Looking farther in the near-abroad

One of the most amazing stories coming out of Russia this year was, in fact, coming out of somewhere else: Armenia. In April, Serzh Sargsyan, president in 2008-18, attempted to continue ruling the country from the newly empowered position of the prime minister. This was going to be a first in a former Soviet state. In 2008, as Sargsyan was ascending to power, Vladimir Putin did swap places with Dmitry Medvedev, but continued to rule through the deep state rather than by allotting more power to his new position. In 2012, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili did change his country’s constitution in an apparent bid to carry on as a strong prime minister post-2013, but his plans were thwarted by a sudden electoral upset in 2012. Sargsyan did not have the kind of unrivalled influence in Armenia that Putin does in Russia; on the other hand, he also did not have to worry too much about electoral upsets in an Armenia that is less democratic than Georgia. Everything seemed to work out smoothly.

And then, almost overnight, everything failed.

In what later became known as Armenia’s “velvet revolution”, tens of thousands of protesters put pressure on Sargsyan to resign just days after his being appointed prime minister in April. In the first week of May, the leader and face of these protests, Nikol Pashinyan, a moderately known opposition figure with a marginal group in the legislature, was elected prime minister in a parliament dominated by Sargsyan’s Republican Party and Prosperous Armenia, a politically ambiguous outlet driven by the business interests of its creator, Gagik Tsarukyan. Furthermore, Pashinyan’s government announced ambitious reforms to tackle corruption, dismantle monopolies and call members of the political elite that had dominated Armenian politics in the past two decades to account. Several high-ranking figures of past governments have found themselves indicted, including former president Robert Kocharyan, even though there are notable holes (for instance, Tsarukyan and his associates) in the anti-corruption net. In September, Pashinyan’s coalition scored a sweeping victory in the Yerevan municipal election, triggered by the resignation of the city’s Republican mayor, forced by protests. In October, the parliament was dissolved and an early election was called for December, which Pashinyan’s alliance will likely win, completing the transition.

It is compelling to depict the Armenian changes as forced and fueled by the rightful anger of a people that has been treated badly by corrupt and complacent autocrats – and there is, no doubt, some truth in this: the fact that the public has so far refused to demobilize has been a major driver of the Armenian reforms. It is inconceivable, however, that the Armenian changes took place without a massive realignment in Armenia’s deep state – most importantly, the army – in a country where a depressingly large number of people possess firearms. It is less inconceivable, but extremely unlikely, that the changes that have taken place in Armenia in the past months could have happened without the blessing of the Russian government, which stations thousands of soldiers – the biggest foreign contingent of the Russian army – in Armenia. And this element makes Armenia’s velvet revolution a fascinating story for Russia watchers – and for Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

Changes with open endings

The incentives used by the Russian government in the field of foreign policy are similar to the incentives used domestically. They include, mainly, force (law enforcement at home and military might abroad), economic incentives (social and investment policies at home and trade policies abroad) and personal relationships, mostly, though not exclusively, between Vladimir Putin and individual members of the political elite.

Russia has used all three kinds of incentives in Armenia in the past six months. It has reminded Armenia of the presence and the role of a 3,000-strong Russian military contingent near the Armenian city of Gyumri (by holding unannounced military drills near the village of Panik and making overtures towards the government of Azerbaijan). It has kept gas prices high for consumers through Gazprom’s Armenian subsidiary, which owns the country’s gas distribution network, even as Armenia technically buys Russian gas at a heavily discounted price; remittances from Russia have also fallen in past months. Finally, it has reminded Armenia that there is a limit to what the new government can do with the representatives of the former elite by reining in on the government after the arrest of former president Robert Kocharyan on charges of usurping power, first by a statement of foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and then a congratulatory phone call by Vladimir Putin to Kocharyan on the former president’s birthday.

Russia’s cautious and proactive approach to the Armenian changes reflects the lessons that the Russian government has drawn from colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Unlike in Ukraine, the Kremlin avoided knee-jerk reactions to the Armenian changes, but unlike in Georgia, it made sure to cultivate opposition to and levers on the new government from day one. This approach already represents a move away from the guiding principle of Russia’s post-2004 foreign policy, maintaining the status quo. In Armenia, Russia’s goal is to keep changes under control by navigating the waters of the Armenian “velvet revolution”.

