Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Publication:  N21

Review period:  November 16-30, 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.

Main Events:

  • Moldova’s new pro-Western President, Maia Sandu, calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria.
  • Russia is actively involved in the implementation of the ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • Sergey Lavrov met with the President of Belarus.
  • The Orthodox Church of Cyprus recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
  • As a result of structural changes at the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Affairs, a new division will work to address the Kremlin’s “soft power” in the near abroad.


Moldova’s New President Calls for the Withdrawal of Russian Peacekeepers from Transnistria

Main Event:   On November 16, 2020, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, congratulated the pro-Western presidential candidate, Maia Sandu, who won the second round of the Moldovan presidential election.

Newly elected President of Moldova, Maia Sandu. Source:  TASS

Event in Details:  In Moldova the first round of the presidential election was held on November 1, 2020. In the first round, the former Prime Minister, Maia Sandu (the Action and Solidarity pro-Western party), received 36.16% while the incumbent President, Igor Dodon (formally an independent candidate, albeit an informal leader of the pro-Russian Socialist Party), received  32.61% of the votes. Maia Sandu won the second round with 57.75% of the votes. The inauguration of the new President will be held on December 24.

Putin’s congratulations

Although the Kremlin-backed presidential candidate was Dodon, Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to Sandu shortly after the end of the second round  expressing hope that Sandu’s activities would contribute to the constructive development of relations between the two countries. Sandu thanked Putin during a meeting with the Russian Ambassador to Moldova, Oleg Vasnetsov.

Sandu’s message – The OSCE Mission to substitute Russian peacekeepers

On November 30, Sandu held her first press conference as President-elect and spoke about a dialogue with Russia on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region of Transnistria. According to Sandu, two units of the Russian Armed Forces are deployed in Transnistria:  one unit is an operational group of Russian troops stationed on the territory of Moldova without any official agreement. Therefore, this unit of troops should be withdrawn along with weapons and ammunition under its protection in the village of Kolbasna. The second unit is Russia’s peacekeeping force deployed in Moldova under the July 21, 1992 agreement. According to Sandu, Russia’s peacekeeping force should be replaced by civilian monitors under the OSCE since there is no threat of a resumption of the conflict. Currently, 402 Russian military servicemen, 492 Transnistrians, 355 Moldovans and ten military observers from Ukraine ensure peace in the conflict zone.

In recent days, Sandu also said that she did not recognize the debt of the Transnistrian separatist republic for Russian gas. The debt has been accumulated since the 1990s and amounts to billions of dollars. Transnistria has been receiving gas from Russia without paying for it since then.

Russia’s response

Responding to Sandu’s statement, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that Russia was playing a “very important role” in the Transnistrian conflict and the “change of the status quo” could lead to “serious destabilization.” Peskov noted that Sandu had not discussed the proposal on the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with the OSCE observers with Moscow and that the dialogue with Dodon was much more constructive.

Why the Event is Important:  With the pro-Western President, Moldova’s relations with the West will be improved dramatically and economic support from the West will increase. However, it will be difficult for the new president to take steps that the Kremlin does not endorse as Russia has a strong influence over the country and there are influential pro-Russian forces in the Moldovan parliament. Moldova’s economic ties with Russia should also be considered.


Russia is Actively Involved in the Implementation of the Ceasefire Agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh

Main Event:  On November 24, 2020, during a telephone conversation with the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, the President of Russia discussed the implementation of the agreement on the cessation of all hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Sergey Lavrov meeting with Ilham Aliyev. Source:  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Event in Details:   In addition to the implementation of the agreement on a ceasefire and the cessation of all hostilities, the leaders of the three countries discussed issues of humanitarian aid to the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the restoration of the economy and transport communications in the region.

Other high-ranking Russian officials are also actively involved in the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. On November 21, a high-level Russian delegation visited Yerevan and Baku. The delegation comprised two Russian Deputy Prime Ministers, Alexey Overchuk and Alexander Novak; the Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu; the Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and others.

