Liberals would never again elect a significant number of MPs from Alberta until his son Justin Trudeau’s first election in 2015.

1980: The Liberal federal government imposes the National Energy Program with the support of many Eastern Progressive Conservative politicians. The Alberta economy collapses. 

Western Canada Concept

1982: The sovereigntist Western Canada Concept Party elects Gordon Kesler an MLA in a by-election, signaling the rise of mainstream support for independence. Premier Peter Lougheed calls a snap election and the WCC loses its only seat, but comes in third in the popular vote. 

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau successfully patriates the Constitution. Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed wins provincial control over natural resources, but concedes any reform of the Senate. 

1984: Brian Mulroney becomes prime minister with a massive Progressive Conservative majority government, with a coalition of Western conservatives, Eastern business interests and Quebec nationalists. 

1985: Prime Minister Mulroney hesitates in dismantling the National Energy Program, but finally ends it in 1985. 

1986: Prime Minister Mulroney intervenes to award a major C-18 fighter jet maintenance contract to a firm in Quebec over Manitoba, despite the Manitoba firm’s lower price and better quality offer, in the name of national unity. 

Stephen Harper and Preston Manning in the Reform Party era (source: Vancouver Sun)

1987: The Meech Lake Accord is signed by the prime minister and all provincial and territorial leaders with the support of nearly every political party in Canada. The accord would entrench special status for Quebec in the Constitution.

The Reform Party of Canada is formed with the slogan, “The West Wants In.” Preston Manning is elected the new party’s first leader. 

1988: Mulroney is returned with a majority Progressive Conservative government. The Reform Party attracts significant early support, but is shut out in the free-trade “referendum” election. 

The federal government passes the Official Multiculturalism Act against the objections of many Westerners.

1989: Deborah Gray wins a federal by-election in Alberta to become the first Reform Party MP. 

Stan Waters wins Canada’s first non-binding Senate election on the Reform Party ticket in Alberta, showing early signs that Progressive Conservative support was in danger of collapse in the West. 

Brian Mulroney at the Meech Lake Accord discussions

1990: The Meech Lake Accord collapses from small but growing provincial opposition in Newfoundland and Manitoba. 

Federal Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard resigns from the cabinet and forms the Bloc Quebecois with Progressive Conservative and Liberal MPs from Quebec. 

1992: Despite having the support of most major political parties, the Charlottetown Accord on constitutional reform goes down to defeat in a national referendum. All four Western provinces, Quebec, and Nova Scotia vote “no”, while Ontario and the rest of the Atlantic provinces approve. The Charlottetown Accord went too far in appeasing Quebec for many as echoed by the upstart Reform Party, and didn’t go far enough, as stated by the Bloc Quebecois. 

1993: The Progressive Conservatives suffer the worst defeat of any governing party in modern democratic history, collapsing from 196 seats in 1988, to just two. The Jean Chretien becomes prime minister with a majority Liberal government, while the Bloc Quebecois win 54 seats, and the Reform Party 52. The Progressive Conservatives will never again win significant support in Western Canada until their merger with the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance in 2003. 

The Liberals create the long-gun registry, upsetting many Westerners and rural Easterners who view it as an attack on them. 

Ralph Klein becomes Premier of Alberta with a majority Progressive Conservative Government, and would go on to chart a somewhat more independent course from Ottawa than had his predecessor. 

1995 Quebec Referendum “Unity Rally”

The federal government refuses to appoint any more elected Alberta Senators-in-Waiting to the upper house. 

1995: Quebec votes by a razor-thin margin to remain in Canada after a massive political and financial effort by federalist forces to convince them to stay.

1997: The Reform Party’s attempts to break into Eastern Canada fail, as it loses its single seat in Ontario that it won in 1993. The Progressive Conservative re-emerge as a largely Atlantic and Quebec-based party in the House of Commons. 

Four Progressive Conservative and four Liberal MLAs unite to form the Saskatchewan Party and challenge the NDP’s hold on power. 

