|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst
Review period: August 1-31, 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.
Crimean Platform Summit Opened in Kyiv
Main Event: Participants of the Crimean Platform Summit, which Kyiv hosted on August 23, 2021, adopted a joint declaration. The Prime Minister of Georgia also participated in the summit.
Event in Details: The Crimean Platform is a new consulting and coordination format initiated by Ukraine. The format is aimed at improving the effectiveness of the international commonwealth’s response to the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, responding to growing security threats which Ukraine faces and increasing international pressure on the Kremlin. A representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine spoke about the platform initiative with the ambassadors of the EU member states for the first time in November 2020.
The main goal of the platform is to ensure the de-occupation of Crimea and the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula.
The Crimean Platform is aimed at bringing together all of the thematic events and initiatives on the Crimean issue which will be held within the framework of forums of international organizations and other international governmental and non-governmental organizations. The Platform will operate at all levels: from heads of state and government to foreign ministers and parliamentary and expert community members.
A total of 44 countries and international organizations set up the Crimean Platform.
“Crimea, together with Ukraine, will become a part of Europe. For this, we will use all possible political, legal and, first and foremost, diplomatic means,” the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said.
Setup of the Crimean Platform. Source: Euronews
The spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, described the Ukrainian initiative as pure populism and a political show, far removed from reality. She said that Russia is forced to view the participation of certain countries and international organizations in the Platform Summit as an encroachment of its territorial integrity. Zakharova called the Platform a “cynical anti-Russian initiative” since the Summit’s final declaration called on the Russian Federation to engage in the Platform’s activities. Leonid Slutsky, a member of the state Duma and the Chairman of the International Affairs Committee, called the platform a “fruitless” event.
Why the Event is Important: The setup of a platform with high international participation can become a powerful foreign policy tool for Kyiv which it can use to put pressure on Russia and begin the de-occupation of Crimea.
Ukrainian Spy Arrested in Russia
Main Event: On August 23, 2021, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested a Ukrainian citizen on charges of espionage in the Russian city of Tula.
Event in Details: The detainee is accused of gathering secret information about Russia’s newly created firearms technology in favor of the Ukrainian Special Services.
Over the past year, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has detained a number of people on charges of espionage:
At the same time, Russian authorities arrested five Crimean Tatars in August for their involvement in religious activities in the occupied Crimea. A day before their arrest, Russia convicted four Crimean Tatars on charges of religious extremism.
Why the Event is Important: After the 2014 events when Russia annexed Crimea and openly supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, the “spy war” between Russia and Ukraine intensified. There have been frequent reports of “spies” on both sides indicating a high degree of military-political confrontation between Moscow and Kyiv. In August, Russia’s activation in this direction (detention of a spy, arrest/conviction of Crimean Tatars) can be viewed as Russia’s response to the launch of the Crimean Platform.
Ecumenical Patriarch Visits Kyiv
Main Event: On August 20, 2021, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople paid a three-day visit to Ukraine. The purpose of the visit was to take part in celebrations dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the independence of Ukraine.
Event in Details: This is Bartholomew’s first visit to Ukraine since Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2019. Patriarch Bartholomew, together with Metropolitan Epiphanius of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, conducted a service in Kyiv. The former Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, during whose rule the autocephaly was granted, also attended the service.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a religious structure independent from the Russian Church which is recognized by four of the 14 autocephalous churches. The Russian Church severed religious ties with these four churches and threatens to cut ties with other churches if they recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Russian Church recognizes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. Although it is under the subordination of the Russian Church, it still enjoys a high degree of autonomy.
The pro-Western and nationalist population of Ukraine views the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a non-nationalist and hostile church which the Kremlin uses as a foreign policy tool for maintaining its influence over Ukraine.
Since 2019, part of the population and the political spectrum have been supporting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – a “national” church, independent from Russian influence. They believe that the establishment of an independent church from Russia is a crucial factor for the formation of the Ukrainian state.
Meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the President of Ukraine. Source: BBC
Meeting with the President
Patriarch Bartholomew also met with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who did not focus on religious issues during his presidential campaign; however, after becoming president, he became interested in religion. Currently, the degree of his involvement in religious affairs, in contrast to the previous presidents (Viktor Yushchenko and Petro Poroshenko), is relatively low but there is no doubt that after Bartholomew’s visit, religion will play an important role in Ukraine’s domestic and foreign political life. According to Zelensky, Russia uses the religious factor as a “hybrid weapon” against Ukraine.
Why the Visit of the Patriarch of Constantinople is Important: The visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch is important for Zelensky, who was previously indifferent to religious issues, in the directions of both domestic and foreign policy. Zelensky’s internal policy message is that he supports the existence of a church independent from Russia and not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine and his foreign policy message is that the religious factor is gaining particular importance in the political confrontation with Russia.
“Sports” Shade of the Russian-Ukrainian Confrontation
Main Event: Organizers of the Tokyo Summer Olympics apologized after Ukrainian athletes were announced as Russians.
Event in Details: On August 4, Ukrainian athletes, Marta Fiedina and Anastasia Savchuk, took bronze medals in artistic swimming. At the award ceremony, the French-speaking speaker announced the Ukrainian duo as representing the Russian Olympic Committee (Russia participated on behalf of the Olympic Committee due to its involvement in the doping scandal).
This is not the first time when the Ukrainian-Russian confrontation has been reflected in sports. On July 23, Russian TV channels temporarily stopped broadcasting during a march of the Ukrainian sports delegation at the Olympics opening ceremony.
The design of the Ukrainian national FC jersey also caused Russia’s dissatisfaction at the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship. The shirt included an outline map of the country showing the borders of Ukraine, including Crimea, and Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes phrases. Russia believes that a sports uniform should not be used for political purposes and stated that with the map outlined on the shirt, the Ukrainian Football Association joined the “Russian Peninsula.” Russia also disliked the Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes slogan because it is seen as part of Ukrainian state propaganda seeking to establish a motto associated with the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine (banned in Russia) and a WWII criminal, Stepan Bandera.
Why the Event is Important: Sports “scandals” have intensified since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the start of a Moscow-boosted separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine believes that the violation of its sovereignty and the weakening of the Ukrainian state in all directions is part of Russia’s policy and so Kyiv views the current sports events within a political context.
Dmitry Kozak Visits Moldova after the Formation of a New Pro-Western Government
Main Event: On August 6, 2021, the Moldovan Parliament approved Natalia Gavrilita as the new Prime Minister.
Event in Details: Following an impressive victory of the Party of Action and Solidarity of the President, Maia Sandu, in the July 11 parliamentary elections, the pro-Western president was given the opportunity to form an independent government which is a rare event in Moldovan politics. A total of 61 members of Sandu’s party supported the government of the Harvard-educated Gavrilita who is Sandu’s comrade in arms and a pro-Western politician.
After the formation of the new government, the legislative and executive branches were transferred into the hands of a completely pro-Western political team. The ongoing political process is a result of the 2020 presidential elections where Sandu defeated the pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon, and the 2021 parliamentary elections which Sandu’s party won. Sandu and the new prime minister are in favor of deepening relations with the EU and the US.
Sandu’s government has no internal political barriers to implement fundamental reforms. She has ample opportunities to prevent corruption and address economic challenges. It is expected that Moldova will receive EUR 600 million in aid from the West in 2022-2024.
Relations with Russia
Russia also recognized the victory of the pro-Western party in the Moldovan parliamentary elections. Moscow did not like the defeat of the pro-Russian parties, although it made moderate statements on the issue. Moreover, an expectation that Moscow’s relations with Chisinau would become strained is not justified at this stage. One of the first guests to arrive in Moldova after the formation of the new government was from Moscow.
