Economic hardship and political uncertainty in post-Soviet European states makes them susceptible to Moscow’s pressures and intrigues
Economic hardship, social disquiet, political uncertainty, and international isolation are generating instability among many of the post-Soviet European states. As these factors show no sign of abating, the political scene will become increasingly fractious, volatile, and susceptible to Moscow’s pressures and intrigues. Although Kremlin attention has been focused on Ukraine and Belarus in recent years, new opportunities have been germinating in other neighboring countries and even among several EU member states.
The Europe-wide economic recession has affected the entire East European region as investment is scarcer, trade is slower, and loans are more difficult to obtain. Incomplete structural reforms in several countries contribute to the material malaise, downpress living standards, and limit job creation. As unemployment rises, social frustrations with the political elites escalate. General elections become vehicles for removing parties from power rather than providing viable alternative policy alternatives. Such conditions undermine reformist and pro-Western movements and encourage various forms of populism and authoritarianism, and in some cases tear at the fabric of national unity.
As a consequence of these factors, the hopes that were invested in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have been severely dented. Two decades after they gained or regained independence, the conviction has faded that all the post-Soviet states would become consolidated democracies, open market economies, and credible candidates for EU membership. Instead, the Kremlin is taking advantage of neighbourhood turmoil to position itself as a political model to be emulated and the leader of multi-national organizations to be joined.
Former Soviet republics are under increasing pressure to participate in Moscow’s integrationist initiatives. The Kremlin’s objective is to exert a growing influence over the foreign and security policies of immediate neighbors so they will either remain neutral and stay out of Western institutions or actively support Russia’s agenda. The ultimate aim is assimilation based on tighter economic links and culminating in a political pact, styled as the Eurasia Union.
Ukraine is the most glaring example of a faltering democratic transformation with an incomplete program of reforms that assists Moscow’s targets. The political battles among the former Orange Revolution leaders left the terrain open to a more authoritarian, anti-reformist, and internationally neutral government that has stifled Ukraine’s Western progress. The Kremlin continues to entice and pressure President Viktor Yanukovych to embrace the Russia-centered Customs Union and other “Eurasian” institutions, while revoking Kyiv’s European and trans-Atlantic aspirations.
With Belarus, Russia already possesses a “joint state” agreement and a Customs Union and is pushing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to open up the state-controlled economy to Russian oligarchs linked with the Kremlin. Lukashenka is trying to balance West with East, as he neither wants to surrender his political or economic powers. But he has become increasingly isolated in confronting intense Russian blackmail. With its two key western "borderlands" better secured and distanced from NATO and the EU, Moscow has turned its attention to Moldova, the South Caucasus, and even the eastern zones of the European Union.
Following the election of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili last October, Georgia has been gradually backtracking on its pro-Western commitments and is more inclined to enter into agreements with Russia. Suspicions persist that Ivanishvili upholds business connections with Kremlin officials or is beholden to Putin to maintain his fortune. Whatever the reason, Tbilisi is toning down its ambitions to join NATO and the EU and may be more inclined to compromise with Russia over its occupied territories in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Some analysts have called the emerging Georgian system as one of state capture or even one-man rule, whereby financial resources are leveraged into political power by Ivanishvili. Within the governing six-party Georgian Dream coalition, five have small social bases and remain almost fully dependent on Ivanishvili for funding. Ivanishvili is the coalition leader, head of the dominant party, as well as prime minister. He determines the composition of the government and will select the coalition candidate for the presidential elections in October. He has also appointed his own employees to control law enforcement bodies.
In an indication of a growing concentration of power with restricted checks and balances, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania was recently removed from the position of deputy prime minister. Ivanishvili claimed that he was punishing him for his ambition to run for president without consulting the premier. Since the October elections, Georgia’s modernization, institution building, and Euro-Atlantic integration appear to be slowing down. At the same time, Moscow is increasing its presence through various “soft power” tools, especially in trade, diplomacy, the mass media, and cultural exchanges designed to pull Georgia away from its Western orientation.
Although the Georgian parliament adopted a resolution on March 7 affirming its commitment to a pro-Western foreign policy, deeds will prove more important than words. And despite a landmark meeting between President Mikheil Saakashvili and premier Ivanishvili, the two sides remain deeply divided on key questions, including proposed constitutional amendments limiting presidential powers. Opposition members in parliament accuse the government of systematic political persecution, rolling back the reform process, and undermining the priority of NATO and EU membership.
In his last months in office, Saakashvili continues to issue warnings about Russia’s regional plans. Having been essentially correct about Moscow’s ambitions toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia, his statements following a recent visit to Azerbaijan sparked furor in Moscow and fear in Baku. He claimed that Azerbaijan and Georgia faced similar dangers of destabilization by Russia. In his words, “Georgia faces disintegration while Azerbaijan fears Russian-sponsored regime change."
Saakashvili claimed that the Kremlin is backing a new Azeri lobbying group led by Soyun Sadikhov, a Moscow-based billionaire. Its purpose is to meddle in Azerbaijan’s internal and external affairs. For instance, it reportedly seeks to undermine relations between Baku and Tbilisi by supporting autonomy for Azeris inside Georgia. Most controversially, the Georgian President claimed that the billionaire Vagit Alekperov, the president of Lukoil, is planning a regime change scenario in Azerbaijan similar to the Georgian example. The main goal of the new lobbying outfit is to apply pressure on Baku and eventually replace the current President, Ilham Aliyev.