Implementation of the nine-point agreement

After signing the ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9, Russia started deploying its peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. As early as November 10, up to 2,000 Russian peacekeepers were stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh and around the conflict zone. At this stage, there are 23 posts of Russian peacekeepers in the region.

Dislocation of Russian peacekeeping forces. Source:  RIA Novosti

Russia also monitored the peaceful transfer of the occupied territories to Azerbaijan which was envisaged under the agreement. Azerbaijan reclaimed the Aghdam, Kelbajar and Lachin regions on December 1. Russian peacekeepers will ensure security for the Lachin corridor (5-km wide) between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

Other important developments:

  • On November 18, Sergey Naryshkin, the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, accused some Western countries of provoking Armenia and Azerbaijan to disrupt the ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to Naryshkin, some Western countries are trying to resume the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and oust Russia from Transcaucasia. He noted that these forces are trying to convince the Armenians that peace in Nagorno-Karabakh is “the defeat of Yerevan” and are promoting the idea that it is necessary to “fight for victory.” The same forces are trying to convince the Azerbaijanis that the Kremlin “stole their victory.”
  • On November 20, Alexander Bortnikov, the Director of the Russian Federal Security Service, stated that at the request of the Armenian side, 188 additional Russian border guards with appropriate equipment would be deployed on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.

Why the Event is Important:  Russia is actively involved in the implementation of the nine-point ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh which is reflected in its frequent relations with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Moscow seeks to ensure that there is compliance with all points of the agreement which will show that Russia is the only state that can play an important role in the conflicts in the South Caucasus.


Sergey Lavrov Met with the President of Belarus

Main Event:   On November 26, 2020, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited Minsk and met with the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko.

Sergey Lavrov meeting with Aleksander Lukashenko. Source:  Web-page of the President of Belarus.

Event in Details:  During the meeting, Lukashenko said that Belarus wanted to have “very close, fraternal relations” with Russia. He noted that Minsk was also ready to work with Moscow to address the challenges of the modern world, ranging from the pandemic to the US claims of “one-man rule.” Lavrov also had a face-to-face meeting with his Belarusian counterpart, Vladimir McKay.

During the meeting with McKay, Lavrov once again accused the United States and several European countries of gross interference in the internal affairs of Belarus. According to Lavrov, “the West uses dirty methods of so-called colorful revolutions, including manipulating public opinion, openly supporting and radicalizing anti-government forces.” Sergey Naryshkin, the Director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, also accused the West of the allegations. Lukashenko noted that Western countries that want to oust him from power are behind the demonstrations against him.

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 Lukashenko and high-ranking officials in Belarus. Only Russia supported the Belarusian leader during the political crisis.

Why the Event is Important:  In the short run, Russia supports Lukashenko to maintain power in Belarus and sees the Western intervention as a major threat. Russia’s goal is to help Lukashenko overcome the internal political crisis amid continuing anti-government rhetoric and external pressure and ensure a change of government in Belarus on Moscow’s terms.


Cypriot Orthodox Church Recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Main Event:  On November 25, 2020, the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Event in Details:  The Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus supported the decision of the Head of the Church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, to commemorate in prayers the Head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Epiphany Dumenko. The Holy Synod discussed the issue of the Ukrainian Church for two days, November 23 and 25. Eventually, Archbishop’s decision on the issue of the Church of Ukraine was supported by ten members of the Holy Synod while six opposed and one abstained.

