|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
Review period: October 16-31, 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.
Russian President Reiterates Old Projects for Resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Main Event: On October 29, 2020, at the Russia is Calling! investment forum, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, spoke about Nagorno-Karabakh.
Event in Details: On October 29-30, 2020, at an online plenary session of the 12th Investment Forum of VTB Capital, Putin spoke about the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. He reiterated the project for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the gradual return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh occupied by Armenian troops to Azerbaijan; namely, the handover of five plus two districts to Azerbaijan along with guarantees for the security of Karabakh.
The Five Plus Two formula is one of the options to solve the Karabakh problem. According to the formula, at the initial stage, five Azerbaijani districts in the south and east of Karabakh (three of which have been completely occupied and two – partially by Armenian troops since 1993) should be returned to Azerbaijan. The second stage envisages the return of two regions located between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. (Currently, the military confrontation is mainly in the south and east of Nagorno-Karabakh and part of these territories has already been recaptured by Azerbaijan.)
Map of Nagorno Karabakh and the occupied regions of Azerbaijan (before September 27, 2020). Source: Eurasianet.
Renewed Conflict: The military confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumed on 27 September. This is the largest-scale confrontation since the 1994 ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2016, as a result of the Four-Day War, Azerbaijan gained a small territorial advantage. In July 2020, a confrontation took place near Nagorno-Karabakh at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
Why the Event is Important: Although Russia is an ally of Armenia, its statements and neutral position in the ongoing confrontation are a hint that the Kremlin supports Azerbaijan’s attempt to reclaim its occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh by military means.
Refusal to Pashinyan
Main Event: On October 31, 2020, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, asked the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, to assist in the ongoing military confrontations in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Event in Details: The Prime Minister of Armenia sent a letter to the President of Russia requesting assistance in the ongoing military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The letter referred to the recent confrontations as the “Azerbaijan-Turkey military aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh.” As the hostilities were getting closer to the Armenian border and certain facts of a military intervention on the territory of Armenia were detected, Armenia asked Russia to begin urgent consultations to determine the type and amount of assistance that the Russian Federation can provide to ensure Armenia’s security. The request for assistance stems from the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance.
Russia says it will provide Yerevan with all the necessary assistance if the clashes are transferred directly to the territory of Armenia. At the same time, Russian troops appeared on the de jure Armenia-Azerbaijan border near which a military confrontation is taking place.
For its part, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), comprised of Russia’s allies, made a statement that Armenia had not yet appealed for help. Earlier, Putin noted that Russia’s commitments to Armenia under the CSTO do not refer to Nagorno-Karabakh as the region is recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The CSTO Treaty states that in the event of an aggression against any of the participating states, all other participating states will provide necessary assistance, including military.
Why the Event is Important for Armenia: The Armenian side is losing in the ongoing military confrontation around Nagorno-Karabakh while Azerbaijan has established control over some of the disputed territories. Russian military assistance to Armenia is critical to balance the military advantage of Azerbaijan and prevent any further failure of Armenia.
Why Russia Says No: Russia has the legal basis to refuse to provide direct military assistance to Armenia. However, there is no doubt that Moscow, with its neutral position, allows Azerbaijan to advance in the conflict. The Kremlin’s attitude is conditioned by the improved relations with Azerbaijan and the deteriorating relations with the new leaders of Armenia in recent years.
Ukraine Will Construct Two Naval Bases
Main Event: On October 20, 2020, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, during his speech to the Verkhovna Rada, announced the construction of two naval bases to protect the Black Sea region of Ukraine.
Event in Details: Zelensky made the aforementioned statement at his annual address to the Verkhovna Rada members. As he noted, the 2020 military budget was the highest in the history of the country and this trend should remain unchanged for 2021 as well.
Volodymyr Zelensky delivering a speech to the Verkhovna Rada. Source: Webpage of the President.
Great Britain will also help Ukraine to strengthen its military potential. On October 8, 2020, the leaders of the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed a bilateral agreement aimed at curbing Russian influence. Under the agreement, the defense ministers of the two countries signed a memorandum on cooperation in the field of defense. As planned under the memorandum, USD 1.61 billion will be spent on naval equipment which is in dire straits after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Why the Event is Important: After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s military capabilities in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov were significantly weakened. The new Ukrainian military bases will help increase Ukraine’s military potential and enable it to deter Russia in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
Ukraine is Lobbying Against the Nord Stream 2 in Washington
Main Event: During his visit to Washington on October 29, 2020, Andriy Kobolyev, the CEO of the Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz, spoke out against the completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline project. Kobolyev’s visit to Congress coincided with the consideration of a bill of the sanctions against the project.
