The Buzz

How Will Russia Influence the Upcoming Run-offs in Bulgaria and Moldova?

With all the events of 2016, many truly historic, it is easy not to notice presidential elections in two East-European countries — Bulgaria and Moldova — both conducting run-offs on November 13. These elections are interesting not only because of their influence on the state of affairs in the region, but also because they show the changing role of Russia in the region’s public politics. Up-and-coming political figures of the region are eager to portray themselves as friends of whomever is necessary for them to be elected. However, Moscow does not rush to associate itself with politicians dubbed “pro-Russian” before they prove themselves as valuable partners.

To understand Eastern Europe, one should distinguish between the concepts of allies and patrons and their clients. Allies are considered equal in contributing according to their capacity to achieve the goals of their coalition. Patrons are mighty states who have the reasons and resources to support and protect their foreign clients. It is an open question how conceivable it is in Eastern Europe to create true alliances and not just patron-client relationships. It seems that the only reason countries of the region associate themselves with major, mostly Western powers, is to receive various forms of one-way support.

During his election campaign, Donald Trump drew a lot of indignation when he reminded Americans that if East-European members of NATO want to be American partners within the alliance, they should be able and ready to adequately contribute to the common defense. This indignation is understandable because Cold War logic still defines American foreign political thinking to a significant degree. If a country — especially in a region of geopolitical tension between the United States and Russia like Eastern Europe — pledges allegiance to Washington, it is supposed to come out of Moscow’s sphere of influence. The country in turn expects continuous support without many obligations towards the United States. The same Cold War logic was visible in Russia’s foreign policy. A visit of a regional politician with good-humored talks in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, or Sochi, followed by a constructive press-conference used to suffice to be considered “pro-Russian.” However, this approach might be changing in Moscow. The underlying reason is Russia’s many years of problematic relationships with Ukraine’s leadership, which resulted in the overthrow of Victor Yanukovich.

Victor Yanukovich and scores of Ukrainian politicians before him used to speechify in Russia on friendship with its Eastern neighbor and then go on to the West in search of better deals. Meanwhile, Russia’s strategic positions in Ukraine have been deteriorating and were followed by a major geopolitical crisis. In fact, the reasoning of Ukrainian and other East-European politicians, who try to increase their influence and capitalization by shuttling between Moscow and Western capitals, has been always clear – any deal can be followed by a better deal. However, one can ask, what has Russia achieved by associating itself with such “partners”?

Keeping the Ukrainian case in mind, one should ponder whether the leading presidential candidates in Bulgaria and Moldova, labeled by the world media as “pro-Russian,” already have Russian support.

For at least century and a half, Russia’s policy towards Bulgaria has been built on emotion, rather than clear reasoning. Despite this, Russian sympathy toward their Bulgarian brothers and sisters of Orthodox faith has rarely been reciprocal. After the Balkan soil was abundantly watered with the blood of almost 200 thousand Russian soldiers during the 1877-1878 war with Turkey, ending centuries of brutal Turkish oppression of Bulgaria, Bulgarian elites made a well-calculated move drifting into the German sphere of influence. This led to Bulgaria fighting during both World Wars alongside Germans against its Russian liberators.

After the end of the Second World War, Bulgaria became an object of agreements between great powers and, eventually, a part of the Soviet sphere of influence. In 2007, a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bulgarians, together with other East-European nations, hoped for a significant improvement of their conditions by joining the European Union. But the prosperity never materialized and currently Bulgaria is the poorest country of the EU. During the last ten years, the rhetoric of Bulgarian leaders towards Moscow was not openly hostile, especially when discussing energy projects with Russia. However, this rhetoric did not benefit Russia much. Bulgaria, a member of the EU and NATO, played a significant role in blocking the “South Stream” pipeline project, which was one of the pillars of Russian gas export strategy. One can wonder if there are prospects for change in this relationship. Can Bulgaria become more pro-Russian, especially after the current presidential elections?