|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: March 1-15, 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.
Ukraine Against Russian Propaganda
Main Event: On March 1, 2020, House, a bilingual state television channel, began broadcasting in Russia-occupied Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions which are not controlled by the Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, promised to establish a Russian-language channel during his pre-election campaign.
Event in Details: Reportedly, 54% of the population in the occupied Crimea and separatist-controlled regions have no access to Ukrainian TV channels and 43% have no access to Ukrainian websites. Programs of the leading Ukrainian TV channels will be transmitted through the new channel. Broadcasting will be bilingual, in Ukrainian and Russian, which are the main spoken languages in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The logo of the new channel will have an inscription in both languages (in Russian – “Дом” and in Ukrainian – “Дім”).
The new channel is aimed at returning residents of Crimea and Donbass to the information space of Ukraine, weakening the influence of Russian propaganda and dispelling its myths. Currently, the most popular TV channels in these areas are the Russian channels: Россия-1, НТВ/НТВ Мир, Россия-24 and Первый канал. Vladimir Putin and the main propagandists of Russian television, Vladimir Solovyov and Olga Skabeyeva, are deemed to be the most credible authorities. Residents of the area either do not watch Ukrainian channels or are unable due to the lack of a technical medium. According to the television’s founders, it will be possible to transmit a signal to these areas using appropriate technology; however, it will still not be possible to cover the entire territory of Crimea.
The New Channel Challenge: The main challenge for the new channel is the vocabulary that will be used to cover the processes taking place in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian channels use terms such as “Russian terrorist forces” or “occupied territories” which will not be acceptable to the inhabitants of these territories. Alternative terminology will be considered a betrayal by Ukrainian nationalist groups. It is likely that the official terminology, as in international documents, will be used to describe the situation in Donbass.
What They Say in Russia: Margarita Simonyan, the Editor-in-Chief of the Russian propaganda channel RT, forecasted the failure of the new channel launch and Maria Zakharova, the Spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called it “madness.”
Why Bilingual Television is Important for Ukraine: The main objective of bilingual television is to bring people living in Crimea and the separatist-controlled regions into the information space of Ukraine at most and, at least, weaken the influence of Russian propaganda and offer alternative information.
Ukraine and Russia are Preparing for the Next Prisoner Swap
Main Event: On March 1, 2020 in Minsk, the Head of the Administration of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, met with the Deputy Head of the Administration of the President of Russia, Dmitry Kozak.
Event in Details: After taking office in 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky promised that the war in eastern Ukraine, which began in 2014, would end. Kyiv believes that the exchange of prisoners is a step forward to peace. According to Yermak, the next (third) swap of prisoners may take place at the end of the month. This will be the third exchange of prisoners during Zelensky’s presidency. The first was in September 2019 when both sides exchanged 35 prisoners. In December 2019, Ukraine handed over 124 prisoners to the separatists and received 76 in return.
Why the Prisoner Swap is Important: The main Ukrainian and Russian participants of the peace talks were changed in February. Andriy Yermak became the Head of the Presidential Administration in Ukraine and Dmitry Kozak, the new Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration, replaced Vladislav Surkov who was Putin’s aide and a supporter of a tough policy toward Ukraine. There is a positive relationship between Yermak and Kozak which creates the prospect of progress in the negotiation process. Kyiv considers that the swap of prisoners will help rebuild trust and progress in the peace talks.
Ukraine Lobbies Against the Nord Stream 2 Project
Main Event: In early March, Andriy Kobolev, the CEO of the Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz, visited the United States. The purpose of the visit was to lobby against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
Event in Details: 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. Upon the project’s completion, the Nord Stream 1’s productivity 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 US oppose the project.
In December of last year, the US imposed sanctions on foreign companies involved in the project. In response to the sanctions, the Russian energy giant Gazprom stated on January 28, 2020 that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project under the Baltic Sea will be completed with the company’s own resources and without the involvement of any foreign companies. According to the available data, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is 94% complete. A 160-kilometer section of the pipeline is under construction. Russia could potentially use two of its ships to work in Danish territorial waters and complete the project. However, to get the required permit from Denmark might be associated with difficulties.
The Ukrainian visit to Washington is aimed at thwarting Gazprom’s attempt to complete the project. On March 3 in Washington, Kobolev also met with congressmen, including the influential Republican, Ted Cruz, a key supporter of anti-Russian sanctions.
