Russia has for years tried to cultivate its role as a superpower that it lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, the crises in the space of the former USSR, its traditional area of influence, with an open war for the enclave of Upper Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the serious protests and riots in Kyrgyzstan against electoral fraud, and months of citizen mobilizations in neighboring Belarusagainst electoral fraud and his ally Aleksandr Lukashenko, put under the spotlight the image of the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin as mediator and influential leader on the world stage; also in the trick that the Russian president usually plays as a guarantor of stability. Especially since the tumultuous summer has given way to an even hotter fall in your neighborhood.
What happens in the South Caucasus – where Turkey is increasingly fighting for influence and which with its support for Baku is challenging Moscow’s hegemony in the region and questioning its role as referee, in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus – and how the Kremlin acts in these crises it will mark its role not only in the events of the post-Soviet space but also in the balance of world geopolitics. But the crises in his backyard, which have caught him off guard and engrossed in his own internal problems, have a great influence also within Russia, where the economic crisis, the management of the coronavirus pandemic and boredom with a highly centralized policy and in need of renewal and changes are fueling social discontent.
The satiety is clearly seen in places like Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, more than an eight-hour flight east from Moscow, where protests over the arrest of its governor, accused of murder, have lasted more than 90 days and have been they have transformed into critical mobilizations towards Moscow and, increasingly, towards Putin. This Saturday, for the first time since the start of the massive peaceful demonstrations, the riot police have charged hard against the citizens in a sign that the authorities are tired of the Khabarovsk protests, which have seen solidarity in places like Minsk or Bishkek and amid increasing instability, and fear they will replicate elsewhere.
“We’re seeing the continuing legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union today,” says analyst Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Center. In the current crises in Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the latest wave of the old conflict has already caused hundreds of deaths and injuries, the embers of the collapse of the USSR are still perceived in one way or another, says the expert: authoritarianism, the lack of free elections, territorial and ethnic tensions; all this together today with the development of an incipient fabric of civil society that has more and more democratic demands.
As is happening now in Belarus, where the mass protests against electoral fraud are not extinguished after serious evidence of manipulation in the presidential elections of August 9, in which Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 26 years , is attributed his sixth term.
The post-Soviet space has experienced different tensions in the last 30 years, many of its crises have been the legacy of the USSR or its dissolution; some are inherited from before – others are related to Russia’s territorial appetite and to maintain its influence, such as the annexation of Crimea or the Donbas war. Also stagnant conflicts such as that of the mountainous enclave of Upper Karabakh or Nagorno Karabakh, in the southern Caucasus, controlled by Armenia on Azerbaijani soil – and also with claims of self-determination -, which has seen different violations of a ceasefire declared in 1994 after the Baku-Yerevan war for the enclave in the early 1990s, which killed more than 20,000 people and left about a million displaced; mostly Azerbaijanis.
Until last September 27, when after almost three decades of intermittent skirmishes by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey openly supported the latter, with whom it shares powerful cultural and ethnic ties, and an escalation began that has become a open war with a multipolar ingredient in which Yerevan and Baku are accused of attacking civilian targets . Representatives of Upper Karabakh and independent media deployed on the ground have reported attacks by Azerbaijan against residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure, including the cathedral in the city of Shusha, and speak of a human catastrophe, involving thousands of internally displaced persons. Baku, meanwhile, denounces attacks in Ganja.
Russia, which although it has a military base in Armenia – to which it is also joined by a defense agreement – sells arms to both parties, has asserted these days its role as arbitrator and ally of both mediating in the signing of a high the fire that has come into force this Saturday at noon but, as has already been evident, has few signs of being fulfilled.
The conflict in Upper Karabakh reflects Moscow’s complicated geostrategic balances in the region. This week Putin said that Russia would enforce its defense agreement with Armenia if the fighting spread to Armenian territory, but also specified that the Karabakh is not. Furthermore, explains the political scientist Alexander Baunov, unlike other former Soviet republics with frozen conflicts such as Georgia or Moldova, Azerbaijan has not been an “enemy of Russia” state. “It has never had a government that turned anti-Russian rhetoric into a key foreign policy product or that proclaimed the emancipation of Russia as its main goal,” Baunov remarks.
The Kremlin is caught between stepping in to prop up one of its allies and leave the other. Or like in Belarus , where his support (for now) for Aleksandr Lukashenko – who this Saturday held an unprecedented meeting with some detained opponents, including former banker Viktor Babariko – is playing a fundamental role in maintaining the