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Journey to the East: Bulgaria and Moldova’s pro-Russian presidents

Image credit: Ivo Ivov (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The recent presidential victories of pro-Russian candidates in both Bulgaria and Moldova are the manifestation of an increasing trend of disillusionment with EU integration felt within many Eastern and Southern European countries. This comes at a particularly challenging and delicate time for the European Union as tensions with Russia remain high due to their continued involvement in Ukraine.

Bulgaria and Moldova have been seen as successful examples of Eastern and Southern

European integration with the West. Bulgaria joined the EU during its 5th period of

enlargement alongside Romania, whilst Moldova is seen as a model example within the

Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiated by the EU to foster closer ties with its Eastern


However, the recent victory of independent Radev (backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party)

in Bulgaria and the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova’s Dodon in Moldova may

signal a shift from West to East.

For Bulgaria, disillusionment with the European Union stems from the perceived inability of Brussels to confront many of the major geopolitical issues facing the region. Bulgaria

remains a significant transit country for refugees crossing over from Turkey on their way

West, with the flow of people unlikely to cease anytime soon. Like many border countries, this has significantly impacted Bulgarian society, with consensus that a single all-European approach is needed.

For Moldova, frustration stems from limitations with the EaP. Part of the European

Neighbourhood Policy, mechanisms such as the EaP and the Union for the Mediterranean

were set up in the aftermath of ‘enlargement fatigue’ and sought to create an alternate

path other than ascension. For countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, the exclusionary

nature of the ENP, which omits the end goal of ascension, has been a bitter blow to their

aspirations for further integration.

Both countries also remain economically stagnant. Despite ascension, Bulgaria remains the poorest of the EU member states, with a GDP per capita of $19,200 compared to the EU average of $37,800. Moldova remains the poorest countries in Europe with a GDP per capita of a mere $5,000.

Furthermore, despite its previously pro-West government and agenda, Moldova’s relations

with Russia remains equally as important as its relations with the West. It's a member of

the Russian led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the CIS Charter on

Economic Union, although it has never engaged in any military aspects of CIS due to its

status of neutrality. Russia remains Moldova’s second largest trading partner and main

source of energy, and a pivot towards Russia is not entirely outside their interest.

These elections come at a time of unparalleled Russian expansionism since the end of the

Cold War. Putin, who once described the break-up of the Soviet Union as a major

geopolitical disaster, looks to be attempting to extend Russia’s influence, utilising both soft

and hard power. Bulgaria and Moldova have both historically fallen inside Russia’s sphere of influence, and the recent presidential results in these countries would indicate a retreat

back into historical patterns.

Recent international events such as the US Presidential elections also feed into the

uncertainty and anxiety within this region. For the European Union, it is speculated that the US will lessen its commitment to the continent particularly against a fickle Russia and the EU will therefore be left without a reliable partner in the region.

For the EU to be able to combat the encroachment of Russian influence further on the

continent, it must strengthen existing ties with Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Moldova, and be able to show these countries the benefits of increased integration with the EU. Grievances held by these countries, such as economic inequality within the EU and their barring to ascension, must be addressed to counter their pivot towards Russia.

Sam Kwon is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney. He is completing his honours thesis, exploring the legitimacy of the EU and the asylum seeker crisis.

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