|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: September 16-30, 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.
CSTO Member State Efforts to Counteract Threats Emanating from Afghanistan
Main Event: On September 16, 2021, member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) met in Dushanbe to discuss regional security issues.
Event in Details: The CSTO Council session in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, was chaired by the Tajik President, Emomali Rahmon. The leaders of the CSTO member states (the Russian President joined online. From the Russian side, the meeting was attended by the Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov) and the Secretary-General of the organization, Stanislav Zas, was also present at the session. In addition to international and regional security issues, the main topic of discussion was the situation in Afghanistan and its impact on the security of the CSTO member states. At the end of the meeting, the CSTO Council adopted a declaration.
[The members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization are Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.]
The key messages of the meeting:
CSTO Council Session. Source: Web-page of the CSTO
Why the CSTO Became Active
In the light of recent events in Afghanistan, the CSTO has become more active. After the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, Taliban fighters took control of the country and the border with the Central Asian countries. Security risks, therefore, increased in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the last few months, a number of large-scale military exercises were conducted in the CSTO member states.
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. Tajikistan, which among the CSTO member states has the longest border with Afghanistan, is the most vulnerable in this regard. The risk that new developments in Afghanistan will have a negative impact on Tajikistan is high, therefore, the activation of the CSTO is also aimed at deterring the Afghan threat.
Russia to Supply Natural Gas to Hungary Bypassing Ukraine
Main Event: Hungary and the Russian energy giant Gazprom signed a long-term gas supply deal on September 27, 2021 in Budapest. The deal was signed by the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Economic Relations, Peter Szijjarto, and the Gazprom CEO, Alexey Miller.
Event in Details: According to the agreement, Hungary will receive 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Gazprom via Austrian (1 billion) and Serbian (3.5 billion) routes for the next 15 years until 2036. Hungary, a major consumer of Russian gas, used to receive it through Ukraine’s pipeline network. Under the new agreement, the Ukrainian gas transit network will no longer be required.
In recent years, Hungary has also been connected to gas pipeline systems of other neighboring countries and has imported liquefied natural gas from Croatia, although imports of Russian gas are still important for the country.
On September 27, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a statement where it called the new agreement “a purely politically, economically unreasonable decision in favor of the Kremlin and to the detriment of Ukraine’s national interests and Ukrainian-Hungarian relations.” The Hungarian Ambassador was summoned to Kyiv for an explanation which was followed by a response from Hungary.
Why the Event is Important: Ukraine has a transit agreement with Russia until 2024, although the development of alternative transit routes increases the risk that Russia will further reduce its use of Ukraine’s transit potential. As planned, the Nord Stream 2 will be launched in the coming months which will allow Russia to export additional amount of gas to Germany, bypassing the territory of Ukraine.
Why the Event is Important for Ukraine: Russia’s use of alternative routes will minimize Ukraine’s transit function and the country will become more vulnerable to Russian economic and political pressure.
The Kremlin’s “Red Lines” for Ukraine
Main Event: According to a Kremlin statement of September 27, 2021, any expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine would cross one of the President Vladimir Putin’s “red lines.”
Event in Details: Ukraine’s relations with NATO have also become a topic of conversation between the leaders of Russia and Belarus. On September 27, the President of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, accused the United States of establishing training centers in Ukraine which, in his estimation, actually look like a military base. Belarus agreed to take action with Moscow in order to counter growing NATO activity.
An example of Russian-Belarusian cooperation is the Zapad-2021 joint strategic exercise which was held on September 10-16 at ten Russian military bases on the Baltic Sea and five military training grounds of Belarus. The exercises involved up to 200,000 military servicemen. The exercise was the largest in Europe in recent decades. In response, Ukraine launched joint military exercises with the United States and NATO member states last week.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, rejected the “red lines” set by Russia. “Putin’s ‘red lines’ are limited to Russia’s borders,” Kuleba said. The ministry also denied Lukashenko’s “baseless insinuations” saying that Ukraine had never interfered and would never interfere in the affairs of neighboring Belarus.
Why the Event is Important: For Russia, Ukraine’s rapprochement with NATO is a strong irritant and any anti-Russian actions in this regard are tantamount to crossing “red lines.” Intensified military activities with Belarus and growing support for separatists in Ukraine are aimed at preventing Ukraine’s reconciliation with NATO and punishing Kyiv.
Russia Plans to Finance Separatist Regions of Ukraine
Main Event: According to a government document obtained by Radio Liberty, Russia will spend RUB 900 billion (USD 12.4 billion) in financial assistance to separatists in eastern Ukraine over the next three years.
Event in Details: According to the document, the funds will be spent on the part of the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions that has been controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014. Assistance will be spent mainly on social projects. About 2.9 million people (38% of which are retired) live on the separatist-controlled territory.
The document, whose authenticity is not confirmed, says that pensions will be increased from RUB 15 thousand to RUB 20 thousand in the separatist regions by 2024, bringing them in line with the neighboring Rostov region.
According to the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Oleksii Reznikov, Russia spent USD 1.3 billion on salaries last year in eastern Ukraine and Crimea which has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
Such financial assistance is not news. Russia has long used a similar approach in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region which are virtually entirely dependent on Russia’s funding. In addition to various targeted expenditures, Russia also implements investment programs promoting the socio-economic development of the occupied regions of Georgia. Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region each receive RUB 4.5 billion under the 2020-2022 program. Each region spends RUB 1.5 billion on various social and infrastructure projects annually. The Russian Ministry of Economic Development oversees the spending of the money and often sends representatives to the occupied regions of Georgia.
