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Azerbaijan after the Presidential Elections: Internal and Foreign Policy Dynamics

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The campaign, which ended on April 11, was held ahead of schedule. If it had been held in the “normal mode,” the vote would have taken place on October 17. Thus, the shift of the election date itself already indicates a certain intrigue. Indeed, Ilham Aliyev did not have any real competitors before announcing the shift of the campaign to an earlier date. They did not appear even during the election race, although it should be noted that Ilham Aliyev’s exclusive position in Azerbaijani politics can be explained not only by his notorious administrative resource, which, no doubt, was used to its full capacity.

For many years, the Azerbaijani authorities have skillfully appealed to various strata of the population. Pro-Western intellectuals see it as an embodiment of the principles of secularism and active cooperation with the U.S. and the EU, especially in the economic sphere. In this regard, complaints towards the authorities related to, for example, restraint of freedom are compensated for by a choice in favor of stability and deterrence of Islamic extremists (the threat comes both from neighboring Iran and the Russian North Caucasus, and in the last few years from the “Islamic State”, banned in the Russian Federation and a number of other countries, as well). A paternalistic mindset makes the rural population content with the current government. As for ethnic minorities, they tend to be conservative and not interested in changing the leadership, which might bring unpredictability to their status. An aim to strengthen the army (as a reference: the military budget of Azerbaijan is higher than the national budget of Armenia) makes the armed forces a serious ally of the state. Stability is an attractive brand both for the common man on the street and for businessmen who experienced the short-term rule of the “Popular Front” in the 1990s. At the same time, social discontent is managed by high labor emigration. Azerbaijanis are the fourth-largest group of foreigners on the territory of the Russian Federation: only according to official figures, the number is 620 thousand people, and according to available expert estimates, it exceeds 1 million people.

During the recent election campaign, the absence of a strong secular opposition was also in favor of Ilham Aliyev. Its representatives (primarily the National Council of Democratic Forces, as well as the Republican Alternative Movement (ReAl)) declared their non-participation in the campaign. Previously, the opposition, representing other structures, had repeatedly imposed a boycott, but did not achieve much success in this area. In 2018, ReAl and the National Council of Democratic Forces could not come up with any other effective way to counteract the aspirations of the authorities to extend Ilham Aliyev’s period in office.

Politicians who had already participated in presidential election campaigns were among the competitors of the current Head of State. In 2003, 2008, and 2013, the following candidates stood for election: Gudrat Hasanguliyev (0.55, 2.28 and 1.99% respectively) and Hafiz Gajiyev (0.40, 0.65 and 0.66%). In 2013, Zakhid Oruj (1.45%), Faraj Guliyev (0.86%), Araz Alizadeh (0.87%) and Sardar Mamedov (0.62%) also took part in the elections. Only Razi Nurullayev had not participated in presidential campaigns before.

Ilham Aliyev’s opponents expressed oppositional views in one way or another in different years. At the same time, some of them were often ahead of the government in terms of populism and nationalism. For example, in January 2012, Gudrat Hasanguliyev initiated a renaming of the country to the Republic of Northern Azerbaijan, declaring Azerbaijanis a “divided nation”, and fighting for unity with fellow Iranians. Hafiz Gajiyev is famous for the scandal he raised by claiming the Azerbaijani origin of the Prophet Muhammad, and also for promising a reward for reprisals against writer Akram Aylisli for his allegedly «Armeniaphilic” novel “Stone Dreams” [1] . He also announced full support of Ankara in the face of “Russian imperialism” after the incident with the Russian Su-24 in the sky over Syria.

During the presidential campaign of 2018, all these scenarios were played over again. Razi Nurulaev called for strengthening strategic ties with Pakistan to quickly resolve the Karabakh conflict, and Gudrat Hasanguliyev promised to return “lost lands” in case of his victory. Set against the other candidates competing in populism, Ilham Aliyev maintained the image of a respectable politician, although he did not escape the rigid rhetoric about Karabakh. What is the sense of shifting the election’s date then, if the result was quite predictable?

