Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst

Publication:  N25

Review period:  January 16-31, 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.

  • The first working meeting on the restoration of transport links in the South Caucasus was held in Moscow.
  • A joint Russian-Turkish monitoring center in Nagorno-Karabakh was officially launched.
  • The Lublin Triangle discusses prospects of forming into a Lublin Square.
  • The post-Soviet countries are awaiting the Sputnik V Russian vaccine.
  • Ukraine limits the use of the Russian language in the field of customer service.
  • Kazakhstan postpones the transition from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet until 2031.
  • The US sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 were put into practice.
  • Mikhail Babich, the influential diplomat overseeing the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, resigned from the Russian government.


Meeting on the Restoration of Transport Links in the South Caucasus Was Held in Moscow

Main Event:  On January 30, 2021, the first working meeting between the Prime Ministers of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan on the restoration of transport links in the South Caucasus was held in Moscow.

The trilateral meeting in Moscow. Source:  Web-page of the Russian government.

Event in Details:  The January 30 meeting is the result of a previous meeting which was held on January 11 when the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, and the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, met face-to-face in Moscow for the first time since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war on November 10, 2020. The meeting was brokered by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. At the January 11 meeting, the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders decided to set up a tripartite working group to work on the implementation of Paragraph 9 of the November 9 ceasefire agreement and ensure the restoration of all kinds of economic and transport links in the region. The working group is co-chaired by the countries’ Deputy Prime Ministers (Alexei Overchuk from Russia, Shahin Mustafayev from Azerbaijan, and Mher Grigoryan from 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.

What did the Deputy Prime Ministers agree on?

The parties agreed to set up expert sub-groups to work on the following issues:

  • Rail, road and combined transport.
  • Safe transportation.
  • Border, customs, sanitary, veterinary, phytosanitary and other types of control.

As agreed, the expert sub-groups will be established before February 2 and their meeting will be held by February 5, 2021. The co-chairs of the tripartite working group will agree on the date of their next meeting which will be held in Moscow.

Why the Event is Important:  Intensive meetings between the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides (at the level of presidents, deputy prime ministers and heads of security services) in the post-conflict period confirm 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 Kremlin’s participation in the opening of economic and transport links in the South Caucasus indicates that Russia, in addition to its military and political activities, is also interested in solving economic problems which will give Moscow additional leverage over the economic life of the region.

Joint Russian-Turkish Monitoring Center in Nagorno-Karabakh

Main Event:  On January 30, 2021, a joint Russian-Turkish Monitoring Center was officially opened in the Aghdag region of Azerbaijan to monitor the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The joint Russian-Turkish Monitoring Center. Source: Web-page of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan.

Event in Details:  The Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan, Zakir Hasanov; the Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia, Alexander Fomin, and the Deputy Minister of Defense of Turkey, Yunus Karaosmanoglu, attended the opening ceremony of the center. The establishment of the center was envisaged by a memorandum signed on November 11, 2020 between the defense ministers of Russia and Turkey.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the ceasefire will be monitored based on the information received from unmanned aerial vehicles and other sources.  The Turkish Major-General, Abdullah Katirci, and the Russian Major-General, Viktor Fyodorenko, will reportedly command their respective contingents at the center.

The joint center has administrative, office and modular residential buildings.

Why the Event is Important:  The joint Russian-Turkish Monitoring Center is the first case of Russian-Turkish military cooperation in the conflict zones of the South Caucasus and the post-Soviet space which could be a challenge for Russia in the long run as Turkey enters the post-conflict situation as an independent player.

First Meeting of the Lublin Triangle

Main Event:  The first online meeting of the Lublin Triangle was held on January 21, 2021. The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania and the Belarusian presidential candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (the opponent of the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko), attended the meeting.

The first meeting of the Lublin Triangle. Source: Web-page of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.

Event in Details:  At the meeting, the parties agreed on a joint fight against challenges in Central Europe (security, the fight against COVID-19, Russian disinformation). The meeting focused on the issue of Crimean Tatars and their contribution to the development of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. The situation in Belarus was also discussed at the meeting. The ministers listened to Tikhanovskaya but did not make any formal decisions in this regard. According to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, they are ready to listen to Lukashenko who, in turn, must show due respect. “We want a democratic Belarus to finally join [the Lublin Triangle] and turn the Lublin Triangle into a “Lublin Square” but the time has not yet come,” said Kuleba.