Why the Event is Important: Increased Russian financial assistance to the breakaway regions of Ukraine is a response to the intensification of Kyiv’s anti-Russian policy.
Russian State Duma Elections in the Occupied Regions of Georgia
Main Event: On September 17-19, 2021, elections to the Russian State Duma of the 8th convocation were held in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region as well.
Event in Details: In addition to Russia, the Russian State Duma elections were held in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, the occupied territories of Georgia, where the majority of the population holds Russian passports. Employees of the 7th and the 4th Russian military bases in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region also took part in the voting.
Elections in Abkhazia
In Abkhazia, the voting took place at nine polling stations. Two polling stations were opened in Sokhumi and one each in Gagra, Pitsunda, Gudauta, Ochamchire, Tkvarcheli, Gali and the village of Bambora. It is noteworthy that Abkhazia voted for parties and majoritarian candidates of Russian regions as well. A total of 14,549 people participated in the elections in Abkhazia.
Elections in the Tskhinvali region
A total of ten polling stations, nine for civilians and one for serviceman of the 4th Russian military base, were opened in the Tskhinvali region. There were six polling stations in Tskhinvali and one each in Java, Kornisi, Akhalgori and Kvaisa. Over 11,000 people voted in the Tskhinvali region.
Why the Event is Important: The process of granting Russian citizenship to residents of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region has intensified since Russia’s recognition the independence of these regions in 2008. At this stage, the vast majority of the population of the occupied territories are Russian citizens and, therefore, participation in Russian elections is an indicator of integration with Russia.
President of Moldova Calls for the Withdrawal of Russian Troops
Main Event: Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 22, 2021, the pro-Western Moldovan President, Maia Sandu, called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflict zone of Transnistria.
Event in Details: “I’d like to reiterate that our position with regard to the complete and unconditional withdrawal of the Russian forces remains unchanged. This also includes the removal or destruction of munitions stored in the Cobasna depot which remains a threat to the security and the environment of the region and beyond. We count on the support of the international community in achieving this objective,” Sandu said.
Cobasna (Russian: Kolbasna) which is located in Transnistria, two kilometers from the Ukrainian border, is not controlled by the central government. The largest ammunition depot in Eastern Europe was located there. One of the reasons for the stay of Russian military units in the separatist region is the protection of the remaining weapons at the depot. About 1,400 Russian servicemen have been stationed in the region since 1992 when the Transnistria war between the government and the separatists ended.
Sandu, who defeated pro-Russian Igor Dodon in the 2020 presidential election and won parliamentary elections this year, has long called for the withdrawal of Russia’s peacekeeping force and its replacement with civilian monitors under the OSCE. The Kremlin believes that the withdrawal of Russian troops will “seriously destabilize” the situation.
Why the Event is Important: Calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Transnistria, which is Maia Sandu’s pre-election promise from the UN rostrum, is part of her policy ultimately aimed at weakening Russia’s influence in the region.
Kazakhstan Will Abandon the Russian Dialing Code
Main Event: On September 21, 2021, the Minister of Digital Development, Innovations and Aerospace Industry of Kazakhstan, Bagdat Musin, announced the transfer of Kazakhstan to its own dialing code.
Event in Details: Kazakhstan will switch from the Russian dialing code (+7) to its own national code (+997) from January 1, 2023. The full transition is expected to take effect from 2025. During this period, it will be possible to use both codes.
“It’s symbolic that the Ministry reserved a new dialing code on the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence. Earlier, we shared the code +7 together with Russia and now, when you call from our country abroad, ‘Kazakhstan’ will be displayed. A full transition to +997 will give us the opportunity to independently distribute the national numbering resource and expand the national system in terms of the number of subscribers and services,” said Musin.
At present, mobile network operators of Kazakhstan are working to design a plan to shift to the new country calling code on the Kazakh communication networks. According to existing international regulations, the issue of Kazakhstan’s withdrawal from the existing numbering zone should be discussed with the Russian Federal Communications Agency. After this procedure is completed, Kazakhstan will be assigned the +997 code.
Why the Event is Important: In addition to economic benefits, the shift to the new telephone code is another step which Kazakhstan takes to ultimately reduce Russia’s economic, political or cultural influence. Kazakhstan has also rejected Cyrillic in recent years and plans full transition to the Latin alphabet in a few years.
Latvia Bans the Ribbon of St. George
Main Event: On September 30, 2021, the Saeima (Parliament of the Republic of Latvia) endorsed a bill that bans the use of the Ribbon of St. George at public events.
Event in Details: In the second viewing, members of the Saiema passed an amendment to the law which provides for banning the use of the Ribbon of St. George at ceremonial events, demonstrations, rallies and strikes. The aforementioned amendment was submitted by Artuss Kaimins, a member of the National Alliance of the Saeima faction. In his view, given Russia’s expansion into Ukraine and the spread of totalitarian ideologies in former Soviet republics, Latvia has a reason to consider the threat to democratic order and security as sufficient.
Ribbon of St. George
For Russia, the Ribbon of St. George is a symbol of victory over Nazi Germany in WWII as well as a symbol of the Russian army. The ribbon is distributed in the streets during ceremonial parades related to the victory in World War II on May 9. This tradition dates back to 2005 and is funded by the Russian state budget. There have also been attempts by pro-Russian organizations to distribute the ribbon in Georgia.
Why the Event is Important: In recent years, Russia has intensively used the Ribbon of St. George as a symbol of its “soft power” policy in the post-Soviet space which is aimed at increasing Moscow’s influence. Latvia’s decision to ban the use of the Ribbon of St. George is to prevent the spread of Russian cultural influence.