There is no guarantee that this approach will work. In December, Armenia will hold an early parliamentary election, which will probably result in a landslide victory of prime minister Pashinyan’s alliance, Yelk. The alliance’s name, “Way Out” originally referred to the prime minister’s plans to lead Armenia out of Russia’s sphere of influence, notably the Eurasian Economic Union, although Pashinyan has done his utmost to reassure Russia that his plans have changed. Pashinyan labeled the mass movement that elevated him to his position neutral from a geopolitical point of view and vowed to strengthen his country’s alliance with Russia. President Armen Sarkisian who has unexpectedly risen from figurehead to an active political figure, has acted as a middleman between the new and the old elite. Pashinyan’s anti-corruption drive has left certain business circles untouched, including notably Gagik Tsarukyan, the head of the opposition Prosperous Armenia party who has cultivated several pro-Russian political leaders in recent years. But Pashinyan also had to rely on the votes of Tsarukyan’s alliance in the Armenian parliament, which will most likely change in December. Pashinyan will still have to rely on the taxes paid by big monopolies created in the past decades to carry out reforms successfully, and it is difficult to imagine that the oligarchs with representation in the Armenian parliament would have agreed to give up their political positions without an understanding that their business will remain untouched. It is also difficult to imagine that Pashinyan will not at least try to dismantle the monopolies with a sweeping majority in the new parliament, especially if his government receives financial aid from the West – something that it has clearly coveted. Recent visits in Yerevan by French president Emmanuel Macron and US national security advisor John Bolton prompted angry reactions in Moscow.

Navigating changes is probably the wisest approach that Russia can pursue in Armenia. However, it is still a form of damage control with uncertain outlooks and where Russia does not have full agency over developments. The Armenian example is probably only useful inasmuch as it may help to decide whether Russia can move even further from its post-2004 foreign policy and start promoting changes in its immediate neighbourhood with the intention of preventing the Armenian scenario. Belarus is an obvious case.

An occupation to come?

Belarus is similar to Armenia in a number of ways. It is a Russian military ally. It has an autocratic government, even more so and for longer than Armenia. Its leader since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko is strongly dependent on Russia’s goodwill. Russia provides Lukashenko’s government with three important kinds of support. First, it provides political support. This essentially means that Russia, despite the articulated presence of its economic and political agents in Belarus, refrains from openly supporting political forces opposed to the government. Second, it provides commercial support. It exports duty-free oil to Belarus, which Belarus then re-exports in some form, a vital component of the country’s budget. Russia also provides market for Belarusian agricultural goods, which Belarus would not be able to sell on the EU’s market – its share in Belarus’s foreign trade is around fifty percent. Third, it provides direct financial help, if needed. And Belarus needs it quite often. Presently, though Belarus has refinanced its debt to reduce dependence on Russian loans, these loans (including loans from the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union or EurAsEc) make up more than 60 percent of Belarus’s state debt and are, to a considerable extent, related to the construction of the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant, yet another Russian lever on the country.

While Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan was “only” regarded as an unpalatable and unreliable ally, Lukashenko also costs the Russian state quite a bit of money in loans and subsidies that many in the Russian political elite regard as money sent down the drain (the oil trade, as a scheme that benefits Belarus and certain circles in Russia, may be an exception). Naturally, Russia wants something in exchange. First and foremost, it wants access. Access to Belarusian territory: for years, Putin has pushed for the establishment of a permanent Russian air base in the country, bordering Poland and Ukraine, and with the possible establishment of an American base in Poland, Russia probably feels that the decision cannot be put off any longer – yet, Lukashenko has so far resisted this request. Russia also wants access to Belarus’s state-owned industries, and Lukashenko has also denied this.

On the contrary, Lukashenko has deliberately put distance between himself and Russia. Russia’s land grab in Ukraine alarmed him and prompted him to change the legal definition of what Belarus regards as an enemy attack. He distanced himself from Russia in the Ukraine war by organising ceasefire talks in Minsk. He started championing the heretofore neglected Belarusian language. He released political prisoners as a way of opening up towards the EU, restructured Belarus’s debt and sought trade and investment deals with China as trade disputes with Russia became more and more frequent.

The personal relationship between Lukashenko and Putin has been unfriendly for a longer while. In recent years, it has turned almost openly hostile. Last year’s Zapad military drills, a common exercise of Russia and Belarus, at least on the surface, showcased tensions between the two leaders: neither visited the other country during the drills and there was palpable fear in Belarus that Russia might not withdraw all of its troops.

No wonder that recently, Lukashenko had reason to think that he was losing both commercial and financial support. Russia has limited the import of Belarusian foodstuff several times and it has slowed down traffic on the Russia-Belarus border through administrative means. It was reported that Russia was planning to reduce its hydrocarbon shipments to Belarus in the last quarter of this year and was unwilling to transfer more financial aid to the country. Russia has also announced that it would scrap its oil export duty and replace it with higher extraction taxes. This would essentially mean a precipitous fall in the amount of money that Belarus presently makes from re-exporting Russian hydrocarbons.

Moreover, Lukashenko may think that he is about to lose political support as well. The political changes in Armenia either mean that a Russian military ally can achieve a change in the government without changing its foreign policy orientation or that Russia had better initiate and closely manage such a change than to risk losing control over it. It would not be surprising if there indeed were a plan on a table in Moscow to provide covert support for a malleable opposition leader, or a suitable successor in Belarus. Moscow is probably wary of such a scenario, however. Fourteen years ago in Ukraine where Viktor Medvedchuk was Putin’s preferred presidential candidate, yet due to local power struggles Viktor Yanukovich ended up getting the job, the consequences were disastrous for Moscow. But there are other ways.

