|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: December 15-31, 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.
First Azerbaijani Gas Delivery to Europe
Main Event: On December 31, 2020, the Shah Deniz consortium announced the commencement of commercial gas deliveries to Europe from the Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea offshore via the newly-completed Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) pipeline system. Rovnag Abdullayev, the President of the Azerbaijani state-owned SOCAR company, called the event “historic.”
Event in Details: The Shah Deniz gas field, located in the Caspian Sea, belongs to Azerbaijan. Several pipelines have been built along the Southern Gas Corridor to export gas to Europe. The first phase of the project was the construction of the South Caucasus Pipeline Expansion and the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline which was completed by 2018. The third section of the project, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, was constructed in 2020. The 3,500 km-long pipeline will deliver gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.
The Shah Deniz gas field was discovered in 1999. It contains about one trillion cubic meters of gas reserves. The first phase of the Shah Deniz field began production in 2006 delivering more than 10 billion cubic meters of gas to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey per annum. The second phase of the project envisages the delivery of an additional 16 billion cubic meters of gas to its first consumers: Italy, Greece and Bulgaria.
The Southern Gas Corridor comprises several sections: the South Caucasus Pipeline Expansion (SCPx) runs through Azerbaijan and Georgia, a 428 km-section of the pipeline runs through Azerbaijan and 59 km passes through Georgia; the 1,900 km-long Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) passes through Turkey and the 878 km-long Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) passes through Greece, Albania and Italy.
Southern Gas Corridor. Source: Web-page of the Southern Gas Corridor
Why the Event is Important for Azerbaijan: For the first time in the history of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani gas will be delivered directly to Europe through a pipeline network which, in addition to economic benefits, allows Azerbaijan to become an important player in the European energy sector.
Why the Event is Important for Europe: Although the volume of Azerbaijani gas is insignificant as compared to gas imported from Russia, the operation of the Southern Gas Corridor will create an opportunity to develop an alternative route and reduce reliance on Russia in the long run.
“Karabakh is Azerbaijan”
Main Event: At a traditional annual press conference on December 17, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said that Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan from an international legal standpoint.
Event in Details: According to Putin, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 was not triggered by the intervention of foreign forces. As Putin stated: “Russia has long believed that the seven occupied regions around Nagorno-Karabakh should have been returned to Azerbaijan. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself should remain unchanged but the connection between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, for which the Lachin corridor was proposed, should have been preserved.”
As a result of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijan recaptured four of the seven occupied regions and reclaimed the other three under the Russia-brokered November 9 ceasefire agreement. Russian peacekeepers ensure the safe movement between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin corridor.
Why the Event is Important: The Russian President reiterated that Moscow, despite its strategic alliance with Armenia, does not approve of the seizure of seven Azerbaijani districts outside of Nagorno-Karabakh by the Armenian side and supports the return of these districts to Azerbaijan.
Armenian-Azerbaijani Security Chiefs Meet in Moscow
Main Event: On December 28, 2020, Alexander Bortnikov, the Head of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, hosted his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Moscow.
Ministerial Meeting. Source: Asbarez.com
Event in Details: The Director of the National Security Service of Armenia, Armen Abazian, met in Moscow with the Chief of the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, Ali Naghiyev. Bortnikov also attended the meeting. Issues related to the implementation of the Nagorno-Karabakh November 9 ceasefire agreement mediated by Russia were discussed at the meeting. According to the Armenian side, the issues of the exchange of prisoners and the search for missing people during the war were among the topics for discussion.
Bortnikov’s visits to Yerevan and Baku
On December 18, Bortnikov paid a short-term visit, first to Yerevan and then to Baku. The main purpose of Bortnikov’s visits was to resolve post-conflict issues, including the demarcation and delimitation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, the activities of Russian border guards in Armenia, the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the demining of the region (on December 18, Russian peacekeepers suffered a first casualty in the region when one Russian military serviceman was killed while demining a road).
Why the Event is Important: Alexander Bortnikov’s participation in post-war processes, as well as his visits to Yerevan and Baku, indicates that the Russian Federal Security Service will be actively involved in the post-conflict settlement process and Russia’s influence on the ongoing processes will be high.
Moldova’s New President Meets with the President of Romania
Main Event: On December 29, 2020, the newly elected President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, met with the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, in Chisinau.
Event in Details: In the second round of the presidential election in Moldova on November 15, 2020, the former Prime Minister, Maia Sandu (the Action and Solidarity pro-Western party), defeated the incumbent President, Igor Dodon (formally an independent candidate, albeit an informal leader of the pro-Russian Socialist Party). Sandu received 57.75% of the votes and was inaugurated on December 24.
Sandu advocates Moldova’s rapprochement with Europe and, unlike her predecessor, is skeptical about developing relations with Russia. At her first press conference as President-elect, Sandu spoke about a dialogue with Russia on the withdrawal of Russian troops from the separatist region of Transnistria. According to Sandu, Russia’s peacekeeping force should leave Transnistria and be replaced by civilian monitors under the OSCE. 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 a “serious destabilization.” Peskov also noted that the dialogue with Dodon was much more constructive.
Change of foreign priorities
It is noteworthy that this is the first visit of the President of Romania to Moldova in the last six years. Moldova’s relations with the West cooled during Dodon’s tenure. Dodon was considered the most pro-Russian president in the post-Soviet space. On his initiative, Moldova was even granted an observer status in the pro-Russian Eurasian Economic Union.