Formally, the elections were shifted because of the ceremonies dedicated to the centenary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the first national state of Azerbaijanis, proclaimed in May 1918. Visits of representative foreign delegations and negotiations about prospects for cooperation between the pre-Caspian republic and other countries are scheduled for these dates. However, when answering the question about the timing of elections, it should be kept in mind that the 2018 campaign was the first after the implementation of constitutional reforms in Azerbaijan. Due to two rounds of constitutional amendments (in 2009 and 2016), restrictions on the number of legislatures for one head of state were lifted, and the term of office was extended from five to seven years. In this context, the “accelerated” elections were called upon to “cement” this power model in order to shorten the time for possible discussions (not so much in a public format, but among the ruling elite) and avoid unpleasant surprises. In fact, the election of Ilham Aliyev for a new, fourth term signifies the completion of the constitutional reforms.

New Government and Old Staff

Having taken office (the inauguration took place a week after the vote), the Azerbaijani President did not take a path of cardinal personnel changes. Nevertheless, in April 2018, a new prime minister was approved. For many years, Arthur Rasizadeh [2] had headed the office, and after the election he was replaced by Novruz Mamedov. On the one hand, an ‘older than old’ political figure left one of the first posts in the country. At the time of his resignation, Rasizadeh was 83 years old! However, Mamedov is not a newcomer to politics. He is 71 years old. Being a professional French language interpreter, he worked in Africa during Soviet times, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he held various posts in the team of Geydar Aliyev and later in his son’s team. Upon taking up the position of prime minister, Mamedov left the post of presidential aide on foreign policy issues. In this capacity, he was very active in public, making regular statements on international issues.

With Mamedov taking the post, the composition of the government changed slightly. The key ministers retained their seats in the new government. Among them are the “defense” men (Zakir Gasanov, Head of the Ministry of Defense, and Ramil Usubov, Chief of the Ministry of Internal Affairs), as well as Elmar Mamedyarov [3] , a key Azerbaijani diplomat. However, it is worth noting that the head of the State Committee for Diaspora Issues was replaced in the new Government. Fuad Muradov replaced Nazim Ibragimov, who was subjected to public criticism for being unable to cope with his duties.

Most likely, the new Prime Minister will not become an alternative center of power. Mamedov is being called upon to play the role of Aliev’s assistant in the settlement of informal relations within the Azerbaijani elite, representatives of the “old team” (inherited by the current head of the Republic from his father) and the “new” group that has common interests with Ilham’s wife, first Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva. Strengthening the vertical of power requires unity among the ranks. For many years, Ramiz Mehtiyev, another veteran of Azerbaijani politics and long-term Head of the Administration of the President (since 1995), has successfully been playing the role of moderator, but due to his health problems, additional strength is required; otherwise the “cementing” of the power system will be incomplete.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s stability comes with a downside. It is built on the monopolization of the political space and the marginalization of secularist opposition. It is important that the weakness of the secular opposition, the absence of bright leaders and attractive programs, bears a risk of accumulating social discontent with the help of various non-systemic forces (non-state actors). Today, these groups (like radical Islamists) are scattered and not strong enough. Nevertheless, there are certain risks in this regard.

Nagorno-Karabakh, Security, International Agenda

With regards to foreign policy and security, the significance of the past elections can hardly be overestimated. They showed that both the authorities and the opposition (even those who boycotted the campaign) still maintain a consensus on the prospects for the settlement of the Karabakh situation. Even so, different opinions were voiced on this issue. According to Rasim Musabekov, an influential expert and deputy of the Azerbaijani Milli Mejlis, the shift of the election date was connected to a kind of “breakthrough solution” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution, which would involve compromise. At the same time, there was no shortage of statements about the return of not only Karabakh, but also Yerevan. Consequently, the familiar algorithm is still working, when tough rhetoric is combined with promises of progress in the negotiations. On April 21, there was a slight aggravation on the line of contact between the sides. The mass actions in neighboring Armenia and the deepening of the “velvet revolution” (as the leader of the protests, Nikol Pashinyan, called it) could result in destabilization. In March 2008, the most significant violation of the truce at the time was recorded just after clashes between the authorities and the police in Yerevan (on completion of the presidential election).

