The difficult transition

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Two almost concomitant parliamentary elections in former Soviet republics show that the path towards a fully functioning democracy under EU tutelage is a long process.

On 24 February, Moldova’s citizens elected their new parliament; on 3 March, Estonians did the same; both parliaments include 101 deputies. In Moldova, a new electoral system adopted in 2007, provides for a mixed system, with 50 deputies elected from party lists and 51 in single-seat constituencies. With a low turnout of 49,22%, the winner is the opposition Party of Socialists of president Igor Dodon with 35 seats (plus 10); followed by the ruling Democratic Party of oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc with 30 seats (plus 11); and 2 newcomers: the opposition bloc ACUM with 26 seats and the Sor Party of Orhei mayor Ilan Sor with 7. All the other parties, including the Communist Party, failed to clear the 6% threshold. Three independent deputies have been elected in Transdniestria.

In Estonia, where all deputies are elected on proportional votes, the surprise came from the ultra-nationalist EKRE (Conservative Party) that tripled its 2015 results with 17,8% of the votes and 19 seats in parliament. The winner is the Reformist Party (29%), followed by the Party of the Centre (23%), both on the liberal trends. In a move seen elsewhere in EU, the population that feels left outside the economic success is tired of austerity, associated with liberal parties, and is seduced by a party promising social spending when liberal parties are associated with austerity.

Political fog

The elections emphasised similarities between the two small countries that emerged from the ruins of the USSR, despite their differences: Estonia is member of EU and NATO, developed and rich; Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, more rural and suffering of depopulation as a third of its inhabitants are working abroad.

Both are parliamentary republics, a quality seen as a progress compared with presidential regimes that can easily pave the way to autocratic drives. But political parties continue to be formed around personalities or single issues, without clear differences in programs. In consequence, the political life is dominated by a huge number of parties competing in elections (15 in Moldova, 10 in Estonia), leading to instable and sometimes improbable coalitions. This explains the high turnover of prime ministers and the persistent political instability, even in a country like Estonian considered as democratic.

In short, the important is not who win the elections as the real winner is decided during talks for a coalition. This participates to the frustration of a growing part of the voters.

The Russian factor

Almost 30 years after the end of USSR, the question of identity continues to play a central role in the political life, often as a substitute to political identities. Hence the role of the Russian factor in the election campaigns. This led to an artificial divide between those who want good relation with Moscow, and those who prefer to turn West. Political parties and characters are divided between pro-Russian or pro-European, illiberals against liberal. The division is artificial, as most republics want to find a formula to keep good relations with both, mostly for economic reasons.

In Estonia, the representatives of parties defending the Russian speaking minority are simply described as a 5 th column directed from the Kremlin to destroy national independence or dominate national economy. They represent a quarter of the population and, for instance, one of the real debates before elections concern the status of the Russian schools in the republic.

In Moldova, the pro-Western camp is further divided as a new EU member, Romania, is involving itself directly in the political life of its neighbours. It considers part of Moldova as part of a great Romania, distributing passports and interfering openly in the political life. This is not EU style, but Brussels lacks political tool and will to react properly.

This situation further blurs the lines in a country where more of the population speaks Russian and 80% consider their language, and identity, different of those in Romania.

Foreign interference

In consequence, there are no shortages of both Western and Russian attempts to influence the political life. But the goals might be more subtill than usually said.

In Estonia, Russia continues to play cat and mouse with the Russian speakers who represent a quarter of the population. But cyclic tirades on their rights’ restriction are not so much a way to defend them than to prove the falsity of EU values. Moscow questions the reasons for double standards, when foreigners in EU often can get citizenship after 5-10 years of residence, while Russian speakers born in a EU member state stay non-citizens just because they speak Russian.

In Moldova, the motives of the Kremlin are different. It wants stability, including in the Transdniestria. The secessionist region continues to be a bargaining tool in a strategic region where the Americans are very present through think tanks and NGOs. In fact, Moscow knows well that under an officially united Western front, the American heavy influence is, as often in Central Europe and the Balkans, pursuing different goals than EU.

While EU speaks of values and conditioned aides, Washington speaks strategy and security against Russia. Especially when parliamentary elections will be held in Ukraine, next door.

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