Voters in Bulgaria and Moldova elected pro-Russian populist presidents on the weekend, adding to mounting concern about Western unity following Donald Trump’s victory in the US election last week.
Rumen Radev, a former air force general who openly opposes EU sanctions against Russia, swept to victory with nearly 60 percent of the vote at presidential elections in Bulgaria on Sunday.
On the same day Igor Dodon, who wants to scrap a trade deal with the EU and join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union instead, won a second round run off in Moldova, a former Soviet republic that borders Ukraine and Romania.
Both men ran on anti-establishment platforms focused on issues like immigration, security, and a conciliatory line on Russia.
Mr Radev, a relative political unknown until he was backed by Bulgaria’s Socialist Party, used his victory speech to reiterate his opposition to sanctions and praise Mr Trump, the US president-elect, for “seeking more dialogue” with Mr Putin.
“This gives a lot of hope for reducing the risk of confrontation, particularly in Syria,” he said.
However, Mr Radev has also emphasised that there is “no alternative” Bulgaria’s Nato and EU membership.
Analysts attribute Mr Radev’s victory to his attack on the current government’s failure to tackle corruption or address the economic concerns of ordinary Bulgarians.
Rosen Plevneliev, the outgoing president, was sharply critical of Vladimir Putin’s government over its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in east Ukraine. Bulgaria angered Russia in September by closing its airspace to Russian resupply flights headed to Syria.
Boykov Borisov, Bulgaria’s pro-Europe prime minister, resigned on Monday morning saying that his coalition government “no longer holds the majority.”
“”I apologise to those who supported us. I thought I was doing the right thing,” he said. “If Bulgarians want a political crisis then they shall have one.”
Tsetska Tsacheva, the rival candidate who Mr Borisov supported, won less than 40 percent of the vote.
A caretaker government will take over until parliamentary elections can be held in March.
Moldova may also see early parliamentary polls.
Mr Dodon, the newly elected president, said elections planned for 2018 should be brought forward to next year, saying the current government had been discredited.
“A very serious combat is ahead but we are ready for this combat,” he said after his victory.
Mr Dodon won the presidential election partly on a promise to scrap a trade deal signed with the EU in 2014. The policy is supported by Moldovans who suffered after Russia imposed trade restrictions following the agreement.
Speaking to Russian television after the vote, he said Moldovans had voted for “friendship with Russia, for neutrality, for our orthodoxy, for the country’s union.”
Pavel Filip, the prime minister, said the government and president would have to work together in Moldova’s best interests. He added that Moldova’s course towards European integration “cannot be reversed.”
The country is currently not a member of the EU or Nato.
Moldovan presidents can block laws and dissolve parliament, but executive power lies with the government.