Putin, Unlimited? Challenges to Russia’s Political Regime in 2020 and Beyond
Belarus, Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan are territories of change, to which Moscow had to react with different results for itself
By the end of 2020, Russia is approaching with an obvious headache from what is happening in the region, which in Moscow is habitually called the “near abroad”. Protests against the rule of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the “people’s reform” of the government in Kyrgyzstan and the change of president in Moldova create threats and challenges of a geopolitical nature for Moscow, which seemed impossible yesterday..
Now Vladimir Putin needs to decide what to react to, and what is more important for him: maintaining Russian influence on Chisinau or containing Azerbaijan with Turkey, financial assistance to the official Minsk, or some influence on the processes in Bishkek. For all this, according to experts interviewed by the Russian service of the Voice of America, the Kremlin no longer has enough leverage or desire.
There are legacy factors that continue to link the post-Soviet states to Russia – for example, the Russian military base in Tajikistan or the Moscow military contingent located in Moldovan Transnistria. There are also new ones: just now, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised the CIS countries the supply of Russian vaccines against coronavirus. The energy dependence of some of these countries on Russia is also not going anywhere..
At the same time, politicians in Moscow began to openly demonstrate disdain for those post-Soviet neighbors with whom Russia had not yet quarreled: for example, three deputies of the Russian State Duma put forward territorial claims to Kazakhstan in early December, which led to a very tough reaction from the Kazakh leadership. The conflict was hushed up, but something else is interesting: one of these deputies, Vyacheslav Nikonov, belongs to the “intellectual core” of the ruling United Russia party, and could not help but understand how his words would be perceived. From this, experts on the post-Soviet space conclude that Moscow itself is beginning to lose interest in this space..
The Russian service of the Voice of America asked four experts to summarize the results of 2020 for Russia in terms of how it is affected by the processes in neighboring countries, which until recently were heavily dependent on Moscow..
Konstantin Eggert: The Kremlin’s approach to the post-Soviet space is outdated
According to Konstantin Eggert, an observer of the German broadcasting concern “Deutsche Welle”, the process of weakening Russia’s influence in the former Soviet Union is irreversible: “The events in Belarus, Moldova and the Armenian-Azerbaijani war are evidence of this, in each case in its own way”.
Constantin Eggert analyzes the events in Moldova, a country where a part of the population who wants to be closer to Russia argues with those who are ready to move in the direction of the European Union. Here, according to the expert, the age of an active voter is important:
“Moldova is a rather young country, because a significant part of adults are working in the European Union. And therefore, the proportion of young people who vote is relatively high. The vote for Maia Sandu showed that a stable electorate has taken shape in Moldova, which wants to see the country as a part of a large European community. It is impossible for Russia to do anything about this – neither through the “First Channel” of Russian television, nor through the sale of cheap gas “.
“The only thing Moscow can try to do is to separate Transnistria and Gagauzia from Moldova in the same way as the Ukrainian Crimea was annexed. However, it is clear that geographically and logistically this will be quite difficult to do, ”says Konstantin Eggert.
In Belarus, according to the Deutsche Welle observer, the number of people critical of Moscow is growing because of Vladimir Putin’s support for the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko. In addition, the expert says, recent political processes have shown that “in this country there is a serious layer of people, not only young people, who do not want to live under this regime and define the country not as an appendage of Russia, but as a separate, albeit friendly to Russia, state “.
With the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Konstantin Eggert, the irony of history manifested itself: “After almost 300 years, first all Russian emperors, then Soviet general secretaries, and then the alleged“ capitulator ”Boris Yeltsin did not allow Turkey to deploy in the Caucasus – precisely under Putin under which Russia allegedly got up from its knees, Turkey came to the Caucasus, and will remain there for a long time. The victory of Azerbaijan made a stunning impression on all three countries of the South Caucasus, I know it firsthand, and I am sure that the political consequences will be very serious “.
Konstantin Eggert explains Russia’s departure from the position of the dominant force in relation to the countries of the former USSR with an overly arrogant look at its neighbors:
“The Kremlin’s analysis of the situation in the post-Soviet countries is based on three things – the belief that money is everything, the belief that the interests of the elites in these countries remain unchanged, and the outdated idea of the invariability of the national character. We see the Kremlin’s stubborn reluctance to see changes in societies. And in this sense, the Kremlin, “collective Putin” has not learned any lessons, starting with the Georgian “Rose Revolution” 17 years ago, because the cynical view of the Russian elite on people, on citizens extends not only to those who live in Russia, but practically to the whole world. The Russian government in its relations with neighboring countries will step on the same rake, seeing only what it wants to see “.
