Weekend Herald


Vladimir Putin, long a sower of dis­cord in the West, now faces strife closer to home, writes An­ton Troianovsk­i

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In Rus­sia’s self- pro­claimed sphere of in­flu­ence, Rus­sia is los­ing its in­flu­ence. Con­cur­rent crises in Be­larus, Cen­tral Asia and the Cau­ca­sus re­gion have blind­sided the Krem­lin, leav­ing it scram­bling to shore up Rus­sian in­ter­ests in for­mer Soviet re­publics and un­der­min­ing Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s im­age as a master tac­ti­cian on the world stage.

“There is noth­ing good about these con­flicts for Moscow,” Kon­stantin Zat­ulin, a se­nior Rus­sian law­maker and Putin ally who spe­cialises in re­la­tions with what Rus­sians call their “near abroad”.

Putin has spent years build­ing up Rus­sia as a global power, with a hand in hot spots from Latin Amer­ica to the Mid­dle East, and even med­dling in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in the United States. But af­ter work­ing for

years to desta­bilise the West, he sud­denly finds him­self sur­rounded by in­sta­bil­ity; once seen as sure- handed in for­eign af­fairs, he seems to have lost his touch. In Be­larus, Putin re­sponded to a street up­ris­ing in Au­gust by prop­ping up the coun­try’s un­pop­u­lar au­to­crat, Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Lukashenko, turn­ing pub­lic opin­ion against Rus­sia. In Kyr­gyzs­tan in Cen­tral Asia, pro­test­ers this week ap­peared on the verge of top­pling Pres­i­dent Sooron­bai Jeen­bekov, less than two weeks af­ter Putin pledged to him in a rare in­per­son meet­ing that “we will do ev­ery­thing to sup­port you as the head of state.”

And in the Cau­ca­sus, the longsim­mer­ing con­flict be­tween Ar­me­nia and Azer­bai­jan over the en­clave of Nagorno- Karabakh erupted last week into the worst fight­ing since the 1990s, threat­en­ing to undo the bal­anc­ing act that had al­lowed Rus­sia to cul­ti­vate di­verse links to the re­gion.

“Ev­ery day of con­flict in Karabakh is, ef­fec­tively, help­ing zero out Rus­sia’s author­ity,” Zat­ulin said.

The spate of new chal­lenges to Rus­sian in­flu­ence strikes at the heart of Putin’s years- long ef­fort to cast him­self as the leader who re­stored the great- power sta­tus that the na­tion lost with the col­lapse of the Soviet Union. Even as the Krem­lin de­nied Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion glee­fully re­ported on the Amer­i­can al­le­ga­tions of that in­ter­fer­ence as a sign that Moscow was be­ing reck­oned with on the world stage. Now, rather than re­act de­ci­sively to emer­gen­cies close to home, Putin sounds am­biva­lent about Rus­sia’s role.

“We hope the con­flict will end very soon,” he said of Nagorno- Karabakh, in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view broad­cast this week. Minutes later, re­fer­ring to Kyr­gyzs­tan, he said, “We hope that ev­ery­thing will be peace­ful.”

The con­flu­ence of crises in Rus­sia’s own neigh­bour­hood is such that some pro-Krem­lin com­men­ta­tors are al­ready ac­cus­ing the West of an or­gan­ised cam­paign to sow dis­cord in the post-Soviet re­gions.

More bal­anced an­a­lysts, how­ever, have sin­gled out one con­stant fac­tor in the grow­ing un­rest. Both Rus­sia and its neigh­bours, they say, have been desta­bilised by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, which has ex­posed dis­trust in in­sti­tu­tions and in out- oftouch lead­ers across the re­gion.

It helped undo the frag­ile truce be­tween Azer­bai­jan and Ar­me­nia, and in Be­larus and in Kyr­gyzs­tan, the dis­ease set the stage for pub­lic up­ris­ings by ex­pos­ing the rul­ing elite as dis­con­nected from peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing.

Lukashenko an­gered Be­laru­sians by play­ing down the dan­ger of the virus, jok­ing that vodka would cure it; in Kyr­gyzs­tan, crit­ics blamed of­fi­cials for us­ing coro­n­avirus aid money to en­rich them­selves.

Within Rus­sia, the eco­nomic hard­ship caused by the pan­demic has helped deepen pub­lic anger against Putin. In the Far East­ern city of Khabarovsk, for ex­am­ple, thou­sands of pro­test­ers an­gry over the ar­rest of a pop­u­lar gov­er­nor spilled into the streets last Satur­day for the 13th week in a row.

Some an­a­lysts say pub­lic dis­con­tent within Rus­sia means that Putin needs to turn more of his fo­cus to do­mes­tic is­sues such as econ­omy hard­ship, pol­lu­tion and poor health care, rather than delv­ing into global geopol­i­tics. But de­vel­op­ments in re­cent weeks have given Putin more rea­son to fo­cus on the lat­ter.

