|Author: Mamuka Komakhia, Analyst|
Review period: April 16-30, 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.
Uzbekistan Chooses an Observer Status in the Eurasian Economic Union
Main Event: On April 28, 2020, the Lower House of the Supreme Assembly of Uzbekistan endorsed the government’s proposal to become an observer state in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
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 gained observer status in the organization after the election of the pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon. 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.
Getting the observer status in the EAEU might be followed by the establishment of a free trade zone between Uzbekistan and the Union. An agreement on the issue can be reached during the June visit of the Uzbek President to Moscow.
Meeting of the Presidents of Uzbekistan and Russia. Source: Web-page of the Russian President.
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; however, 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 Mirziyoyev 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 and ensure that Uzbekistan joins the organization.
Why Uzbekistan Hesitates to Join 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 (after Russia) in 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. There are about 2 million Uzbek migrants in Russia. 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.
Tajikistan Bans Russian Suffixes in Surnames
Main Event: On April 29, 2020, the Lower Chamber of the Supreme Assembly of Tajikistan ratified amendments to the Law on State Registration of Civil Status Acts. The amendments ban ethnic Tajiks from using Russified names in the new identification documents and birth certificates. Earlier, Tajiks were only recommended not to use Slavic suffixes when registering their names. As the Minister of Justice explained, the changes to the law were necessary in order to “revive national names.”
Event in Details: Under the new bill, ethnic Tajik children whose parents’ surnames end with the Russian suffices “ov” and “ev” for men and “ova” and “eva” for women from the Soviet period will be issued birth certificates using traditional Tajik suffixes (“i,” “zod,” “zoda,” “on,” “yon,” “yor’” “niyo,” “far”). The use of Russian suffixes (“ovich,” “ovna,” “evich,” “evna”) while registering fathers’ names is also prohibited. The new law will apply to newborn ethnic Tajiks or ethnic Tajik children receiving identification documents for the first time. The Law will not apply to ethnic minorities living in the country.
Replacing Russian surnames with traditional Tajik surnames has become more frequent in recent years. Many Tajik officials changed their Russified names into traditional Tajik ones after the country’s president officially changed his Russified name, Imomali Rakhmonov, to Emomali Rahmon in 2007. “It is necessary to return to our cultural roots and use national toponyms,” said Rahmon while addressing the Tajik intelligentsia. Following the President’s decision, Tajiks were encouraged to give their children national names. However, despite a number of legislative requirements, many Tajiks preferred to preserve their Russified surnames since it made easier for them to migrate to Russia as labor migrants.
In parallel with the change of surnames, the weakening of Russian influence is also observed in various spheres of the country’s life. In 2009, the Supreme Assembly of Tajikistan passed a law on the state language, declaring the Tajik Language as the sole language of communication between the Tajik government bodies. Later, the use of the Russian language was restricted in written business. By 2016, there was no geographical point left in the country with a Russian name.
Why the Event is Important for Tajikistan: The ban on the use of Russian suffixes in surnames is a continuation of the de-Russification policy pursued by the Tajik President which is aimed at strengthening the national identity of the post-Soviet country. However, despite the changes, the Russian language retains the status of a communicative language among the Russian ethnic groups in Tajikistan, it is still popular to receive education in Russian and Cyrillic is used in writing. At the same time, Russia remains the most desirable country for Tajik labor migrants.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: Russia assesses the ban on the use of Russian suffixes in Tajik surnames, Cyrillic and Russian toponyms as an expression of an anti-Russian policy. This is especially painful from Central Asian countries which are politically and economically closely linked to Russia. According to Moscow, despite the declared pro-Russian sentiments of the leaders of the Central Asian countries, these states are trying to reduce the Russian factor in their daily lives and reduce Moscow’s political influence in the long run.
US Appoints a New Ambassador to Belarus after a 12-Year Hiatus
Main Event: On April 20, 2020, the US President, Donald Trump, announced his intent to appoint the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Julie Fisher, as the US Ambassador to Belarus.
Event in Details: Julie Fisher will be the first US Ambassador to Belarus after a 12-year hiatus. She is an experienced diplomat and has working experience in post-Soviet countries, including Russia, Georgia – during Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure, and Ukraine – during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency. She is a well-versed specialist in Russia. She knows Russian well and speaks Georgian. Currently, Julie Fisher is responsible for the directions of Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Georgia at the State Department. Fischer’s candidacy was nominated in February when the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, visited Minsk. Her appointment must be approved by the Senate.