Over the past two years relations between Russia and Azerbaijan have seriously deteriorated. Moscow did not renew its lease on the Gabala radar station and thereby lost its military presence in Azerbaijan. Aliyev has also asserted that Baku has no interest in joining the Eurasian Economic Union, while the stalemate over the Armenian occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh adds to the tensions. Russia manipulates its “soft power” tools through the media and non-governmental organizations to pressure Baku into following Kremlin policy especially in the energy sphere, as Moscow is desperate to retain a dominant position in its natural gas supplies to Europe.
Moldova appears to be the most recent success story for Moscow, where the pro-European government favoured by the EU has been ousted following a vote of no confidence against the cabinet of Prime Minister Vlad Filat. The opposition Communists led the attack on the grounds that most Moldovans were dissatisfied with economic conditions and the pervasiveness of official corruption. At the same time, the ruling coalition, the Alliance for European Integration, has degenerated into bitter political battles much like the former Orange coalition in Ukraine.
The fall of the Moldovan government demonstrates the tentative nature of democracy, the weakness of political parties, and the continuing strength of anti-reformist elements. The latest corruption scandals have decimated public support for the administration and a shadowy billionaire who was nominated as deputy speaker of parliament, Vlad Plahotniuc, is under financial investigations in several EU countries. While the Communists have links with Moscow, Plahotniuc has business assets in Russia that evidently can be manipulated by the Kremlin to promote political conflict or compliance with its agenda.
With Moldova veering away from the EU path, the entire Eastern Partnership program devised in Brussels for the post-Soviet states and intended to encourage reform and harmonization with European norms, is unraveling. While Brussels has no real appetite for eastern enlargement, the East Europeans have evidently exhausted their commitments to EU reforms. Equally worrisome, the Central and South East European countries already inside the EU are also not immune from internal turmoil and negative Russian influences.
The threat of political upheaval and radicalization is growing in the former Soviet bloc and constitutes a danger to domestic and regional stability. Western policy makers concluded that democratic consolidation was completed in the region two decades after the collapse of communism. However, several countries that are both NATO and the EU members are under scrutiny for undermining their democratic gains and veering toward populism and nationalism, including Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. Even Poland, the largest and most strategically significant state in the region, is challenged by nationalist and anti-EU forces. Their popular appeal and political ambitions at a time of economic uncertainty will have a corrosive impact on the wider region.
Aspiring populists exploit two issues that have significant public appeal: social justice and ethnic nationalism. The absence of social justice and economic opportunity is a major concern in several post-communist countries. Sectors of the population can be mobilized against the alleged ravages of crony capitalism that include pervasive official corruption, growing economic disparities, stagnant living standards, and the ostentatious wealth of new entrepreneurs. Anti-elitist populist rhetoric resonates among sectors of the population whose economic expectations have been unfulfilled, and this can be transformed into radical opposition to existing political institutions.
Some governments or opposition parties focus on the restoration of national pride and protecting the country from unwanted foreign influences in order to capture public opinion. During harsh economic conditions, political leaders may mobilize voters by scapegoating ethnic minorities or immigrants and claiming that national independence and economic prosperity are threatened by their presence. Greece is a pertinent example of this process. Ethno-nationalism may also have an external component by generating regional disputes. For example, by extending citizenship and voting rights on the basis of ethnic identity to Hungarians in neighboring countries, Hungary may be moving away from a civic state where political rights derive from citizenship, but one where citizenship derives from ethnic status.
In several states, ultra-nationalists have gained parliamentary seats or sizable opposition parties have adopted nationalist themes. In Hungary the xenophobic and irredentist Jobbik party gained over 12% of the national vote and 47 seats in the 2010 general elections. The party appeals to alienated young voters and is adept at using the social media to promote its message. A present danger throughout the region is economic stagnation pushing the major parties to appropriate the policies of the national radicals in order to secure votes.
A prolonged EU-wide economic recession and extensive austerity measures will generate negative social reactions with a direct impact on political and institutional stability in Central and South Eastern Europe. Rising unemployment among young people can trigger serious unrest. Joblessness induces restlessness, decimates trust in democratic institutions, undermines specific governments, and challenges the legitimacy of political systems.
Fourteen million people under the age of 30 are unemployed in the EU, with the percentage in some countries exceeding 40% of the population. With living standards static or declining and life expectations unfulfilled, tensions will continue to rise. Youths alienated from the democratic process will gravitate toward extremist political movements that offer a sense of identity and a clear call for action.
Countries such as Bulgaria and Romania are experiencing intensive political battles that undermine the political structures and open the terrain to radical elements. The recent collapse of the Bulgarian government has brought new populists to the surface for the next elections. Such developments are mouth watering for the Kremlin, as it seeks to capitalize on political turmoil to expand its regional ambitions and will support politicians that favor or acquiesce to its strategic and business interests. In this context, economic stagnation, democratic regression, and populist politics anywhere in Eastern Europe will favor Russia’s regional objectives by corroding national institutions, engendering divisions in the European Union, undermining NATO’s effectiveness, and distancing the United States from its European allies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janusz Bugajski is senior associate in the Europe Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has served as a consultant for various U.S. organisations and government agencies and testifies regularly before the U.S. Congress. He chairs the South-Central Europe area studies program at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, as an independent contractor. Bugajski is a regular contributor to various U.S. and European newspapers and journals. His recent books include America’s New European Allies (2009); Expanding Eurasia: Russia’s European Ambitions (2008); Atlantic Bridges: America’s New European Allies, with Ilona Teleki (2007), Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism (2004), and Political Parties of Eastern Europe: A Guide to Politics in the Post-Communist Era (2002).
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