Beware Russia's hand in elections in Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania

A top priority of Russian President Vladimir Putin is the reintegration of former Soviet republics – based on tighter economic links and culminating in a political and security pact centered around Russia. Meddling in Eastern European elections is one way to fulfill Putin's regional ambition.

Shakh Aivazov/AP
People hold Georgian state flags during a campaign rally for President Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sept. 28. Georgia holds tightly contested parliamentary elections Oct. 1. Op-ed contributor Janusz Bugajski writes: 'In the worst-case scenario, major [electoral] unrest in Georgia could precipitate another Russian military intervention on the pretext of restoring law and order by installing a friendlier government.'

Starting today with Georgia, and followed by Ukraine and Lithuania, parliamentary elections in Europe's east are revealing the tenuous nature of democracy and sovereignty in countries once entrapped by Soviet-era Moscow.

Among the top priorities that Russian President Vladimir Putin set for his third presidential term is the reintegration of former Soviet republics – based on tighter economic links and culminating in a political and security pact centered around Russia. Moscow seeks to create a new Eurasian Union that will balance the European Union in the West and China in the East.

Economic linkages will supposedly create closer political and security ties, thus making it less likely that Russia’s neighbors can join alternative military and political alliances. This approach is mirrored by a more assertive policy toward vulnerable former satellite states in Central Asia and Central-Eastern Europe. The purpose is to undercut their opposition to Russia’s regional ambitions. Russian meddling in their domestic politics provides a valuable avenue of influence.

Georgia faces a major political test in its parliamentary elections today. The country’s development is under close scrutiny following an unfolding scandal over prison abuse amidst opposition charges of election campaign violations and other attacks on democracy by the ruling party.

Government supporters maintain that opposition financier and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is engineering various provocations to undermine Georgia’s emerging democracy. According to them, Mr. Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, serves Kremlin interests by creating the Georgian Dream coalition – the main opposition in this election.

The actual results of Georgia’s elections may be less important than the reaction by opposition and government backers. Any major violence amidst accusations of election fraud will be pounced on by the Russian authorities to discredit President Mikhail Saakashvili, whom Mr. Putin has never forgiven for seeking to repossess the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008.

In the worst-case scenario, major unrest in Georgia could precipitate another Russian military intervention on the pretext of restoring law and order by installing a friendlier government in the capital, Tbilisi.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Oct. 28 could also culminate in street protests if massive violations are detected by election monitors and by supporters of the jailed opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Russia seeks greater influence over Kiev and is more assured of such influence through an authoritarian administration that is ostracized by the West. However, it remains wary of an outright domestic conflict that may raise the specter of state disintegration.

In previous elections, voters in western and central Ukraine mostly voted for parties with pro-Western and reformist policies, while those in eastern and southern Ukraine preferred the more conservative and pro-Russian choices, such as the ruling Party of Regions. Ukrainian governments have veered between these two camps, getting bogged down in political division and corruption.

If the Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yanukovich, is seen to be imposing a political monopoly, rolling back democratic reforms, and rigging the parliamentary ballot, then the next revolution may not be as peaceful as the “Orange” variety in November 2004. Fearful of another pro-Western government in Kiev, Russia could openly intervene in support of the incumbent president. For instance, it could provide security assistance to the beleaguered administration.

In contrast to Georgia and Ukraine, Lithuania is a consolidated democracy, recognized as such through its membership in both the EU and NATO. Nonetheless, the sovereignty of all three Baltic republics is still challenged by Moscow.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have been at the forefront of campaigns that advocate for Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO members. Moscow vehemently opposes such a move. Elections in the Baltic states provide a valuable avenue for the Kremlin to undermine political parties that oppose its regional ambitions.

Lithuania holds parliamentary elections on Oct. 14 and 28. The center-right government is challenged by the Labor Party, which ethnic Russian minority voters are likely to support. Reports have surfaced of Russian operatives bribing politicians and stirring inter-ethnic relations. Lucrative business contracts, donations to political campaigns, and the purchase of media outlets enable Moscow to exert political influence and convince politicians to favor Russia’s strategic interests.

Several previous cases point to Russian political subversion in Lithuania. For instance, Russian businessmen with ties to the Kremlin have purchased influence there. This policy culminated in the impeachment of President Rolandas Paksas in April 2004 on charges of leaking classified information to a Russian businessman believed to be linked with Moscow’s secret services.

In Latvia’s September 2011 elections, the Kremlin supported the ethnic-Russian Harmony Party, calculating that by entering government it could sway Latvia’s policies in a pro-Moscow direction. Harmony was left out of the governing coalition because of fears that it could veer Latvia away from its Western orbit.

Despite such setbacks, every election cycle provides Moscow with fresh opportunities to pursue its regional ambitions. For the sake of maintaining national independence and promoting democracy in these countries, let us hope they are able to resist these ambitions.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior associate of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the author of 18 books on Europe, Russia, and transatlantic relations.  

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