Elections in the former Soviet bloc countries poses a test for the EU against an increasingly expansionist Russia

Voters in Bulgaria and Moldova could extend Moscows influence in eastern Europe on Sunday in potential fresh blows to the European Union.

Bulgarians are expected to elect a Russia-friendly former air force commander as president in a runoff election, defining the stage for months of political uncertainty for the EU member country.

Moldovans cast their votes in an election that could install a pro-Russian candidate as chairman and slam the brakes on seven years of closer integration with the EU.

In Bulgaria, the anti-migrant, pro-Moscow message of Rumen Radev, a newcomer to politics, has struck a chord with Bulgarians disheartened with EU membership as the bloc battles the rise of nationalist parties and Britains decision to leave.

Until lately I flew on a Soviet airplane fighter. I have graduated from a US academy. But I am a Bulgarian general. My is because i Bulgaria, Radev told ahead of Sundays contest for the largely ceremonial post that pits him against the ruling GERB partys candidate, parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva.

The latest opinion polls depicted 53 -year-old Radev, who is backed by the opponent Socialists, about 10 percentage points ahead of Tsacheva, 58, after his unexpected victory in last Sundays first round ballot.

Radev has benefited from discontent with the centre-right government of the prime minister, Boiko Borisov, over his perceived failure to stimulate significant progress in rooting out corruption, as well as slow populace sector reforms.

Borisov has vowed to step down if Radev wins on Sunday, a move likely to swing the country back to political instability and prompt snap polls probably in the spring, which could further delay reforms and spook investors.

While most of the countrys decisions lay with the government, the president, who results the armed forces, can sway public opinion and has the power to send legislation back to parliament.

Radev is not advocating the Nato member to abandon its western alliances, mindful of the financial impact of EU aid and the countrys long history of divided loyalties.

But he has called for an end to EU sanctions against Russia and said Bulgaria should be pragmatic in its approach to any international law violations by Moscow when it annexed Crimea.

People are concerned about what his agenda really is as he is sending contradictory messages. Radev is softer on Russia, at least in part to gratify the Russophile sentiment among some of the electorate, but yet I think he is 100% pro-Nato, a western diplomat in Sofia told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Many in the Balkan country are keen to see restored trade with their former Soviet overlord, hurt by economic both problems and sanctions, and protect vital tourism revenues.

Although Bulgarias economy is expected to grow at a relatively healthy rate of about 3.1 -3. 3% this year, having shaken off recession in the wake of the global financial crisis, it remains the EUs poorest member, with median wages of about 470 euros per month.

Rampant graft in public administration is seen as a key factor slackening the smaller Black Sea countries progress in catching up with its wealthier EU peers.

Opinion polls published on Thursday depicted Radev winning 49.6 -5 1% of the vote against Tsachevas 39.1 -4 0 %. Because voting is compulsory in Bulgaria, voters can choose neither candidate.

Igor
Moldovan presidential candidate Igor Dodon wants the ex-Soviet republic to return to the Russian orbit. Photograph: Vadim Ghirda/ AP

In Moldova, Socialist Igor Dodon has led the polls and narrowly failed to win an outright majority in the first round of voting at the end of October. His opponent, Maia Sandu, is a pro-western former World Bank economist who had promised to tackle corruption.

Dodons status as favourite is partly a reflection of a loss of trust in pro-European leaders in the ex-Soviet nation of 3.5 million, which was plunged into turmoil after a corruption scandal came to light in late 2014.

The scandal in Moldova involved the looting of$ 1b the equivalent of an eighth of its economic output and highlighting the scale of corruption in Europes poorest nation.

Former prime minister Vlad Filat one of five prime ministers in three years was implicated, handcuffed live on Tv in parliament and later incarcerated. Moldovans believe other members of the pro-EU upper-class were complicit.

Local partisans of the west or EU have not only performed weakly but have performed perversely, said William Hill, a former head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission in Moldova.

And this has run a long way to discrediting popular religion in the ideals of the west and the prescriptions of the EU or the US as effective medicine for what ails their societies and their economies.

Squeezed between Ukraine and EU member Romania, Moldova signed a political and trade agreement with the bloc in 2014 that damaged its ties with Moscow, which imposed trade restrictions on Moldovan farming exports.

Dodons Socialist party wants to scrap that agreement in favour of joining a Eurasian Customs Union dominated by Russia.

In a sign of the wane exuberance for the EU, just 30.9% of Moldovans would currently support joining as a full member, compared with 44% preferring the Eurasian Customs Union, a survey by Moldovas Institute for Public Policy demonstrated in October.

And 66.6% of Moldovans say they trust the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, compared with 22.1% trusting the US president, Barack Obama, and 28.3% the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

There is far less belief in what the EU is selling than there was in 2004, the time of the first big expansion( of the bloc ), Hill said.

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