|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: February 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.
Meeting between Putin and Lukashenko: What was Agreed and What was Rejected
Main Event: On February 7, 2020, at his residence in Sochi, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, hosted Alekander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus. After a two-hour one-to-one meeting between the presidents, the conversation was continued in an expanded format. The main purpose of the meeting was to reach an agreement on an energy price and integration.
Putin-Lukashenko meeting in Sochi. Source: TASS
Event in Details: The meeting between the presidents was held amid bickering over energy prices and the slow pace toward integration. At the end of December 2019, Minsk and Moscow failed to agree on a new price for Russian oil and gas. The integration roadmap proposed by Russia in December also proved unacceptable for Belarus. Russia, for its part, promised to supply gas and oil to Belarus at subsidized/affordable prices only in the event of further integration.
From 2020, Belarusian oil refineries refused to pay a market price for Russian oil. As a result, on January 1, 2020, Russian oil companies suspended oil deliveries to Belarus. Shortly, Belarusian oil refineries received a small amount of Russian oil. Since then, Minsk is actively expanding the circle of alternative oil suppliers to replace Russia. On January 27, 2020, the first alternative oil (Norwegian oil, 80,000 tons at the initial stage) was received by the Naftan oil refinery via the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda by rail transit. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Minsk on February 1, 2020, made an important statement in terms of finding alternative energy sources for Belarus. Pompeo promised Lukashenko 100% of an oil supply at a competitive price. During the past two decades, this was the first time a high-level US official visited Belarus.
What was agreed:
What was rejected:
The Challenge of Belarus: In Belarus, diversification away from its reliance on Russian energy supplies has long been discussed. However, at this stage, the price of Russian oil is economically more attractive. Although the price of Russian oil has been increased for Belarus, it is lower than global prices of oil. Notable is that as a result of the tax maneuver in the oil sector of Russia, the price of Russian oil will be equal to global prices by 2025. As Lukashenko said, Belarus should diversify its oil imports and not be reliant on a single supplier. However, Belarus is not planning to refuse oil import from Russia. According to Lukashenko, Belarus should buy 30-40% of oil from Russia and the remaining 30% – from the Baltic States and 30% – from Ukraine. Thus, oil import from Russia will be reduced from 17.5 million to 7 million tons. On February 14, the President of Belarus threatened that: “If Russia doesn’t supply oil in necessary volumes, we would start taking it from the Druzhba transit pipeline.” The Druzhba pipeline, which crosses Belarusian territory, supplies Russian oil to European countries.
Why Diversification of Oil Import is Important for Belarus: The economic success of Belarus depended on imports of cheap energy resources. The country imported cheap Russian crude, refined and sold it at market prices. As a result, exports of oil products generated one-third of foreign exchange earnings. Oil import from Norway or other countries will cost more, however, it will still give economic benefits. Belarus hopes to compensate for the decline in economic benefits by increasing its independence from Russia.
Less Russia on the National Emblem of Belarus
Main Event: The Belarusian parliament has begun debating amendments to the Law on State Symbols.
Event in Details: Under the new legislative initiative, the national anthem and flag will remain unchanged, however, changes will be applied to the design of the coat of arms. Most notably, the new emblem shows a map of Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean and less – Russia and Eurasia.
The old and new designs of the national emblem of Belarus. Source: RFE/RL
Discussions on these changes are ongoing against a backdrop of deteriorated relations with Russia. The refusal of the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, to participate in the integration project proposed by Russia has led to an increase of Russian oil prices for Belarus. This was at a time when cheap Russian oil was the mainstay of the Belarusian economy.
Why the National Emblem is being Changed: Lukashenko’s attitude towards national symbols changed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, the Belarus president became increasingly nationalist and a defender of the sovereignty of his country. The change of the coat of arms is another message to Moscow that Belarus is not going to integrate with Russia at the expense of cheap oil and thus lose its sovereignty. The change could be seen as an act of Belarus searching for a European identity.
Vladislav Surkov, Overseeing the Kremlin’s Policy in Ukraine, was Replaced
Main Event: On February 11, 2020, Dmitry Kozak, former Vice Prime Minister and current Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, replaced Vladislav Surkov, the Presidential Aide, responsible for the Kremlin’s policy implementation in Ukraine. In addition to Ukraine, Kozak will be responsible for relations with the government of Moldova.
Dmitry Kozak. Source: Web-page of the Administration of the Russian President
Event in Details: The replacement of Vladisalv Surkov is connected with the change of Moscow’s policy towards Ukraine. Surkov has been the Presidential Aide since 2013 and, in addition to the occupied regions of Georgia, has been overseeing the separatist activities in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, Surkov has been promoting Russia’s anti-Ukrainian policy. His name is associated with the Putin’s project “Novorossiya,” and the creation of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Surkov represented Putin at the preparatory meetings of the “Normandy” forum. He was a member of the Russian delegation at the last “Normandy” Summit held on December 9, 2019.