The Lublin Triangle

On July 28, 2020, the Lublin Triangle, a new format of regional cooperation, was established with the participation of Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. The city of Lublin is located in eastern Poland. The new union is aimed at resolving issues of political, economic and social cooperation. The broader goals of the regional union include restraining Russian influence, delaying the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, facilitating Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, working on the de-occupation of Crimea, etc.

Why the Event is Important for Ukraine:  The launch of the new format of regional cooperation will give Ukraine an additional leverage to move closer to Euro-Atlantic structures as well as the possibility to use additional mechanisms in the confrontation with Russia.

Why the Event is Remarkable for Russia:  For Russia, from a historical perspective, the formation of the Lublin Triangle is an attempt by Poland to regain historical influence on Russia’s western borders as well as create additional mechanisms for the implementation of anti-Russian policies. Hints about Belarus are a clear signal to Russia that the new format will include Belarus in its ranks in the future for which it will also support political changes in Belarus against Russia’s interests.


Post-Soviet Countries Awaiting the Russian Vaccine Sputnik V

Main Event:  On January 19, 2021, the Minister of Health of Kazakhstan, Alexei Tsoi, announced that the vaccination with the Russian vaccine Sputnik V will begin on February 1, a month earlier than planned.

The Sputnik V vaccine. Source:  Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation.

Event in Details:  On August 11, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, announced the registration of the “first vaccine in the world” against the coronavirus. The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, was financed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The vaccine was developed at the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology and one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in Russia – Binnopharm. Production of the vaccine began on 15 August.

Who will receive the Russian vaccine?

In addition to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan also hopes to receive the Russian vaccine. According to the Minister of Health of Kyrgyzstan, Alymkadyr Beishenaliev, Russia will provide a batch of 500,000 doses of the vaccine to Kyrgyzstan for free. The Russian vaccine is already in use in Kyrgyzstan; however, the vaccination applies to Russian military and medical personnel of the Kant military base of the Russian Federation only and not to citizens of Kyrgyzstan. Belarus was the first to register the Russian vaccine in December. Turkmenistan became the first country in Central Asia to officially register the Russian vaccine. Registration implies that the country officially authorizes the use of the vaccine on its territory.

Unlike these countries, Ukraine is refusing the Russian vaccine. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine banned the registration of the Russian vaccine.

Why the Event is Important:  The widespread use of the Russian vaccine will make Russia an internationally advanced scientific country and allow using the vaccine as a tool of “soft power” of its foreign policy.


Restriction of the Use of the Russian Language in the Field of Customer Service in Ukraine

Main Event:  In Ukraine, the use of the Ukrainian language in the field of customer service becomes mandatory from January 16, 2021.

Event in Details:  According to the Law on the Provision of the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State language adopted in April 2019, Ukrainian should become the main language in the field of customer service. From January 16, customers should receive information about goods and services primarily in Ukrainian. At a client’s request he/she can be personally served in a language that is acceptable to the parties. A citizen can request service in the state language; otherwise, he/she can file a complaint with the ombudsman for the protection of the state language.

The use of the Ukrainian language is already mandatory for public officials, teachers, doctors, law enforcement agencies, military personnel, judges, lawyers and notaries. From September 2020, the use of the Ukrainian language became mandatory in public schools and Russian-language schools in the country also had to switch to the Ukrainian language.

The of ​​use of the Ukrainian language will expand further in the coming years. From July 2021, cultural and entertainment events will be held in Ukrainian. From 2022, information in Ukrainian must be available on the web-pages of the public and the private sectors. From 2024, the share of the use of the Ukrainian language in radio and television will also increase.

The enactment of the new law was sharply assessed in the Russian State Duma where the mandatory use of the Ukrainian language equates to an attempt to harass the Russian language.

Why the Event is Important:  The Ukrainian language is of particular importance in the process of the formation of Ukrainian identity. Proponents of the law believe that without strengthening the position of the Ukrainian language in the public and political life of Ukraine, it will be impossible to build a successful Ukrainian state.


Kazakhstan Postpones the Transition to the Latin Alphabet Until 2031

Main event:  As published on the web-page of the Government of Kazakhstan on January 28, 2021, the transition of the Kazakh language to the Latin alphabet will be gradually implemented until 2031 instead of 2025 as previously decided.

Event in Details:  The transition of the Kazakh language from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet is planned gradually to take place from 2023 to 2031. According to the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Askar Mamin, the Latin alphabet will give an impetus to the development of the Kazakh language and help modernize it in line with modern trends. Mamin issued an order to conduct extensive informative and explanatory work among the population on the issue of developing the alphabet for the Kazakh language.

New alphabet. Source:  Web-page of the Government of Kazakhstan.

