With the election of pro-Russian candidates in Moldova and Bulgaria, the possibility of a pro-Russian right-wing win in France, and Donald Trump’s victory all signals point to a possible policy shift towards partially lifting sanctions by mid-2017.
Everything seems to be going Russia’s way these days. Only just having finished drinking champagne at the Kremlin over the victory of Donald Trump, Russian politicians can celebrate two more victories. Bulgaria has elected socialist Gen. Rumen Radev as president and Moldova has voted for socialist Igor Dodon.
Bulgaria and Moldova elections
While most decisions in Bulgaria are made by the government, the president acts as the voice of the people and can influence their opinion. Radev’s rise to power can be viewed as a reflection of the population’s discontent with the ruling government’s progress in fighting corruption, economic disappointments of being part of the EU and of alienating Russia. In his campaign, he argued that Bulgaria needs to have a balanced relationship with both the EU and Russia and called for an end to anti-Russian sanctions.
Since Radev’s election, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has announced his resignation following the defeat of his party’s presidential candidate. As a result, with new parliamentary elections on the horizon, we can expect the socialist party to gain more seats. This in turn might lead to revived relations with Russia and another pro-Russian voice in the EU.
After seven years of closer integration with the EU, Moldova has also surprised observers with the election of a pro-Russian president. Since Moldova’s 2014 $1 billion graft scandal (as a result of which the prime minister was jailed), the population has become increasingly distrustful of the pro-EU leaders. In response to EU sanctions, Russia had imposed its own counter measures against EU food products. Being agriculturally dependent and with Russia acting as its main export market, Moldova was heavily hit.
In his election campaign, Dodon emphasised that he will try to pursue closer relations with Russia which comes in direct conflict with the pro-European stance of the current government. Dodon mentioned that he will push for early parliamentary elections next year. His party has been increasingly vocal about joining the Eurasian economic union, seen as more favourable by many Moldovans in comparison with the EU. Increased distrust of the incumbent government coupled with economic woes might result in the population voting unexpectedly against the establishment, pushing voters straight into the arms of the pro-Russian Socialist party.
Russia’s propaganda story
Both elections come at a time of rising anti-establishment movements in Europe and the story of Moscow’s growing disinformation campaign. Following the Democratic National Committee hacking during the U.S presidential campaign, European countries are becoming increasingly disturbed by the possibility of similar disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilising their systems and discrediting their candidates.
German officials are alarmed that Russia might try to interfere in next year’s elections and try to sway popular opinion over issues such as the migrant crisis. Russia has previously been accused of fuelling political propaganda and anti-migrant sentiment within the German population. A scandal emerged around a German-Russian 13-year-old girl allegedly being kidnapped and raped by refugees. The girl later confessed that this was not true, but the story had already caused mass anti-migrant and refugee protests throughout Germany.
In France, Nicolas Sarkozy has unexpectedly lost the primary, making Francois Fillon, Marine Le Pen and Manuel Valls the most likely candidates to fight it out in the upcoming April 2017 elections. Out of the three, Valls is the most anti-Russian having condemned the annexation of Crimea and accusing Russia of war crimes in Syria.
In contrast, both Fillon and Le Pen have called for a more constructive dialogue with Russia on Syria. Fillon called for sanctions against Russia to be lifted and a coalition with Russia aimed at fighting Islamic State to be formed. Le Pen’s National Front party has also confirmed that it received funding from the First Czech Russian Bank to the tune of $11 million. Moreover, since Trump’s unexpected victory, rising discontent with the incumbent government of Francois Hollande amid successive terrorist attacks, one cannot get rid of the feeling that France may be the next European country to vote for a right-wing pro-Russian candidate.
Russian propaganda efforts and support for anti-establishment movements are aimed not only at creating disagreement between European partners and the eventual lifting of sanctions, they also aid Russia’s aim of extending its global influence as well as strengthening its image at home.
In response to these efforts, the EU has passed a resolution to counter Russian and Islamist propaganda. The mere fact that Russia and terrorist groups are regarded as an equal threat is disturbing. The fact that the resolution stresses that the EU should counter propaganda employed by Russia through the use of “multilingual TV stations (e.g. Russia Today), multimedia services (e.g. Sputnik) and social media,” not only goes against the democratic principles of freedom of speech, but is reminiscent of the return to a Cold War mindset.
Moreover, the resolution emphasises that the “Kremlin is funding political parties and other organisations within the EU” and deplores “Russian backing of anti-EU forces” such as far-right parties and populist forces. This shows that since Brexit and the rising fortunes of right wing forces in France the EU establishment is trying to put the blame on someone rather than trying to find an internal reason for the discontent within its population.
Future of anti-Russian sanctions
During his last foreign tour, President Obama met with the leaders of five EU states in Berlin. He urged the bloc to remain united and extend the sanctions against Russia due to expire in January 2017, as the Minsk agreement has not been met in full. As a result, the December 15th EU summit will most likely bring about an extension of the sanctions for a further six months.
This hasty agreement seems a desperate attempt to secure as many policies as possible before their respective time in office is over. Trump, who is succeeding Obama, has already talked about cancelling many of his predecessor’s achievements, such as the TPP and ameliorating relations with Moscow. Both Fillon and Le Pen are expressing similar pro-Russian views. Italy’s Renzi has also criticized anti-Russian sanctions at the latest EU summit in October.
It could be argued that the sanctions against Russia have been prolonged each time since 2014 due to strong lobbying by the US, Germany and France. During this time, sanctions-sceptical EU nations, such as Hungary, Greece, Italy and now Bulgaria as well as potential EU member Moldova, have bowed to peer pressure and refrained from exercising their veto. This was further fuelled by Russia’s involvement in Syria, especially its recent actions in Aleppo.
However, in order to lift the sanctions support of at least one influential European state is necessary. German elections are too far off, yet if French voters choose one of the pro-Russian candidates we may see a policy shift. If this comes about and Trump proceeds with his promise to establish better relations with Russia, we may see a partial lifting of the sanctions by mid-2017. If sanctions are partially lifted, it would probably be on a sector-by-sector basis, with Russia’s military being the least likely to see any changes: sanctions against individual persons are likely to continue.