Kozak is believed to have successful experience in leading negotiations in post-Soviet countries. For example, last year, Kozak managed to oust the Moldovan oligarch, Vladimir Plakhotnyuk, from power with the establishment of an anti-oligarchic, unique coalition between pro-Western opposition bloc and pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon. After the establishment of the coalition, Plakhotnyuk left the country. Kozak’s name is also linked to the plan of 2003 on the unification of Transnistria with Moldova. The plan was rejected by Moldova at the last minute as a result of pressure from the West. The plan envisaged maintaining Russian troops in Moldova.
What Will be Changed in the Process of Negotiation: Kozak is seen as a more pragmatic politician who is keen on Donbas becoming a more internal Ukrainian problem with less involvement from the Russian side; thus, improving political and economic relations with the West. Compared to Kozak, Surkov was less concerned about sorting out relations with the West and supported the Donbas separatists to weaken Ukraine. Against the backdrop of Surkov’s negative reputation in Ukraine, Kozak will facilitate talks with the new leader of Ukraine that may also speed up the easing of the Western sanctions. Positive messages have already been announced in Kyiv on February 11 as the new Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, said that Kozak’s appointment might be an opportunity to reach a compromise.
Russian Citizen was Appointed Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic
Main Event: Vladimir Pashkov, a citizen of the Russian Federation and a former Russian government official, has been appointed the “Prime Minister” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
Event in Details: On February 5, 2020, at a meeting in the Donetsk separatist region, Vladimir Pashkov was introduced as the “current Chairman of the government.” Pashkov was born in the city of Bratsk, Irkutsk Oblast. Until 2014, he held the post of the Deputy Governor of Irkutsk Oblast. According to media reports, after leaving the post Pashkov worked for companies related to Serhiy Kurchenko, an expelled oligarch from Ukraine. These companies were managing enterprises in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Dmitry Peskov, the Spokesman of the President of Russia, denied the Kremlin’s connection to the appointment, saying: “It is not an official person delegated officially.”
The appointment of Russian citizens to senior positions in the separatist regions is a common practice for Russia. Over the years, especially since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, a number of Russian citizens have been appointed to senior positions in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region, mainly in the security sector.
Why the New “Prime Minister” was Appointed: The appointment of the new “Prime Minister” in the breakaway region might be linked to the change of the official overseeing the Ukrainian direction in the Kremlin. As a result of changes in the Russian government of January, 2020, the Vice Prime Minister, Dmitry Kozak, has moved to the Administration of the President and taken over the direction of Ukraine. Consequently, we should expect the replacement of Vladislav Surkov, the former responsible official for the Donbas region.
Orthodox Church of Ukraine: Number of Parishes
Main Event: According to the survey by the Razumkov Center published in February, most citizens of Ukraine consider themselves to be faithful to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent from the influence of Moscow.
Event in Details: According to the survey, 34% of Ukrainians consider themselves to be faithful to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, 14% call themselves faithful to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), 8.2% to the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and 27.6% state that they consider themselves Orthodox but do not belong to any church. One year has passed since the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople officially recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and granted it autocephaly. At this point, except for the Church of Constantinople, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is recognized only by the churches of Greece and Alexandria. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not recognized by Russian and most of the autocephalous churches.
According to Metropolitan Epifaniy of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, within a year, up to 600 parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate switched over to the new Ukrainian Church. According to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the church has 12,300 registered church communities; however, experts consider the number does not exceed 10,000 parishes.
What Does this Data Mean: Increasing the number of the parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will contribute to the growth of the Church’s influence and authority throughout the country which is a crucial factor for the formation of Ukrainian national identity and the state. Strengthening the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will also weaken the influence of the Russian Church over internal Ukrainian processes which the Kremlin uses as a tool of “soft power” against Ukraine. It should be noted that at this stage, the rapid growth of the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church may be hindered by several factors such as the controversy between the Honorary Patriarch Filaret and the new structure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as the new president’s relatively less activity in the religious direction unlike his predecessor.
Moldova, Preparation for the Presidential Elections: Russia vs. the West
Main Event: Moldova’s pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon, said on TV that Moldova will receive USD 200 million out of the USD 500 million promised by Russia in February-March.
Event in Details: According to Igor Dodon, USD 200 million will be spent on road infrastructure projects including the rehabilitation of the Chisinau bypass road. The work is planned to start in spring. For her part, Maia Sandu, the former Prime Minister of Moldova and the Leader of the pro-Western Party of Action and Solidarity, said that upon her request the EU will allocate resources to support a program called Moldovan Village. The Moldovan government will not be involved in spending the EU funds.
What Does the Assistance from Russian and the EU Mean: The presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Moldova in the fall. Most likely, like the previous presidential elections, the main rivals will be the incumbent President, Igor Dodon, and the former Prime Minister, Maia Sandu. Dodon is the pro-Russian candidate while Sandu supports Moldova’s pro-Western course. Accordingly, the projects of Russia and the European Union are aimed at supporting “their” candidates during the pre-election period.
Trial of a Russian Soldier in Armenia
Main Event: On February 4, 2020, the trial of a Russian soldier charged with beating a woman to death has begun in the Armenian city of Gyumri. The trial had originally been expected to open on September 6, 2019 but it has been postponed at least three times without explanation.
