The Kremlin’s winning streak continued on Sunday, as Bulgaria and Moldova both elected leaders seeking friendlier ties with Moscow. Rumen Radev, the Socialist Party candidate who promised to lift EU sanctions on Russia, was elected president in Bulgaria, while Igor Dodon won the run-off in Moldova, riding a wave of populist anger and pledging to restore ties with Russia.
Bloomberg explains the wider context:
After the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s surprise U.S. election victory, Europe is facing a challenge from anti-establishment forces across the region as five western EU members prepare for elections in less than a year. Radev’s victory, along with a pro-Russian candidate winning nearby Moldova’s presidency on Sunday, adds to the political uncertainty and may play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he seeks to reverse sanctions imposed over the conflict in Ukraine.
“Any form of uncertainty, any doubts about the path toward European integration and democratic reforms, plays into the Kremlin’s hands,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin, said by phone. “Russia is hoping to capitalize on this outcome.”
Indeed, the Bulgarian election signifies another crack in the fragile European consensus on sanctions against Russia. During his victory speech, Radev reiterated his desire to lift sanctions, and he will surely press that line in the EU. Moldova, by contrast, is not an EU member, but Dodon has come out strongly against the association agreement that the country signed with the EU. His victory is a symbolic rebuke to Moldovans who seek European integration, and a boon those who look to Moscow.
The outcomes in Moldova and Bulgaria contribute to a growing pattern of Russia-friendly political forces strengthening their hold in Europe, following gains in Georgia and Estonia. And of course, this all comes following the surprise victory of Donald Trump, who has said he will consider lifting economic sanctions on Russia and might even recognize Crimea as Russian territory.
If Putin is the big winner this week, Ukraine is the big loser. The EU will probably extend sanctions in December, but beyond that their prospects look shaky. Several EU countries have chafed at upholding sanctions on Russia, especially as they take an economic toll at home. The Moldovan and Bulgarian elections will provide more fodder for the anti-sanctions crowd, and that spells trouble for European solidarity on Ukraine.