Event in Details: Kobolyev visited Washington in March as well. He is lobbying against the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. His return visit is driven by suspicions that Congress may refrain from including a bill on European energy security in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 as it could complicate US-German relations. According to Kobolyev, additional sanctions will finally thwart the construction of the pipeline.
In case of the pipeline shutdown, Russia will be forced to use the Ukrainian pipeline system for transiting gas to Europe. Russia has already requested increased transit for 2021. After the first sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 imposed in December 2019, Russia and Ukraine signed a five-year agreement according to which Russia will transport 65 billion cubic meters of gas through Ukraine this year and at least 40 billion cubic meters over four years.
The route of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Source: Webpage of Gazprom.
About the project: The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will connect Russia directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea and bypass Ukraine. The Nord Stream 2 will be the longest offshore pipeline in the world (1,230 km). With the completion of the project, the production of the Nord Stream 1 will be doubled and reach 110 billion cubic meters per year which is more than a quarter of the EU’s gas consumption. Ukraine and the United States are particularly opposing the project. According to the available data, 94% of the Nord Stream 2 project is completed. A 160-kilometer section of the pipeline is under construction.
Why Thwarting the Project is Important for Ukraine: Upon the Nord Stream 2 project’s completion, Ukraine’s transit function will be minimized and Ukraine will become vulnerable to Russian political and economic pressure.
Why the Project Implementation is Important for Russia: The Nord Stream 2 project’s completion will enable Russia to minimize its reliance on Ukraine’s pipeline network for transiting gas to Europe in the nearest future and establish direct ties with Germany – the main consumer of Russian gas.
Russia Sees a “Western Hand” in Moldovan Elections
Main Event: The presidential election will be held in Moldova on November 1, 2020. According to Russia, the West is trying to influence the outcome of the election.
Event in Details: The Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, announced that a group of American specialists of “colorful revolutions” was detached to Moldova in the run-up to the elections. He said that the US State Department instructed its embassy in Chisinau that if the incumbent President Igor Dodon won, the opposition would stage mass protests demanding the annulment of the voting results. According to Naryshkin, during the pre-election period, non-governmental organizations and media outlets with US connections are spreading false news in the media about falsification plans of the government.
Prior to Naryshkin’s statement, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, made a similar assessment. In an interview with three Russian radio stations, he accused the United States of meddling in the affairs of post-Soviet countries, including Moldova. According to Lavrov, the Americans are trying to bring everything under their influence and ensure that the pro-Western forces achieve a clear victory.
Presidential candidates and projections
The main contenders for the presidency are the incumbent President, Igor Dodon (formally an independent candidate but an informal leader of the pro-Russian Socialist Party), and the former Prime Minister, Maia Sandu (the Action and Solidarity pro-Western party). In the 2016 election, Dodon defeated Sandu in the second round. According to sociological research studies, this time a second round will determine the next president of Moldova.
Note: According to preliminary data of the first round of polls, Dodon received 32.61% and Sandu – 36.16% of the votes.
Why the Event is Important: Russia considers Moldova to be in its sphere of influence and the victory of a pro-Western presidential candidate is seen as a threat to the Kremlin’s interests. That is why Moscow views the elections through the prism of the Russian-Western confrontation and tries to ensure the victory of the pro-Russian candidate.
The Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Visited Minsk
Main Event: On October 22, 2020, the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, visited Belarus.
Event in Details: During his visit to Minsk, Naryshkin attended a joint meeting of the collegiums of the special services of the two countries and met with the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko. Speaking about the events in Belarus, Naryshkin noted that they see attempts to replace the current political government in Belarus with “unconstitutional methods” which is backed by “foreign influence.” On September 16, 2020, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service accused the West of organizing the events in Belarus.
Sergey Naryshkin meeting with Aleksander Lukashenko. Source: Webpage of the President of Belarus.
According to Naryshkin, a constitutional reform that Lukashenko plans to implement is a response to the ongoing protests. The President of Russia also welcomes the idea of the constitutional reform.
Constitutional reform: Lukashenko plans to amend the constitution to overcome the crisis which will include the redistribution of presidential power between other branches of the government. In October, the House of Representatives of the National Assembly began accepting proposals from citizens on amendments to the Constitution. In winter, it is planned to convene a general meeting to discuss constitutional reforms. The opposition refuses to participate in the negotiations and demands to re-run the presidential elections.
Political context: The presidential elections in Belarus were held on August 9. Protests against the incumbent President, Aleksander Lukashenko, have been ongoing since then. The West did not recognize the election results and the European Union imposed sanctions on high-ranking officials in Belarus. Only Russia supported the Belarusian leader in the political crisis.
