|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: June 1-15, 2020
Russia claims regional hegemony in the post-Soviet space and considers that strengthening Western positions in the region poses a threat to its national interests. The purpose of our review is to provide readers with information about important events related to Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space. The review is a biweekly publication and will be useful for everyone – decision-makers, public employees, media representatives and other people who are interested in the ongoing processes in post-Soviet countries.
Anti-Russian Rhetoric is Growing in the Run-Up to the Elections in Belarus
Main Event: In the run-up to the presidential elections in Belarus, which is scheduled on August 9, 2020, anti-Russian rhetoric is on the rise in the campaign of the incumbent President, Aleksander Lukashenko.
Event in Details: Aleksander Lukashenko’s relations with Russia have long been unfriendly. In 2020, disagreements between Minsk and Moscow emerged in various areas. Lukashenko’s anti-Russian sentiments intensified in the run-up to the elections:
Why the Event is Important: This is the first election campaign in which Aleksander Lukashenko represents himself to voters not as a pro-Russian candidate but as a guarantor of Belarus’ independence, while the state media portrays his opponents as pro-Russian candidates. The growing anti-Russian rhetoric in Aleksander Lukashenko’s pre-election campaign indicates that the incumbent president doubts Moscow’s political support and plans to succeed by strengthening anti-Russian rhetoric.
Ukraine Symbolically Marks Russia Day
Main Event: On June 15, 2020, the Russian Foreign Ministry sent a protest note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine over an anti-Russian rally in front of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ukraine.
Event in Details: According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, “offensive images of Russophobic content” were displayed using a special lighting device on the facade of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, on June 12. In addition, in some cities (Kharkov, Odessa, Lviv) the Counterintelligence Department of the Security Service of Ukraine placed its emblem on buildings and billboards near the Consulate General offices of the Russian Federation.
June 12 celebrates Russia Day – the national holiday of the Russian Federation.
Why the Event is Important: Before 2014, anti-Russian rallies were common in the western regions of Ukraine where nationalist sentiments prevailed among the population. Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and became involved in the ongoing conflict in Donbass, anti-Russian rallies have increased across the country, involving not only western Ukraine, known for its nationalist sentiments, but also the population of all regions of the country and state agencies as well.
Armenia Declines a Russian Credit
Main Event: On June 8, 2020, while addressing the parliament of Armenia, the Minister of Territorial Administration and Development, Suren Papikyan, said that Armenia declined a Russian loan to finance the extension of the lifespan of the second unit of the Metsamor NPP.
Event in Details: In 2014, Russia and Armenia signed an agreement to extend the lifespan of the Metsamor NPP until 2026. In February 2015, the parties agreed that Russia will provide a USD 270 million 15-year state loan and a USD 30 million grant. Currently, a total of USD 200 million has already been spent for the modernization of the power plant. Initially, the parties agreed that Armenia would start repaying the loan a year later, in 2021, however the agreement could not be finalized. Russia offered Armenia a two-year extension of the loan, but on stricter terms, with 80 percent of the loan being spent on Russian services and equipment.
Last year there were active negotiations on deferring the loan repayment, but the parties could not agree on preferential terms. That’s why Armenia declines the remaining Russian credit and plans to complete the construction with its own resources. The budget of Armenia will spend USD 130 million for the project for the next two years.
Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. Source: Wikipedia
Russia’s offer was unacceptable to Armenia since Yerevan considers that it would have put Russian producers and service providers in a monopoly position and thus, restricted access to better quality and cheaper goods and services. According to the Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, the government faces not only the task of increasing the efficiency of the power plant, but also ensuring the country’s energy security.
Despite pressure from the West to shut down the nuclear power plant in Armenia due to the absence of modern safety standards, Yerevan is still trying to extend its lifespan, as the plant generates 40% of the country’s electricity.
Why the Event is Important: Despite the strategic cooperation between Armenia and Russia, Yerevan is trying to avoid excessive reliance on Russia in areas where it is possible. The rejection of the new terms of funding which were proposed by Russia is also dictated by the need to avoid further Russian influence in Armenia.
Kyrgyzstan Raises Rent for a Russian Military Base
Main Event: On June 12, 2020, the Kyrgyz parliamentary committee approved a bill to increase Russia’s annual fee for renting land for its military base in Kyrgyzstan.