Why Thwarting the Project is Important for Ukraine: Upon the Nord Stream 2 project’s completion, Ukraine’s transit function will be minimized and Ukraine will become vulnerable to Russian political and economic pressure.
Why Thwarting the Project is Important for the US: Washington opposes the pipeline project as it would increase Europe’s reliance on Russian energy sources and give Russia the leverage to influence Eastern European transit countries in terms of reducing transit revenues for them.
Why the Project Implementation is Important for Russia: The Nord Stream 2 project’s completion will enable Russia to minimize its reliance on Ukraine’s pipeline network for transiting gas to Europe in the nearest future and establish direct ties with Germany – the main consumer of Russian gas.
Nord Stream 2. Source: Web-page of Gazprom
Belarus is in Search of Alternate Oil Suppliers
Main Event: On March 11, 2020, the Prime Minister of Belarus, Sergey Rumas, met with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Mishustin, in Moscow. According to Rumas, a fall in world oil prices creates an opportunity in the near future to reach an agreement on the price of Russian oil.
Event in Details: From January 2020, Russia refused to sell oil to Belarus at a reduced price as it has been since the 1990s. However, a sharp drop in world oil prices might change the situation. That is why Rumas offered new proposal to the Russian oil companies which the Russian side accepted for consideration. Oil prices fell after March 6 when OPEC and Russia failed to reach a deal to reduce oil production. On March 9, the price drop was 30%.
American Oil for Belarus
Amid complicated relations with Russia, the United States has backed Belarus. The US State Department says that US companies are ready to sell oil to Belarus immediately at a competitive market price. On March 13, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a telephone conversation with the Belarusian Foreign Minister, Vladimir McKay, reaffirmed support for the sovereignty of Belarus and discussed the potential for increased bilateral business ties.
Belarus is actively expanding the circle of alternative oil suppliers to replace Russia. In January, Belarus received the first alternate oil from Norway. An agreement has been reached with Azerbaijan as well. In 2020, the state oil company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) will supply 1 million tons of oil to Belarus. On March 2, talks between Ramus and SOCAR President, Rovnag Abdullayev, on an Azerbaijani oil supply were held in Minsk. Belarus also bought Azerbaijani oil back in 2011 and 2016. On March 6, the first tanker loaded with 85,000 tons of oil left for Belarus from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The import of 85,000 tons of oil from the Georgian port of Supsa is also planned on March 20. Azerbaijani oil will be delivered to Belarus via the Odessa-Brody pipeline, crossing Ukraine.
Why Alternate Oil is Important for Belarus: A low price of oil in the world allows Belarus to reconsider the possibility of importing oil from Russia. However, until a desirable agreement is reached with the Russian side, Belarus is trying to diversify and move away from its reliance on Russian energy supplies. Importing oil from alternative sources will be relatively less profitable for Belarus but in return will reduce its energy dependence on Russia and allow Minsk to maneuver more vis-à-vis its foreign policy.
Kocharyan’s Case and Armenian-Russian Relations
Main Event: On March 3, 2020, a Yerevan court did not accept the petition of the lawyers of the ex-President of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, to close the criminal case. The judge asked for a specific time limit to study all of the circumstances and evidence as regard the case. Kocharyan, with whom the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, overtly declared his friendship, and the court case put a spark of tension in Armenian-Russian relations.
Event in Details: The court of first instance of Yerevan is considering a criminal case on overthrowing the constitutional order in March 2008 when the government violently dispersed an opposition rally, resulting in a number of deaths and the arrest of the current Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan. The trial began in 2018. A case was initiated against Robert Kocharyan, Yuri Khatchaturov, the former Secretary-General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); Seyran Ohanyan, the former Defense Minister, and Armen Gevorgyan, the former Head of the Presidential Administration.
From Prison to Hospital and New Accusations
On March 8, Kocharyan was hospitalized from prison. After his first arrest in July 2018, he was twice released from pre-trial detention by a court decision. However, each time he was remanded in custody at the request of a prosecutor.
On March 10, Pashinyan charged the former presidents, Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, who had close ties to Russia, with “robbing the army” and vowed to return the stolen money.
Russia’s Position: The Kremlin considers that the trial against Kocharyan is politically motivated and has expressed support to the ex-president in various ways. For example, when the trial began in 2018, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that such actions contradicted the statements of the Armenian authorities as they were not going to persecute their predecessors for political reasons. After initiating a criminal case, Putin even extended birthday greetings to Kocharyan. At a session of the Supreme Economic Council of Eurasia held in Yerevan in October 2019, Putin met with Kocharyan’s wife and son.