However, for Baku, which is extremely uninterested in maintaining the current status quo, there are limits to escalation. Firstly, it is the commitment to the traditional course: pressure on all political azimuths without a descent into war. Secondly, Russia and the West, despite the confrontation over Syria and Ukraine, remain united in their views on the prospects for Karabakh issue settlement. The entire “big three” (the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group: Russia, the United States, and France) favor the implementation of the “Updated Madrid Principles” exclusively through negotiation. To challenge this approach means to oppose oneself to the West and Russia at the same time, and Baku is not ready for this. On the contrary, Baku is trying to use careful balancing between them in its own favor. Iran is a separate issue. Tehran does not support the “Updated Madrid Principles,” but at the same time insists on a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on a compromise between Yerevan and Baku. Turkey is supporting Azerbaijan, its strategic ally, in every way. However, today Ankara is focused on the Middle East (Iraq and Syria) and is not interested in the escalation in Transcaucasia with possible interference from both Moscow and Washington. Thus, the most likely scenario is a maintained status quo with constant attempts to find opportunities for its revision.

First published in our partner RIAC

[1] Published in the Russian literary journal Druzhba Narodov (Friendship of the People) in December 2012 (2012, № 2), narrating about Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict at the beginning of the 20th century and in 1980s. It has a dedication: “In the memory of my countrymen, who left behind their unmourned pain.” At home, the writer was severely criticized as “Armeniaphile”.

[2] For the first time he got this post in November 1996, and gave it up for only a few months (from August to November 2003) to vacate this place for Geydar Aliyev’s successor Ilham, who, after his father’s election as president, immediately returned «the settled post» to its previous holder. Since that time, Rasizadeh has been Prime Minister for almost 15 years. But in this capacity he was more a technical leader than a political player.

[3] Gasanov has been in office since October 2013, Mamedyarov since April 2004, and Usubov from April 1994.

PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC Expert

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Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum

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In April this year, amidst rising tensions with Russia, a Ukrainian diplomat warned that Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand. On the same lines, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky challenged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to talk on ending ongoing conflict in the region. He further urged the west to give “clear signals” of whether they were willing to support the country in its standoff with Russia.

But why has this situation emerged? Why is NATO and west so reluctant to proceed with forming partnership with Ukraine? Is Russia aggressive towards Ukraine? And as no geopolitical conflict in today’s complex world is possible in isolation or between just two parties, who are the other actors involved in this conflict? This paper investigates these questions to analyse the case of post-soviet Ukraine and how Ukraine remains important to the geopolitical dynamics of not just the post-soviet space, but also the broader Eurasian region as well as the world.

Background

Ukraine has been often deemed as the cornerstone of the Soviet Union. It was not only the second-most populous republic, after Russia, but was also home to much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military. However, Ukraine’s history is intertwined deeply with the birth of Russian kingdom itself, as the beginning of Ukraine was the establishment of Kievan Rus which united the Eastern Slavs and laid the foundation for Russian identity. After centuries of direct existence under Russian rule however, Ukraine post-1991, decided to embark on its separate journey, hoping to de-intertwine its fate with that of Russia’s. However, this has not become a success to the extent Ukrainian leaders might have expected. The nation’s proximity to Russia has meant that any government in Moscow will do anything in its capacity to maintain some control over Kiev’s foreign as well as defence policy, in order to keep at bay any adventurist objectives by the western bloc of EU and US. Today, Russian policy’s primary aim is to keep Ukraine out of foreign alliances and geopolitical blocs like that of EU and NATO, and for this, periodic show of strength has become an explicit policy in the last decade for Russia. Further, post the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, where Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea according to Russian critics, NATO has been forced to increase its presence in the Black Sea region where Crimean Peninsula exists geographically and has stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine (as well as Georgia, who too have similar concerns with Russia). However, although the relations between NATO and Ukraine were updated in June 2020 and Ukraine is now one of the six countries having tag of ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and makes significant contributions to NATO operations and other alliance objectives, NATO’s scepticism and reluctance on giving full member status to Ukraine is seen in Ukrainian political circles as west’s non-serious attitude towards the nation. Similarly, while EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, its path to becoming an EU member has been harder than the leaders would have imagined.  In the later parts of this article, the 2013 trade war between Ukraine and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining EU, and the subsequent toppling of the presidential regime in Ukraine in the next few months is highlighted.