While some publications recently suggested that to solve its growing “Lukashenko problem”, Russia may consider  invading Belarus, it in fact cannot do this, however much the Russian government has tried to keep the threat credible. Though it may often seem otherwise, there are limits to what Russia can do in its foreign policy. There is a threat of further international sanctions, possibly impacting how Russia is able to refinance its debt. There is a threat of alienating other countries of the near-abroad, just as the war in Ukraine made Lukashenko wary. There are domestic implications as well. An increasing number of Russian citizens are growing tired of foreign policy adventurism while politics remains dysfunctional at home. And there are specific issues that, in the case of Belarus, speak for the status quo. Belarus’s status as an intermediary benefits business groups on both sides of the border. Unlike pre-occupation Crimea’s, Belarus’s system of social welfare is more extensive than Russia’s.

The unknown variable

But Russia does not need to invade Belarus, nor does it need to topple Lukashenko to tighten its grip on the country. It simply needs to remind Lukashenko that it can create a situation, in which Lukashenko could easily lose power – and that there is no one who will rush to help – to force the Belarusian leader into concessions, a creeping occupation, if you will, akin to Norway’s fictional Russian occupation presented in the brilliant series “Okkupert”. This is the threat that needs to remain credible, not an actual occupation’s. And this is why the Armenian example is so important.

In September, Putin met Lukashenko in Sochi. Shortly before the meeting, Lukashenko fired his government and appointed a reformist banker, Sergei Rumas to head a new cabinet, in which the economic team was replaced. Following the meeting, Putin appointed Mikhail Babich, one of his trusted to-do-men, to head its embassy in Minsk. The appointment of the reformist Rumas and the silovik Babich are part of the same picture. Lukashenko is trying to hedge against further economic deterioration, which would make his country even more dependent on Russia’s goodwill. Putin, meanwhile, is sending a man specialising in covert operations and in subjugating unruly regions, to act as his representative in Minsk.

It is unknown what Lukashenko and Putin agreed on in Sochi. Lukashenko must have, however, given the Russian president something from his want-list, since shortly afterwards, Belarus was assured that it would get the next instalment of its EurAsEc loan and be compensated for the scrapping of the so-called double customs clearing, a system of levies that has allowed Belarus to keep an additional 500 million dollars, approximately, in customs duties on oil. Was it the military base? Was it access to key Belarusian industries? Was it a promise that Lukashenko would take the highway and not run for office in an early presidential election next year, 25 years after he won the office?

There are a lot of question marks. We might be seeing the first step of a creeping quasi-annexation of Belarus. But Lukashenko, a shrewd political operator and tightrope-walker probably has a couple of more tricks up his sleeve. He did not approve Babich’s appointment until the very last moment and not until he met the EU’s special representative and OSCE’s secretary general first – signaling that he has a choice, if he wants to. He hosted Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in the same week, sparing no kind words to either of them – but at the same time, congratulated the new, opposition governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk oblast and invited him to Belarus. He agreed to sell arms to Azerbaijan, in an apparent attempt to provoke an angry reaction from Armenia in the CSTO. Shortly after Babich’s claim about Russia regarding Belarus as Russian territory, if it were to be attacked, Lukashenko claimed that Belarus did not need a Russian military base and that America’s presence was important for the region’s stability. In what would be an uneasy parallel with 1938 Austria, he can still call a vote – an early presidential election, in this case, in which he runs – to assert the independence of his country.

There are trump cards in both hands. How it all plays out will greatly depend on whether Russia can make this threat credible: whether it can make Lukashenko believe that Russia is willing to take risks in its near abroad; that it is not necessarily looking to preserve the status quo; that it is capable of engineering changes and sustaining a seemingly new order. This is entirely possible. Changes in Armenia might still work out in a way tolerable or even desirable for Russia. Without active assistance from the European Union or the United States, Nikol Pashinyan will have no one to turn to, and the Armenian political elite have surely learned from the fate of post-2004 Ukraine or post-2005 Kyrgyzstan.

There is one caveat. What drives the Armenian changes is a popular movement that has grown out of dissatisfaction over a couple of very specific problems. Russia is not interested in resolving these problems: it is not interested in fighting monopolies in Armenia that are linked to Russian business; it is not interested in cracking down on corruption in Russian-owned energy companies; it is not interested in opening up Armenia’s economy to the West. Russia is also not interested in solving acute social problems in Belarus that might be the engine of a popular movement to topple Lukashenko. It cannot offer a different perspective on the nature of the state – that is, until spin doctors in Moscow and adhocrats in Minsk and Yerevan come up with the semblance of one.

They seem to have time, though, as long as those who are able and willing to offer an alternative seem weak and helpless.


This is Part 3 of a series of articles looking at Putin’s fourth presidential term.

In Part 1, I was looking at the problem of power and power projection within Russia.

In Part 2, I was looking at the likely shape of a new government both in terms of composition and policies.

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