Why Kocharyan’s Release from Prison is Important for Russia: Kocharyan was considered one of the most pro-Russian presidents in the post-Soviet space and his imprisonment damages the Kremlin’s reputation as Moscow fails to defend its allies.
Why Kocharyan’s Imprisonment is Important for Armenian Authorities: The incumbent Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, accuses Kocharyan of bloodshed in March 2008 when anti-government rallies claimed lives and led to Pashinyan’s imprisonment. The trial of the alleged organizers of the 2008 events gives Pashinyan the opportunity to restore justice and weaken the old political elite.
Uzbekistan Hesitates Joining the Eurasian Economic Union
Main Event: On March 7, 2020, Tashkent officially announced that Uzbekistan opted for acceding to the Eurasian Economic Union as an observer instead of becoming a full member state.
Event in Details: The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) was established in 2015 with the participation of Russia and its allies – Belarus and Kazakhstan. Later, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the union. Moldova is only an observer at this stage. In the post-Soviet space, the Eurasian Economic Union is a counterweight to the European Union. The EAEU members enjoy special privileges in economic relations with each other and are considered to be the most pro-Russian states in the post-Soviet space.
Why Uzbekistan’s Accession to the EAEU is Important for Russia: Russia considers Uzbekistan an important country in the Central Asian region and involving Tashkent in Russian projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union would be a significant economic and political success for Moscow. Uzbekistan has long been a target for Russia but Uzbekistan’s involvement during Islam Karimov’s presidency was unsuccessful as the former president adhered to a balanced approach vis-à-vis his foreign policy. Shavkat Mirziyayev took office after Karimov’s death in 2016 and, unlike his predecessor, abandoned the isolationist policy and began to expand foreign ties. The Kremlin is trying to use the new circumstances to its advantage in terms of Uzbekistan joining the organization.
Why Uzbekistan Hesitates Joining the Organization: Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia with a population of 34 million and could become the second largest consumer market in the organization after Russia. Earlier, on January 24, Mirziyayev told the parliament that his government was exploring ways to work with the organization. Most of Uzbekistan’s exports go to the organization’s member states. Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan account for the largest share. By 2018, remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan totaled 15% of the country’s GDP. However, it seems that Tashkent hesitates to return to the Russian orbit and is asking for more time to explore the pros of joining the Eurasian Economic Union. Uzbekistan’s reluctance may be due to two factors: first, membership in the union will weaken certain sectors of the economy and second, membership in a pro-Russian organization will limit Tashkent’s ability to maneuver its foreign policy.
Meeting of “Eternal Presidents”
Main Event: On March 10, 2020, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hosted the first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the Kremlin.
Event in Details: The main purpose of Nazarbayev’s visit to Russia was to deliver a speech at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. The idea of a Eurasian union, the basis of the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, was first voiced by Nazarbayev at this university. It is noteworthy that on March 6, before his visit to Moscow, Nazarbayev hosted the Russian Deputy Security Council Chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, in Nur Sultan.
“Kazakh model” of power retention
Nazarbayev, who holds the honorary status of “elbasy” (leader of the nation), was the unchanging president from the day of Kazakhstan’s declaration of independence in 1991 until 2019. Nazarbayev was re-elected in 1999. In 2000, the Constitutional Council determined Nazarbayev’s presidential term as his first term as previous elections were held under the old constitution. New amendments in 2007 applied an exception only to Nazarbayev and the two-term limit was abolished. In 2019, Nazarbayev made an unexpected decision and resigned as president, although he retained power over the new president and the country as a result of legislative changes.
Following the meeting with Nazarbayev on March 14, Putin signed a law on constitutional amendments that would allow him to repeatedly run for elections. The Constitutional Court also approved the constitutional amendments. The next stage is a referendum which will be held in April. As a result, Putin will be able to run for a fifth term in 2024 and for a sixth term in 2030.
Why the Meeting is Important: The meeting between Putin and Nazarbayev has a symbolic significance. In 2019, Nazarbayev resigned as president but retained power. For Putin, the “Kazakh model” was considered one of the ways to stay in power after 2024 which eventually was rejected. At this stage, Putin refrained from experimenting and chose a more reliable way to legitimize the eternal presidency through constitutional changes and the “population’s support” in a referendum.