David Marples: Moscow is tired of Lukashenka, although it doesn’t show it
Professor of the University of Alberta in Canada David Marples, who has been researching the situation in Belarus for a long time, says that Moscow faced an unusual situation in the Belarusian crisis:
“Several years ago it was clear that Russia was indeed very interested in extending its influence over the countries of the former USSR, especially the Slavic states, and any signs of Western influence on them were viewed by Moscow as a threat. But in Belarus the situation is completely different – there are no “unrest under the influence of the West,” there simply people themselves rebelled against the regime, which is clearly outdated and does not show concern for its citizens, and lately and extremely cruel. And I’m not sure that Russia understands how to respond to such discontent, which has nothing to do with the West. “.
The Kremlin’s support for Alexander Lukashenko, who unleashed brutal repressions against his people, hurts the image of Russia among Belarusians, the researcher is sure: “In Belarus, a positive attitude towards Russia has decreased in recent months, according to polls, by 10-11 percent. And this is due to the fact that Russia has chosen the path of influencing the situation, expressed in supporting Lukashenka and strengthening his power. This is a very alarming sign for Russia, because before that Belarusians had never perceived Russia as an unfriendly force. Now they are showing such sentiments. I think if the Kremlin will support Lukashenka in the future, then these sentiments will only get stronger ”.
The attempt of official Moscow and Minsk to refer to the fact that the protests were still inspired by the West is untenable, David Marples believes: “They regularly try to rally people, as it were, in the face of an external threat, and as an example, they cite the fact that opposition leaders are now abroad, in countries of the European Union. But this is just spreading lies, pure propaganda – it is clear that the weekly outings of people to large protests cannot be explained by the influence of the West. “.
A professor at the University of Alberta suggests that Moscow will not bet on Lukashenko indefinitely:
“At the same time, I must say, Russia itself is tired of Lukashenka, trying to persuade him in due time for a more serious integration, and they may think about starting a serious conversation with someone from the opposition. And Putin may already think that as a result of the transfer of power in Minsk, it may be easier to communicate with the next leader than with Lukashenka. This can be seen from several signs: Lavrov, although he constantly carries some nonsense about Belarus and the West, is an experienced diplomat, and for sure conveyed Moscow’s wishes to Lukashenka. The result of which, perhaps, was that conversation with the opposition in the KGB prison – Lukashenka himself would not have gone to such a thing. “.
David Marples does not believe in the possibility of a direct military invasion of Russia in Belarus: “Perhaps Putin himself is a little tired of trying to influence the post-Soviet countries, in addition, Russia is already under sanctions precisely for trying to influence with the help of military force, so I think that 2014 and the situation with Ukraine will not repeat itself “.
Arkady Dubnov: Russia is watching Bishkek and “returns” the Caucasus
Journalist Arkady Dubnov, who has been analyzing the post-Soviet space for many years, states that the riots in Kyrgyzstan that occurred this fall took Moscow by surprise:
“These events were completely unexpected for the Kremlin. In Russia, they were rather dumbfounded by a riot after the parliamentary elections on October 4, which threatens with the coming to power in Kyrgyzstan of semi-criminal groups – after the victory of Sadyr Japarov in the presidential elections on January 10, and this victory seems to be a predetermined matter. What is happening today in terms of preparing a new draft constitution, I would call “constitutional Makhnovism.” And Russia is convinced that it is not in a position to influence the situation in Kyrgyzstan “.
But at the same time, continues Arkady Dubnov, for Russia the Kyrgyz unrest is important because it will not turn Kyrgyzstan away from Russia: “Kyrgyzstan remains a pocket in which you will have to put money. True, paying for the loyalty of Kyrgyzstan all the time comes with large investments, loans and grants. But Moscow does not care whether there is an ochlocracy or a democracy – the main thing is that Kyrgyzstan, which degenerated from once an island of democracy in Central Asia into a caricature of democracy, is in Russia’s pocket ”.
At the same time, the expert sees disappointment in Moscow among a new generation of Kyrgyz residents: “A generation that emerged in the post-Soviet era, the generation“ 25 plus ”, has entered the arena, which manifests itself independently in relation to the former metropolis – Moscow, but on the other hand , would like help from Russia, because it itself is not yet capable of creating stable state institutions. It would like to receive help from her in the search for justice, in the fight against corruption, against nepotism. But Russia will not be able to offer Kyrgyzstan anything in this regard, since it itself does not respond to such requests to the same generations of Russians who grew up already under Putin. “.