According to the 2017 decision of the previous president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh language should have switched from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet by 2025. By that time, all publications, documents and street signs must have been in Latin; however, the process did not go as planned as the final version of the Latin alphabet has not yet been approved.

The Muslim population of the Soviet Union used the Arabic script which was replaced by Latin in 1926. The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in 1940. In addition to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have also decided to switch from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. Cyrillic is still used in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Why the Event is Important:  Kazakhstan’s decision is aimed at strengthening its national identity and distancing itself from the Russian and Soviet imperial past. 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 and is ultimately aimed at limiting the Kremlin’s political influence. At the same time, the Kazakh government acknowledges that such a large-scale reform requires more time and effort to free Kazakhstan from the influence of the Russian language.


Sanctions on a Vessel Involved in the Construction of the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline

Main Event:  On January 19, 2021, the US Administration imposed sanctions on a Russian ship. The pipe-laying ship Fortuna was involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Event in Details:  A day before the new US Administration officially took office, the US sanctions against a company involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 were first put into practice. According to the web-page of the US Treasury Department, sanctions were imposed on the Russian pipe-laying vessel Fortuna and its owner – KWT-RUS, the Krasnodar-based company Rustanker, as well as the tankers Maksim Gorky and Sierra. Any company or bank that cooperates with the Fortuna and its owner in any way will be subject to sanctions.

Note: Despite the sanctions, the Fortuna started operating in the exclusive economic zone of Denmark on January 24.

American sanctions

The first sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 were imposed in December 2019 as a result of which the Swiss Allseas company, working on pipe lay on the seabed, refused to extend the project. Sanctions then expanded. Fearing the US sanctions, companies and individuals of various profiles involved in the construction of the pipeline withdrew from the project. The administration of the new US President, Joe Biden, shares the stance of the Donald Trump administration on the issue of sanctions.

About the project

The Nord Stream 2 will stretch across the Baltic Sea and directly connect Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. The Nord Stream 2 will be the longest offshore pipeline (1,230 km) in the world. With the completion of the project, the production of the Nord Stream 1 will be doubled to 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. Reportedly, the North Stream 2 project is 94% complete. A 160-kilometer section of the pipeline is under construction.

Why the Event is Important:  Putting its sanctions into practice, the US sends a message to all economic actors or European governments that Washington is serious about the project and will do everything in its power to curb the growth of Russia’s energy influence in Europe.


Change of a Government Official Overseeing the Direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region

Main Event:  On January 20, 2021, by a decree of the President of the Russian Federation, Mikhail Babich, the First Deputy Minister of Economic Development of Russia overseeing the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, resigned.

Mikhail Babich on a working visit in Abkhazia, August 21, 2020. Source:  Web-page of the Ministry of Economic Development of the Russian Federation.

Event in Details:   After the abolition of the Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs on January 20, 2020, its functions were transferred to the Ministry of Economic Development which became responsible for the implementation of socio-economic projects funded by Russia in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Under the new structure, Mikhail Babich, the First Deputy Minister of Economic Development, became responsible for the direction of the occupied regions of Georgia. During his tenure, Babich often met with the de facto leaders of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Last year, despite the pandemic, he visited Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region.

Babich was appointed as the Deputy Head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation. The Service controls the export of weapons and the licensing of enterprises of a military-industrial complex. It is a structural unit of the Ministry of Defense.

Other changes anticipated

Information about other personnel changes in the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region was also disseminated in the Russian media. According to the newspaper KommersantVladimir Chernov, the Head of the Directorate for Interregional Relations and Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries in the Presidential Administration, will soon resign. The Directorate was especially active in the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region in 2005-2013. Further, the Directorate’s influence in this direction weakened.

Reportedly, Chernov will be replaced by his deputy, Igor Maslov, who has been responsible for the direction of Moldova in recent years. The reason of Chernov’s resignation is his age. He will soon turn 70 which is the age limit for a public servant.

In addition, it is expected to increase the influence of the Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation of the Presidential Administration at the expense of weakening the influence of the Directorate for Interregional Relations and Cultural Contacts with Foreign Countries. Currently, the Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation is responsible for the direction of Abkhazia, the Tskhinvali region and the breakaway regions of Ukraine. Both directorates are supervised by Dimitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, who has been the most influential public official in the Russian government in the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region since January 2020.

Why the Events is Important: The year 2021 started with significant personnel changes in the direction of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. The new staff will need some time to establish contacts with the de facto leaders and familiarize themselves with ongoing projects which will hinder the implementation of the Russian-funded projects in the occupied regions of Georgia in the short run.