Review period: May 16-31, 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.
Leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union Hold a Video Conference
Main Event: Due to the new coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Economic Council of Eurasia held a meeting in video conference format, on 19 May 2020.
Event in Details: The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) is an economic organization which unites Russia and its allies in the post-Soviet space - Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. At the meeting, the leaders of the EAEU member states adopted several documents, including the Strategic Directions for Developing the Eurasian Economic Integration to 2025. The governments of the member states will agree on the final version of the document which will be a kind of roadmap for the development of integration. In his speech, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, called the strategic document an agreed decision, although the presidents of the member states request the final document to better reflect the interests of their countries.
Video Conference of the Supreme Economic Council of Eurasia. Source: Belarusian Television
Armenia and Belarus Request Cheap Gas
The member states had some comments on the document. Belarus and Armenia, for example, expressed dissatisfaction with the formation of gas prices. “The imposition of a single tariff on gas (as requested by Armenia and Belarus) is possible only in the presence of a single market when there is a single system of taxes. Given that we do not yet have such deep integration, the price of gas must be formed on the basis of market conditions,” Putin said.
Kazakhstan Calls for Less Integration
As the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, stated, national legal acts should not have precedence over the national legal systems and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) should not interfere in relations between the member states and third countries. In addition, Tokayev does not like that the Union considers the principle of financing in the formation of the staff quota system (which allows Russia to appoint more of its representatives within the organization). Tokayev also criticized attempts to expand cooperation with the organization in the field of culture and education while Putin supports such expansion.
Why the Meeting is Important: The meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union once again showed that the member states of the Union, except for Russia, oppose deeper integration at the expense of limiting their sovereignty and seek to derive more economic benefits from Russia. Russia, for its part, is ready to give more economic benefits to its allies, albeit only in the case of deeper integration.
CSTO Foreign Ministers Held a Video Conference
Main Event: On May 26, 2020, the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) discussed the prospects of international and regional security at a video conference which was held online due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
Video Conference of the Foreign Ministers of the CSTO Member States. Source: Web-page of the CSTO.
Event in Details: The CSTO members are Russia and its closest allies in the post-Soviet space - Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Despite the membership of one military organization, disputes between the countries over various issues have become more frequent recently. For example, tensions escalated around one of the enclaves between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and border guards opened fire on each other on May 24. Relations between Belarus and Russia have deteriorated due to oil and gas prices from 2020. Armenia views Russia's military cooperation with Azerbaijan with suspicion.
According to the Secretary-General of the CSTO, Stanislav Zas, the threat to the security of the member states is growing in all dimensions and directions. He said that in order to ensure the security of these states, it is necessary to strengthen interaction with other countries and international organizations; in particular, with the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. According to Zas, the region is being militarized in a Western direction with all Eastern European countries bordering Russia and Belarus increasing their defense spending and improving military their infrastructure in recent years.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, commented on the US withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty saying that Russia will analyze the situation in a balanced way without hysterics. He also referred to Russian-Armenian relations as those between allies within although not limited to the framework of the CSTO. In 2019, Armenia purchased particularly large quantities of weapons and ammunition from Russia.
The ministers also discussed biosafety and the fight against the new coronavirus pandemic.
Why the Meeting is Important: The CSTO is a tool of Russia’s foreign policy to increase its military-political influence in the post-Soviet space. Under the new coronavirus pandemic, Russia intends to use the CSTO meetings to consolidate anti-Western sentiments in the post-Soviet space.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan Rebuff Russia’s Offer to Mediate
Main Event: On May 27, 2020, Tajikistan accused a Kyrgyz man of another provocation on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The man shot and wounded a 25-year-old Tajik woman. The Border Guard Service of Tajikistan also accused Kyrgyzstan of attempting to destabilize the situation at a disputed section of the border.
Event in Details: In addition to the May 27 incident, two more serious clashes occurred on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border in May. On May 24, Tajik authorities said that a Tajik man was injured in a shootout between border guards of the two countries. On May 8, Kyrgyz authorities said that border shootings wounded three Kyrgyz border guards.
The border conflict between the two countries has intensified since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Frequent controversies over disputed border sections culminate in casualties.
