‘New democracies’ is an essentially contested concept but most definitions seem to take the late Samuel Huntington’s idea of forming part of the ‘Third Wave’ of democratisation (‘waves’ and ‘backsliding’ as countries become democratic before a certain proportion fall back into authoritarianism; the first wave was all democratisation until 1920, before a reversion, the second wave from 1945 to 1960 before another reversion).  Thus Greece, Portugal and Spain were the heralds of the Third Wave in the mid-1970s, followed by the Latin American military dictatorships.  Some scholars argue a fourth wave was inaugurated by the fall of the Soviet bloc and a fifth by the Arab Spring, but if we are to use this terminology, the tide is very much going out again across the globe.

Four elections (and one largely unrecognised by the international community) have taken place in October across Eastern Europe – Latvia, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine (with an ad hoc one in the part of Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed militants).  At first, the pattern of elections seemed counterintuitive – the further the country was from Soviet rule the more dismal the outcome.  That was until Ukraine’s ballot, where the occupied Crimea and Donbass regions did not participate in the nationwide poll.  Still, even here, the most extreme right-wing nationalists failed to make the threshold for parliamentary representation and a pro-Western government was elected under the most trying of circumstances.

In Latvia under Soviet rule, Russification took place under the rubric of eliminating separatist impulses, creating a legacy whereby a third of the country is ethnic Russian (approaching 50 per cent in the capital Riga).  The Harmony party, backed by those favouring closer ties with its eastern giant, won the largest share of the vote with 23 per cent but was shut out of government by the incumbent coalition composed of three parties.  Harmony is led by Riga’s mayor, Nil Ushakov, but his attempts to reach beyond the traditional ethnic Russian base and appeal to a broader electorate failed. Ojars Kalnins, an MP with the Unity party (one of the coalition ruling parties), represented by the Prime Minister, Laimdota Straujuma – who continued in post after the election – said, ‘it was a victory for the coalition’. (Hard to imagine similar sentiments being expressed in Westminster following a General Election).

Analysing Ushakov’s Pyrrhic victory, Kalnins expressed his opinion that: ‘Before the Ukraine crisis and the Russian change in behaviour, he was making inroads at least with more left-wing Latvians. But by taking a passive position on the Russian aggression in Ukraine, he strengthened support among his core voting group but lost a lot of people who expected something stronger from him’.  In that sense, Vladimir Putin has gained territory from the Ukraine but lost ground in Latvia, where about 280,000 are ‘non-citizens’ of the country, holding special passports that bar them from voting. In order to become citizens, they have to take an exam on Latvian culture and history, a process which Russian rights groups say amounts to discrimination, but Latvian authorities say is necessary given the history of the Soviet occupation.  This election result is unlikely to change that stance.

In Bulgaria, a snap national election produced a coalition but in less fortunate circumstances than Latvia.  The right-wing Gerb party won a plurality but was significantly short of a majority, taking 84 seats out of 240.  Its leader, Boyko Borisov, a karate expert to complement Putin’s judo skills (the former for defence, the latter for attack), was sombre afterwards, yet strident in stating that he would do everything possible to form a coalition.  The vote was further splintered by a record eight parties entering the fray as public disillusionment led some to be attracted to fringe parties.  With five governments in two years (outperforming the Italian pre-2000 habit of having more elections than Easters), instability is prevalent, with economic growth sluggish and an unresolved banking crisis lingering in the background.  Foreign direct investment has dropped by more than 20 per cent in 2014 and underscoring the high level of disillusionment with the political class, voter turnout was the lowest in the 25 years since Bulgaria emerged from Communism.  Brazil too was recently affected by the apathy of the electorate but Bulgarian weariness also stems from the likelihood of being recalled to vote again before long to shake the parliamentary kaleidoscope into something more permanent.  At the moment, a caretaker government persists as negotiations for a coalition continue.

While Latvia is relatively untroubled and with a clear sense of direction, qualities absent in Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina is the worst of the three, threatened with dissolution.  With a canton-based political settlement that also encompasses national and entity levels, Bosnia is far from a bastion of Swiss tranquility. One hundred thousand people died in the war and though the 1995 Dayton peace agreement stopped the bloodshed, it entrenched the results of ethnic cleansing, cementing the divide between the two halves of the country.  This has resulted even in telephone directories and train timetables being issued in triplicate between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats, fostering much waste and corruption.  In October’s election, nationalists from rival ethnic groups were triumphant within their own zones of control.

Milorad Dodik, a secessionist with strong ties with Moscow, won the race for the presidency of the Serb half of the country, the Republika Srpska (RS), which he has long vowed to lead to independence. He said his policy would be for the RS to function ‘less and less [as] an entity and more a state’.  His ambitions were aided by the success of his ally, Zeljka Cvijanovic, in the vote for the Serb seat on the Bosnian state presidency, in which Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks share power.

A Deadlock between nationalist leaders has weakened the collective presidency and other tripartite state institutions, which suits Bosnian Serbs, as will the victory for Dragan Covic, a Croat nationalist, in the race for the Croat part of the presidency.  Covic will add strain not just to Bosnian territorial unity but the Croat-Bosniak federation that makes up more than half the country.  Reformists hoped that the vote for the various state legislatures (as opposed to executives) indicated that the country wanted change (on a turnout of 54 per cent) but with unemployment at 44 per cent adding to the economic malaise, there is little sign that this election will extricate Bosnia from the cycle of poverty and discontent that has fuelled the nationalist parties and prompted protests in February.

The state of Latvia, Bulgaria and Bosnia mimic their relationship with the EU.  In 2004, Latvia was part of the ‘Big Bang’ expansion.  Bulgaria subsequently joined in 2007 (with some reservations from established EU members).  Bosnia’s progress towards accession hit the buffers in 2009 when it ignored EU demands for equality in posts reserved for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.  Far from democracy being to blame, it is the underlying conditions in each country that either bolster or undermine it.