Event in Details: The bill was drafted by the committee on international affairs, defense and security after a topographic survey identified that the Russian military base occupies 924.52 ha, which is 58.32 ha more than specified in the lease agreement. If changes are made, the annual rental fee – USD 4,502,495 – will increase by USD 291,600.
Kant Airbase. Source: akipress
Russia has a military airbase in the city of Kant, Kyrgyzstan. The Kant airbase was established in 2003 under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) after the opening of a US airbase near Bishkek as part of the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan in 2001. The US base was closed in 2014 under Russian pressure. In 2012, the Kant airbase and three other Russian military bases (a naval base near Lake Issyk-Kul, a seismic center in the south, and a communications center near the border with Kazakhstan) established a joint military base in Kyrgyzstan. In the same year, Kyrgyzstan extended the presence of the Russian military base on its territory by 15 years after writing off USD 500 million in Russian debt.
Why the Event is Important: Kyrgyzstan is one of the most pro-Russian countries in Central Asia, with a high degree of economic, political, energy or military dependence on Moscow. Given the high degree of reliance on Russia, a slight increase in rent fees will not have a negative impact on Kyrgyz-Russian bilateral relations.
Russia to Build Five New Schools in Tajikistan
Main Event: Under a government agreement between Russia and Tajikistan, Russia will build and equip five Russian-language schools in five Tajik cities (Dushanbe, Kulobi, Khujand, Bokhtar and Tursunzade).
Event in Details: The agreement on the construction of Russian schools was signed in Moscow in April 2019 following talks between the presidents of the two countries. Previously, schools in Tajikistan were built mainly under the World Bank funding; however, international aid was discontinued in 2019. Russia has been providing various types of assistance to Tajikistan in the field of education for more than ten years. For example, in 2017, over 60,000 Russian language textbooks were donated to Tajik schoolchildren. Russia frequently dispatches teachers to Tajikistan. In the 2019-2020 academic year, a total of 48 Russian teachers taught various subjects to more than 7,000 Tajik schoolchildren.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian-speaking population in Tajikistan sharply decreased (from 395,000 in 1979 to 35,000 in 2010) although the demand for Russian-language schools is growing in cities and villages. At present, in addition to Tajik-Russian bilingual schools, there are only 32 Russian-language schools, ten of which have been established in the past two years.
Tajikistan is one of the poorest states in the post-Soviet space with a high level of unemployment and low incomes. Hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrants live in Russia. Their remittances amount to USD 2.5 billion – the key factor for Tajikistan’s socio-economic stability. Tajiks consider Russian-language schools as a possibility for them to get a better education, the chance to study in the Russian universities and ultimately find decent work.
Why the Event is Important for Tajikistan: Tajikistan’s support for the Russian-language education is due to the strategic partnership development with Russia as Moscow is the guarantor of Tajikistan’s socio-economic-political stability and security.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: For Russia, the Russian language is a tool of soft power which is considered an important lever for maintaining influence in the post-Soviet space. In recent decades, the Russian language has slowly been losing popularity in other countries of Central Asia and so for Russia it is a positive signal that the Russian language and culture is still attractive in Tajikistan.
Belarus Receives the First US Oil
Main Event: On June 5, 2020, the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda received the first tanker loaded with 77,000 tons of American oil destined for Belarus.
Event in Details: A Belarusian oil refinery will receive American oil via the port of Klaipeda by rail transit. The cooperation in the energy sphere between Belarus and the US is a result of a visit of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to Minsk, in February. In January 2020, when Russian oil companies suspended oil deliveries to Belarus, Mr. Pompeo expressed his full readiness to find alternative energy sources for Belarus.
In January 2020 after negotiations on oil prices with Russian oil companies stalled, Belarus began to diversify its oil imports. Belarus receives oil not only from Russia via the Druzhba pipeline and a railway line but also from alternative routes, using the ports of Klaipeda and Odessa. This year, Minsk received the twelfth non-Russian tanker from the US, as well as from Norway, Azerbaijan, and Saudi Arabia. In total, Belarus received one million tons of oil from alternative suppliers.
Why the Event is Important for the US: Oil supplies to Belarus are aimed at boosting cooperation in the energy field with Minsk, undermining Russia’s position in traditional oil markets, and weakening Russia’s economic and political influence over Belarus.
Why the Event is Important for Belarus: Oil cooperation with the United States is an important element for Belarus to ensure its energy security and economic sovereignty. The diversification of oil imports is aimed at weakening Russia’s political and economic influence over Belarus.
