Issue 80:2016 11 17:President Putin’s Other New Friends (Neil Tidmarsh)

17 November 2016

President Putin’s Other New Friends

No, not the American ones.

by Neil Tidmarsh

party 2There were presidential elections last week.  But of course you knew that.  Did the results surprise you?  It was even closer than the polls suggested, wasn’t it?  But in the end Igor Dodon won, as expected.  After all, he did win the first round last month with 47% of the votes, with Maia Sandu coming second with only 38%, so the results of the second round were hardly a surprise (although Ms Sandu did manage to close the gap somewhat, winning 47.89% to Mr Dodon’s 52.11%).  So Igor Dodon is the new president elect of the republic of Moldova.

Of course, Moldova’s presidential election wasn’t the only one last week.

There was the one in Bulgaria, as well. Rumen Radev (an Independent candidate) won the second round with 59.37% of the vote, beating Tsetska Tsacheva (GERB party) with 36.16%. General Radev is a former commander of the Bulgarian airforce and, although an Independent, he is supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

The significance to the outside world of these two elections is that both presidents elect are pro-Russian in countries groping their way from a Soviet past towards a Western Europe future. Both men made sympathetic overtures to Russia and President Putin immediately following their victories.

Moldova, a Balkan country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, was part of the Soviet Union but became independent following the break-up of the Union in 1990.  It signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014, much to the annoyance of Russia, which promptly retaliated by slapping a trade embargo on Moldovan wine, fruit and vegetables. Last week’s election was seen as a struggle between supporters of the EU and supporters of Russia.  The latter won; now the new president elect Igor Dodon wants to improve relations and restore ties with Russia.  He has said that his first foreign visit will be to Moscow. “We have to restore a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation” he declared.  Implicit in this is a distancing from the EU; he is pushing for early parliamentary elections, in 2017, to force out the country’s pro-EU government.  Meanwhile, prime minister Pavel Filip has insisted that Moldova’s path towards the EU “cannot be reversed”.

Bulgaria was part of the Soviet block, but is now a member of both the EU and Nato (Russia was particularly annoyed recently when Bulgaria closed its airspace to Russian Airforce re-fuelling flights to Syria).  However, new president elect Ruman Radev opposes the sanctions against Russia which were imposed by the EU following the Ukraine and Crimea crisis.  Like Moldova’s Igor Dodon, he is calling for closer ties with Moscow.  The Bulgarian prime minister, Boiko Borisov, has already tendered his resignation – his GERB government is pro-Europe – so there may well be early parliamentary elections, revolving around the ‘East or West’ question, in Bulgaria as well as Moldova.

These overtures have been welcomed enthusiastically by the Kremlin, just as it has welcomed the victory of Donald Trump, who has professed admiration for Putin and has said he will seek friendlier relations with Russia when he is president.  But the pro-Russian declarations of the presidents elect of Bulgaria and Moldova could be even more significant and consequential than those of the president elect of the USA.  The Balkans are physically caught between Russia and the West. They don’t have the breadth of the Atlantic to separate them from Russia.  Their position has always left them vulnerable and sensitive, and their internal tug of war between East and West has always been potentially disastrous, not just for themselves but for the whole world.

All that is evident enough in Ukraine’s current tragedy. Moldova itself has its own secessionist problem; its Russian-speaking region of Trans-Dneister – a long, thin stretch of land between the Dneister River and Ukraine – declared independence in 1991, and is one of the world’s “frozen conflicts”. It’s also evident in this week’s news from Poland that the remains of former president Lech Kaczynski are to be exhumed as part of a new investigation into the plane crash near Smolensk in Russia which killed him and other leading Polish figures in 2010.

Last month there were elections in another Balkan state, Montenegro; not presidential elections, but parliamentary elections.  And last week, the country’s chief special prosecutor revealed details of an alleged plot to assassinate the prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, on election day. Mr Djukanovic’s government is pro-EU and pro-Nato; the prosecutor claims that the alleged assassination attempt was part of a Russian-nationalist plot to overthrow the whole government, a pro-Russian coup.  Twenty Montenegrins and Serbians have been arrested, including the former commander of Serbia’s special police force and a number who have allegedly fought for the Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.  The prosecutor claims that another forty people were involved, including Russian nationals, and that a professional hit-man was hired to fire the shot at the prime minister.

Luckily, that was the shot that did not echo around the world, as it were.  But contemplating its possible consequences (in the spirit of counterfactual history, or of quantum physics’ alternative universes) is unnerving to say the least, especially in the light of the shot which did indeed echo around the world from the same neighbourhood just over one hundred years ago, fired by that other anti-West, pro-East assassin, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.


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