1998: Alberta elects Stan Waters, Bert Brown and Ted Morton as Senators-in-Waiting. Jean Chretien refuses to honour the election and appoints his own nominees. 

Preston Manning stands with new Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day

2000: In attempting to break into Eastern Canada, the Reform Party dissolves and is folded into the new Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance. Prime Minister Jean Chretien calls an early election in which he paints the Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day as the stooge of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein.

2001: Stephen Harper and several prominent conservatives publish the “Alberta Agenda”, which proposed that the province “build firewalls” to keep out a hostile federal government from areas of provincial jurisdiction. The Alberta government strikes a committee to study the proposals, but rejects them all.

2002: The federal government signs the Kyoto Protocol, which many Westerners fear will hurt the energy industry. 

PC Leader Peter Mackay and Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper announce an agreement to merge their two parties into the Conservative Party of Canada

2003: Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay agree to merge the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party into the Conservative Party of Canada. Stephen Harper is elected the new party’s first leader. 

2004: Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin calls a snap election in which he is reduced to a minority government, while the Conservatives make gains on their Western base in the East. 

Albertans elect Bert Brown and two other Senators-in-Waiting. Prime Minister Paul Martin refuses to honour the election and appoints his own nominees. 

2005: Alberta Premier Ralph Klein launches his “third way” healthcare reforms that include limited private sector involvement. Under pressure from Ottawa, Klein aborts the reforms. 

2006: The Liberals are defeated and Stephen Harper forms a minority Conservative government. On election night, he proclaims from Calgary, “The West is in.” 

Stephen Harper on election night 2011 (source: CBC)

The federal government outlaws “income trust” corporate structures, causing significant financial panic in the Alberta energy industry. 

Ralph Klein is succeeded by Ed Stelmach as Premier of Alberta and Progressive Conservative Party Leader.

2007: Brad Wall defeats the NDP to become premier with a majority Saskatchewan Party government. Wall quickly becomes the leading Western voice after Stephen Harper. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appoints Bert Brown as the second-ever elected Senator from Alberta.

2008: Under threat of a Liberal-Bloc-NDP coalition, the Conservatives introduce tens of billions of dollars in “economic stimulus” and bailouts, targeted mostly at Eastern Canadian industries. 

Two small rightist parties merge to form the Wildrose Alliance in Alberta. They fail to win any seats in their first election, as Ed Stelmach increases the Progressive Conservative majority.

2011: With a collapsing Liberal Party and surging NDP, Stephen Harper is returned with a majority Conservative government. 

The federal government ends the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly over Western farmers. Eastern farmers were never brought under its control. 

Allison Redford succeeds Ed Stelmach as Alberta Premier and Progressive Conservative leader. She charts a course of close federal relations. 

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith in 2013 (source: CBC)

2012: The federal government withdraws Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, and repeals the long-gun registry.

The Wildrose Party breaks into the Alberta political arena and its leader, Danielle Smith becomes the Leader of the Official Opposition. The Progressive Conservative majority is reduced, but faces a new, Ottawa-skeptic party on its right.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper appoints Doug Black and Scott Tannas as elected Senators from Alberta. 

2014: Two-thirds of the Wildrose Party caucus defect to the Progressive Conservatives under its new leader Jim Prentice. 

Alberta Premier-Elect Rachel Notley, 2015 (Source: CBC)

2015: Alberta Premier Jim Prentice cancels Senate elections which were supposed to take place in conjunction with the next provincial election. 

Rachel Notley forms a majority NDP government in Alberta, while the Wildrose Party rebounds to official opposition, and the Progressive Conservatives collapse to a distant third place.

Rachel Notley officially discontinues Senate elections.

Justin Trudeau defeats Stephen Harper and forms a majority Liberal government, with four seats in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan. 

Former Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (source Flickr)

Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau form a close alliance, agreeing to a carbon tax and strict regulations on the Alberta energy industry. 