In the case of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Arkady Dubnov, Russia, on the contrary, was able to behave correctly and achieve a beneficial result:
“Neither Europe nor the United States really did anything, and Moscow’s intervention gave it the opportunity to show that this is its zone of interests. The collective West should thank Russia for taking the trouble to drag the chestnuts out of the fire by coming into contact with this “new Turkic alliance.” Until November 10, it seemed that Russia was dramatically losing its positions in the South Caucasus, unable to defend its type of ally in the CSTO, and so on. But having introduced a peacekeeping contingent there, she simply turned the chessboard and turned out to be the main beneficiary of this war. She left at least part of Karabakh for the Armenians and brought the total number of military personnel in the South Caucasus to 11 thousand people, including peacekeepers, if we take into account its military base in Armenia, as well as bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “.
Russia, according to Arkady Dubnov, is striving to consolidate its success in the Caucasus: “Two days after the conclusion of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow began to return the entire region to itself. On November 12, it signed an agreement with Abkhazia on a three-year program of unification into a single socio-economic space, the Abkhaz energy system, like the Armenian one, will be completely in the hands of Russia, and we still need to remember the distribution of Russian passports in Abkhazia. Moscow believes that the Abkhaz should now be afraid that Georgia will come up with an idea to repeat the success of the Azerbaijanis in Karabakh, and the Georgians may go to war against Abkhazia. Russia is using it “.
Paul Goble: Putin is now approaching the “near abroad” with caution
The famous American political scientist and author of the “Window to Eurasia” blog Paul Goble disagrees with Arkady Dubnov. According to him, the Kremlin only wants to consider itself the beneficiary of the combination it carried out in the Caucasus, but other parties to the conflict gained much greater benefit:
“The Kremlin will certainly adhere to the line“ we have achieved success in Karabakh ”, but I am not sure of this definition. It is clear that Russia did not expect such a development of events and was able to leave a part of Karabakh to the Armenians and keep the Armenian army only despite the fact that its ally, Armenia, made very serious concessions to Azerbaijan and Turkey – concessions that Baku had been seeking for years. Moscow wanted Azerbaijan’s strikes to serve as a punishment for Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, but was really not ready for Azerbaijan to develop the offensive so successfully, and Turkey intends to play the role it ultimately played there. “.
“The Declaration of November 10 – which is still an agreement on a ceasefire, not a peace treaty – secured many things that are important for Turkey and Azerbaijan: for example, a corridor through the Armenian Zangezur, which connects the main territory of Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan, bordering turn, with Turkey, opens a direct land route from Turkey to Azerbaijan. Yes, Russia has now deployed peacekeepers in Karabakh, but this is a temporary measure, and there have already been clashes there. I would not call Russia a loser, but Turkey’s role in the region has grown stronger, ”says Paul Goble.
The researcher says that Moscow should be concerned about two problems in the “near abroad”, different, albeit interrelated: “The first is the instability around Russia, which has seriously increased. Everything we are talking about here – Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Moldova, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh – did not exist a year ago. Second, the Russian authorities have much less opportunity to influence these processes. Moscow’s resources are dwindling “.
Paul Goble sees the pause that Moscow endured after the start of Azerbaijan’s offensive in Karabakh a sign that Putin is now forced to look back on this lack of resources: “Judging by how long Putin has waited before intervening in the Karabakh war, he is now these events are handled with caution. The story that somehow passed by the front pages of the Western press became important for me, when the Russian Ministry of Finance announced at the end of October that 100,000 positions in the Russian army should be cut and defense purchases should be cut by 10-15 percent. The military was furious, but Putin did not say something in the spirit of “this will not happen, because we need all this to maintain our status in the region.” As a result, it was decided to borrow money from banks for these expenses, which means that the Kremlin does not have unlimited resources to fuel its power component. “.
The political scientist believes that Putin’s detachment from problems in his own country also affects Moscow’s foreign policy influence: “I think we are seeing the disintegration of the system. Putin is not very interested in internal affairs, he removed himself from direct leadership, having done so during the pandemic. Many Russian officials already think about him that he is really sitting in a bunker, not being particularly interested in anything. And this feeling of confusion and lack of leadership is being transmitted beyond the borders of Russia. If he focuses on something, he can achieve temporary success, but it is clear that it is already incredibly difficult for him to influence the results of the development of events everywhere. “.
Reporter for the Russian Voice of America Service in Moscow. Collaborates with Voice of America since 2012. For a long time he worked as a correspondent and host of programs for the BBC Russian Service and Radio Liberty. Specialization – international relations, politics and legislation, human rights.
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