Minsk Asks Russia to Supply Gas at a Reduced Price
Main Event: On June 9, 2020, during a video conference with his Russian counterpart, Aleksander Novak, the Minister of Energy of Belarus, Viktor Karankevich, discussed the issue of reducing Russian gas prices for Belarus.
Event in Details: Amid a sharp drop in prices for Russian gas in Europe, Belarus also seeks a price reduction. Under a long-term contract, Belarus buys Russian gas at a price of USD 127, while the gas price is USD 80 per 1,000 cubic meters for Europe. Given the above, the acceptable price for Belarus is up to USD 70. Russia agrees to review the price of gas, but only from January 1, 2021, and only after Minsk pays off its accumulated debt which, according to the Russian side, amounts to USD 166 million.
Why the Event is Important for Belarus: Given the current economic challenges and falling prices for Russian gas in Europe, it is important for the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko, to reach an agreement with Russia in terms of both economic and political benefits. The reduction in gas prices in the run-up to the elections, would have been considered as Lukashenko’s symbolic victory over Russia.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: Against the background of deteriorating relations between Russia and Belarus, Moscow will not make concessions unless Minsk is ready for deeper integration with Russia in return. The price of gas is a kind of leverage which Moscow uses to maintain its political influence on Aleksander Lukashenko and force him to compromise in the direction of integration.
Who Will Pay the Transnistrian Debt for Russian Gas?
Main Event: According to Vadim Cheban, the CEO of Moldovagaz, the debt for Russian gas on the left bank of the River Dniester (the breakaway Transnistrian Republic of Moldova) should be paid off by those who have accumulated it, namely, by Tiraspoltransgaz which operates in Transnistria.
Event in Details: Moldova imports gas entirely from Russia. Russian gas is consumed both in the part of Moldova which is under the jurisdiction of the central government and in Transnistria, where the jurisdiction of the central government of Moldova does not extend. The Transdniestrian separatist republic has been consuming Russian gas without paying for it since the 1990s. The central government of Moldova also refuses to pay off the accumulated debt of the separatists.
Earlier, the Moldovan President, Igor Dodon, said that Moldova will not pay off the debt of Transnistria which exceeds USD 6 billion, however, is ready to repay Moldova’s debt, which is half a billion.
Today, Russia has a monopoly over Moldovan gas market. Gazprom also owns control shares of JSC Moldovagaz. Moldova is likely to receive alternative gas soon, as a gas pipeline connecting Moldova to the European power network through Romania is 90% complete.
Why the Event is Important: The Russian gas debt of the separatist government of Transnistria is a historical issue which has been existing for decades. This issue is a kind of lever in Russia’s foreign policy arsenal which Moscow uses to strengthen its political and economic influence over Moldova.
Sanctions Against the Nord Stream 2 Project
Main Event: On June 4, 2020, under the initiative of the Republican Ted Cruz and the Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, five US senators introduced new legislation expanding the sanctions on the construction of the Nord Stream 2.
Nord Stream 2. Source: Web-page of Gazprom
Event in Details: In 2019, the US imposed sanctions against companies which were involved in the project as a result of which the Swiss Allseas company refused to extend the project on December 21. Reportedly, 94% of the Nord Stream 2 project is completed. Russia sent the Akademik Cherskiy, a subsea pipe layer vessel, to the Baltic Sea to complete the project. The vessel belongs to Gazprom Flot, a Gazprom subsidiary.
The new legislation clarifies that the sanctions will apply to all pipelaying activities, insurance, provision of pipe-laying vessels with port facilities, as well as certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline for operation.
The project’s completion, as anticipated by the Russian side in 2021, will double the Nord Stream 1’s productivity to 110 billion cubic meters per year which is more than a quarter of the EU’s gas consumption. The Nord Stream 2 will stretch across the Baltic Sea and directly connect Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The Nord Stream 2 will be the longest offshore pipeline (1,230 km) in the world.
Why Thwarting the Project is Important for the US: Washington considers the project is a threat to its national interests, targeted towards eliminating Ukraine from the European gas transit network and increasing Russia’s influence in the European energy sector.
Why the Project’s Completion is Important for Russia: The completion of the Nord Stream 2 project will enable Russia to minimize its reliance on Ukraine’s pipeline network for transiting gas to Europe and establish direct ties with Germany, the main consumer of Russian gas, in the nearest future. Russia also believes that the US sanctions are aimed at extending American liquefied natural gas exports in Europe.