Is the stifling pro-western consensus that has dominated Balkan and eastern European politics for the last quarter of a century finally on the wane, asks Dragan Plavšić
Is the 'desire for the west' - a desire once so all-consuming and unquestioned that it set off a squalid stampede into the cajoling arms of Nato and the EU - beginning, finally, to lose its iron stranglehold on hearts and minds? Perhaps.
Certainly, the results of the presidential elections in Bulgaria and Moldova this month, where candidates more favourably disposed to Russia were elected, indicate a rift in this suffocating consensus, a rift with the potential to open up a range of political possibilities, both good and bad. For these results point to a burgeoning popular mood more willing than at any time in recent years to question the dogmatic pro-western certainties propagated for so long by local politicians of the ‘extreme centre’.
This shifting mood poses a comprehensive challenge for the left in the Balkans, a challenge of some urgency, not least because the far right is already an established force in many places. What kind of perspective can the left offer so as to shift this mood in a radical direction?
Despite common ties - Slavic Orthodox Christianity and Russia's prominent role in its history - Tsarist Russia liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire and the country proved a very dutiful member of the Warsaw Pact - Bulgarians participated with enthusiasm in the post-Cold War stampede westwards. In 1994, Bulgaria joined Nato's Partnership for Peace programme, becoming a full member in 2004. And in 2007, after years of relentless pressing, it was finally admitted to the EU.
However, the decisive victory in this month’s presidential elections, with almost 60% of the second-round vote, of a former Air Force Commander, Rumen Radev, represents a cautious break, but a break nevertheless, with this recent history. An independent whose candidature was supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) - the Communists of old rejigged in the 1990s as left-of-centre neo-liberals, their traditional Russophile leanings now rebooted and recharged by recent events - Radev delivered a distinctive electoral message for a more ‘balanced and pragmatic’ - that is, less anti-Russian - foreign policy.
While continuing to favour membership of Nato and the EU, he also tapped into a public mood increasingly sympathetic to Russia's stand against NATO in Ukraine and Syria by declaring that Crimea, annexed by Putin, belonged to Russia and that Bulgaria should therefore refuse to renew its EU sanctions against Moscow.
It is also significant that even the governing centre-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) party, whose presidential candidate was roundly defeated by Radev, and whose Prime Minister and leader then promptly resigned, has felt obliged, despite being staunchly pro-western and anti-Russian, to bend to this shifting mood. In 2014, GERB supported sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine along with the rest of the EU; in 2015, it refused airspace access to Russian flights to Syria; but earlier this year, when Romania and Turkey proposed a joint Nato Black Sea fleet with Bulgaria to counter Russia’s fleet harboured in annexed Crimea – a longstanding international agreement stipulates that only Black Sea coastal states can maintain a fleet there for longer than 21 days – GERB refused to participate, its then President declaring that Bulgaria’s “foreign policy is not aimed at anyone.”
This year, too, GERB agreed to resurrect plans for the so-called South Stream pipeline to bring Russian natural gas across the Black Sea into Europe via Bulgaria, a project cancelled in 2014 under pressure from the EU and US following the annexation of Crimea.
However, despite appearances to the contrary, it would be an error to attribute this shifting mood simply, or simplistically, to traditional Russophile sympathies. Certainly, they play their part by enabling Bulgarians to see what many in the west cannot see or refuse to, that the goal of Nato expansion is the strategic encirclement of Russia, with all its attendant dangers.
Nevertheless, these sympathies alone cannot explain this mood change. Instead, we should also see them as the expression of deeper feelings, in this case, disillusionment, disenchantment in fact, with the EU, with its neo-liberal failures, and the parallel failures of the local politicians most associated with it, to address harrowing poverty, searing inequality and epidemic corruption. This disenchantment too has begun to shred the political credibility of Bulgaria’s pro-western ‘extreme centre’.
