|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: January 1-15, 2021
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.
Restoration of Transport Links in the South Caucasus was Agreed in Moscow
Main Event: On January 11, 2021, a meeting of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia was held in Moscow.
Event in Details: For the first time since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war on November 10, 2020, the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, and the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, met face-to-face in Moscow. The meeting was brokered by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and lasted four hours. According to Aliyev, the conflict is “left in the past;” however, Pashinyan considers that the conflict is still unresolved. Despite divergent views on the status of the conflict, the parties still agreed on specific issues.
Meeting of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Source: Web-page of the Russian President
Main outcome of the meeting
A tripartite Working Group, under the joint chairmanship of the Deputy Prime Ministers, will be set up to ensure the implementation of Paragraph 9 of the November 9 ceasefire agreement. The first summit of the working group will be held before January 30 based on the results of which the group will form a list of activities to be carried out, setting road and rail communications as priorities. An expert subgroup will develop a list of specific projects within a month of the Working Group meeting. By March 1, 2021, the expert subgroup will present a list of developed measures and an implementation schedule for approval. The implementation of the approved activities will ensure the restoration and construction of the transport infrastructure through Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Paragraph 9 of the November 9 agreement envisages the restoration of all economic and transport links closed as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including between Azerbaijan and the Nakhichevan region.
Why the Event is Important: The meeting of the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders in the post-conflict period in Moscow confirms that Russia is the only power that can bring the parties to the same table at this stage in order to resolve the issues under the November 9 agreement. The implementation of the decisions written down on paper will be the main challenge for Russia in the coming months. In this regard, the main obstacle may be the ongoing events in Armenia where pressure on Pashinyan is intensifying on the part of the public and the political spectrum.
Mikhail Petrakov Will Demarcate Borders with Georgia
Main Event: On January 2, 2021, Mikhail Petrakov was appointed as the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for the Delimitation and Demarcation of the State Border of the Russian Federation with Neighboring States – Members of the CIS by a decree of the President of Russia.
Event in Details: By the same decree, Petrakov was instructed to establish borders with Georgia and the de facto republics of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. As per another presidential decree, he was also appointed as the Head of the Russian Delegation to the Multilateral Negotiations over the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Petrakov replaced Igor Bratchikov in the post of the Special Envoy of the Russian President. The latter was appointed as the Ambassador to Slovakia.
Who is Petrakov?
Mikhail Petrakov. Source: tadviser.ru
Mikhail Petrakov graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1982. He has been engaged in diplomatic service since 1982. Petrakov worked both abroad and in the administration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 2008-2012 – Director of the First Department of the CIS in the MoIA, 2012-2019 – Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Russia to the Republic of South Africa and Lesotho and 2019-2021 – Director of the Department of the Situational Crisis Center of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Detailed information about Petrakov’s biography can be found here.
Why the Event is Important: In the following years, Petrakov’s activities will be directly related to Georgia as he will be involved in the illegal process of establishing “borders” with the occupied regions of Georgia.
More Europe on the National Emblem of Belarus
Main Event: On January 7, 2021, the Law on State Symbols entered into force in Belarus and certain changes were applied to the design of the country’s coat of arms.
Event in Details: Discussions on these changes began in the Belarusian parliament early last year. Under the new legislative initiative, the national anthem and the flag remained unchanged; however, changes were 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 colors and the contours of the emblem were also changed.
The old and new designs of the national emblem of Belarus. Source: pravo.by
Discussions of such radical changes began against a backdrop of deteriorated relations with Russia. In early 2020, the refusal of the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, to participate in the integration project proposed by Russia led to an increase of Russian oil prices for Belarus. However, after the August 9 presidential election when protests against Lukashenko began and the West imposed sanctions on Belarus, Russia again became Lukashenko’s main supporter and a source of hope.
Why the Event is Important: Lukashenko’s attitude towards national symbols changed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, the Belarusian president became increasingly nationalist and a defender of the sovereignty of his country. While Russia’s influence in Belarus continues to grow amid deteriorating relations between Lukashenko and the West which followed the August 9 presidential election, the change in the design of the coat of arms could be seen as Belarus searching for a European identity.
Lithuanian Citizens Accused of Spying for Russia
Main Event: On January 8, 2021, the Lithuanian Office of the Prosecutor General handed over to court a case of two Lithuanian citizens accused of espionage in favor of Russia.
Event in Details: According to the Office of the Prosecutor General, the detainees do not know each other; however, it is possible that they were recruited by the same person – an officer of the Border Division of the Federal Security Service of the Kaliningrad region, the Russian Federation.
“Spy wars” have intensified between Russia and the former Soviet republics in the recent period. Espionage scandals with Ukraine and the Baltic states have become especially frequent. In August 2020, a serviceman of the Strategic Missile Forces in Siberia was arrested on charges of handing over state secrets to Ukraine. In April of the same year, the Security Service of Ukraine arrested the Major General, Valery Shaitanov, on charges of high treason and terrorist plots and later in May arrested a Russian spy suspected of illegally obtaining information on “modern missile systems.”
On November 15, 2019, the President of Lithuania pardoned two Russians accused of espionage and exchanged them for two citizens convicted of espionage in Russia. On October 6, 2020, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation arrested a Russian military serviceman in Smolensk and his brother in Pskov on charges of high treason.
Why the Event is Important: The post-Soviet countries which Russia considers to be its sphere of influence are a special target of the Russian Special Services. The recent high level of espionage indicates a high degree of political confrontation between Russia and Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Kazakh President Says the Country Did Not Receive Territory as a “Gift” from Russia
Main Event: On January 5, 2021, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, published an op-ed in a government newspaper stating that “no one from the outside gave Kazakhs this large territory as a gift.”
