Pro-Russia Candidate Appears Likely to Win Bulgarian Presidency

Bulgarian pro-Russia presidential candidate, Rumen Radev (Photo by AFP)


SOFIA, Bulgaria — A pro-Russia former air force commander with no previous political experience appeared headed for a decisive victory on Sunday in a runoff election to become Bulgaria’s president. The results prompted the current governing party’s prime minister to say he would resign, setting the stage for early elections in the spring.


A presidential runoff was also held Sunday in Moldova. There, too, a pro-Russia candidate appeared certain of victory over his pro-Western opponent, a former World Bank official. That would put a Moscow-leaning socialist back in the Moldovan presidency for the first time since 2009.


The two elections provided further evidence that nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the globe and delivered another burst of good news for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has aimed to weaken ties among European Union nations and erode international sanctions on Moscow. Mr. Putin also warmly welcomed the election of Donald J. Trump in the United States.


Growing nationalism — driven by a rejection of Western liberal attitudes and inflamed by the largest refugee crisis since World War II — has further frayed ties between many European Union member nations as populist demands for national sovereignty increasingly drown out pleas for Western unity.


At the same time, stubborn levels of corruption and national economies that continue to lag far behind the West have driven a rising number of voters in the region to cast a warmer eye toward Mr. Putin.


When asked which city he intended to visit first — Moscow or Washington — the presumed victor in Bulgaria, Rumen Radev said he intended to have close relationships in both capitals, and he praised Mr. Trump for his warmer attitude toward Mr. Putin.


“During his election campaign, the new American president-elect openly said that he was ready to develop a more in-depth relation with Russia,” Mr. Radev, 53, said. “This brings big hope for finding a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and avoiding further confrontation and escalation.”


In both Bulgaria and Moldova, the presidency is largely a ceremonial post, with power concentrated in the prime minister’s hands, a common arrangement in Europe. But the presidents are generally elected by a vote of the whole nation, rather than just one constituency.


In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boiko Borisov’s coalition government took power two years ago, ending a period of fierce political turmoil that peaked with a major financial crisis in 2014 involving the collapse of the country’s fourth-largest bank.


Like other populist leaders, Mr. Radev has adopted a tough anti-migrant stance, pledging to prevent Bulgaria, which shares a border with Turkey, from becoming “Europe’s migrant ghetto.”


He also vowed to repair ties with Moscow and to push for the end of international sanctions against Russia that were imposed after the seizure of Crimea. Bulgaria remains very dependent on Russia for energy and trade and as a prime source of summer tourists.


“The big question is whether Radev would translate all this political talk during the campaign into actions,” said Daniel Smilov, a program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies, a research group in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.


Since 2009, Moldova has been pursuing a pro-European Union path. In 2014, it signed an association agreement with the union, and Russia retaliated by imposing import restrictions on a number of Moldovan goods.


The campaign of the likely winner in Moldova’s presidential election, Igor Dodon, featured photographs of him with Mr. Putin. Mr. Dodon, 41, has said he wants to call a referendum on whether to extricate Moldova from its European Union agreement, in favor of membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.


The election was held at a time of increased dissatisfaction in Moldova. A separate banking scandal there in 2014 involved the disappearance of $1 billion, roughly an eighth of the country’s gross domestic product, from three of the country’s banks, with many blaming those in power for the rampant corruption, as well as the influence of powerful oligarchs.


“It is a sort of protest vote,” said Igor Munteanu, the executive director of the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, a Moldovan research group. “This is not a victory for Putin per se, but it is a defeat for pro-democratic forces.”

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