Strategically wedged between Romania to the south and Ukraine to the north, Moldova has developed a geopolitical significance out of all proportion to its size, one much intensified by Ukrainian events. A Romanian territory in the inter-war years, but annexed by Stalin in 1940, Moldova declared itself independent in 1991 and seemed, at first, to be heading westwards via reunion with Romania. It was this prospect that led to armed conflict with Transnistria, a largely Russian-populated region of Moldova, which then proclaimed itself a self-governing republic.
A quarter of a century later, though, Moldova is neither a member of the EU nor Nato (though it joined NATO’s Partnership in Peace programme in 1994). In fact, it is now arguably further from such memberships than at any time since independence following the election this month of the presidential candidate of the pro-Russian Moldovan Party of Socialists, Igor Dodon, who narrowly defeated the pro-western candidate with 52% of the vote to her 48%. That said, Moldova’s parliament and Prime Minister remain firmly pro-western, yielding a fractured body politic that is likely to remain deadlocked for some time to come. Parliamentary elections are not due until 2018, though Dodon is now arguing that they be called early.
Dodon’s electoral message, unlike Radev’s, was unambiguous. He argued that the EU Association Agreement (its Ukrainian version precipitated the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests), which Moldova signed in 2014 in the wake of crisis in Ukraine, be cancelled in favour of a customs union with Russia. A 2015 poll found that 50% of Moldovans favoured such a union too. Dodon also opposed Nato membership, arguing instead for an essentially pro-Russian form of neutrality.
In fact, in May this year, the Moldovan army took part in training exercises with US and Romanian troops on Moldovan soil, the first time Nato troops had set foot in the country. Dodon was prominent among those who condemned as deeply provocative both the exercises and the participation of US troops in Victory Day celebrations. What is more, Dodon’s stance also opens up the possibility of bringing Transnistria back into the Moldovan fold.
As in Bulgaria, however, another key impetus behind Dodon’s electoral success was not so much Russophilism (most Moldovans are in fact Romanian speakers) as much as disenchantment with what the EU was seen to be offering, as well as Moldova’s heavy dependence on Russian markets for sale of its agricultural produce. Key here was the scandalous disappearance of $1 billion from the Moldovan banking system with suspicions falling on a raft of pro-EU politicians. One of their number, a former Prime Minister who served four years in the post, was recently convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for the theft of a large portion of the missing sum, some $300 million.
Three essential conclusions can be drawn from these developments:
First, the election results in Bulgaria and Moldova are a reaction to the intensified geopolitical competition that has seized hold of the Balkans and eastern Europe in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, a crisis provoked by Nato’s hitherto unquenchable determination to expand ever eastwards to the very outskirts of Russia. It is also therefore worth registering that these results come despite the fact that Nato’s Warsaw summit decided to send four battalions with air support to Poland, the Baltic States and Romania, thereby ratcheting up tensions. At the same time, it is now palpably clear to all the five senses, if not the sixth, that membership of a thoroughly neo-liberal EU has not offered any real solutions to the region’s severe economic problems. This disenchantment has thus fed a search for solutions elsewhere, a turn to Russia being one of them.
Second, the impact of the heightened geopolitical tensions that split Ukraine apart are now beginning to make themselves felt ever more widely. In Bulgaria, a more pro-Russian tendency may be in the ascendant, but GERB, or some such pro-western political force, is certain to remain on the political scene. Moldova is split between a pro-Russian president and a pro-western parliament and Prime Minister. Elsewhere, Montenegro, invited to join Nato in December 2015 as a sure signal to Moscow that its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria would not succeed in derailing Nato’s expansionist ambitions, is now explosively divided between a pro-western, pro- Nato ruling party and a pro-Russian, anti- Nato opposition. In Serbia, this divide finds expression at the highest levels in the figures of a pro-western Prime Minister and a pro-Russian President, members of the same ruling party.