U.S. President Barack Obama rejects the Keystone XL pipeline without major protest from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. 

The Wildrose Party begins to agitate for Equalization reform. 

2016: The federal government cancels the Northern Gateway pipeline without major protest from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. 

Jason Kenney leaves federal politics to attempt to unite the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties in Alberta. 

Brad Wall retires as Premier of Saskatchewan and is succeeded by Scott Moe, who is re-elected with a majority Saskatchewan Party government. 

Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and PC Leader Jason Kenney announce an agreement to merge into the new UCP

2017: The Energy East Pipeline is canceled after failing to win federal and Quebec support without major protest from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. 

The Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties merge to form the United Conservative Party of Alberta. Jason Kenney defeats Brian Jean to become the new party’s first leader on a platform of confronting Ottawa and holding a referendum on Equalization. 

2018: Facing major court setbacks and strong protests from environmental groups, Kinder Morgan announces that it is pulling out of the TransMountain pipeline expansion. The federal government nationalizes the project with the support of Rachel Notley and Jason Kenney. 

Anti-Kinder Morgan pipeline protestors

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again ignores Alberta’s most recent elected Senators-in-Waiting, and appoints his own nominees. 

The sovereigntist Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta is founded and gains its first MLA with former Wildroser Derek Fildebrandt. The party calls for “Equality or Independence”. 

2019: Jason Kenney becomes Alberta premier with a majority United Conservative Party government on a promise to fight Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, turn the economy around, build pipelines, and hold a referendum on Equalization. The NDP is reduced to official opposition. The Alberta Party, Liberal Party, and the new Freedom Conservative and Alberta Independence parties are shut out.

Premier-Elect Jason Kenney on election night 2019

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney repeals the consumer portion of the carbon tax, but strikes a bargain with Ottawa to leave it in place for large industries. 

The federal parliament passes Bill C-48 (dubbed the “No More Pipelines Bill), and C-69 (West coast oil tanker ban).

Source: Facebook

Justin Trudeau is returned to power with a reduced minority Liberal government, relying on support from the Bloc Quebecois, NDP and Green Party. The Liberals lose every seat between Winnipeg and Vancouver.

A new group calling itself “WEXIT” is formed, gaining huge overnight support on social media. 

Wheatland County passes a motion calling for an Alberta independence referendum if constitutional reform is not achieved within a year. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney commissions a “Fair Deal Panel” to explore ways in which Alberta could assert more control over its affairs within Canada.

A conference debating independence is held in Red Deer attracting several hundred delegates. 

2020: Michelle Rempel-Garner and three other federal Conservative MPs issue the Buffalo Declaration, laying out demands for constitutional reform. The document says Albertans “will be equal, or they will be independent.”

Federal Liberal cabinet ministers and MPs speak openly about canceling the $20 billion Teck Frontier oilsands mine project, and propose an economic aid package as a consolation. Days before the approval’s deadline, Teck walks away from the project citing the uncertain policy environment.

The Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta and Wexit Alberta announce an agreement to unite into the Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta.

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An Alberta company’s mission to make Bitcoin mainstream

Edmonton-based Bitcoin Well is expanding its ATMs across Canada in a bid to make the cryptocurrency more accessible.

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“I’ll have a large coffee and a bitcoin please.”

If Adam O’Brien has his way, those types of orders will soon become a normal transaction across the country.

O’Brien is the head of Edmonton-based Bitcoin Well and his mission is to teach Canadians about bitcoin cryptocurrency as an alternative to government-issue paperbacks.

“This is how you get financial sovereignty. This is how you can take control of your own money,” said O’Brien.

The world of cryptocurrency can sound intimidating and complicated than it really is. O’Brien says that he and his staff are there to help customers understand Bitcoin and help navigate their way through.

“Bitcoin is most closely related to digital gold – it has to be mined. It’s scarce and it holds its value,” said O’Brien, noting it’s easy to use. “If I want to pay a million-dollars with of gold, I would need a forklift. With bitcoin, I can do it in my pyjamas.”