The foreign ministers of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) discussed the Tajik-Kyrgyz border dispute at an online meeting on May 26. At the meeting, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, called on both sides to find a peaceful solution to the problem and offered Russia’s mediation to the allies.
On May 29, the Foreign Ministry of Tajikistan rebuffed Lavrov's proposal, stating that “the delimitation and demarcation of the state border is an internal affair of the countries and is carried out bilaterally.” The Ministry particularly stressed that it considers unreasonable to involve a third party in the negotiation process. Earlier, the Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan gently declined Russia’s offer to mediate, saying it was an internal affair of the two countries.
Confrontation on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz Border: On May 31, clashes between several hundreds of locals occurred near the Uzbek exclave of Sokh in the Kyrgyz province of Batken. Reportedly, the parties argued about the ownership of a spring located in the area. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are frequent confrontations over pastures, water and land in the region.
Why the Event is Important: The Central Asian countries, especially Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, have close military-political or economic ties with Russia; however, these countries view Russia's excessive interference in domestic or bilateral relations as an attempt to undermine their sovereignty. The Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s rebuff of Russia’s offer of mediation is also the result of the growing threat of dependence on Russia.
Uzbekistan's Harsh Response to Russia
Main Event: On May 18, 2020, the Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan said in a statement that “issues related to the regulation of the state language are a special prerogative of Uzbekistan's domestic policy and any foreign interference in this regard is inappropriate.”
Event in Details: The Ministry responded to “a statement of a foreign official” which the retort did not specifically name; however, Maria Zakharova, the Spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the intended target of the statement.
On April 25, a bill prepared by the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan was introduced, according to which public servants will be fined for failing to use the state language (Uzbek) in written business. On May 14, Maria Zakharova commented on the bill, saying that supporters of the use of the state language in written business are obviously in a minority. Observing discussions in the media, one can say that the majority is in favor of preserving the Russian language in the official sphere which fully corresponds to the interests of numerous citizens of Uzbekistan as they often prefer to study and work in Russia.
Status of the Russian Language
In post-Soviet countries (except for Russia), the Russian language is the state language only in Belarus and holds a leading place in everyday life and business. The Russian language has the status of an official language in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and is actively used in state organizations and in written business. In Tajikistan, Russian is the language of communication between ethnic groups while in other countries, the Russian language has no status.
Why the Event is Important: Despite its close ties with Russia, the Kremlin's statements on the country's domestic policy are unacceptable for Uzbekistan, especially on such a pressing issue as the use of the state language. Regardless of Russia's negative stance, the government hopes to promote the use of the Uzbek language by tightening the legislation as the state language is considered an important factor in the formation of the Uzbek identity and state.
Ukraine Files a Lawsuit Against Russia at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea
Main Event: Ukraine appeals to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over Russia’s detention of Ukrainian sailors and ships in the Kerch Strait.
Event in Details: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine filed a memorandum of complaint against Russia to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. The case concerns Russia’s detention of 24 Ukrainian sailors and three ships in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. According to the Ukrainian Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, they just want justice and not revenge.
Detention of Ukrainian Ships. Source: Photo from the Video Posted on the Web-page of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.
All 24 Ukrainian sailors on board were first held in solitary confinement in Crimea and then transferred to Moscow. They were accused of illegally crossing the Russian state border. Ukraine considered them as prisoners of war. The detainees were released as part of a large-scale prisoner swap in September 2019 and the ships were returned to Ukraine in November.
As per the requirements of the memorandum and the arbitral tribunal, the document is confidential. Therefore, the amount of compensation that Ukraine is requesting for damages from Russia is unknown.
Why the Event is Important: In addition to compensation for material and moral damage, the recognition of Russia as a violator of the International Law of the Sea, which will further prevent the Russian navy from seizing Ukrainian warships and increase the freedom of movement in the Black and Azov Seas, is also important for Ukraine.
Russia Renounces Military Cooperation with Belarus
Main Event: Belarus intends to produce indigenous missile systems without Russia.
Event in Details: During his visit to one of the companies of the State Authority for Military Industry of the Republic of Belarus on May 22, 2020, the Belarusian President, Aleksander Lukashenko, was informed that Russia does not want to provide its missile ranges to test Belarusian missiles. Lukashenko expressed dissatisfaction, saying that Belarus should not be at the mercy of the Russians.
