European Affairs

Europe’s Unsettled Southeastern Flank     Print

Armen SahakyanOn November 13, the Republic of Moldova, a member of the EaP (EU’s Eastern Partnership), and EU member state Bulgaria held final second round presidential elections, with Russia-friendly candidates emerging victorious in both instances. 

The poorest country in Europe, Moldova has been wrought by a huge corruption scandal over a stunning $1 billion banking fraud in 2014, that ultimately snared top political leaders, including a former Prime Minister. The banking scandal triggered internal havoc with the country’s parliament, as the pro-EU government and the Communist and Independent MPs switched their alliance to the Socialist faction.

Moldova had not had direct presidential elections for 20 years. It was not until the March of this year that the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the indirect election of the president as unconstitutional and gave the power back to the citizens.

Socialist Party leader and President-elect Igor Dodon is known as a strong supporter of Russian President Putin and during his campaign called for abandoning the Association Agreement with the EU – a course steadfastly pursued by the Moldovan government since 2009 – in support for membership in the recently-formed Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) led by Russia.

His political rival and pro-EU candidate Maia Sandu lost in the run-off election with 47.8% of the votes. Sandu, who is a pro-EU former World Bank official and the former education minister of Moldova, might have benefited from a higher voter turnout than 53.3%.

In the case of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev – a political newcomer backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party and a former air force commander – won Sunday's election with nearly 60% of the vote over the center-right speaker of parliament, Tsetska Tsacheva, who received just over 35% of the votes. Also benefiting from public discontent over continued corruption, Radaev has emphasized that there is no alternative to Bulgaria’s NATO and EU membership, but has also called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia. Radaev’s victory led to the Prime Minister’s resignation. A caretaker government will be formed in the interim until new elections, which are expected to take place as early as March 2017.

Immediately following the election results, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “Of course, we were impressed by some of the statements [of Dodon and Radev], which shows the willingness to work on normalizing relations with other countries, including our own.”

In contrast, the American and European reactions were more muted. The U.S. Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova, and the European External Action Service put out almost identical statements regarding the election in Moldova, including a criticism on the shortcomings of some aspects of the process. The EEAS statement continues to read, “The European Union is committed to working with the authorities of the Republic of Moldova in support of the reform process that is at the core of our Association Agreement, in particular as regards fighting corruption, ensuring the independence of the judiciary, de-politicizing the state institutions and reforming the administration.”

The U.S. Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, issued a statement congratulating President-elect Rumen Radev highlighting the need for continued cooperation in areas of “increased prosperity for our people, transatlantic ties and values, NATO engagement and solidarity, defense modernization, and border security.”

These developments, especially in the so-called “shared neighborhood” between the EU and Russia, demonstrate the need for a serious discussion about the future of the sub-region sandwiched between the two powers. A New York Times editorial found the elections “alarming” despite the fact that the responsibilities of the presidents in Moldova and Bulgaria are “largely ceremonial in nature” with limited policymaking prerogatives. However, it is hard to ignore that these elections brought into light the widening gap between the Western and Eastern European states in their preferred approach towards Kremlin. The relatively poorer countries to Russia’s west – due to geographic proximity and existing trade links – especially feel the strain on their economies due to the ongoing sanctions against Moscow and look to reverse the status quo.

Armen V. Sahakyan is the executive director of the Eurasian Research and Analysis – ERA Institute.