However, even though Russia, EU and NATO have been primary geopolitical actors in Ukraine, recently, new actors have joined the ongoing geopolitical conundrum. The entry of the likes of China and Turkey has not only made the situation more complex but has also raised the stakes for the primary actors. Ukraine has in recent years, encouraged the presence of Chinese businesses in its market and welcomed further expansion of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, to the extent that in 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main bilateral partner. In case of Turkey, president Tayyip Erdogan has time and again reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Further, Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in the military sector has dramatically increased in the recent years, replacing the traditional Russian base. Interestingly though, Ankara has maintained and has even grown in its partnership with Moscow which somehow softens the stance towards conflict between Ukraine and Russia as gets limited to following the EU-US stance more often than not, unlike in the case of Azerbaijan-Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey had explicitly supported Azerbaijan when Russia has tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.    

The Perennial Question: What does Russia want?

Prior to 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict, Russia had hoped to have Ukraine into its single market project- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and benefit from the enormous Ukrainian market and population which could have boosted Russian industrial base. However, post the conflict, any hopes for integrating Russia-Ukraine markets have collapsed. Whereas Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas until 2014, the supply stopped entirely by 2016. Today, Russia is looking to complete infrastructure projects in terms of energy commodities, which would bypass Ukraine to starve Ukraine from the billions of dollars of transit fee that Russia has paid since long to Ukraine to reach Central and Eastern European markets. Further, since 2014, EU became the main trading partner and has been in talks with Ukraine since very long for Ukraine’s accession to EU. However, Russia for long has seen EU membership as an immediately preceding step to NATO accession, and hence sees the aspect of avoiding EU membership for Ukraine as not only an element of Russian economic policy, but also that of its security policy. Further, Russia now sees EU as not just an economic bloc, but ‘a potential great-power centre in the making’, whose further expansion in post-soviet region is bound to negatively affect Russian credentials of a hegemon as well as the arbiter in the regional conflicts. Russia’s recent mobilisation of troops at the Ukrainian borders which was more of show of strength rather than a potential act of aggression, had raised concerns in the new US presidential regime. In one interview, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu explicitly linked Russia’s mass-mobilization drills to NATO’s ‘Defender Exercise’, which has been the biggest military exercise taken in the Black Sea region since the cold war era, saying that ‘The scale of US led military activity required response’. In a way, Ukraine has become a battleground for both Russia and US to showcase their influence and Ukrainian leadership is finding itself in a dilemma, being unsure and insecure of the extent of intentions from both the warring blocs.

The Western Dilemma: Why Ukraine still not in EU and NATO?

There have been several factors at work which has made Ukraine’s path to membership to EU and NATO difficult. Firstly, in the recent years, there has been a concern in the EU political circles that there is no political will in Ukraine to fight vested interests and go beyond the promises of showing credible commitment to genuine domestic reforms. However, on the flip side, the argument is often made that beyond financial and technical assistance that EU can provide to Ukraine and its market, Brussels does not have any new offer to motivate Kyiv in implementing reforms. Further, since the coming of new presidency in 2019 (of Zelensky), the primary focus of the government has shifted to resolving the Donbass conflict where Ukraine is struggling against separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, who are allegedly supported by the Russian side.

Moreover, it is also an open secret that many member nations in EU itself would prefer to have a different relationship with Russia, who since 2014 has been facing several sanctions in realm of trade, be it in energy sector, consumer goods, or defence and space technology. This is clear when we take in consideration the case of Germany and how the government has for long insisted on getting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project completed amidst mounting pressure from other members of EU and the US. The project is expected to resolve the energy demand issue for majority of German households for the near future once in function.

In Russia, EU is deemed as the ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion as already mentioned before. However, for NATO, a different set of concerns exist altogether. NATO has been wary of Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the continuing unrest in the Donbass region. If, however, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, any such conflict would mandate NATO to get involved in the region and aid Ukraine, which then might escalate in a bigger conflict. And this is another important reason for NATO’s restrained stance.