The US ambassador left Belarus in 2008 as a result of the soured bilateral relations between the US and Belarus. Earlier, Washington imposed economic sanctions on Belarus and a close circle of President Aleksander Lukashenko. Due to the strained relations between Belarus and the United States, Minsk and Moscow became closer for a certain time; however, in the face of tensions with Russia, Minsk’s relations with Washington are gradually improving.
Why the Event is Important for Belarus: Developing relations with the United States, amid tensions with Russia, will allow Belarus to re-establish political and economic ties with the West and reduce its reliance on Russia.
Why the Event is Considerable for Russia: The development of political relations and economic ties between the West and Belarus will weaken Moscow’s influence on Minsk and hamper Russian-led integration processes in the post-Soviet space.
Belarus Diversifies its Oil Imports
Main Event: The Belarusian state company Belneftekhim announced that Belarus will buy oil from Saudi Arabia for the first time.
Event in Details: The first deal for the purchase of oil was signed between the Belarusian state company and the state oil company of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco. Belarus expects to receive 80,000 tons of Arab oil via the port of Klaipeda (Lithuania) by May 11. The first tanker loaded with Arab oil set sail on April 27.
Belarus began diversifying its oil imports when Russian oil companies suspended oil deliveries to Belarus due to disagreements over oil prices in January 2020. Amid a sharp drop in world oil prices in March, Belarus and Russia agreed on new terms for oil supplies in April. At the same time, Belarus is actively expanding its circle of alternative oil suppliers.
Belarus received a total of two million tons of oil in April, including 1.56 million tons from Russia through pipelines and railways. The rest was delivered by tankers from other countries or obtained in Belarus itself. In April, all major Russian companies resumed exports to Belarus. In addition, Belarus received 80,000 tons of Azerbaijani oil through the port of Odessa in April and 80,000 tons of Norwegian oil via the port of Klaipeda.
According to Belneftekhim, Belarus plans to import 1.13 million tons of oil from Russia in May; however, the country continues to diversify its oil imports. The volume of imported oil will depend on the environment at the domestic and foreign markets.
In addition, Belarus seeks to reach an agreement with Poland to receive at least 100,000 tons of oil per month through the reverse system effective June. The reverse system refers to Russian oil which is transported to Europe via the Druzhba oil pipeline.
Why Diversification of Oil Import is Important for Belarus: Amid a sharp drop in oil prices and in demand for petroleum products, Belarus may no longer need to import 2 million tons of oil per month. Currently, the price of Russian oil is acceptable and sufficient for Belarus but Minsk, based on its experience, continues its diversification policy which provides for a reduction of reliance on Russia by 30-40%. The diversification policy is aimed at weakening Russia’s political and economic influence over Belarus.
Moldova: A Russian Credit and the Presidential Elections
Main Event: On April 23, 2020, the Constitutional Court of Moldova suspended a EUR 200 million Russian loan agreement.
Event in Details: The Moldovan pro-Russian President, Igor Dodon, announced that Russia and Moldova signed a EUR 200 million loan agreement on April 17. According to Dodon, the loan agreement was reached with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in December. Dodon called the Russian loan the first substantial financial assistance received from foreign partners during the crisis caused by the new coronavirus pandemic which will be spent on the country’s needs and infrastructure projects.
The country’s pro-Western opposition criticized the ten-year loan granted by Russia which they say poses a long-term threat as it allows spending money on unnecessary projects in favor of Russian companies. In addition, the opposition believes that the loan is a political move by Russia to help the pro-Russian Dodon win the upcoming presidential elections.
Despite the criticism, the parliament approved the agreement by a vote of 101 to 56, in the morning of April 23; however, the Constitutional Court suspended the loan agreement based on an appeal by a pro-Western opposition lawmaker on the same day. It is interesting that on the same morning, the President of the Constitutional Court was replaced by Domnica Manole, well-known for her pro-Western course.
According to Dodon, pro-Western forces want to reject the Russian loan in order to provoke an economic crisis, spark protests and thus return to power.
Why the Russian Credit is Important for Igor Dodon: The presidential elections are scheduled in Moldova in the fall. Dodon is going to run for a second term. Most likely, his main rival will be the pro-Western former Prime Minister, Maia Sandu. Amid the crisis caused by the new coronavirus pandemic, it is important for Dodon to receive not only political but also financial assistance from Russia. In this regard, the Russian credit would help Dodon tackle the economic crisis in the run-up to the elections and boost his electoral rating.
