Post-Soviet Space 2020: Key Trends and Challenges

Due to the shifts within the global environment, including the come-back of the Middle East to the top agenda of great power politics alongside emergent controversies between major international players, the post-soviet space is down-grading in the hierarchy of political interests of non-regional players. As the global attention is mainly focused on other regions, the main challenges for the post-soviet space derive from the growing internal political turbulence.

Current domestic political processes in the post-Soviet space are largely associated with the problem of the transfer of power. Personalized regimes with political leaders being in power for decades after obtaining the post-soviet sovereignty are tested for stability (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Belarus, to a lesser extent Azerbaijan); in less centralized political systems, the challenge comes from the growth of populism (Armenia, Ukraine) and the struggle within the oligarchic structure (Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova).

Russia’s place in the post-Soviet space is twofold. On the one hand, it is an integral part of its political and economic structure and is an object to very similar types of domestic transformations, that may be illustrated by the effects of recent presidential address. On the other hand, due to asymmetries in political clout, economic disbalances, levels of security self-sufficiency, Russia is naturally considered to be an important external factor. For the post-soviet states Russia is still a reference axis to forge national identities and/or to formulate foreign policy priorities. For Russia its post-Soviet policies are mostly a derivative of its global aspirations.

Russia’s ability to influence the processes of change of power in its neighborhood is conditioned by the level of bilateral relations and the (willingness to) influence of non-regional players.

One of the main concerns stems from the assumption that the transfer of power in authoritarian political systems would cause domestic instability and / or major changes of foreign policy strategy.

Central Asia

The example of president resigning in Kazakhstan may to some extent become a model of smooth power transition in other countries with a similar regime. The unexpected statement of N. Nazarbayev on March 19, 2019 was, nevertheless, carefully prepared. The only post-soviet president to have lead his country since June 1989, N. Nazarbayev did a great deal of preparatory work to guarantee the continuity of domestic checks-and-balances system and preserve his personal role. All these reforms had been analyzed in the context of the 2020 presidential election and the prospects for (un)nominating N. Nazarbayev for the next term. In this regard, the recusal looks like getting ahead of the curve and allowing N. Nazarbayev to maintain control over the country’s political system, having relieved himself of responsibility for the difficulties of economic development. Renewed power balances and the personality of the new president K.-J. Tokayev were called upon to ensure the continuity of the foreign policy.

The next stage of the power transfer in Central Asia is expected from Tajikistan. President Rakhmon is being in power since 1994, that does not exclude the possibility of repeating the Kazakh model. The next presidential election in Tajikistan is scheduled for November 2020, and for the time remained, Rakhmon is expected to decide over the transfer scheme and to guarantee its sustainability, especially given the presence of Russian military base agreed until 2042.

A new variable for the Eurasian integration process is represented by the declared shift in the position of Uzbekistan. With new President after 2016, Uzbekistan has significantly improved its ever conflicting relations with the neighbors, and has launched, to the surprise of many, the domestic discussions about joining the EAEU. Even if such a scenario should be considered in a long-term or doubtful perspective, the new rhetoric is a means of signaling foreign policy amended preferences.

Eastern Europe

2020 is the year of presidential elections in Moldova that are important for the incumbent President Igor Dodon. His currently expiring term was devoted to the political infighting with opposition in Parliament and Government. Presidential political initiatives were being repeatedly disavowed thus contributing to the general uncertainty. After a set of internal political crises of the last months I. Dodon managed to form the government dominated by his Socialist party. The current stage forms a window of opportunity for the President in the electoral campaign where the main source for consolidation is Russian economic aid. The first subsidies for energy resources were already obtained by the new prime-minister.  No major foreign-policy changes may be envisaged if I. Dodon is to hold office, taking into account the Association agreement with the EU and its consequences for Moldova. Nevertheless, Transnistria issue may reappear in the international agenda as the main bargaining chip and at the same time crucial trophy of the President.

The main plot of these transfer shifts revolves around the developments in Belarus. President Lukashenka is also to face the elections in autumn 2020 and until today no one would doubt the outcome. However, the backstory is propelled by the Eurasian integration dynamics and Belarus’ place in it. 2019 ended with vivid debates about the need and feasible forms of the Union State revival. Price for Russian hydrocarbons was a core element of the disputes. Exacerbations are also characteristic of other – non-energy related – areas of bilateral relations. As no consensus was found, illustrating a well-known dichotomy of a hamburger today and money on Tuesday, both parties have started new year with raising the game. President Lukashenka claims independency from energy cooperation with Russia, looking for other suppliers and menacing transit disruptions. The question pertains who of the two will be the first to step back.

Belarus holding presidency in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2020, the bilateral tensions may consequently alter the substance of multilateral negotiations. The influence, however, will not necessarily be negative. One of the most probable directions for today appears to be the strengthening of the supranational component. Proposals on strengthening the competences of the Commission and the Court of the EAEU are already the order of the day. Lukashenka is rather interested in promoting a supranational agenda, since he believes that this creates additional leverage on Moscow. Therefore, there is a coincidence of the interests of the EAEU bureaucracy and the new chairmanship.

In the most conflict-driven parts of the Post-Soviet space, every party involved is mainly interested in maintaining the current, albeit non-optimal status-quo. The results of Normandy 4 summit in December have shown opportunities and constraints for settlements in Eastern Ukraine. Domestic political system in Ukraine is both sensitive and vulnerable to the changes in external actors positions, that’s why one cannot expect any visible evolution of the situation. The new president still holds some stock of credibility domestically as well as with his foreign counterparts, but all the efforts seem to be focused on preserving it.

South Caucasus

Political protests in South Caucasus, counterintuitively, illustrate how own internal agenda turned out to be fundamentally more important than the traditional practice of balancing between large external players. Fixed structural frameworks of external security guarantees provide for these countries the possibility to concentrate on the domestic process of power redistributions.

The most acute processes of multilateral cooperation in Eurasia are shifting towards the Central Asian region, in connection with the expansion of China’s presence through the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. It is China’s policy that is becoming the most important external structural challenge for the multilateral cooperation system in Eurasia. Russia’s strategy, largely taking into account the problems of relations with the EU on the western flank of the post-Soviet space, is aimed at neutralizing the conflict potential of relations with China.

Post-Soviet space in 2020 tends to be less present in the global agenda, due to the focus on domestic affairs, however it is an uneasy calm that eventually will not persist and may mark a watershed.