Russia In Danger Of Conflicts In East, West & South As Regional Autocratic Leaders Fail

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Three Out Of Five Eurasian Economic Union States Now Facing Political Unrest 

Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis  

2020 is fast developing into a highly problematic year in terms of Russian sovereignty and influence as political unrest flares up along its borders. Earlier in the year there were, and remain problems in Belarus with the legitimacy of President Lukashenko, in power for 26 years being contested. Two weeks ago, fighting flared up in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian controlled enclave bordering Azerbaijan. Yesterday, protests in Kyrgyzstan have seen the jailed ex-President Almazbek Atambayev released from prison amidst riots that have left the whereabouts of the incumbent President Jeenbekov unknown.

Two of the problems revolve around political issues with autocratic and somewhat secretive leaders in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan losing their credibility among the general population. Neither have been able to adapt to a more enlightened population whose access to overseas media and news has penetrated far more into society than was possible during the Soviet era.

Belarus – A Soviet Era Leader Competing With The European Union

The Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was born in 1954 and came to power after the breakup of the Soviet Union. His policies and methodology of governance are straight out of the Soviet era rulebook; he has failed to adapt to modern times and the desire for many Belarussians to live in a more open and transparent society. While he remains in power for now, he is also an enigma; a Soviet style politician operating nearly 30 years after that systems collapse.

Kyrgyzstan – A Soviet Era Leader Competing With Modern Chinese Wealth

It is a similar story with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Born in 1958, he served as a director of the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan before beginning his political career, rising to be a deputy in the Assembly of People’s Representatives in 1995, Prime Minister in 2016 and President in 2017. He is an autocratic leader whose political ideology is steeped in a system that became defunct in 1991. It is hardly surprising that this is now beginning to show significant signs of wear and tear – neither are leaders of the generation required to bring their respective nations into the 21st century – and their citizens now realize this.

Nagorno-Karabakh – Energy Supply Control Dressed Up As A Religious Divide

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has its roots in the geopolitical fault lines of Christianity and Islam. With a majority of ethnic Armenians, what was an Oblast (Province) controlled by  Azerbaijan until 1988 has been Armenian controlled since 1994. Prior to Azeri control it had been part of the Russian Empire and folded into Azerbaijan in 1920 in a deal partially brokered by the British in the aftermath of the Russian revolution.

Under the Soviet Union era, religion was essentially banned and member nations were encouraged to be friends and neighbours under a collective banner. That had some success with little Azeri-Armenian conflict – until the breakup of the USSR.

Today, the de facto President of Nagorno-Karabakh is Bako Sahakyan, who has stated his intention to create an independent republic of Artsakh from the region. He too has a Soviet background, serving in the Soviet Army before entering politics. He has been President since 2007.

The main influencing parties here are Turkey and Russia, and there have been reports of Turkish military operations in the region fighting alongside Syrian rebels to place the region back into Islamic hands. If successful, that will create a refugee flight of ethnic Armenians back to Armenia. It would also place the numerous oil and gas supply lines that cross Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Turkey back under Azeri, rather than Armenian control. It remains to be seen what Russia intends to do about this – it will not wish to risk a military conflict with Turkey, while its relations with Azerbaijan also remain generally good. Armenia however is a member of the Moscow backed Eurasian Economic Union, as are Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.

The implications for Moscow are serious. The Eurasian Economic Union is a flagship project and highlighted as a major part of the Eurasian Belt & Road Initiative. Azerbaijan is a key Caspian Port link with Kazakhstan and into Russia, while Belarus represents a major border area with the European Union.

A Failure Of Soviet-Era Succession Plans By Moscow

Some criticism can be pointed at Moscow; while the breakup of the Soviet Union took place, political progress in many of its ex-satellites has remained backwards and rooted in the old Soviet system. A more modern world, with populations now familiar with access to the internet and global communications, seeing the rise in living standards in neighbouring countries such as China, Turkey and EU members has created an economic disparity between haves and have-nots. That this has been allowed to develop to such a state remains a political failing from Moscow. In Nagorno-Karabakh’s case, it is a strategic grab over who gets to control pipelines running between two Islamic nations with a Christian enclave inbetween.

There will be an end-point, although the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has the potential to become extremely serious. The outcome of this depends upon Russian willingness to insist that Azerbaijan-Turkey energy supply routes continue to be administered by Armenia. On paper at least, that doesn’t seem to carry enough weight to justify military intervention by Moscow. This is not good news for Yerevan.

In terms of old-style Soviet leaders remaining in power, it is obvious their end days are fast approaching. They may well be able to hang on a little longer, but age will eventually take its toll. Moscow’s succession planning has been remiss in its adherence to Soviet style politics and a re-think is sorely needed about the capabilities of the people it wishes to see run these countries. A much younger, and internationally educated generation prepared to embrace IT and new ideas needs to be put into place and given the chance to grow. Only then will Russia be able to truly become the bridge between East and West it has always had the potential to be.

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Russia Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Eurasia, including China, Russia, India, and the ASEAN nations, assisting foreign investors into the Eurasian region. Please contact us at for Russian investment advisory or assistance with market intelligence, legal, tax and compliance issues throughout Asia.

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