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30 October 2020

How unrest from Kyrgyzstan to Belarus is challenging Russia’s Soviet legacy

A turbulent year in the former USSR is exposing the limits of Moscow’s power.

By Felix Light

On 6 October, Kyrgyzstan awoke to a revolution almost no one had expected. Overnight, a crowd of demonstrators protesting allegedly rigged parliamentary elections fought off riot police to seize government buildings in the heart of Bishkek, the capital. In images that would soon go viral around the former Soviet Union, burly young revolutionaries were pictured brewing tea on a portable stove amid the wreckage of the president’s ransacked office.

On paper, Kyrgyzstan is not a likely candidate for geopolitical intrigue. Cripplingly reliant on the remittances earned by 700,000 Kyrgyzstani citizens working mostly in Russia, the country has married dependence on its erstwhile imperial ruler with a raucous democratic culture, in which the powers of over-mighty presidents are checked by regular popular uprisings. Russia learnt to live with two such revolutions in 2005 and 2010, in which Moscow-friendly presidents were chased from office.

Even so, this time Moscow was alarmed by the upheavals in Bishkek. “Any sudden seizures of power are perceived on some level in Moscow as outside aggression,” says Alexander Baunov, a foreign policy expert at the Moscow Carnegie Centre. To Vladimir Putin, a man for whom domestic stability has always been the cardinal political virtue, Kyrgyzstan had undergone an “unfortunate … seizure of power.” Not coincidentally, the Russian president is yet to extend his public blessing to his new counterpart in Bishkek.

Given the circumstances, the Kremlin’s anxieties are not entirely unjustified. 2020 is already the most unsettled year for the former USSR this millennium. In Belarus, massive protests against Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s longtime dictator and Moscow’s eternal frenemy, are dragging into their third month. In the Caucasus, the ever-toxic Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has re-escalated into open warfare, with Azerbaijan – backed by Turkey – launching a full-scale military offensive to retake the enclave from pro-Armenian separatists as successive ceasefires go ignored. With Kyrgyzstan now in insurrection too, Russia’s former Soviet provinces appear increasingly out of Moscow’s control.

In some ways, the concept of the former Soviet Union was always more myth than reality, masking the differences between 15 wildly diverse republics, each with political and cultural neuroses of their own. Even so, the idea that Russia could claim political, economic and cultural leadership in much of Eurasia caught on at home and abroad. As early as 1992, Andrei Kozyrev, Boris Yeltsin’s then-foreign minister and one of few genuine liberals to hold high office in Russia, was telling western audiences that the territories of the former union represented “a post-imperial space where Russia has to protect its interests by all available means, including military and economic ones.”

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Today, Moscow’s post-imperial ambitions are more in doubt than ever before. “In no part of the former USSR is Russia the leading power today,” says Alexander Baunov. “It is always an influential actor, but never the decisive one.” Instead, the EU, US, China and Turkey have all staked claims to spheres of post-Soviet influence that Russia must now negotiate.

Partly, this is down to Russia’s failure to build institutions that could shore up its power and formalise the former Soviet concept. Since the early Nineties, an alphabet soup of regional organisations promoting integration between the former Soviet republics has sprung up. At various times, Moscow has sponsored the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Union State, the Eurasian Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Few have lived up to their billing; many are now mothballed, their memberships depleted by decades of inter-state squabbles.

In the absence of formal institutions, Russia constructed a tangled web of relationships with its former provinces, leaning on cultural diplomacy, migration policy and the occasional formal alliance, to maintain its influence. In a recent article for the Moscow Times, analyst Anna Arutunyan likened the complex and contradictory policies that emerged to “a game of Jenga — so multilayered and complicated that removing one little block at the wrong time risks making the whole edifice crumble”.

The renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has exposed quite how precarious that edifice really is. Though long accustomed to seeing the Caucasus as part of its geopolitical backyard, Russia is now stuck on the sidelines, its pleas for peace ignored and few options left. If Moscow intervenes to secure its Armenian ally’s control over the disputed enclave, it will rob Azerbaijan of an increasingly likely military victory, enraging a generally friendly former Soviet neighbour. If it abandons Armenia to defeat, it will effectively end the two countries’ alliance and squander the precious goodwill Russia enjoys in Armenia. Either way, it cedes the leading role in the region to a belligerent Turkey which, with hundreds of military advisors on the ground in Azerbaijan, increasingly makes the weather south of the Caucasian range.

In Moscow, the stakes of the Karabakh conflict are well understood. In October, the pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets warned that, given Moscow’s three-decade estrangement from Georgia, where it has supported the secessionist statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Karabakh conflict may yet leave Russia “in the position of being resented by absolutely everyone in the Caucasus”.

For Moscow, however, the risk is not so much the wholesale extirpation of Russian influence on its southern flank: the back and forth flow of labour migrants, tourists and capital will keep the three Caucasian states tied to Russia for the moment. Rather, the worry is that whatever emotional and cultural ties remain could be cut, as its former provinces seek new patrons and allies. Should they do so, the former Soviet Union might finally disappear as a going geopolitical concern.

Elsewhere, it already has. The Baltic states, always the Europeanised odd-ones-out of the USSR, have hardly looked back since 1991, finding alternative allies – and destinations for their underemployed emigrants – in the European Union. Ukraine, deprived by the 2014 Crimean annexation and Donbass war of the pro-Russian regions whose votes once elected Kremlin-inclined governments, shows no signs of returning to Russia’s fold. Even traditionally friendly Belarus, where Moscow has sunk enormous resources and political capital into supporting the teetering Lukashenko regime, could yet be driven into embracing Europe. Independent polling suggests that the bulk of younger Belarusians already do.

In one part of the vanished empire, however, old ties do still count for something. “In Central Asia, Russia is still viewed very much as a big brother,” says Sher Khashimov, a Tajikistan-born researcher at the Oxus Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on Central Asia. Locked into reliance on Russia by dependence on remittances and suspicion of a rising China’s regional intentions, Central Asia – to most Russians a distant and alien place – may yet ironically be the last bastion of the former Soviet Union standing.

It may not, however, remain so for long. Central Asia, too, is changing, its Soviet-reared political elites ageing into retirement and its national identities more confident than ever. China is now by far the region’s biggest outside investor, even if its political influence remains limited. For now, Russia can afford to ignore the geopolitical consequences of the revolution in Kyrgyzstan. In the future, it may not be able to. “The legacy of the Soviet past is extremely important in Central Asia,” says Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow-based analyst focused on the region. “But thirty years isn’t really long enough for an empire to collapse. The Soviet Union is still collapsing there.”

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