China- The ‘Well-settled’ player in Ukrainian Market

In recent times, China’s economic might has enabled it to leverage the benefits in a variety of ways. Not only does China influence the decisions indirectly at times, but any economy which is intertwined and dependent on Chinese economy, can today expect to feel direct effects of this economic inter-dependency when it comes to foreign policy. An increasingly observable phenomenon is that China in gaining foothold much quicker in those nations of the post-soviet space, where Russia is deemed as a hostile neighbour or state. This was visible in a 2020 public opinion survey by SOCIS which highlighted that almost 60 percent of Ukrainians see Chin as a ‘neutral’ state even if only 13 percent see China as ‘friendly’, but over 63 percent see Russia has a ‘hostile’ state, with only 5 percent deeming Russia as ‘friendly’. Today, China is complementing Ukraine for its deficits, for instance in the field of technology and defence where it is replacing Russia and competing with Turkey, and in realm of exports, China is proving to be a worthy destination for Ukraine’s agricultural products by having a large population and increasingly developed market system. This is quite clear by the statistics which show that Ukrainian exports to China surged 98% in 2020 driven by iron ore, grains, and palm oil.  Ukraine’s president on his part recently praised China for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlighted China’s assistance in combating COVID-19, however, it remains to be seen how these developments would be perceived by both US and Russia.

Turkey- An Emerging Vector

Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in military technology has increased dramatically post the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict and today, Ankara supports Kyiv’s bid for membership to NATO as well as peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk region). Further, in April this year, the two sides pledged in a 20-point statement, ‘to coordinate steps aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, in particular the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea… as well as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions’.

However, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the recent Ankara-Moscow dynamics, where the two have come closer since President Erdogan’s policies have become more nationalistic and non-secular in nature, driving Turkey away from the ambit of west and US, and raising concerns about the increasingly populistic approach being undertaken by Turkish government. Further, US’ plans to build new naval bases in the Black Sea region and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia also concerns Turkey, as it directly would result in reduced role of Turkey and a blow to Turkish president’s ambitions of renewing Turkey’s status as a regional powerhouse.

Conclusion

The seven-year war between Ukraine and Russia, which is still ongoing, has changed the relationship between the two countries completely and permanently. Since Ukrainian market is now open to EU and China, a competition to dominate this market is soon to become more and more visible. While Russia would want to avoid Ukraine’s EU accession till as long as possible, Moscow will go to even greater lengths to prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. On its part, not only will NATO be wary of Russian insecurities, but it will also consider the fact that increasing tensions with Moscow might push it towards Beijing, and a possible military alliance between the two military powers might be the greatest challenge for NATO in the coming future. Since Russia has lacked the economic might post the Soviet union’s dissolution, an alliance with China might balance out almost every limitation that Russia and China have in terms of their superpower capabilities. EU on the other hand keeps a close eye on developments in Kyiv too. Although Kyiv is yet to come up with overhauling reforms which would strengthen EUs believe in Ukrainian system, EU member states themselves will need to overcome a sort of internal division, where several member states hope of having a more normal relationship with Moscow. US on its part is expected to align with Turkey and US in bringing Ukraine in close cooperation with EU and NATO and to do everything possible to detach Kyiv from a possible rapprochement with Moscow. It remains to be seen, how other post-Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan react to these developments taking place in Ukraine and assimilate this in their own discourse of balancing the west and Russia.  

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‘Strategic Frivolity’ of the West and the Belarus Issue

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The Western countries’ reaction to the detention of an opposition leader in Minsk has revealed the high degree of readiness of the United States and its allies to create risky situations for the sake of momentary political benefits. No matter how the actions of the Belarusian authorities were consistent with international aviation law and customs, the behaviour of Washington and most of European capitals showed that they are difficult, if not hopeless partners for the rest of the world community. Now we have no reason to fear that developments will turn into an uncontrolled escalation — the attacks of the West against Lukashenko do not directly impact Russian interests. However, what has happened in the media and in diplomatic circles in recent days provides ample opportunity to consider the need for new containment measures in relation to the habit of the US and Europe to take European and international security so lightly.

So far, Russia’s reaction to these emotional outbursts has been restrained, because the actions of the Western countries did not directly harm its interests. But if such hysteria repeats, it will confirm the lack of intentions in the West to establish any kind of stable dialogue with those powers that are not willing to subordinate their respective domestic and foreign policies to its demands. Is this some kind of a “strategic frivolity”, whose appearance in international affairs and the behaviour of the EU and the US has become more and more regular as the balance of power in world politics shifts? Russia, for its part, can show any amount of restraint, but the line beyond which this will become impossible, may be passed unnoticed.