All government-backed paper current in Canada is controlled by the five major chartered banks.

“Bitcoin is not managed by anyone. Bitcoin is accessible. Bitcoin never closes.”

A single bitcoin now sells in the area of $30,000 CAD. But you don’t have to break the bank to own some of your own. A bitcoin is sub-dividable, like cutting an old gold coin in halves, or quarters.

Adams’ favorite selling point is to give potential customers $5 and have them convert it into bitcoin at the ATM.

Bitcoin Well has a interactive map of all of its ATMs across Canada on its website,

The bitcoin market can be “volatile. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was trading around the $3,200/bitcoin mark. Today it stands at $30,00/bitcoin, and it can fluctuate by that $3,200 figure on any given day. He said daily drops and increases can be between 10-15 per cent.

Every bitcoin owner gets their own wallet with their balance sheet on it. Every single bitcoin transaction is made public, only the sender and receiver are kept secret. So unless you share your password, your Bitcoin account remains safe.

“Bitcoin has never been hacked,” Adams said.

One of the things the Edmonton businessman is most proud of is the fact his company is 100 per cent Canadian-owned.

“We bleed maple syrup!” his website reads. “Our team is handpicked and local. We are proud to employ a team of Canadians and aspiring Canadian permanent residents. We are Canadians, focused on the Canadian bitcoin and cryptocurrency culture.”

O’Brien started in the bitcoin business in 2013 and it was rebranded into Bitcoin Well. As in a well of water.

It now boasts of having bitcoin ATMS across Ontario and the West. Mainly in places like coffee shops and restaurants. Any place that is open for long hours works best. The number of bitcoin ATMS has grown by a staggering 242 per cent.

Bitcoin Well ATM

“With a bitcoin ATM, it creates a community in your outlet. People come in regularly to use them and stop and talk. Hosting an ATM is the best way you can dip your toe into the bitcoin pool.” said Adams.

“I’m not a salesman – I’m not trying to convince anyone to buy bitcoin. My purpose is to make people aware of it. It’s not our job to changes minds.

“My goal is to bring bitcoin further into the mainstream and educate everyday people about the benefits of decentralized currency. This is exactly the platform I wish I had access to when I first started to explore and learn about bitcoin in 2013.

“We are aiming to make bitcoin easy to buy and sell for many reasons. Bitcoin allows the average consumer to take power over their finances and ensure they are not susceptible to centralized-banking failure. We aim to educate and expose as many Canadians as possible to enable the dream of true financial freedom.”

Elon Musk

While stressing he is not a financial advisor, O’Brien is a proponent of having one per cent of a person’s net value in Bitcoin. “The one percent will outperform the rest of your portfolio,” he said.

O’Brien said bitcoin work for all ages and that the school system fails children by not teaching the basics of how money works, from tax bills to mortgages. He’s paying it back by setting up an internship program with Edmonton schools.

Leaders in the business world are standing up and taking notice of bitcoin.

Space pioneer Elon Musk on Sunday asked about the possibility of converting “large transactions” of Tesla Inc’s balance sheet into bitcoin.

Earlier this month, market analysts were stunned when the 170-year-old insurance company Mass Mutual invested $100 million USD in bitcoin.

“The institutional places are worried they are missing the Bitcoin train. It is arguably safer than cash and gold,” Adams points out.

Musk and O’Brien are both after the same thing for bitcoin – and they’re shooting for the stars.

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WESTROCK: Styx Frontman has a Christmas message for Canadians

Ernest Skinner interviews Gowan Gowan of Styx on his new Christmas single.

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Are you confused? Gowan Gowan? Yeah, well it happened like this. 

“Hello! Is this Ernest Skinner?” 

“Yes,” I responded. “Is this Gowan Gowan?” 

With a chuckle, Lawrence Gowan copied. “Yes !, this is Gowan Gowan.”

