Last week, while much of the world was focused on the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US elections, things in Europe and Eurasia took an ominous turn. Even leaving aside the Trump victory, which the Kremlin seems to view with both concern at Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, and glee at his pro-Russia statements, Vladimir Putin had a terrific week.
Estonia, Bulgaria, and Moldova, all underwent political changes that look to be good news for Moscow, while the Kremlin’s influence in international policing matters also got a major boost.
Three of the top four spots in Interpol – the world’s largest international police organization that coordinates activity between nations to fight crime – have just been awarded to representatives of governments that have questionable attitudes towards human rights and rule of law. The new director of Interpol is Meng Hongwei, most recently China’s Vice President for Public Security, while his vice president for Europe will be Major General Alexander Prokopchuk, an Interior Ministry official who has been heading Interpol’s Moscow office.
Both Russia and China are well known for trying – sometimes successfully – to use Interpol to track down persons who have gotten on the bad side of government officials or are political dissidents. British-American financier William Browder has been vocal about the Kremlin’s attempts to use ‘Red Notices,’ a kind of international arrest warrant, to have him arrested and his assets seized. In the Kremlin, he is despised for his crusade against kleptocracy and human rights abuses in Russia. In the past such spurious attempts to silence critics have been rejected by Interpol. But with these like-minded men now at Interpol’s helm, it seems likely that Mr. Putin may be able to extend his abuses just a bit further outside of Russia’s borders.
In tiny Estonia, which has long been an advocate for greater US, EU, and NATO involvement in the Baltic region, the government collapsed. After a vote of no confidence dissolved the ruling coalition and brought down Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas, the Center Party emerged as the new coalition leader, opening the way for Juri Ratas to become the next prime minister.
This development has alarmed many because the Center Party has a cooperation agreement with the Kremlin’s United Russia Party and is the favored party of Estonia’s ethnic Russian minority which makes up about 25 percent of the country’s population.
The party insists that the agreement is “frozen” and not active, but critics have questioned why the Center Party does not disavow it to allay fears. While Estonian Defense Minister Hannes Hanso has said that “foreign and security policy has always been by consensus and consistent, regardless of party,” the current political instability and the Center Party’s Russia ties are certainly a pleasant change for a Kremlin that has become accustomed to Estonia’s resolutely pro-Western orientation.
Bulgaria and Moldova
Sunday’s elections in Bulgaria and Moldova were the icing on the cake. Both countries elected presidents that were vocally Russia-friendly during their campaigns.
In Bulgaria, former air force commander and first-time political candidate Rumen Radev won the second round of elections decisively, beating the pro-western candidate from the GERB Party. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, the leader of GERB, has said that he will resign after the defeat. If he does so, Bulgaria will then likely have early parliamentary elections and continue the political instability that has plagued the country for years.
During the campaign Radev, who is aligned with the Socialist Party, called for the European Union to remove its sanctions on Russia, a position popular with about half of Bulgaria’s population because the country’s economy has declined somewhat from the reduced flow of Russian tourists and trade caused by those sanctions. He has also signaled his willingness to accept Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, though he has explicitly stated his intention to maintain Bulgaria’s pro-Western position.
The Moldovan presidential election also had a pro-Kremlin outcome. The winner, the Socialist Party’s Igor Dodon, was clear in his pro-Kremlin orientation, while the loser, former Education Minister and World Bank employee Maia Sandu took a strong pro-EU stance. Unlike Bulgaria, Moldova is not a member of the European Union or NATO and was a constituent state of the Soviet Union. It has not yet made a choice whether to move east or west, but Dodon’s win is a firm sign that the pro-Russian position is ascendant.
While Moldova’s presidency is largely a ceremonial position, Dodon has promised to make good use of the powers of his office and to hold a referendum to dissolve parliament or increase presidential powers.” Formerly the Minister of Trade Economy under a Communist government, he has indicated interest in joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community, eliminated the possibility of cooperation with NATO, and has promised to balance between Russian and the West, a feat that neighboring Ukraine has found impossible.
While both of these victories were largely driven by the public’s disgust with the current leadership’s inaction on cleaning up corruption and improving the stagnant economies of these poor nations, the result are leaders that may play right into Mr. Putin’s hands.
Putin’s efforts to expand the Kremlin’s influence and make Russia great again have been enhanced by the recent leadership changes at Interpol, the political turmoil in Estonia, and the election results in Bulgaria and Moldova. These developments—coupled with rising populism and anti-EU sentiment in Europe and Donald Trump’s election in the US—suggest that, at least for now, the playing field is shifting to Putin’s advantage.