Turf for ‘New Cold War’ Shifts to Elections in Eastern Europe

Once a bane of Communism, elections are now used to legitimize pro-Russian nationalist candidates.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

During the Cold War, chess became symbolic of the superpower conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The game is still being played in Eastern Europe in the “New Cold War,” but the battle pieces are now elections, economic sanctions, and even strong political pressure. The stakes may be just as high.

Cold War Chess: More Than Just a Game

Though played in India 1,500 years ago, the game of Chess has become synonymous with Russia, which has dominated the World Chess Championship since 1948. In 1972, Soviet champion Boris Spassky was challenged by American Bobby Fischer, who approached the game the way Donald Trump conducts politics: unconventionally and with an eye toward throwing his opponent off-balance. The match, played in Reykjavik, Iceland, became a Cold War battleground; Fischer even received a pep talk from Henry Kissinger. The head of the Soviet Chess Sports Committee said, “Basically, the Soviet leadership and the power that be in sport were interested in just one issue: how to stop Fischer from becoming World Champion.” But Fischer ultimately prevailed in “The Match of the Century,” with his outrageous attitude and brilliance on the board.

Chess continued to be associated with the Cold War. There was a 1980 musical loosely based on the Fischer-Spassky fight, titled Chess, and a 1983 film called War Games, where a computer nearly causes World War III because it plays the game of global thermonuclear war, causing a near overreaction in the U.S. The computer ends with asking to play “a nice game of Chess.”

When the Berlin Wall crumbled, America thought the Cold War was over. It was time to sign nuclear treaties with Russia and watch the little Eastern European satellites taste freedom after suffering under the yoke of Communism. But Russia never stopped playing the game. By the end of the decade, ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin ascended to power, ready for a rematch against the unsuspecting Americans.

Rebuilding the Soviet System

Russia’s brief dance with democracy and capitalism gave Vladimir Putin the ability to make his country look more like the West. Elections that began under Boris Yeltsin continued, but Putin carefully picks opponents he can defeat at the ballot box, banning stronger rivals who would truly change the system. And while Russia produces wealthy businessmen that make the system look capitalist, nobody earns a ruble unless Putin allows it. Entrepreneurs who defy Putin wind up dead or in jail.

After ascending to power, Putin then sought to reconstruct the old Soviet Union. Former members were maneuvered back into the Russian orbit sometimes without force, as with Belarus. When they resisted, limited but overwhelming military force was used; parts of the Republic of Georgia and Crimea were brutally annexed in a short time. A Ukrainian presidential candidate critical of Russia was poisoned during an election, and when the pro-Putin Ukrainian leader was ousted in a revolution, Russia armed supporters, resulting in a bloody conflict that caused 10,000 deaths.

Eastern Europe: Old Battleground, New Tactics

Putin’s next step involves bringing the former Eastern European satellites back into a “neo-Warsaw Pact,” the old alliance from Communist days. But again, “Chessmaster” Vladimir Putin is too smart to promote the discredited economic ideology of Marxism. So Russia promotes an even more seductive ideology: hard-core Nationalism.

A nationalist strategy has already paid off in Eastern Europe. The fledgling free markets and democratic institutions were badly buffeted by the Great Recession of 2008. While Russia was gobbling up part of Georgia, these countries saw their political and economic systems collapse, with little help from the West, which was trying to manage their own problems. It gave the impression that capitalism and political freedom don’t work and that their European and American friends don’t care. Russia gave the false impression that it was a more successful model for these desperate countries and that it was useless to resist their geopolitical ambitions.

In addition to Recession and Russia, Eastern Europe faced a third problematic “R”: Refugees. Waves of Syrians, Libyans and others came across the Mediterranean Sea and Bosporus Straits, fleeing political oppression and economic collapse. The first place many of these Middle Easterners and North Africans came was often Eastern Europe, rankling the nationalists and giving them a campaign issue. One could get a lot of votes by blaming foreigners for the country’s problems, the way Jews were targeted before and during World War II. In addition to demonizing Muslims, such politicians dusted off the old anti-Semitic playbook.

Suddenly, the ballot box became the new game of Chess. Once a bane of Communism, elections would now be used to legitimize pro-Russian nationalist candidates. They would blame the European Union (EU) and refugees from abroad for the country’s woes. In Hungary, Viktor Orban and his far-right party (Fidesz) came to power by attacking refugee quotas, playing the “Christian card,” and tying himself to Putin. Former Socialist Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic remade himself a pro-Russian ally as he seeks a second term. Paranoid Poles, fearing the rise of Russia, backed an autocratic regime (run by the “Law and Justice Party”) that has managed to isolate the country from the West with their antidemocratic methods.

Will Capitalist Democracies Checkmate Russia’s Power Play in Eastern Europe?

Western Europeans who spoke out against rolling back free markets and democracy found themselves facing their own nationalists, as Putin found clandestine ways of backing Brexit, French xenophobes, and new far-right German party (AfD). Suddenly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a transatlantic military alliance used to check the Soviet Union’s power, looks to be in jeopardy.

Slowly, North American and Western European leaders are beginning to realize that relations with Russia will not be “reset,” as Obama promised, and we can’t “look into Putin’s soul” and see a friend, as Bush did. President Donald Trump called out Russia for helping North Korea evade sanctions, and Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen introduced legislation to prevent Russia from hacking elections.

It’s important, but not enough, for Americans, Canadians and Western Europeans to protect themselves. It’s time to take what we’ve learned about Russian machinations and help Eastern Europeans keep Putin from taking over their countries. Already, brave candidates like Jiri Drahos of the Czech Academy of Sciences have stood up to President Zeman’s Putin-like populism, forcing him into a runoff to be decided within a week.

We also must learn the lessons of a most unlikely Eastern European role model: Slovakia. Long ignored in a region that’s been generally overlooked by the Western for the past decade, the Slovak Republic seems to have figured out an important lesson. The country’s voters have deliberately sought to split their votes to ensure that no one party dominates all branches of government, preventing populists from dominating the process and consolidating their authority. Extremists are the ones who lost big time in Slovakia in 2017.

It’s an important lesson several political scientists failed to appreciate. After the Cold War, many advised new leaders to create systems that would make it easy to pass legislation, like a parliamentary system or a strong presidential system (like France’s) that Putin copied, for his own advantage. They forgot the American system, which makes it hard to pass bad legislation and often forces compromise, while making it hard to create an authoritarian regime. It’s just like the game of Chess, where a highly effective strategy involves forcing an opponent into a bad stalemate. Without applying these lessons, the stakes of losing Eastern Europe may be much higher than we think.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Turf for ‘New Cold War’ Shifts to Elections in Eastern Europe