As you may know, the Styx lead singer had a very prosperous Canadian solo career back in the 80’s as one of his albums in particular – ‘Strange Animal’ – went triple platinum and during his tenure as a solo artist he was known simply as Gowan, and because I’m simple, I still think of him as Gowan. 

Now that we are over that, let’s get into some light Christmas action. The message Gowan has for us is in the form of a new Christmas/holiday song he has just released: ‘Can You Make It Feel Like Christmas’. 

Joining Gowan in the recording are three-piece alt-rocker Stuck On Planet Earth from Vaughn, Ontario, who themselves have had national and international success over the years. 

I first asked our Canadian friend how he was doing during this time of unprecedented uncertainty.  The genuinely humble vocalist responded the way anyone that knows him would expect.

“I’m doing surprisingly well. I qualify that with the fact that there are some people who are having a devastating time, so relative to them; I have absolutely nothing to complain about” 

When you listen to the song which has been streamed over 100 000 times since its release just last week (December 4), you may find what I and others have found. The song has a unique quality to it, but there is a bit of John Lennon style to it.

“Yes that is what I have been hearing and reading on social media and also the Beatles. I think though more of a Traveling Wilburys kind of vibe where the guys all come together with this great song that has a bit of dry humor in it. In respect to George Harrison, in the TW, I actually have a long connection to the Beatles. My album that I recorded in 1984. ‘Strange Animal’ was recorded at Ringo Starr’s home studio in England and that was the house that was sold to him by its previous owners, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Since ‘Imagine’ was also recorded there, I have always had this sort of spirit following me around and I don’t mind the comparison at all and I couldn’t be more honored.” 

Before moving on, I would urge you to Google and research the history of the studio at Tittenhurst Park in Ascot England. Gowan and I chatted for a bit about it and many artists -including some of my favorites like Def Leppard and Judas Priest – have recorded there. I was told that the reason it took 6 months to record ‘Strange Animal’ was because the house had to be quiet by 8:00 pm. I was also told that Ringo would often pop into the studio which was just off of the kitchen and make a little funny comment and mingle with the boys or whoever was using the space at the time. There are a lot of home movies and videos on YouTube that show the making of the studio and recording in the studio that was put in by John Lennon when he originally acquired the house.

Getting back on track, I asked Gowan to sum up the history and the writing of ‘Can You Make It Feel Like Christmas’. 

I asked him about the references in the song to corporations, etc., and he responded that at this time of year, a lot of smaller businesses generate up to 50 per cent of their yearly sales because of the emotional charge generated from it. His message is that those things shouldn’t get in the way of the overall caring and emotional attempt to bring on this good spirit as “at this time of year there are many people who do not do well at Christmas whether it is because of something happening in their lives which affects them feeling left out and they feel distanced from it so I just wanted to encapsulate quickly and say ‘hey, businesses need to do what they need do at this time of year’, but let’s not let that get in the way of us generating those good warm feelings for one another.”   

“Well this year for sure has been a unique year and divisive. This is supposed to be the time of year whether you are religious or not, when we all put aside our differences and come together as fellow human beings. This year has been a kind of a year that has to some extent really pulled us apart ; but one thing we always agree on is that at the end of the year we strive to focus on this time to feel united and grateful and that we are alive, so this song had to be light and filled with hope and humor to some extent because we haven’t had much to laugh. That’s basically what the song is aiming at.”

How did the young guns at Stuck On Planet Earth great name BTW) get involved with this world class singer and songwriter you ask? Well, I was curious as well.  

“Well basically it started as a result of a former publishing company I used to work with who contacted me in early October and said hey, there is this really young band that had a great year and got some billboard success and were on the rise, but they’re kind of stuck right now. And they asked if I would collaborate and do a song with them.”