Event in Details: Twenty four-year-old Andrei Razgildeyev was arrested in December, 2018 following the violent death of Julietta Ghukasian, a 57-year-old street cleaner from Gyumri. The defendant was not transported from the 102nd military base of the Russian Federation dislocated in Gyumri to the court for the proceedings. The refusal to transfer the defendant to Armenian authorities has angered the victim’s family and human rights activists. As a representative of the Russian military base said, the base commander had prohibited Razgildeyev from being transported off the territory of the facility until Armenian authorities provided security guarantees in writing for the soldier. The Russian Defense Ministry says the written security guarantees have not yet been provided.
A similar incident took place in Gyumri on January 12, 2015 when a Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, killed seven members of the Avetisyan family. In 2016, he was sentenced to life in prison. Permyakov was held in detention at the Russian base before and during his trial and was later transferred to Russia to serve his sentence. The incident sparked anti-Russian protests in Armenia. Protesters demanded the closure of the Russian military base and the withdrawal of the Russian ambassador.
In both cases, the absence of the soldiers from trial is considered by critics as an expression of Russia’s disrespect for Armenia’s sovereignty.
Impact on Armenian-Russian Relations: An agreement on Russia’s military presence in Armenia in exchange for security guarantees was signed in 1995. In 2010, the term of the agreement, which was designed for 25 years, was extended to 2044. Another tragedy in Gyumri will stir up anti-Russian sentiment in the population and strengthen the demands for the closure of the Russian military base. However, due to Armenia’s security challenges, this event will not affect the Russian-Armenian strategic partnership in the short term.
Russia and the New US Strategy towards Central Asia
Main Event: On February 3, 2020, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, attended the ministerial meeting in the C5+1 (Central Asia – USA) format in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. With this visit, Pompeo completed his tour of the post-Soviet countries, visiting Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In Tashkent, Pompeo introduced a new US strategy.
Mike Pompeo meets with Central Asian (C5) Foreign Ministers in Tashkent. Source: Reuters
Event in Details: The C5+1 Multilateral Forum was launched in November 2015 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, with the participation of the Foreign Ministers of the five Central Asian states and the US Secretary of State. The purpose of the forum is to address common security and environmental challenges and develop internal regional cooperation and relations in various fields between the region and the United States.
One of the main reasons for the renewal of the strategy and the intensification of Washington’s involvement in the region is the change of situation in Central Asia during the last five years. In Uzbekistan, after the death of Islam Karimov, relations between the states of the region improved and ties with Washington were strengthened under the tenure of the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Pompei, during his visit, praised Uzbekistan and promised Tashkent to assist it in joining the World Trade Organization.
The strengthening of Washington’s positions in Uzbekistan did not go unnoticed in Russia and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited Tashkent on January 16, preceding Pompeo’s visit. One of the issues of Lavrov’s interest during his visit to Uzbekistan was to familiarize himself with Tashkent’s vision of Washington’s new strategy. Lavrov’s visit was a precautionary measure to prevent Uzbekistan from changing its foreign policy in favor of Washington.
Why the New Strategy is Important for the US: Washington’s renewed strategy aims at restoring ties with the Central Asian region, weakened in recent years, by intensifying economic, energy or security cooperation. The successful implementation of the strategy in an energy-rich region must, first and foremost, balance China’s growing economic influence and weaken Russia’s traditional military-political influence in the region.
Why the New Strategy is Important for the Region: Central Asian states maintain good relations with Russia. However, the leading states in the region, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, do not want to be reliant only on Russian foreign policy and are trying to get the maximum benefit from a balanced foreign policy. Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan can also be considered as efforts by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to develop a multi-vector foreign policy.
Russian Military Base in Kyrgyzstan
Main Event: On February 13, 2020, the Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Kyrgyz Armed Forces, Nurlan Kirisheev, said that the runways at the Kant airbase will be renovated which “will improve security in the region.”
Event in Details: According to the representative of the Kyrgyz General Staff, Russia plans to upgrade the infrastructure of the Kant airbase, equip it with a new air defense system and unmanned aerial vehicles. On the same day, at a meeting with Russian lawmakers, the Russian Deputy Minister of Defense, Nikolai Pankov, announced plans to deploy an air defense system at the Kant airbase.
The Russian airbase in Kant has been operating since 2003. As part of the Afghan military campaign, the US airbase has also been operating in Kyrgyzstan since 2001; however, in 2014, under Russian pressure, the US base was closed. In 2017, the Kant airbase and three Russian military facilities were established as a joint military base in Kyrgyzstan. On February 12, the Council of the Russian Federation ratified the existing agreement, allowing the Russian side to deploy and use a drone unit at the Kant military base.
Why the Event is Important for Kyrgyzstan: The deepening of Kyrgyz-Russian military ties in Central Asia will enhance Kyrgyzstan’s status as a reliable ally of Russia. With promoted military cooperation, Kyrgyzstan also hopes to benefit more from Russia in terms of security and the economy.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: Given the growing interest from the US and China in the Central Asian region, Russian military reinforcement in Kyrgyzstan will increase Moscow’s influence in the region and hamper the process of military and political activation of external forces.