A drastic change in political ideologies often results in a shift towards a new national identity. The recent elections in Moldova and Bulgaria mark Eastern Europe’s shift from a pro-European Union stance towards a pro-Russian one. Igor Dodon of Moldova and Ruman Radev of Bulgaria both came into power through the people’s desire to break free of the corruption and poverty that has been plaguing the countries. Moldova is ranked as the poorest country in Europe while Bulgaria wins the title of being the poorest country in the European Union. However, both desire to revert their countries back to the Soviet era through their pro-Russian political and economic stances. These elections will permanently impact the political makeup of Eastern Europe and its relationship with Russia and the EU.
Ruman Radev, the elected president of Bulgaria, rose to power due to the collective anti-government sentiment present in society as a result of high poverty and corruption rates. Promoting a socialist, anti-immigration, and pro-Russian agenda, he won 59.4 per cent of the presidential vote. As stated by Bulgarian political analyst Dimitar Bechev, ‘His [Radev’s] message will be that Bulgaria can have its cake and eat it too – i.e. be a loyal partner in the EU and NATO, while reaching out to Russia.’ He highlights Radev’s desire to have Bulgaria transform itself into a country that can fluidly cooperate with both the West and Russia. Though Radev’s plan to strengthen relations with Russia resonated with the Bulgarian people, government officials believed otherwise. The centre-right Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, resigned shortly after Radev’s victory. Borisov’s resignation marks the beginning of a new, more conservative era in Bulgarian politics that lean towards Russia.
One of Radev’s first tasks will be to negotiate the dropping of sanctions on the EU in order to seek closer ties with Moscow (in the hopes of improving the economic condition in Bulgaria). Radev also hopes to see an improvement in the US-Russia relationship now with the election of Trump. Stressing the importance of a stronger US-Russia relationship ‘that gives us hope, big hope, for a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Syria and in Ukraine for a decrease of confrontation,’ Radev truly believes a tighter bond between the two countries will resolve many of the world’s problems.
Similarly, in Moldova, pro-Russian and socialist presidential nominee Igor Dodon won the presidency with 55 per cent of the vote. Dodon was the first directly elected president in more than two decades, which furthers improving the country in the name of the people, rather than merely pursuing the government’s agenda. While Moldova has been actively seeking membership with the EU, the election of Dodon marks a transition; Moldova can now return back to the Russian political sphere. Dodon has said that he would hold a referendum on Moldova’s association agreement with the EU, but he thinks forging a better relationship with Russia would be more beneficial. Dodon has emphasised Russia’s ban on Moldova’s farm exports because of the country’s efforts to join the EU. Moldova cannot have it both ways and with Dodon, it seems the country will return to its former Soviet sphere.
However, Moldova still relies heavily on both the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In fact, Moldova has an EU office in Chișinău, its capital. After three banks collapsed and £790m (around one sixth of the country’s GDP) disappeared last year, Moldova has been forced to rely heavily on international loans from these organisations. Dodon recognizes the need for foreign economic dependence and he hopes strengthening ties with Russia will lead the country to this.
Though Moldova and Bulgaria may be happy with their pro-Russian presidents, both elections have received international criticism. Many European nations fear the pro-Russian presidents will alter the power dynamic in Europe and Western nations worry Russia will regain its lost influence over Eastern Europe. After 2014 when Russia took Crimea, many ex-Soviet European states began to fear Russia would try to extend its influence over them once again and attempt to revert back to the former Soviet power dynamic. Many feel these presidential elections are a win for Russia, not a win for the people of Moldova and Bulgaria.
Whether or not the presidential elections mark the beginning of increased Russian influence in Europe, they surely highlight the rising sentiments of discontent in Eastern Europe. The people of both Bulgaria and Moldova have spoken and they demand change within their countries. Igor Dodon and Rumen Radev promised change with their socialist and pro-Russian ideologies and time will tell if Eastern Europe gets it.