A specter is haunting Eastern Europe, and its name is Russia. Europe and the U.S., too slow to respond, are allowing that specter to change the way Eastern Europe sees the world.
Ukraine has held two elections in a row with its sovereign territory being carved up by Russians and Russian-backed forces. Today, as the cease-fire crumbles again and Moscow hints that more is to come, Kyiv’s brave stand is more obviously without Washington’s and Brussels’s backing than ever; it remains a question whether it can long stand against its giant little brother, who controls its natural gas supply and whose military and economic might remain the largest argument-settlers in the region.
On Sunday, Romania chose Victor Ponta, its current Prime Minister, to the top spot in a runoff election for the presidency. By far the best candidate in the field by every reasonable metric, Ponta’s victory also carries a suggestion of rapprochement with Moscow — increasingly a necessity in a region shattered by breakaway republics, Russian meddling, and no sign of European assistance to be readily found. Ponta is already showing the political acumen that brought him this far by quieting his domestic flank with canny coalition politics (he has floated his predecessor, from his opponent’s party, as a replacement at Prime Minister if he wins); if this holds, we can expect to see him straddle the Moscow-Brussels highwire as adeptly. Ponta will face Klaus Johannis, the Liberal Party candidate, on November 16, in an election that will decide Romania’s course for years to come.
This effect is not limited to elections. Ewa Kopacz succeeded Donald Tusk as Prime Minister of Poland after the latter took over as President of the European Council, and immediately began making noises about a more pragmatic relationship with Moscow than her predecessor had envisioned. (Poland was widely understood to be a backer of the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine and has been one of Europe’s most hawkish voices on Russia for some time.) Azerbaijan is playing a canny game between East and West. Armenia surrendered to its worst impulses and embraced Moscow.
It is too simple to say that Vladimir Putin wanted, as his Soviet predecessors did, an absence of elections. He is canny enough to understand that democratic legitimacy, no matter how illegitimate, is the fan behind which the West hides its mouth when it wishes to deny ignoring atrocities abroad. He does not even so much want his preferred candidates to win those same elections. He merely wants every nation within Moscow’s reach to accept that the center of gravity in their region lies roughly at the doors to the Kremlin.
Today, that project is not a success; but it is surely succeeding.
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