On August 11, Sandu hosted Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, the influential official who oversees relations with post-Soviet countries as well as with Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. Kozak is well-versed in the domestic political life of Moldova. During the meeting, the parties agreed on cooperation in the field of trade as well as lifting restrictions on the export of products.
Why the Event is Important: Despite the fact that Sandu’s government pursues a pro-Western political vector, Dmitry Kozak’s visit to Chisinau is a message that Moscow is ready to develop relations with Moldova.
CSTO Member States Hold an Extraordinary Meeting
Main Event: On August 23, 2021, an extraordinary meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was held.
Event in Details: The CSTO Council meeting was held online and was chaired by the Tajik President, Emomali Rahmon. The meeting was attended by the leaders of the CSTO member states, including the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the Secretary-General of the CSTO, Stanislav Zas. Due to the situation in the region, the president of Uzbekistan also participated in the meeting.
[The members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.]
The convening of the extraordinary meeting was conditioned by the situation in Afghanistan. After the US and its allies withdrew from Afghanistan, power was taken over by Taliban fighters who also control the border with the Central Asian countries. Consequently, security risks increased in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. At the meeting, the parties agreed to accelerate the adoption of a targeted interstate program aimed at strengthening Tajik-Afghan border security. Tajikistan is the most vulnerable in this regard. The CSTO members will also discuss the issue of Afghanistan at a summit scheduled on September 16 in Dushanbe.
CSTO Online Meeting. Source: odkb-csto.org
Due to security risks, military exercises were held at the Kharb-Maidon military training ground in the Khatlon district, Tajikistan, on August 5-10. Military servicemen of Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan took part in the exercises and developed joint combat operations aimed at destroying illegal armed formations. Units of the Russian 201st military base, which is Russia’s largest military base abroad located in two cities – Dushanbe and Bokhtar, took part in the exercises from the Russian side.
In parallel, Russia holds joint military exercises with Uzbekistan at the Termez military training ground in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. The exercises started on July 30 and ended on August 10. Russia also held a five-day joint military exercise in northwestern China.
The CSTO also plans to carry out military exercises in Kyrgyzstan on September 7-9. Three more military exercises will be held along the Tajik-Afghan border in October and one in November.
The Taliban movement, which is gaining control of Afghanistan, does not seem to be interested in creating additional hotbeds of tension in the Central Asian neighborhood. A representative of the movement met with representatives of Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Qatar on August 11-12. The Taliban movement representatives also visited Turkmenistan and discussed the development of trade and economic relations in July.
Why the Event is Important: While the Taliban movement is offering cooperation to the Central Asian countries and Russia, countries in the region fear that the instability created in Afghanistan could spill over into their own countries. That is why Russia, together with its regional allies, is trying to take preventive measures (military exercises, political dialogues, etc.) and contain possible threats.
New Russian Language Textbooks in Uzbek Schools
Main Event: New textbooks for Russian as a foreign language were published in Uzbekistan.
Event in Details: The textbooks were published under the Class project with the support of the Ministries of Education of Russia and Uzbekistan. The edition of the textbooks totals 600 thousand copies. The project is aimed at improving the quality of Russian language teaching in Uzbekistan in the next ten years.
Second graders will study with the textbooks from September. New textbooks will be gradually introduced in the upper grades.
Russian language proficiency and pedagogical competence was tested for up to 13,000 Uzbek teachers and students in 2020 and the first half of 2021. Teachers from Russia were dispatched to 70 schools in 14 regions of the country. In September 2021, an additional Russian 100 specialists, 80 teachers and 20 coaches will arrive in Uzbekistan.
Why the Event is Important: For Russia, the Russian language is a tool of “soft power” which is considered as an important lever for maintaining influence in the post-Soviet space. In recent decades, the Russian language has slowly been losing popularity in post-Soviet countries. For Russia, it is a positive signal that the Russian language and culture is still attractive in Central Asia. In the case of Uzbekistan, it also has a political significance. After the end of Islam Karimov’s rule in 2016, relations between Uzbekistan and Russia have improved which is also reflected in the growing popularity of the Russian language.