|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: March 15-31, 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.
Russia Will Extend the Lifespan for the Armenian Nuclear Power Plant
Main Event: On March 18, 2021, Movses Vardanyan, the Director of the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, said that a joint working group was set up with the participation of Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear company, which will be focused on the development of nuclear energy in Armenia.
Event in Details: The Metsamor NPP shut-down is expected in 2026. Armenia decided to extend the lifespan of the 420 MW reactor for another ten years after failing to attract investment for the construction of a new nuclear plant.
The plant is located about 35 kilometers from Yerevan and was built in the 1970s. It generates 40% of Armenia’s electricity. The Metsamor NPP was temporarily closed after the devastating earthquake in 1988 but one of the plant’s reactor was put into operation in 1993 due to the crisis that arose after the first war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Later, the second reactor was also commissioned.
Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. Source: euractive.com
The Metsamor NPP is under Russian control and Moscow provided a USD 270 million loan and a USD 30 million grant to Armenia in 2015 in order to ensure the plant’s safety. In parallel with the rehabilitation work, the construction of a new nuclear power plant remains among the priority tasks in Armenia.
Why the Event is Important: The development of Armenia’s nuclear energy remains critical to the country’s energy consumption and national security. Although the Armenian energy sector is almost completely under the influence of Russia, the development of nuclear power in the current geopolitical reality, which is considered to be the guarantor of Armenia’s energy security, is only possible with Russia’s help.
Russian Gas to Armenia through Azerbaijan
Main Event: On March 16, 2021, Gazprom Export and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) signed a short-term contract for the transportation of Russian gas through the territory of Azerbaijan.
Event in Details: According to Gazprom Export, Russian gas will be supplied to consumers through the territory of Azerbaijan during the scheduled maintenance work on the North Caucasus-Transcaucasia gas pipeline which runs through Russia, Georgia and Armenia. The maintenance work is expected to last three weeks and after its completion Armenia will receive gas via the old route, directly through the territory of Georgia.
According to a spokesman for SOCAR, Ibragim Akhmedov, the Kremlin appealed to Azerbaijan to allow the temporary transit of Russian gas through its territory to Georgia during the pipeline maintenance. The sides reached an agreement on paid transit.
In 2020, Armenia received 2.2 billion cubic meters of gas from Gazprom. The Armenian-Iranian gas pipeline, which is an alternative to Gazprom, does not have the resources to fully replace Russian gas.
This will be the first time since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war when Armenia receives Russian gas through the territory of Azerbaijan. Armenia has never imported through the territory of Azerbaijan. Significant changes are expected after the end of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war in this regard. The November 9, 2020 ceasefire agreement provides for the opening of all blocked economic and transport hubs. A tripartite working group (with the participation of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) was set up to ensure the implementation of the November 9 agreement.
Why the Event is Important: Although the export of Russian gas to Armenia through the territory of Azerbaijan is a short-term project, such an event was unthinkable before the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The use of the new transport corridor, even temporarily, is an indicator of the new climate created after the war which can even be a harbinger of major changes in the region’s transport and economic relations.
Russian Language Gets Official Status in Nagorno-Karabakh
Main Event: On March 25, 2021, the de facto parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh approved amendments to the language law giving the Russian language an official status in the region along with Armenian. The amendments were approved by a vote of 27 to 0.
Event in Details: The discussion about the bill started on February 17. According to the bill’s authors, the introduction of a second official language in the region is associated with the need to form a new agenda, taking into account the “cultural, military and economic ties” between Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia, historical memory and factors that make Russian a second language for the local population. The initiators of the bill believe that giving the Russian language official status is a priority task since the parties will have to work together for many areas in the future due to the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. After the adoption of the law, local “state” bodies, legal entities, institutions and organizations will be obliged to conduct written business in Armenian and, if necessary, in Russian.
Russia gained importance in the region after the second Nagorno-Karabakh war when Azerbaijan reclaimed the Armenian-occupied territories of Azerbaijan and part of Nagorno-Karabakh, including Shusha, a city of historical and cultural significance. As a result of Russian intervention, the Armenian side managed to retain much of Nagorno-Karabakh, including Stepanakert/Khankendi, the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist republic, when the parties signed a ceasefire agreement on November 9.
At this moment, Russian peacekeepers ensure the security of the unrecognized republic. After the resumption of the education process in Nagorno-Karabakh, banners reading “Thank you, Russia” and, in some places, Russian flags, appeared in schools.