For the first time, Chrysostomos II commemorated Epiphany Dumenko among the leaders of the autocephalous churches during the liturgy on October 24 which provoked reactions as well as a great opposition. On November 20, the Synod of the Russian Church severed ties with the Head of the Church of Cyprus. Interestingly, as early as July 26, 2018, the Head of the Church of Cyprus assured Patriarch Kirill of Russia that he shared the position of the Russian Orthodox Church on the issue of the Ukrainian Church.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its Recognition

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church was established on December 5, 2018 as a result of the unification of the unrecognized Ukrainian churches. On January 5, 2019, the Tomos decree of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was signed in Istanbul. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople handed over the decree to Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and All Ukraine on January 6. Later, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was recognized by the Orthodox Churches of Greece (October 12, 2019) and Alexandria (November 8, 2019). Today, only four from the 14 autocephalous churches recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Position of the Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and considers that the only canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate which enjoys a high degree of autonomy. The decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople and later other Greek Churches which opposed the position of the Russian Church caused a serious rift in the Orthodox world. The Russian Church has officially severed ties with those Orthodox Churches which recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church.

Why the Event is Important for Ukraine:  Although most Orthodox Churches refrain from recognizing the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and taking the position of the Russian Church into account as well, the decision of the Church of Cyprus is another victory for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a step forward in the process of establishing an independent church.

Why the Event is Important for Russia:  The Russian Orthodox Church uses all levers to prevent the recognition of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Although the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was initially only recognized by churches close to the Church of Constantinople, the threat that more churches imitate this decision still exists which would be a major blow to the prestige of the Russian Church.

Structural Changes at the Rossotrudnichestvo Office

Main Event:  Structural changes were made at the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Affairs (Rossotrudnichestvo) on November 16, 2020.

Event in Details:  On June 25, 2020, Yevgeny Primakov was appointed as the Head of the Agency. He accused the previous management of the Agency of inefficient management and announced reforms on the very first day. Primakov replaced Eleonora Mitrofanova in this post.

The new structure of the agency was launched on November 16, 2020. As a result of the structural change, the Division of the CIS Affairs, International Development and Integration Support, which oversaw the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, was abolished. The abolished division also included the South Caucasus, Abkhazia and South Ossetia divisions. With the new structure, the organizational-analytical division will work in the direction of the post-Soviet space headed by Valery Platonov. The division includes the Division of Near Foreign Countries headed by Alexander Pavlov.

Primakov spoke about the future plans of the organization at an online press conference on November 17. According to him the name Rossotrudnichestvo will remain in official papers and a new “public” name, easier to pronounce, will appear. The same applies to the Russian Centers of Science and Culture which is also difficult to pronounce. The Middle East will be the priority region for the activities of the Agency, noted Primakov.

Yevgeny Primakov’s online press conference, November 17, 2020. Source:  Web-page of the Rossatrudnichestvo.

Activities of the Agency

One of the objectives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation is to wage information warfare against Georgia in the international arena and address “soft power” to impact Georgian political life. On September 6, 2008, shortly after the end of the Russian-Georgian war and by a decree of the President of Russia, the Federal Agency for the CIS, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation was established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Agency replaced the Russian Center for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation (Роззарубежцентр) which operated under the Ministry in 1994-2008. The Agency is aimed at increasing Russia’s influence in the near and far abroad.

The Agency operates in three key areas:  humanitarian cooperation, public diplomacy and support for international development. Due to the relations between Georgia and Russia, the Agency’s activities in Georgia are limited; although, by means of its structural units, it funds various initiatives in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region which are territories beyond the control of the central government of Georgia.

Who is Yevgeny Primakov?

Primakov (Yevgeny Primakov Jr.) is the grandson of a famous Soviet and Russian politician and statesman. Primakov has a rich journalistic experience. During his journalistic career, his pseudonym was Yevgeny Sandro. In 2011-2014, he worked at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. During the 2018 presidential election, he was a trustee of the presidential candidate, Vladimir Putin. On September 9, 2018, he was elected as a member to the State Duma of the 7th convocation from Saratov Oblast. He was a member of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs and the United Russia ruling political party.

Why the Event is Important:  The new Head of the Agency vigorously embarked on changes. During his tenure, the Kremlin is expected to intensify its “soft power” in near abroad, including Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, where the Agency is actively involved in ongoing processes.