Russian President Vladimir Putin’s celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution in early November coincided with the victory of Donald Trump in the United States — who had made no secret on the campaign trail of his admiration for the autocratic former KGB agent.
And the party kept going, as pro-Russian candidates racked up landslide victories in the former communist nations of Moldova and Bulgaria a few days later. Both politicians had campaigned on closer ties to the Kremlin and against the Russian sanctions that have been crimping their economies.
Taken together, these electoral outcomes have shaken up the liberal world order, raising questions about the allegiances of former communist nations that had tilted in favor of the Euro-American alliance.
Ukrainians, who recently marked the third anniversary of their pro-European revolution, are now afraid of finding themselves on the wrong side of history. One newspaper cartoonist satirized the election results with an image of Putin placing a cherry representing Moldova atop a multi-tiered wedding cake, with Trump and Bulgaria scrawled across its base.
The cake now needs another cherry — to represent Estonia after the pro-Russian Center Party successfully formed a coalition government this month. In approval, Russia lifted a ban on canned fish imports from Estonia after the coalition talks were completed.
The victory of pro-Russian politician François Fillon — who has called for a “frank and solid renewal of relations with the Kremlin” — in the French presidential primaries adds another layer of icing to Putin’s victory cake.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for Russia, until recently an international pariah. Putin, meanwhile, has morphed from nasty autocratic spook to visionary czar of populist movements sweeping the world. His anti-globalist, Euroskeptic and nationalistic credos — once shunned by mainstream Europe — are now all the rage with anti-establishment parties across the Continent.
Czech President Miloš Zeman has said he is grateful to the Russians for having rescued the Czechs from Nazism, criticized the EU’s Russia sanctions as “nonsense” and called the migration crisis an “invasion” of Europe. Despite, or perhaps because of, his pro-Russian rhetoric and frequent criticism of the United States — he barred the American ambassador from the Prague Castle on two occasions — he is hugely popular.
“It’s all over for Europe,” moaned a close Czech friend in an email after Trump’s victory. “The breakup of the European Union is a real possibility now. It’s the Russian century ahead.”
Illiberal leaders such as Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, who resents the EU’s interference in his affairs and rails against Islam and immigrants, sees a kindred soul in the Russian president. Orbán has spoken out against Russian sanctions and has pushed ahead with plans for a Russian-built nuclear power plant despite opposition from Brussels. And while Poland’s right-wing government might be anti-Russian, its socially conservative policies and clampdown on the media invite parallels with Putin’s Russia.
Quietly, as the euphoria over joining Europe has faded, Eastern Europe has begun to mirror Russia’s social conservatism. Eastern Europeans, who imagined themselves “true” Europeans when they joined the Union over a decade ago, have belatedly discovered their illiberal, old-fashioned side.
They’re not really cool with gays (supporters of Bulgaria’s pro-Russian President Rumen Radev derided Europe as “Gay-Rope”). Nor do they like the freewheeling, drug-friendly lifestyle of the decadent West.
While the West rocked through its various social upheavals in the ’60s and the ’70s — and adjusted to an influx of immigrants — the Eastern Europeans were living gray, restricted lives in an all-white culture. As a result most in the region share a hostility toward the Islamic “invasion” and the resettling of refugees. Indeed, Orbán’s insistence that Europe remain Christian resonates with his fellow Slavs, many of whom consider Islam a threat.
Meanwhile, as the European economy stumbles, and those in the countryside despair of the benefits of European membership, there is greater nostalgia for the certainties and egalitarianism of the Communist era. A European continent awash with dark-skinned immigrants and wracked by fears of terrorism has become less inviting. Eastern Europeans are turning in on themselves, and returning to their core identity as Christians, and as Slavs.
And as these newly illiberal Eastern Europeans cast around for kindred spirits, many of them are rediscovering a kinship with Russia. Russia is a Slavic nation like theirs, after all, one with which they shared a common culture for decades under communism. As a Czech professor in the early ’90s explained to me when I briefly lived in Prague, it was the idea of “Pan-Slavism” that kept the countries of the Warsaw Pact together.
The Kremlin, of course, has been quick to exploit this growing pan-Slavic revival. Russian military drills in Serbia this month, widely seen as a counterpoint to NATO’s exercises in neighboring Montenegro, were aptly named “Slavic Brotherhood.”
Russia also bangs on about the Slavic connection when it offers discounts on the price of natural gas, or invests in infrastructure projects in the region. It loudly calls for Slavs to resist “unfair” American-led sanctions and to boost their economies by normalizing trade with brotherly Russia. Kremlin agents are ready with a Slavic bear hug and a lucrative backroom deal for the politicians who will lend Russia a sympathetic ear. And as America has lost interest in the region, Russia has redoubled its efforts.
With Trump’s ascension to the White House and a cloud hanging over the future of NATO, former Warsaw Pact nations are understandably scrambling to make their own peace with Russia. A slackening in NATO’s strong commitment to Eastern Europe under a Trump administration could very well push Central Europe into the Kremlin’s orbit for good.
For a dose of optimism, however, it’s good to recall a popular Bulgarian joke.
A woman wakes up from a nightmare. She tells her husband she had dreamed that she could afford to purchase medicine, that her kitchen was well stocked, and that the streets were spotless and welcoming. Why was that a nightmare, her husband asks, incredulous. She had also dreamed that “the communists were back in power,” she answers.
The dream encapsulates the contemporary dilemma of many Eastern Europeans: They crave the stability and affordability of the past, but they are still fearful of a return to the bad old days of communism. Playing off Europe against Russia is the safest option at this point: That way, they get to eat their cake and keep it too.
Author: VIJAI MAHESHWARI