On February 26, the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, said that “there can be only one official language (Azerbaijani) in Azerbaijan,” emphasizing that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. Russia considers that the language issue is an internal affair of Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Why the Event is Important: After the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia is the only guarantor of the security in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Raising the status of the Russian language by the de facto government of Nagorno-Karabakh is a more symbolic step, highlighting Russia’s new role in the region in the wake of the war.
Ukraine Files a Lawsuit Against Russian Pop Stars
Main Event: On March 22, 2021, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine opened a case against 23 Russian pop stars participating in the opening ceremony of the Crimean Bridge.
Event in Details: The Euromaidan-Crimea public organization lodged an appeal to initiate a criminal case in connection with the events of May 15, 2018 when a gala concert was held at the opening of the bridge connecting the Kerch Strait and the Taman peninsula. Grigory Leps, Oleg Gazmanov, Dima Bilan, Valeria and other Russian pop stars took part in the concert.
Opening of the Crimean Bridge. Source: TASS
On March 18, 2021, Russia celebrated the seventh anniversary of the “reunification of Crimea with Russia.” At a concert in Moscow, Oleg Gazmanov performed a song – “Crimean Bridge.”
Why the Event is Important: Such decisions by the Ukrainian authorities are a symbolic step against the annexation of Crimea by Russia, aimed at warning other Russian or foreign citizens that their visit to Crimea may be prosecuted.
Ukraine Prevents a Russian Cyber-Attack
Main Event: On March 16, 2021, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) reported that it prevented a large-scale cyber-attack by Russian hackers.
Event in Details: The SBU said that the purpose of the attack was to gain access to classified data of Ukraine’s top state institutions and accused the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) of involvement in a hacker group identified as Armageddon. No damage was reported.
Ukraine often accuses Russia of cyber-attacks which are part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics against Ukraine.
Ukraine has been a target of Russian cyber-attacks before. An attack on the country’s energy system in 2015 left 230 thousand people without electricity. A computer virus disrupted power supply in Kyiv in 2016. Targets for cyber-attacks became state, financial and energy organizations in 2017. In February 2020, the SBU disrupted the activity of a network of “bot farms” in five cities of Ukraine. The technical equipment used by the operators of these “bot farms” was supported by Russian online services. In February 2021, Ukraine accused Russian internet networks of attacking the web-pages of Ukraine’s security and defense sector and trying to disseminate documents in the network.
Why the Event is Important: In recent years, cyber-attacks have become an instrument of Russia’s foreign policy and have become part of the Kremlin’s hybrid war tactics. Following the 2014 events in Crimea, the Kremlin aims at influencing the domestic policies of Ukraine through cyber-attacks. Recent cyber-attacks have confirmed that Ukraine is vulnerable to similar attacks which may derail the vital infrastructure of the country.
Russia’s Involvement in a Gold Refinery in Kyrgyzstan
Main Event: The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadir Japarov, took part in an online opening of a gold refinery plant in Jerooy on March 17, 2021.
Online opening ceremony of the Jerooy gold refinery plant. Source: akipress.com
Event in Details: The Jerooy gold refinery plant is the country’s second largest mine, operated by the Russian Alliance Group. The Russian President pledged Kyrgyzstan to invest USD 600 million in the project which will annually replenish the country’s budget by USD 70 million.
The Jerooy deposit, located in the Talas Region in northwestern Kyrgyzstan, has estimated reserves of nearly 90 tons of gold and about 25 tons of silver. The project, which is implemented by the Russian Alliance Group with the support of the VTB Russian state-owned bank, is one of the largest in the history of the economic cooperation between Russia and Kyrgyzstan in terms of investment volume. The potential level of production at the enterprise is five tons of gold a year.
The Kumtor gold mine is the largest gold mining site in Kyrgyzstan which is 100% owned by the Canadian mining company, Centerra Gold. Gold mines, which are an important source of income for the country, often provoke local protests and confrontations between political groups.
Why This is Important for Kyrgyzstan: For Sadir Japarov, the president-elect after the October 2020 internal political crisis, the implementation of the gold mining project is an opportunity for political rapprochement with Russia. In addition to gaining economic benefits, it is important for Japarov that the Kremlin recognize him as a reliable partner and loyal ally which will also help the Kyrgyz president to consolidate power within the country.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: Despite the ongoing internal political crisis, Kyrgyzstan is a reliable ally of Russia. The political elite is pro-Russian and the vector of the country’s foreign policy is directed toward Russia. Such large-scale projects will further increase Russia’s influence in the Kyrgyz economy.