Relations with the European Union are expected to develop during Sandu’s presidency and Moldova looks forward to strong support from Romania with which it shares a common language and culture. According to Sandu, the country is entering a new era of foreign and domestic policy which also includes the development of a strategic partnership with Romania. The Romanian President has already pledged Sandu economic aid and 200,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from its own quota allocated by the European Union.
Why the Event is Important: The meeting of the Romanian president with the newly elected president of Moldova is symbolic as in Europe, Romania is considered as the main supporter of Moldova’s European ambitions. Moldovan-Romanian relations cooled under the pro-Russian Dodon and this time there is an opportunity to give these relations a new charge.
Sandu’s Main Challenge: The main obstacle to Sandu’s European plans could be the lack of parliamentary support since Sandu’s supporters do not constitute a majority in parliament. Therefore, while Sandu’s rating remains high, it is important to call early parliamentary elections and create a strong pro-Western parliamentary team. Since Moldova is a parliamentary republic and the president does not have enough power, political rapprochement with the West will be difficult without parliamentary support.
US Senate Approves a New Ambassador to Belarus
Main Event: On December 15, 2020, the US Senate unanimously approved Julie Fisher, an employee of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, as the new ambassador to Belarus. The US President, Donald Trump, submitted her nomination to the Senate for confirmation in early May.
Event in Details: Fisher will be the first US ambassador to Belarus after a 12-year hiatus. Julie Fisher is a well-versed diplomat in post-Soviet countries and served in Russia, Georgia (during Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency) and Ukraine (during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency). She is a Russia expert, knows Russian well and can also speak Georgian.
After the deterioration of bilateral relations between the US and Belarus, the US ambassador left the country in 2008. Earlier, Washington had imposed economic sanctions on Belarus and on President Aleksander Lukashenko. In subsequent years, Minsk’s relations with Washington gradually improved. However, Washington criticized Lukashenko over the August 9 presidential elections and the Belarusian leader has once again turned his back on the West, expecting to retain power with the support of Russia. Nevertheless, Washington is not going to refuse to send a new ambassador.
Death of a diplomat
Aleh Krauchanka, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus, died suddenly on December 25 at the age of 49 years. He was appointed as the first ambassador to the United States after a 12-year hiatus in July 2020; however, he had not yet taken up his post in Washington. Aleh Krauchanka has been working in the American direction for a long time.
Why the Event is Important: The appointment of the US ambassador on the eve of the August 9 presidential elections gave hope for improved relations between the West and the Belarusian leader but in the post-election environment with protests against Lukashenko continuing in Belarus and the West imposing sanctions on the country, the new ambassador will have to adapt to an environment in which anti-Western sentiment around Lukashenko is intensifying. Moreover, if relations with the West deteriorate further, the ambassador’s arrival in Belarus may even become a point of contention.
Belarus Receives a USD 500 Million Loan from Russia
Main Event: On December 30, 2020, Belarus received part of a Russian loan under a government agreement signed between Belarus and Russia.
Event in Details: The parties signed a loan agreement on December 21. Belarus will receive USD 500 million in 2020 and the remaining USD 500 million – in 2021. The purpose of the USD 1 billion Russian loan is to support the budget of Belarus and to pay the debt of Belarus against the Russian Federation and the Eurasian Fund for Stability and Development.
During a meeting in Sochi on September 14, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, pledged a USD 1.5 billion loan to the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko; however, the parties finally agreed on USD 1 billion. In the wake of the political crisis in Belarus which followed the August 9 presidential elections, Lukashenko’s government faced economic challenges as well. The Russian loan is a “lifeline” for Lukashenko. The loan will help Belarus and its state owned companies to pay off debts and ensure financial stability.
Why the Event is Important: Amid the political crisis in Belarus, the Russian loan will help Lukashenko maintain his power for the short period. However, the terms of the loan make Lukashenko a hostage to the Kremlin’s political demands.
De Facto Leader of Abkhazia Holds Working Meetings in Moscow
Main Event: On December 11-19, 2020, the de facto President of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, paid a working visit to Russia.
Event in Details: This was Bzhania’s seventh official visit to Russia in 2020. Unlike his previous visits, about which little information was available, this visit was particularly busy. During the visit, Bzhania met with several representatives of the Russian government. The main purpose of the meetings was to discuss issues related to the implementation of the November 12 agreement reached in Sochi between Bzhania and the Russian President, Valdimir Putin.
November 12 agreement
On November 12, 2020, Bzhania met with Putin in Sochi. The main result of the meeting was the adoption of a new integration program. The parties approved the program for the formation of a common social and economic space between Russia and Abkhazia on the basis of the harmonization of Abkhazian and Russian legislations. The program aims at creating favorable conditions for the full participation of Abkhazia in the integration processes initiated or supported by Russia. Within the framework of the program, 45 events are planned for a two-to-three year period. During this time, legislation should be harmonized in a number of fields: economics, finance (budget and tax policy, foreign economic and banking activities, investment protection, customs law), energy and the social sphere (medicine, education, social protection).
During the visit, Bzhania met with ministers of the Russian government and heads of various federal agencies, including Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region; Sergey Kiriyenko, the First Deputy Chief of Staff; Rashid Nurgaliyev, the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, overseeing the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, and the heads of the Tax and Federal Customs Service as well as the ministers of Health, Transport, Agriculture and Finance.
Aslan Bzhania meeting with Dmitry Kozak. Source: Web-page of the de facto President of Abkhazia
Why the Event is Important: High-level meetings following the November 12 agreement indicate that Russia is interested in accelerating the integration of Abkhazia into Russia’s socio-economic space and overcoming the Abkhaz opposition in a number of issues (including the acquisition of real estate and energy infrastructure) through the use of economic or political leverage.