Why the Event is Important for Russia: Rarely in the post-Soviet space is a president as favorable to Russia as Dodon. He overtly supports joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Moldova was granted an observer status in the pro-Russian Eurasian Economic Union during his presidency.
Reportedly, the country’s main political force, the Socialist Party, and its informal leader, Dodon, enjoy more support than pro-Western political groups. Financial support during the crisis would further boost the electoral ratings of pro-Russian groups which ultimately would contribute to Dodon’s second term and increase political influence in Moldova.
Ukraine: Struggle for Religious Influence
Main Event: A fire broke out on the territory of four churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate at Easter.
Event in Details: On April 12, a fire broke out in the infrastructure on the territory of the Holy Dormition Monastery in the Rivne region. On April 15, the 120-year-old wooden church of the Holy Martyr Paraskeva in the Chernivtsi region was burned down. On April 21, a fire broke out in the Gamalievsky convent in the Sumy region. On April 24, a fire broke out in the Holy Dormition Monastery in Odessa.
Actions against the pro-Russian Church have intensified in Ukraine since the establishment of the autocephalous church independent from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2019. At this stage, only three autocephalous churches recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. According to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin, the Ukrainian government, which is interested in increasing the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, also promotes anti-Russian actions.
What Do Fires in Churches Mean: Nationalist groups in Ukraine view the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate under the influence of the Russian Church as a non-nationalist and hostile church that the Kremlin uses to maintain its influence in Ukraine. Anti-Russian sentiments across the country intensified after the 2014 events in Crimea and Donbass. The actions against the pro-Russian Church, which have intensified since 2019, should be seen as the Russian-Ukrainian standoff in which the Russian Church in Ukraine is an ally of the Kremlin in the struggle for control over Ukraine.
Ukraine: Fight Against Soviet Symbols
Main Event: The Executive Committee of the Lviv City Council refused to transfer the remains of a legendary intelligence agent and hero of the Soviet Union, Nikolai Kuznetsov, to Russia.
Event in Details: The Soviet spy, Nikolai Kuznetsov, died in the village of Boratyn, Ukraine, on March 9, 1944. Kuznetsov’s nephew requests to rebury the remains in his native city of Yekaterinburg. The Mayor of Lviv said that the local authorities will consider the transfer of Kuznetsov’s remains to Russia only if Ukrainians who are detained in Russia will be released to their homeland. The Ministry of Culture also advised Lviv MPs to refuse the transfer of Kuznetsov’s remains due to “undesirable public resonance.”
One of the reasons why Nikolai Kuznetsov’s nephew requests the reburial is that Kuznetsov’s grave has been repeatedly desecrated by local nationalists since the 1990s, museums named after him were closed, his monument was removed and a geographical place named after Kuznetsov was also renamed. During the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, Nikolai Kuznetsov’s name was included in a list of individuals outlawed by Ukrainian “decommunization” laws.
Why the Event is Important: The struggle against Soviet symbols was intensified in the country after Ukraine gained independence, especially during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko. In the process of re-evaluating history, heroes were branded as traitors and vice versa. After 2014, not only western Ukraine, known for its nationalist sentiments, supported the fight against Soviet symbols. This struggle is considered as a step towards a reassessment of the Soviet past and a way to build a national identity of Ukraine aimed at weakening Russian influence. Russia, for its part, sees it as an attempt to rewrite history about the role of the Soviet Union in World War II and anti-Russian hysteria.
Inauguration of the “President” of Abkhazia and Russia
Main Event: From the Russian side, only the Russian “ambassador” to Abkhazia attended the inauguration of the new de facto President of Abkhazia on April 23, 2020.
Event in Details: Challenges related to the new coronavirus affected the inauguration of the president-elect, Aslan Bzhania, who won the illegitimate presidential elections in Abkhazia. Traditionally, representatives of the presidential administration, government and legislative bodies of the Russian Federation attended similar events; however, due to the threat of the virus spread, the event was only attended by the Russian “Ambassador” to Abkhazia, Aleksey Dvinyanin. Dvinyanin delivered a greeting speech in Russian and Abkhazian and was one of the first to meet Bzhania in his new role.
Changes Anticipated for Russia: With the replacement of Raul Khajimba who was the most loyal de facto president of Abkhazia to Moscow, there will be no significant changes. Russian military bases in Abkhazia and Russian border guards on Georgia’s de facto administrative border also guarantee the preservation of the pro-Russian vector of Abkhazia’s foreign policy. In addition, the economic challenges posed by the pandemic can only be overcome with financial and economic assistance from Russia which will further increase the de facto republic’s dependence on Moscow.