And third, these pressures, and the accompanying risk of conflict on Ukrainian lines, has led to renewed calls for ‘neutrality’ of one sort or another, a positive development to be sure, but a limited one all the same one. In Moldova and Montenegro, the calls are for pro-Russian neutrality. In Bulgaria and Serbia, neutrality entails being all things to all imperialists by supping at both US and Russian tables. In other words, this is not neutrality in any properly substantive sense.
What perspective can the left offer?
Geopolitical tensions can be an opportunity for the left, but they can also be an obstacle if other options are trampled out of existence by competing imperial juggernauts. Much depends on the surrounding circumstances. Presently, there is a resurgence of the left internationally, and also in some areas in the Balkans, notably Greece (despite Syriza’s capitulation to the EU), and Slovenia where an electorally successful United Left has emerged. These examples offer hope that the left elsewhere can escape the intellectual ghetto it currently inhabits.
At the same time, significant opportunities for intervention by the left are emerging from within the very heart, ironically enough, of mainstream politics, opportunities the left can surely build on with the goal of shifting minds in a more radical direction. To name but three such opportunities, the key ones: scepticism towards, if not outright opposition to, Nato expansionism; deep disenchantment with a neo-liberal EU; and resurgent interest in the idea of ‘neutrality’.
What might an alternative perspective on all this from the left look like then? Years ago, the English Marxist historian, E.P.Thompson, a long-standing supporter of British unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato, developed the concept of “active neutrality” as an alternative foreign policy. He argued for:
“active neutrality: not the passive self-preserving isolationism of a small power, but positive, indeed aggressive, foreign policy aimed at relaxing East-West tension, dismantling military blocs, and resuming economic, cultural and political intercourse.”
And he added:
“The ideological and military polarization of the world is certainly a reality from which effective analysis must flow. But it does not follow that the only way to a détente is to make the two poles kiss. On the contrary, a détente is far more likely to ensue when the two giants feel their strategic and economic advantages crumbling around their feet, and their allies shifting their allegiance.”
Here then is a valuable strategic perspective for a Balkan left that is serious about developing a substantive concept of neutrality, one that rejects the cold embrace of Nato as well as Russia advocated by the flawed versions of neutrality currently circulating.
However, if such active neutrality is not to degenerate into the kind of self-preserving, isolationist neutrality Thompson rightly warns against here, then this perspective in the Balkan context cannot emerge simply from the weak and narrow perspective of a single country. Active neutrality in the Balkans, if it is to have any meaningful impact, has necessarily to be the active neutrality of the peninsula as a whole. And this is why it follows that the policy of active neutrality and the idea of a Balkan federation cannot, and must not, be divorced or separated from each other if they are both to retain their force.
None of this will have much purchase, of course, unless the left is also able to offer some answers to a key source of shifting moods in the Balkans – the economy. And here there are no easy answers. One thing, though, is crystal clear. The best guarantee of an outcome that is in the interests of the many rather than the few is for the policy of neo-liberal austerity currently pursued across the Balkans to be defeated by struggle from below. This is the best context within which the pernicious role of the EU can be comprehensively exposed to public scrutiny and visions of a socialised economy valuably discussed and debated. It is also the only way in which Thompson’s vision of “economic advantages crumbling around their feet” and thus encouraging, at minimum, some form of détente, can come to likely fruition.
This three-part perspective – struggle from below against neo-liberal austerity, active neutrality, and Balkan federation – therefore offers a strategic response of a preliminary kind to the opportunities currently opening up in contemporary Balkan politics. Much needs of course to be done to work out how best to concretely apply this perspective to the differing political circumstances of individual Balkan states, but the parameters set out here can serve, at the very least, as a starting-point.
Unless the left is able to start intervening by offering its own solutions to the apparently insoluble problems thrown up by mainstream politics, then others will be sure to step in to do so. This might entail the hopeless merry-go-round of pro-western governments followed by pro-Russian ones, but it might also entail the growth of parties of the far-right. In the first round of the Bulgarian presidential elections, the candidate of a fascist coalition, the United Patriots, came third with 15% of the vote. An organised Balkan left is now an urgent task.
Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).
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