“That got my attention right away because everybody has been affect by this [COVID-19] but young people especially. I mean their lives are just getting started and this happens, so I said what would they like? So, their record/publishing company asked if I’d do a Christmas song with them. So I took a few days and after watching some of their videos and listening to their music I thought, ‘Wow’ ! these guys are great, and being a musician myself that was in the same situation they are in now, in my early career. I said ‘sure’. I then wrote the song and sent it to them and after a few changes here and there we recorded it with masks on in my home studio and that’s basically it.

Cover of ‘Can you make it feel like Christmas’

I will get to the Styx question. I couldn’t let the singer/keyboardist extraordinaire off the line without asking him about Styx and what are their plans for the New Year, and if they are working on a new album or anything. 

“Oh man, we’ve been really at it. Last week we released a Too Much Time On My Hands conglomerate video for the Pittsburgh Steelers, we’ve done an anthem for the NFL. We’ve finished recording our new album and it will come out when it comes out. That’s all I can tell you about that but …we’ve been really busy and are in touch with each other daily and we can’t wait to get back out there (tour), and we stay really connected with the 1.7 million people that are on the different Styx platforms on social media. We are as anxious as anyone to get back to playing live in front of people but in the mean time, we are using whatever digital technology is available to keep connected to our fans. “

Ernest Skinner is the WestRock Columnist for the Western Standard

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The semi-communist European country you haven’t heard of

The Western Standard takes a closer look at what is going on in Transnistria – one of the last Communist hold-outs in the world

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By NIKOLA MIKOVIC

The era of frozen conflicts is coming to an end.

Recent clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh – Azerbaijan’s region that has been under control of ethnic Armenian forces for 26 years – as well as in Western Sahara – a disputed territory on the northwest coast in the Maghreb region of North and West Africa – suggest that some decades old disputes could soon be resolved through bloodshed.

Is Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria another point of confrontation between Russia and the West?

Transnistria – the tiny Eastern European self-proclaimed country, officially called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), does not formally exist.

Map of area. Courtesy Wikipedia

It is unrecognized as a nation by any member of the UN despite declaring its independence in 1990.

The only three states that recognize Transnistria are also disputed territories – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Republic of Artsakh.

PMR is sandwiched between Moldova in the West and Ukraine in the East. Although it is often described as a communist rule, this entity has more similarities with modern Russia than with the former Soviet Union.

Its economy is dominated by oligarchs, and despite tense relations with Moldova, Transnistria preserved strong economic ties with the Eastern European country.  

After Maia Sandu, a former Moldovan Prime Minister who is backed by the European Union, won the presidential election on November 15, Transistrian leaders warned that a peaceful outcome of the frozen conflict remains uncertain.

During the Soviet ere, Transnistria was the richest region of Moldova.

Nowadays, Moldova is the poorest European country, and the breakaway region is facing serious economic hardships. The average monthly salary is only about $200, which is why many PMR citizens immigrated to Russia. 

According to local analysts, there have been attempts from Chisinau to pressure Transnistrian banks, which is why some PMR residents, primarily pensioners, have to cross the border and go to Moldova to withdraw their money. The COVID-19 pandemic is making their travel even more difficult, and Moldovan authorities reportedly blocked the import of certain goods into the territory of the PMR.

In spite of that, there are no food shortages in Transnistria, and the unrecognized republic de facto gets free gas from Russia. According to the Russian energy giant Gazprom, Moldova owes $7 billion to the Russian company, even though $6.9 billion is a debt for gas supplies to PMR. That is why the Sandu recently announced that her country will not pay off the debts of Transnistria to Gazprom.

“The local authorities in Transnistria did not ask Chisinau if it was interested in gas supplies from Russia. They should pay off the debts themselves”, said Sandu.

Ministry of State Security of the PMR recently conducted combat training of the Cossacks-border guards.

Such a measure could mean that the breakaway region of Moldova is preparing for a potential conflict with Chisinau.

Transnistrian army has a force of 4,500. Moldova, on the other hand, has 5,000-7,500 active personnel.

