By Marcus Tanner*
Compared to the presidential election victory in the US of Donald Trump, the victories of two allies – in Bulgaria and Moldova – is small beer for the Kremlin.
It is the equivalent of winning a few extra dollars on a scratch card, having scooped a million dollars in the national lottery the previous week.
Hillary Clinton threatened to boldly confront Russian assertiveness in Syria and in Ukraine and turn the current cold war distinctly hot.
As US President from next January, Donald Trump – however busy he is backtracking on some of his more inflammatory campaign pledges – is unlikely to row back on pledges to stay out of the Syrian cauldron. It is hard to see him taking much interest in confronting the Kremlin in Ukraine, either.
For Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it has been a very good couple of days, capped by the victories of political admirers and allies in Russia’s immediate vicinity in the Balkans.
“Whoever thought democracy could deliver such gains!” – he might well think.
Bulgaria’s new president, Rumen Radev, has insisted it is quite possible to be a good European and a friend to Russia at the same time, indicating that he will do nothing to disturb Bulgaria’s membership of NATO, let alone the EU.
His powers as head of state are also quite limited. Nevertheless, his win is undeniably a coup for Moscow and a blow to Brussels, which is already struggling to maintain a united European front on the issue of sanctions against Russia related to its policy in Ukraine.
Brussels – for which read Germany – can only regard Radev’s call for a more “pragmatic” approach to Russia’s seizure of Crimea with dismay.
Either way, the presence of such a high-ranking Kremlin ally in Sofia will embolden restive pro-Russian forces elsewhere in the neighbourhood, in Serbia and Montenegro especially.
Moldova is more peripheral than Bulgaria, is very far from EU membership and has always been seen as more of a “swing” state politically, in terms of external allegiances.
Still, as a test of the EU soft power, the outcome of the election there suggests that Brussels’ ability to set the political agenda by dangling the possibility of membership is waning.
That should be disturbing in itself – were it not overshadowed by far more momentous developments at the heart of the EU.
Aside from Britain’s announced departure from the EU, the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen is banging on the doors of the French political establishment ahead of the French presidential elections in April and May 2017, while her Dutch counterpart, Geert Wilders, is vowing to pull off a Trump-like feat in general elections in The Netherlands in March.
Taken together, the EU is facing not merely challenges in 2017, but an existential threat.
*Marcus Tanner is an editor of Balkan Insight and the author of “Albania’s Mountain Queen, Edith Durham and the Balkans” [Tauris].
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