Why the Event is Important: Russia supports Lukashenko to maintain power in Belarus and sees the Western intervention as a major threat. To avoid risks, Russia welcomes the Lukashenko-initiated constitutional reforms that will enable Moscow to overcome the political crisis in Belarus and retain power for Lukashenko in the short term.
Strategic Partner for Kyrgyzstan Remains Unchanged
Main Event: On October 21, 2020, at a meeting with the Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, the Acting President of Kyrgyzstan, Sadir Japarov, spoke about the importance of the strategic partnership with Russia.
Event in Details: The Acting President of Kyrgyzstan, Sadir Japarov, met with the Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Nikolay Udovichenko. At the meeting, Japarov noted Russia’s special role in stabilizing the political situation in the country and said that Kyrgyzstan attaches great importance to the further development of a strategic partnership with Russia.
Political environment: In Kyrgyzstan, the parliamentary elections of October 4, 2020 were followed by protests. The next day, nationwide protests succeeded in pushing the Central Election Committee to annul the outcome of the elections. On October 13, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, Dmitry Kozak, visited Kyrgyzstan to resolve the crisis. On October 15, Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned to avoid a further escalation of the domestic political crisis. Japarov was appointed as the acting president.
Why the Event is important: Anti-Russian sentiments do not characterize Kyrgyz politicians. Most of them consider that deepening integration in the Eurasian Economic Union and developing bilateral relations with Russia are vital for the country. At this point, Russia’s support for the acting president is important in order to overcome the economic crisis, achieve domestic political stability and run early presidential elections.
Kazakhstan is Deepening Military Cooperation with Russia
Main Event: On October 16, 2020, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, visited Kazakhstan.
Event in Details: As part of the visit, Shoigu met with the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and discussed regional security issues.
Shoigu and his Kazakh counterpart, Nurlan Yermekbayev, signed an agreement on bilateral military cooperation, thus renewing the 1994 agreement. Shoigu called the document an “unprecedented document.” The document covers issues such as military education and training, supply of weapons and equipment, and participation in joint exercises. The parties also signed a cooperation plan for 2021.
Why the Event is Important: In the post-Soviet space, Kazakhstan is one of the most prominent strategic partners of Russia. The renewal of the military agreement will further strengthen bilateral relations.
Uzbekistan Switches to the Latin Alphabet
Main Event: On October 21, 2020, the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, issued a decree that calls on the government to set up a working group within three months. The group will develop and submit to the Presidential Administration a roadmap for a full transition to the Uzbek alphabet based on the Latin alphabet.
Event in Details: The decree outlines the concept of Uzbek language development for 2020-2030. According to the document, by 2030, 80% of the groups in kindergartens should study in Uzbek and the teaching hours in Uzbek should be increased from 84 to 110 hours. From 2021, the knowledge of the Uzbek language and literature among government officials will be tested and certificates will be issued.
A final draft of the updated Latin-based Uzbek alphabet was prepared in May 2019.
The Latin alphabet had been used in Uzbekistan since 1926. It was replaced by Cyrillic in 1940. Latin has been the official script since 1992 and has been taught in schools since 2005. Despite the popularization of the Uzbek language, the Russian language is still relevant for everyday life and conversation between ethnic groups.
In Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have decided to switch from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Cyrillic is still used in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Why the Events is Important: The rejection of Cyrillic by the former colonies is a sign to Russia that these post-Soviet countries are trying to escape Russia’s cultural influence which ultimately aims at limiting the Kremlin’s political influence.
The Fifth Visit of the De Facto President of Abkhazia to Moscow
Main Event: On October 26-30, the de facto President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, paid a working visit to Moscow
Event in details: Bzhania as the de facto president visited Moscow for the fifth time during the last six months. As part of the visit, Bzhania met with Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, responsible for the direction of the occupied regions of Georgia. The Deputy Minister of Economic Development, Mikhail Babich, and the Head of the Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation of the Presidential Administration, Aleksey Filatov, also attended the meeting. Both oversee the direction of the occupied regions of Georgia. Issues of the implementation of the 2020-2022 investment program promoting the socio-economic development of Abkhazia and the electricity supply to Abkhazia were discussed at the meeting.
Aslan Bzhania meeting with Dmitry Kozak. Source: Webpage of the de facto President of Abkhazia.
Why the Events is important: The issues discussed with Kozak are critical to the de facto government of Abkhazia. First, as a result of the new coronavirus, there is a serious economic crisis in Abkhazia and timely financial assistance from Russia will mitigate the severe consequences of the crisis. Secondly, a shut-down of the Enguri HPP is planned for several months in 2021 due to rehabilitation work. As the Enguri HPP is the main source of the electricity supply to Abkhazia, the shut-down will cause an energy shortage. Russia’s help to eliminate the deficit will be critical.