Pro-Russian wins in Bulgaria and Moldova: Ideology or pragmatism?

Pro-Russian wins in Bulgaria and Moldova: Ideology or pragmatism?
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Last month, Bulgaria and Moldova elected pro-Russian presidential candidates. What do these victories signify: a reversal of ideological loyalties away from NATO and the EU and towards Russia, a public outcry against the corruption of the pro-Western governing elites, or a new era of ‘pivot states,’ which try to balance out their allegiances? A guest post by Dr. Gergana Dimova.

Russia vs the West

The shifting elite rhetoric and the changing electoral demographics in both countries provide some support for the hypothesis that these countries might be undergoing an ideological shift towards Russia. The Bulgarians overwhelmingly voted for General Rumen Radev, who is backed by the pro-Russian Socialist party and shunned the candidate of the pro-European ruling GERB party, Mrs. Tsacheva. In a marked contrast to the outgoing president Plevneliev, who is a firm NATO and US supporter, General Radev has said that Bulgaria’s role in NATO should be reconsidered, in the sense that Bulgaria “can no longer be a passive and obedient member, demonstrating its loyalty at any cost.” His victory is a warning sign for shifting electoral sentiments because he won big cities, even the capital Sofia, which has never been the case in the entire post-communist history of the country. Support for the EU, however, remains solidly above 50%, according to Alfa Research in Bulgaria.

Winning by a much slim margin against the government’s candidate Maia Sandu, the Socialist president-elect Igor Dodon of Moldova delivered a decidedly more pro-Russian message. Mr. Dodon called for replacing Moldova’s association agreement with the EU with a membership in the Russia-led Eurasian economic union. His message lands on fertile ground; according to a widely cited study of the Moldova’s Institute for Public Policy, support for the EU is low at 30.9% compared to a 44% support for joining the Eurasian Customs Union.

Rooting out corruption

An alternative explanation for the rise of the socialist presidents would suggest that the public first and foremost voted against the corruption of pro-Western politicians. Allegiance to Russia appears to be a secondary concern that happens to coincide with the corruption issue.

Both countries were rocked by enormous bank scandals, accompanied with massive street protests and a decreasing faith in the judiciary. The Moldovan pro-Europe coalition has been embroiled in a notorious theft, which deprived the national reserves of $1 billion, roughly 15% of the country’s GDP. Moldovans believe that the pro-European but deeply factionalized ruling coalition is to blame as it has governed since 2009. The pro-Western Prime Minister Vlad Filad was handcuffed and arrested on TV in October 2015.

In a less spectacular but equally dramatic occurrence, the Bulgarian Corporate Commercial Bank, which had close ties with the ruling elite and held about half of the liquidity assets of state enterprises, went bankrupt in 2014. Ironically, the bankruptcy happened during the tenure of the Oresharski government, which was backed by the Socialist party. There was a spillover effect to the government of the GERB party, however, as it failed to distance itself from the corrupt dealings of the Peevski circle, which is considered to have been partly responsible for the fall of the bank. It is this disappointment with corruption that might be the driving force behind the shift to Russia.

Shifting allegiances

There is a third scenario explaining the pro-Russian vote; Bulgaria and Moldova might be becoming what Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer calls ‘pivot states.’ A pivot state does not hold strict ideological loyalties but forges alliances with multiple major powers, depending on the interests of the current power-holders, who in this case, are the oligarchs, their networks and political party elites. The latter view the dichotomy of Russia versus the West as outdated at worst and as a convenient way to advance their own interests at best.

Thus it is entirely possible for the Socialist president Radev to call for the lifting of the EU’s sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea, while at the same time allowing NATO forces to use Bulgarian military bases to defend the alliance against Russia. Instead of repealing EU membership, which secures an interrupted inflow of cash, pro-Russian elites would seek to use their insider status to advance Russian interests. Radev says that international organisations are not monolithic and that he would seek dissent within the EU and NATO to develop better relations with Russia. Russia, in turn, has hoped to use Bulgaria’s EU membership to advance its South Stream gas project in the Balkans.

There is scope for ‘pivoting’ on the local level as well. In the small seaside town of Pomorie in Bulgaria, the locals’ considerations were practical rather than ideological. Those who voted for Radev approved of the way the Russians have been reviving the local economy by purchasing numerous properties. There is also a cultural affinity as the Russians have integrated well in the local life, frequenting pensioners’ clubs and speaking Bulgarian when buying groceries. Others voted for the government’s candidate Tsacheva because they have either participated in or benefitted from generous EU subsidies, such as €223,000 for renovation of the summer cinema and €283,000 for renovating the fisherman’s pier.

The electoral victories of Dodon and Radev are a necessary but insufficient factor for determining national politics. Now all eyes are on the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Bulgaria in April 2017 and possible early elections in Moldova. Russia is likely to take advantage of the diminished stock of pro-Western political capital. It is yet to be seen whether the post-communist countries will become Russia’s Trojan horse in the West.

Dr. Gergana Dimova is a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev, Ukraine and at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, Bulgaria. She holds a PhD in Government from Harvard University and was a Jeremy Haworth Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.