Event in Details: In his op-ed, Tokayev responded to Russian lawmakers who called part of Kazakhstan a “gift” from Russia. As Tokayev stated, such provocative remarks are aimed at spoiling relations between the two countries and Kazakhstan must resist provocative actions by some foreign citizens who are trying to spoil good-neighborly relations.
Statements of Russian Lawmakers
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a Russian State Duma Deputy and the Chairman of the Education and Science Committee, called the territory of Kazakhstan a “gift from Russia” during a broadcast of the Big Game talk show on December 10 on Russia’s First Channel. “Kazakhstan did not exist and northern Kazakhstan was not inhabited at all. They [Kazakhs] existed much further south. Indeed, the territory of Kazakhstan is a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov. Another Duma Deputy, Yevgeny Fedorov, also agreed with Nikonov’s comments.
Putin’s Territorial Claims
Territorial claims against post-Soviet countries have previously been voiced by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. On June 21, 2020, the Russian state TV channel Russia-1 showed the documentary film, entitled Moscow. Putin. Kremlin., where the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, states that: “In the process of the Soviet Union’s formation, many of the republics that joined the Union acquired a large part of Russia’s lands and traditional historical Russian territories.” According to Putin, while seceding from the Soviet Union, each republic should have maintained territories they owned at the moment they joined the Union and “should not have taken a gift from the Russian people.” Putin did not specify which republics or territories he meant but said: “The Soviet Union was established on the basis of full equality with the right to secede; however, no procedures were prescribed.” Even though Putin’s statement referred to Crimea, it was perceived differently in post-Soviet countries.
Fear for Russian Separatism
Frequent comments by Russian lawmakers on the ownership of Kazakh territories are seen as an encouragement of separatism in the northern regions of Kazakhstan which were the least populated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1997, Kazakhstan moved its capital from Almaty to Astana (now Nur Sultan) in order to change the demographic situation. At the same time, the government offered social and financial benefits to ethnic Kazakhs wishing to migrate to the northern regions. Kazakh law enforcement agencies also react harshly to the slightest manifestations of separatism.
Why the Event is Important: After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, there were fears that Russia might take a similar step in post-Soviet countries with a majority of ethnic Russians should the case of an appropriate political environment arise. Kazakhstan is well aware of Russia’s attitude towards the northern regions of Kazakhstan, considering this part of the country as the Russian-speaking world. Consequently, Kazakhstan painfully reacts to similar territorial claims from the Russian political elite.
Messages of the Newly-Elected President of Kyrgyzstan to Russia
Main Event: The newly-elected President of Kyrgyzstan, Sadir Japarov, spoke of “fraternal” relations with Russia.
Event in Details: Sadir Japarov won the January 10, 2021 early presidential elections. He received up to 80% of the votes. Alongside the presidential elections, a referendum was held where the population voted for a switch to a presidential system. The early presidential election was called as a result of political chaos in the country and the resignation of the President, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, which followed the October 4 parliamentary elections.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, was one of the first to congratulate Japarov on his victory. To please Russia, Japarov said that the Russian language would retain its official status in Kyrgyzstan. He said Kyrgyzstan had “close, fraternal and allied relations” with Russia. On October 21, during his meeting with the Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Nikolay Udovichenko, Japarov also stressed the importance of the strategic partnership with Russia.
Why the Event is Important: It is important for the newly-elected President of Kyrgyzstan to establish relations with Russian leaders and get their benevolence in a timely manner. After the victory, it is vital for Japarov to receive financial and economic support from Russia which was suspended due to the chaos in the country after the October 4 parliamentary elections. Without Russia’s help, Japarov will find it difficult to overcome the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minimizing the Transit Role of Ukraine
Main Event: On January 1, 2021, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, officially opened the Serbian section of the Balkan Stream.
Event in Details: The 403-km Balkan Stream is an extension of the TurkStream pipeline. The TurkStream delivers Russian gas to Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia via the Black Sea. The TurkStream and the Nord Stream, which connects Russia directly with Germany, will significantly minimize the reliance on Ukraine’s pipeline network for transiting gas to Europe.
Reducing gas transit through Ukraine
In 2020, the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine was decreased by 38% and totaled 55.8 billion cubic meters which is the lowest figure in the last 30 years. The main reason for the decrease is the development of alternative routes. Under the 2019 agreement, Russia will transit only 40 billion cubic meters of gas annually through Ukraine for the next four years. Ukraine’s gas pipeline system with a 146 billion cubic meters exit capacity delivered gas to Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. The TurkStream is replacing current flows of gas via Ukraine.
Competitors of Russian gas
In addition to the launch of the Balkan Stream, the New Year was full of other important events in the energy sector. A few hours before the start of the Balkan Stream, Bulgaria received gas from the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline is part of the Southern Gas Corridor which is delivering Azerbaijani gas to Europe for the first time in history. 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.
The Southern Gas Corridor. Source: Web-page of the Southern Gas Corridor
At the same time, a floating liquefied natural gas terminal began operation near the island of Krk, Croatia. The terminal will reduce Croatia’s reliance on Russian gas and, in the long run, allow gas export to Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: The development of alternative routes is part of the Russia’s energy policy which is aimed at reducing transit reliance on Ukraine and establishing a direct connection to European consumers.
Why the Event is Important for Europe: The construction of additional pipelines is aimed at reducing Russia’s dependence on unreliable transit countries (Ukraine, Belarus). To balance Russia’s influence, European countries are actively lobbying for the construction of alternative routes and liquefied natural gas terminals for Russian gas.