As a matter of fact, such a reaction of the West to the stoppage of an international flight by the Belarusian authorities and the detention of one of the passengers did not come as a surprise. In recent years, Russia, China and others have become accustomed to the fact that the United States and Europe have been quick to sacrifice international stability when it has suited their concurrent goals.

The EU countries have been grasping at any straw in their attempts to confirm their greater relevance in terms of international law on the world political stage. It hasn’t been working out very well so far.

At the summit on May 25, the leaders of the European Union countries approved a resolution calling for a package of measures against Belarus — personal sanctions and broader measures against the Belarusian economy. But it is clear how ineffective these measures will be, even to the European observers. After the failure of the EU to work out a common position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the failure of another attempt to “punish” the government of Alexander Lukashenko will serve as another blow to the international reputation of the EU.

Britain, which left the EU, but remains the closest satellite of the United States, is in principle trying to behave as the main opponent against any country whose position does not coincide with Washington’s wishes. Now London’s position is aligned with that of the Baltic states, which are most irresponsible in their statements and actions. It is unlikely that this will strengthen London’s position on the world stage. The United States, for its part, is acting in its usual way — while lacking any direct interests, it easily creates risks for others. Surprisingly, in this respect, the behaviour of the US resembles the behaviour of Minsk, which is also not always ready to take into account Russia’s diplomatic wishes.

For Russia, the recent diplomatic “plane crash” involving Belarus does not pose immediate threats, but it may become another test for Russia’s legendary restraint. Moscow is clearly accustomed to the fact that the Western states are not always predictable in their actions and, in principle, live “in their own world”, where there are certain rules for them, and completely different ones for others. So far, Russia has reacted to all this in a very reserved manner. The measures the West has taken against Minsk do contradict basic Russian interests in the field of European security, but they do not create threats and do not harm Russia. However, it is the ease with which the West enters a conflict with any nation, at the slightest pretext, that causes Russia’s concern.

It will be extremely fortunate if, during the Russia-US summit, scheduled for June 16 in Geneva, the parties can deliver some appeasement to international or regional politics. It is unlikely that the summit will result in any breakthrough of a general nature; there are no preconditions for this. But the very ability of Russia and the United States to discuss common interests will show that both great powers retain the responsibility necessitated by their strategic importance. So far, however, we cannot be sure even of such a minimal positive outcome of the expected meeting.

Russia concurs that the actions of the Belarusian authorities are no example of prudence. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that Moscow has adequately estimated the scale of Western pressure on Minsk and understands that in the situation that has arisen, reactions such as that of the Belarusian government are quite predictable, and even justified. In 2020, a number of Belarus’ neighbours in the West openly supported a movement to overthrow President Lukashenko. Russia then supported the legitimate Belarusian government and warned of its readiness to provide it with practical assistance.

Lukashenko himself can pursue his interests as much as he wants, and sometimes even refuse to coordinate actions with Russia — Belarus is a sovereign state. However, the alternative to his regime now is an attempt to bring to power such forces that will confidently follow the Ukrainian scenario.

The internal political crisis in Belarus, even if it enters a hot phase, would be beneficial to the interests of the United States and would have a devastating effect on European security. However, as we can see, now the countries of Western Europe are in a state of political “knockdown” and cannot control events that risk putting an end even to the minimal independence and choice possessed by Europe. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are ready to create risky situations, because outside the conflict with Russia, they have no future in international politics. The fact that the future within the framework of this conflict may turn out to be very short for all of them does not bother them at all. Britain and the countries of Eastern Europe are dominated by forces, for which adventurous behaviour has become the basis of politics inside and outside. Germany and France cannot stop them because they are engulfed in colossal internal problems.

We can hardly expect that the next surge of “strategic frivolity” will have really dramatic consequences. In any case, the world history of all-out wars does not know examples when large-scale armed conflicts would have really insignificant incidents as a pretext. In all known episodes, a “tragic accident” has always involved the interests or security of one of the leading powers. Now we don’t see this, and most politicians in the West are therefore behaving irresponsibly, because they do not expect a serious escalation. Moreover, the Lukashenko government is indeed becoming one of the permanent opportunities for the United States and Europe to stage high-profile political campaigns without a real threat to the world. But this is not a guarantee that if there are grounds for a big conflict, the behaviour of the West would be more reasonable than these days.