Reportedly, 70 per cent of Transnistria’s budget is funded by Russia, which provides subsidized gas and worker pensions.

Russia has roughly 1,500 military personnel stationed in the PMR. The peacekeeping operation in the region started in 1992 after Transnistrian and Moldovan authorities, on the initiative of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, signed a ceasefire agreement which ended a short war that resulted in the PMR’s victory.

Ever since, the truce has been holding and is being monitored by a joint peacekeeping force, which includes 402 Russian military personnel, 492 Transnistrian, 355 Moldovan and ten military observers from Ukraine.

Although previous Moldovan President Igor Dodon was often portrayed as a pro-Russian leader, unlike Sandu who is seen as a politician that is pushing for stronger ties with the West, including neighbouring Romania, there is no fundamental difference between them when it comes to the presence of the Russian peacekeepers in Transnistira. They both agree that the Russians must go, although Sandu emphasizes that more often. On the other hand, the head of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic Vadim Krasnoselsky said that the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers was out of the question.

“The problem remains, the Transnistrian-Moldovan issue is still open, therefore there can be no talk of the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces,” Krasnoselsky stressed.

Russian troops in the breakaway region are stationed on a permanent basis, even in two forms – as the remnants of the 14th Army, now the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria, and also as the peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation. Participants in the political format of the conflict regulation are the PMR and Moldova as parties to the dispute, Russia and Ukraine as mediators and guarantors, OSCE as a mediator, while the United States and the European Union are observers.

Prior to presidential election in Moldova, Russia accused the U.S. of plotting a “color revolution” in the Eastern European country. However, the voting process went smoothly and the transfer of power will almost certainly be peaceful.

On the other hand, the U.S. Ambassador to Chisinau, Dereck Hogan, recently criticized the conduct of the last parliamentary elections in Moldova in February 2019 over what he called “the organized vote and transportation of voters from the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria.” This year such an action was reportedly prevented, which could be the mean reason why allegedly pro-Russian Dodon was defeated.

It is worth noting that several years ago Sandu announced that she would vote for the unification of Moldova with Romania, which is something that worries Russian and Ukrainian population of Transnistira.

Dodon, on the other hand, pushed stronger ties with Moscow, but unlike Transnistria that is a de facto presidential republic, Moldova has a parliamentary political system, which means that the government and the parliament have the final say on such important questions.

Still, both Igor Dodon and Maia Sandu firmly reject not only the possibility of recognizing the independence of Transnistria, but even the very settlement of the conflict on the Dniester River through the confederation or federation. Also, the two politicians agree that the section of the Transnistrian-Ukrainian border should be controlled by Chisinau, rather than by the PMR forces. 

Maia Sandu

After the 2013/2014 violent protests in Ukraine, which resulted in the overthrow of allegedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s border policy regarding Transnistria has reportedly become more aggressive, apparently in an attempt to prevent smuggling activities. Some authors from the PMR believe that Ukraine will soon join Washington, Brussels and Bucharest in an attempt to put a strong pressure on Transnistria. Such an action could eventually result in the elimination of the PMR’s de facto statehood, and could also weaken Russian influence in the region.  

“Squeezing Russia out of Transnistria is an integral part of the U.S. and the EU plans to create a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the Russian Federation”, wrote Andrey Safonov, Transnistrian political analyst. 

However, it is highly uncertain if Moscow still intends to keep this small portion of Moldova in its geopolitical orbit. On Sept. 2, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic celebrated its 30th anniversary, but it was never recognized by Russia. Also, a referendum in 2006 expressing popular desire for Transnistria to become part of Russia was quietly rebuffed by the Kremlin.

Still, if relations between the West and Russia decline further, in the foreseeable future the frozen conflict in Transnistria’s could turn into another hot war. 

NIKOLA MIKOVIC

Mikovic is a geopolitical analyst and freelance journalist specializing in Russia/Belarus/Ukraine issues.

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