No, not Donald Trump, although I’ll mention him later. On Monday, Bulgaria held the first round of its presidential election. In an effort to scare voters into supporting the government’s preferred candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, outgoing president Rosen Plevneliev warned that Russia is trying ‘to weaken Europe, to divide Europe, and to make us dependent’. Unsaid but implied in Plevneliev’s statement was the idea that a vote for the ‘pro-Russian’ Socialist Party candidate, and former air force general, Rumen Radev, would be a vote for Putin and a vote to turn Bulgaria into a Russian satrap. As Tsacheva has said, ‘There are two options – to allow Bulgaria slide back into its dark past of ideological lies and submission to foreign interests or … to make sure that Bulgaria stays where it belongs, among free European countries’.
Unfortunately for Plevneliev and Tsacheva, Bulgarian voters viewed things differently. Radev came out on top in Monday’s election, winning 25.7% of the vote, compared with 22% for Tsacheva. The two now go face to face in a run-off, which the ‘Red General’ is expected to win.
The dominoes are falling. On 31 October, ‘pro-Russian’ candidate Igor Dodon won 48.2% of the vote in the first round of the Moldovan presidential election, beating ‘pro-European’ Maia Sandu, who garnered only 38.4%. Next to fall was Bulgaria. Now America. Who’s next? France and Marine Le Pen six months from now? No doubt, they’re beginning to panic in the editorial offices of The Economist and The Interpreter. The ‘pro-Russians’ are on the march.
Or, maybe not. I don’t doubt that Dodon, Radev, and Trump are less hostile to Russia than their opponents, but the ‘pro-Russian’ label is misplaced. People who cast their vote on the basis of foreign policy are relatively rare. Most people’s concerns are thoroughly domestic. They don’t vote for Dodon, Radev, Trump, Le Pen, or anybody else because they are ‘pro-Russian.’ They vote for them because they think that their policies better suit their own personal interests as well as the interests of Moldova, Bulgaria, America, or wherever. Dividing the domestic politics of these countries into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Russian is not a useful way of framing events.
Moreover, when elected, the ‘pro-Russian’ candidate often turns out not to be so ‘pro-Russian’ after all. Take, for example, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich. The Russians didn’t regard him as ‘pro-Russian’ in the slightest, and actually preferred the ‘pro-European’ Yulia Timoshenko. There is no telling whether Trump, Dodon, and Radev will actually be ‘pro-Russian’ once in office. What they will be is pro-American, pro-Moldovan, and pro-Bulgarian. If their own country’s interests clash with those of Russia, they will pursue the former at the expense of the latter. They will also be constrained by their countries’ membership in multilateral institutions (most notably NATO and the EU in the case of the Bulgaria), by their countries’ economic and financial ties with other states, by the pro-NATO, pro-EU, anti-Russian attitudes of their bureaucracies, and so on.
Simply put, the media’s obsession with viewing other countries’ elections in terms of the candidates’ relationship to Russia does a disservice to those countries’ politics and to our understanding of the world.