“For Putin, prac­ti­cally his en­tire mis­sion and his vi­sion of Rus­sian great­ness and suc­cess re­volve around his for­eign- pol­icy agenda,” said Ta­tiana Stanovaya, a non- res­i­dent scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter, a re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cused on pol­i­tics and pol­icy.

The new series of crises, she went on, “will very much dis­tract Putin from do­mes­tic prob­lems”.

The cen­tral­ity of the for­mer Soviet lands to Putin’s for­eign pol­icy was ev­i­dent in the Krem­lin’s list of world lead­ers who called Putin to wish him a happy birthday on Wed­nes­day, when he turned 68. Of the 12 who called, only three lead­ers – those of Is­rael, In­dia and Cuba – head coun­tries out­side the for­mer Soviet Union.

In Ar­me­nia, which hosts a Rus­sian mil­i­tary base, some hope for a more force­ful stance by Rus­sia in the con­flict, which has al­ready killed at least 250 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial re­ports. But Rus­sia’s abil­ity to in­flu­ence events in the Cau­ca­sus now ap­pears lim­ited, de­spite its past role as a me­di­a­tor in the Nagorno-Karabakh con­flict. Turkey, Azer­bai­jan’s most im­por­tant ally, has taken on a more as­sertive re­gional stance.

“Turkey, in­deed, in this cur­rent sit­u­a­tion prob­a­bly should be con­sid­ered as a bal­ance to uni­lat­eral Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence,” said Farid Shafiyev, chair­man of the Cen­ter of Analysis of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in the Azer­bai­jani cap­i­tal, Baku. In the Cau­ca­sus, he added, “the Rus­sian role is prob­a­bly di­min­ish­ing.”

Across the for­mer Soviet Union, Rus­sian re­mains the lin­gua franca, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of mostly un­cen­sored in­ter­net ac­cess across the re­gion means that protests in one coun­try can eas­ily in­spire a dis­en­chanted pop­u­lace in an­other.

Some pro­test­ers in Be­larus car­ried signs sup­port­ing the demon­stra­tions in Khabarovsk, over 6500km away. And ahead of Kyr­gyzs­tan’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions last week­end, gov­ern­ment crit­ics were keep­ing an eye on Be­larus, where it was a bla­tantly fal­si­fied elec­tion in Au­gust that sparked the up­ris­ing against Lukashenko.

“In Kyr­gyzs­tan it was of­ten said that we will copy the Be­laru­sians,” said Ay­bek Sul­tangaziyev, direc­tor of K- News news agency in Kyr­gyzs­tan. “In fact, we sur­passed the Be­laru­sians in ef­fec­tive­ness and pre­ci­sion.”

Sul­tangaziyev said that if his coun­try’s up­ris­ing suc­ceeds, the new lead­er­ship will seek to maintain close ties with Moscow. In Ar­me­nia, too, the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Nikol Pashinyan re­tained its al­liance with Rus­sia af­ter the prime min­is­ter came to power in a pop­u­lar up­ris­ing in 2018.

“We have never been pro- Western or pro- East­ern,” said Ruben Ru­binyan, head of the for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee in the Ar­me­nian Par­lia­ment.

“Rus­sia has been and is an ally of Ar­me­nia, a very im­por­tant ally.”

But, for Moscow, re­cent events in Be­larus of­fer a cau­tion­ary tale that il­lus­trates the fragility of Rus­sia’s stand­ing among its neigh­bours – car­ry­ing echoes of Ukraine’s more vi­o­lent de­par­ture from Rus­sia’s or­bit in 2014. Some Be­laru­sians well dis­posed to­ward Putin turned against him af­ter he propped up Lukashenko.

Zat­ulin, the Rus­sian law­maker, said of­fi­cials “at the high­est lev­els of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion” be­lieved that Lukashenko would need to step down “sooner or later”. But Lukashenko had ar­gued to Rus­sian of­fi­cials, Zat­ulin said, that his step­ping down in the face of street protests could set a dan­ger­ous prece­dent for what might hap­pen to Putin him­self.

“By un­con­di­tion­ally sup­port­ing Lukashenko, we are cre­at­ing an enor­mous prob­lem for our­selves in the fu­ture with the ma­jor­ity or a sig­nif­i­cant part of the Be­laru­sian pop­u­la­tion,” Zat­ulin said.

“We are cre­at­ing a prob­lem for our­selves with the other Be­laru­sian politi­cians and pub­lic fig­ures, who are in­creas­ingly forced to seek sym­pa­thy in the West. Rus­sia wants that least of all.”

 ?? Photo / AP ?? Pro­test­ers rally against elec­tion re­sults in Bishkek, Kyr­gyzs­tan, ear­lier this week.
Photo / AP Pro­test­ers rally against elec­tion re­sults in Bishkek, Kyr­gyzs­tan, ear­lier this week.

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