There is a state program for missile production in Belarus which is supposed to be implemented in 2017-2020.
Earlier, Lukashenko called for the production of indigenous missiles with a range of 300 km in order to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign partners. The deadline for the missile production is September. Missile ranges of China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia are being considered as probable test sites for missiles after Russia's refusal.
China is assisting Belarus in the production of missile complexes for which the Belarusian Foreign Minister, Vladimir Makei, expressed gratitude and said that the military security of Belarus will be significantly strengthened with China’s help.
Why the Event is Important for Belarus: In recent years, Belarus has been striving to reduce its economic and energy dependence on Russia. Attempts to create indigenous military products without Russian help demonstrate Lukashenko's new approach aimed at reducing the country’s reliance on Russia in the military sphere as well.
Belarus Receives Oil from Saudi Arabia
Main Event: On May 16, 2020, the Naftan Belarusian oil refinery received oil from the Saudi Aramco state-owned company.
Event in Details: The port of Klaipeda (Lithuania) received 87,000 tons of Arab oil. In the first phase, 60 tanks of Arab oil were sent by rail transit from Klaipeda to Belarus.
In January 2020 after negotiations on oil prices with Russian oil companies stalled, Belarus began to diversify its oil imports. This year, Belarus has already received alternative oil from Norway, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia. Belarus will also receive American oil in June.
Amid a sharp drop in global oil prices, Belarus finally agreed with the Russian energy giant Rosneft on the supply of nine million tons of oil by the end of the year.
Why Diversification of Oil Import is Important for Belarus: Amid a sharp drop in oil prices and in demand for petroleum products, Belarus continues to diversify its oil imports. The diversification policy is aimed at weakening Russia's political and economic influence over Belarus.
Russia Requests Belarus to Settle Its Debt for Gas
Main Event: On May 29, 2020, Alexey Miller, the Head of the Russian energy giant Gazprom, said that Minsk has accumulated USD 165.57 million in debt for Russian gas and that negotiations on gas price cuts for 2021 will begin after Belarus pays off its debt.
Event in Details: In 2020, Russia supplied gas to Belarus at the same price as in 2019 – USD 127 per 1,000 cubic meters. Amid a sharp drop in energy (including gas) prices, Belarus asked Russia to review gas prices in April. During this period, the price of gas fell to USD 40 in Europe. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan asked Russia to provide cut-rate gas supplies.
Minsk denied that it has debts to Gazprom, saying that the parties have certain nuances that that should be resolved.
Why the Event is Important: Amid the pandemic and a sharp drop in global energy prices, Belarus wants to get gas at reduced rates not only for 2021 but also for the current year. Although it is difficult for Belarus to obtain gas from alternative sources in terms of transportation and logistics, the President of Belarus seeks to negotiate more favorable gas prices and achieve some small success in the “gas war” with Russia in the run-up to the August presidential elections in Belarus.
European Union to Finance the Reconstruction of a Gas Pipeline in Lithuania
Main Event: The EU will finance the reconstruction of an 18-kilometer gas pipeline between Lithuania, Vilnius and Kaunas at a cost of EUR 8.6 million.
Event in Details: The project will be implemented by the Amber Grid company which is the main operator of gas transportation in the country and owns all major pipelines and compressor stations. The total cost of the project is EUR 17.1 million, including EUR 8.6 million allocated by the European Union. The modernization of the pipeline section will ensure the safe and unimpeded transportation of gas. It will be completed by 2023.
Amber Grid considers that the Vilnius-Kaunas gas pipeline is important for the Lithuania-Poland gas pipeline (GIPL) which is under construction and which will be ready by the end of 2021. Once the pipeline is completed, the Baltic states and Finland will be integrated into the EU gas transmission network. The reconstructed pipeline will provide gas to Lithuanian customers as well as to the Klaipeda LNG Terminal in Lithuania. Gas will be transported from the Klaipeda LNG Terminal to Poland after the completion of the construction of the GIPL.
Why the Event is Important: The main goal of the ongoing pipeline projects in the Baltic states is to strengthen the energy independence of the countries in the region, integrate them into the EU energy system and reduce their reliance on Russia’s energy system.