The recent presidential elections in Bulgaria (November 6) and Moldova (October 30) have been hailed by major European media as an important victory for Russia. The newly elected presidents, the Moldovan Igor Dodon and the Bulgarian Rumen Radev, have repeatedly been described as “pro-Russian” by local and international media. And both have indeed made comments which seem to justify this label. Dodon favors cancelling Moldova’s Association Agreement with the EU, while Radev has suggested that EU’s sanctions against Russia ought to be lifted. However, since both Bulgaria and Moldova are parliamentary systems in which presidents are figureheads devoid of significant prerogatives, it is doubtful that the elections will significantly impact the foreign policy of their respective countries. Should such “Russophile” declarations be seen as a major turning point or are they mere campaign slogans?
Pro-Russians vs. Pro-Europeans?
The two main protagonists of the Bulgarian presidential elections were Tsetska Tsacheva and Rumen Radev. The former is a member of the ruling GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, EPP member) party, while the latter, although technically running as an independent candidate, was supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, heirs of the former communist party and PES member. This apparent dichotomy has led several Bulgarian media outlets, especially those favorable to the ruling GERB party, to view these elections as a yet another example of the struggle between Russophiles and Russophobes that has marked the country’s history since the middle of the XIX century.
Radev has been severely criticized for declaring that the EU should take into consideration the views of the people of Crimea and accept the annexation as a fait accompli. In addition, he favored lifting sanctions against Russia and stressed on several occasions the cultural and religious ties between Bulgarians and Russians.
But seeing in Rumen Radev a tireless Russophile would be a misleading simplification to say the least. In fact, Radev — an air force general who studied in the US — remains committed to the EU and especially NATO, where he spent much of his career. If he advocated the lifting of the sanctions, it was primarily because they were damaging for Bulgaria’s economy. Although the EU remains the country’s main economic partner, Russia is still a significant importer, especially of agricultural products. As for the utterances regarding the common cultural heritage of Bulgarians and Russians, these should be discarded as nothing more than electoral catch phrases that appeal to part of the population.
These facts should not, however, lead us to conclude that Russian influence in the country is insignificant. This influence is felt, especially in economic matters: a recent report published by the Centre for the Study of Democracy has estimated that more than a quarter of Bulgaria’s economy is under direct Russian control (this further clarifies Radev’s eagerness to lift the sanctions). But claiming that Bulgaria swung into the Russian camp as a result of the elections is untrue.
In Moldova, the situation is, at first glance, slightly different. There, the opposition between the pro-European and the pro-Russian camp is much more real. Throughout the campaign, Igor Dodon, the leader of the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, constantly expressed his admiration for Putin’s methods and stressed his personal friendship with the Russian president. Furthermore, unlike Radev in Bulgaria, Dodon genuinely seems to favor greater cooperation with the Kremlin at the expense of Brussels. He proposed holding a referendum to cancel the Association Agreement with the EU and expressed his hope that Moldova would join the Eurasian customs union instead.
Dodon’s primary opponent, Maia Sandu, a former World Bank official who completed her studies in the US, favored continuing the long journey toward Europe. The election results therefore seem to suggest that, much more than in Bulgaria, the population of Moldova opted for closer ties with the Kremlin. However, this too would be a simplification.
Popular dissatisfaction against a corrupt political class
Framing the political events of Eastern Europe in terms of a grand struggle between Europe and a renascent Russia obscures a reality which is often disappointingly banal. In both countries, the elections should be seen as a symptom of popular discontent against the often-corrupt ruling parties. The Bulgarian Prime Minister and founder of the GERB, Boyko Borisov, pledged to resign if his candidate, Tsacheva, is not elected to the presidency. By conditioning his rule in such a way, he transformed the election into a plebiscite for or against himself. The results then appear to be a disavowal of the man who has been at a helm of Bulgarian politics almost continuously since 2009 and whose rule was dotted with corruption and wiretapping scandals.
Something very similar occurred in Moldova. The elections took place in the shadow of the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history: the disappearance in November 2014 of a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks. In June 2016, Vlad Filat, a former pro-European Prime Minister, was found guilty and sentenced to 9 years in prison. As a result, the Moldovan elections were dominated, not by geopolitical matters as is usually the case, but by the fight against corruption. Although Maia Sandu was not herself involved in any of these affairs, she held office as Minister of education when the scandal erupted, and by virtue of her pro-European views, she was associated with a period of corruption.
The triumph of populism
The numerous corruption scandals, the rampant cronyism, the rumors of criminal deals have led a disillusioned electorate to vote, with little enthusiasm, for an “alternative”. The most salient feature of the elections in Bulgaria and Moldova is the general disinterest, especially among young people. The elections reveal that neither Europe nor Russia seem to offer a meaningful political project.
The EU has never provided overly tangible benefits to Moldova, and the prospect of accession is so remote that it has ceased to be taken seriously. In Bulgaria, the EU no longer seems to be a driving political force either. In the face of such apathy, politicians in Moldova and Bulgaria have nothing to offer but a void populism that seems to have become even more vulgar after Donald Trump’s victory. They increasingly resort to insults and slurs, seeking to discredit the opponent, rather than champion their own cause. Thus for instance, Igor Dodon, who prides himself on being nicknamed “the Moldovan Trump”, accused Maia Sandu of helping Syrians enter the country and of being the stooge of an LGBT lobby, before asserting his moral superiority as a “friend” of the Orthodox Church. The fact that such words are uttered by a man who declares himself a “socialist” does not seem to cause much surprise.
In Bulgaria, minorities and the refugee crisis were at the heart of the electoral campaign. During the second round debate, a controversy between Tsacheva and Radev erupted over what should be the proper height and size of the wall erected on the Turkish border. And when Tsacheva accused Radev of being Putin’s candidate, the latter retorted that she was the candidate of the Turks, having received 13 000 votes from the Turkish minority, whereas he had “only” 300. Rather than recognizing the grave crisis of vision that such petty disputes reveal, major European media have preferred to focus their attention on an imaginary Russian threat.
This article has been produced with the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy. The content of this article and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the Balkan Trust for Democracy nor the German Marshall Fund of the United States.