From our partner RIAC

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Ryanair Incident: Five Sanctions Risks for the Republic of Belarus

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The detention in Belarus of a plane operated by the Irish company Ryanair has caused a sharp reaction in the US and the EU. The issue of expanding sanctions was again on the agenda. They may turn out to be even more serious than the restrictive measures introduced last year in response to the situation around the presidential elections.

The approach of Washington and Brussels is defined by several lines of argument which converge at one point. First, the detention of the plane resulted in the arrest of opposition politician Roman Protasevich. The incident reignited the theme of democracy and human rights violations, which have long served as a basis for sanctions. Second, the Western powers proceed from the fact that the aircraft was detained under the false pretext of a terrorist attack threat on board. The statements of the Hamas movement that they were not involved in the events added their share of farce. Third, the detention was carried out with the use of an Air Force fighter, that is, this aspect of the incident can be interpreted as the use of force. History knows a number of examples of such detentions, including the forced landing of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in 2013. From a formal point of view, Minsk acted in the interests of national security within Belarusian territory. However, this formality and the existence of precedents are unlikely to play a serious role. In the USA, the incident is understood as a “shocking act” that endangered the lives of passengers and has served as a new reason to condemn Lukashenko for undermining democracy. Similar assessments were given in Brussels and London. Threats of new sanctions were voiced almost immediately. There are five main sanctions risks for Belarus.

The first risk is that of a ban on the use of the territory of Belarus for aircraft transit, a ban on flights to Belarus, as well as on the reception of aircraft from Belarusian airlines. Threats quickly began to shift to a practical level. The leaders of the EU countries called for a ban on flights of Belarusian aircraft in EU airspace. The UK and France have already introduced such measures. Some airlines have cancelled flights through Belarus. The big questions are: how long will such measures last and how unanimous will states and companies be in implementing them? However, it is clear that all this will complicate supply chains, as well as cause economic damage to the country and its partners abroad.

The second risk is that of diplomatic sanctions. In response to the replacement of the state flag of Belarus with the flag of the Belarusian opposition in Riga (with the participation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia), Minsk decided to expel all employees of the Latvian embassy. Similar decisions were made in Riga with regard to the employees of the Belarusian embassy.

The third risk is the denial of EU investment programmes. The government of Belarus would hardly receive such assistance even without the incident with the plane. The condition of assistance is a democratic transition in the country.

The fourth risk is another wave of sanctions against Belarusian officials. Such sanctions were widely used in response to the events in 2020. They play a rather symbolic role and do not do much economic harm. Usually they entail visa bans and the freezing of assets. At the same time, their psychological function should not be ignored. Such sanctions are usually aimed to sow discontent among the political elite, betting on its dissatisfaction with the political course of the country’s leadership. The EU may assume that even the security forces may not like to play the role of pariahs.

Finally, the fifth risk is that of blocking sanctions against strategic enterprises. Such sanctions have also been used in the past. A number of large Belarusian enterprises are already in the sanctions list (SDN) of the US Treasury. Most of them have a general license. Previously, such licenses were extended for long periods (up to two years). However, in April, the license was renewed for only a month and a half. It expires on June 2, 2021. Will the US, and after them the EU, carpet bomb the Belarusian economy? The lifting of the exemptions and the renewal of sanctions would cause serious economic damage. However, the threat of such actions will remain inevitable.

The resumption of blocking sanctions against big companies has not yet been discussed loudly. Despite the visceral opposition to the Belarusian leader and the country’s political system, the West is hardly eager to strengthen Russia’s position in relations with Belarus. This would deprive the Belarusian leadership of room for manoeuvre in its dialogue with Moscow and make Minsk much more dependent. But this is theory. In practice, such sanctions will provide a headache for Russia itself. They will hit the economic ties of Belarusian and Russian enterprises. The latter may fear secondary US sanctions. In addition, Belarus is likely to need large-scale economic assistance. The threat of sanctions poses important problems for the Union State of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. Among them is the creation of payment mechanisms that would ensure uninterrupted economic ties in the event of an aggravation of the sanctions pressure.

From our partner RIAC

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