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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Belarus To Kazakhstan: Russia's Weakness Is A Powder Keg In Ex-Soviet Lands

Russia has always claimed to be a kind of sheriff on the territory of the former USSR, a zone the country considers as its "privileged interests." Now it has lost both strength and authority in the war with Ukraine.

Belarus To Kazakhstan: Russia's Weakness Is A Powder Keg In Ex-Soviet Lands

Soviet statue in Baikonur, Kazakhstan

Vladimir Solovyov

Since the collapse of the USSR, thirty years ago, the post-Soviet regions regularly brought bad news to the world. This included everything from regional conflicts and civil wars to ethnic clashes and military coups. But until recently, this never had merged into one continuous stream.

In 2020 we began to see how the instability and simmering conflicts could converge and take a bloody turn: Hostilities resumed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Belarus bubbling, with popular protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko, border skirmishes turned deadly between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; another coup d'état took place in Kyrgyzstan in October.

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Fast-forward to today: We are seeing how Russia's war with Ukraine has worsened the region's security.

Moscow has always been considering the region as its zone of "privileged interests," claiming to be the guarantor of regional stability and security.

Azerbaijan and Armenia: powerless peacekeepers

Two years ago, Baku's victory in the second Karabakh war established a new status quo in the region. Firstly, most of the territories of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which had been controlled by Armenians after the first war, came under the control of Azerbaijan. Secondly, the Russian military came to the territory that Baku considers as its own,

At the same time, mines were laid during a peace established with the help of Russia, and they began to explode almost immediately after the end of hostilities. In Karabakh, there were occasional deadly clashes between the remaining Armenian population and the Azerbaijani military. The question of the status of that small part of Nagorno-Karabakh, that was not occupied by Azerbaijan, remained unresolved.

According to the trilateral ceasefire statement of Azerbaijan's, Armenia's and Russia's presidents on Nov. 10, 2020, the parties pledged to resolve all disputes peacefully. This worked intermittently until the Russian-Ukrainian war. But in September of this year, hostilities broke out again between Azerbaijan and Armenia, killing several hundred people.

Experts on the region drew two conclusions from these events. First, as Azerbaijan is getting stronger, it continues to force Armenia to a peace drawn on its own terms. Secondly, if it was not for Moscow's bogging down in Ukraine, Baku's actions would have been impossible.

The situation in the South Caucasus is becoming less dependent on Moscow. It appears more and more likely that the participants in this unresolved conflict will act on their own with impunity, especially Azerbaijan, who is being very proactive.

Belarus: a friend more dangerous than an enemy

In 2020, after having repressed thousands of unprecedented protests in the country, Alexander Lukashenko held on to the presidency. For many years, the Belarusian leader managed to maneuver between Moscow and the West, but after a dubious re-election, he ended up in Putin's arms, who squeezed him so hard that the Russian military used the territory of Belarus as a springboard for the invasion of Ukraine.

This happens despite the fact that Lukashenko, who met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a few years ago, assured all Ukrainians of his peaceful intentions, and that since 2014 he has provided a platform for negotiations to resolve the conflict in Donbas.

Lukashenko shares the burden of Russian military failures.

As he moves closer to the Kremlin, the Belarusian leader has become an outcast in the West, bringing sanctions on his country and turning much of his own population against him. As of today, he keeps the situation in the country under control, and the Belarusian opposition in exile looks weak and bogged down in civil strife.

However, being an ally of Moscow, Lukashenko shares not only the image of an aggressor with Putin, but also the burden of Russian military failures. Russia's defeat will also be Lukashenko's defeat, opening a new window of opportunities for his many domestic opponents.

Georgia: from “dream” to hatred

According to Moscow, the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were resolved following the results of the war in August 2008. Russia recognized the independence of the regions that broke away from Georgia, and asked to Georgia and to the rest of the world to simply accept this new reality. Tbilisi has not come to terms with the loss of these territories and insists on restoring the country's territorial integrity.

Georgia has no intention of returning Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. The point is not only that after 2008 Russian military bases were set up there, and the border troops of the Russian FSB guard the borders. Georgian phobia is quite strong among the Abkhaz and Ossetian population, which guarantees a broad mobilization in the event of an armed conflict.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Tbilisi did not join the Western anti-Russian sanctions in order to not to provoke Russia. Because of this, Georgian authorities angered not only the opposition, but also Kyiv. There was a new surge of emotions after this spring when Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia sent petitions to the European Union for granting them the status of candidate countries for joining the EU.

Over the summer, Brussels made its decision public: It accepted Ukraine's and Moldova's request, but refused Georgia's.

Tbilisi needs a new government if it wants to move forward, perhaps led by opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been in prison for the past year. We've seen before that Georgian politics can change radically, at any moment.

It is also possible that Georgia will follow Ukraine's decision to request NATO membership under the accelerated procedure. Such a scenario does not look like a fantasy, given that shortly before the war in August 2008, Tbilisi and Kyiv jointly asked NATO to provide them with an action plan for membership in the alliance.

Photo of Belarusian President Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nazarbayev and Russian President Putin in Astana in MayBelarusian President Lukashenko, Kazakh President Nazarbayev and Russian President Putin in Astana in May

Lu Jingli/ZUMA

Kazakhstan: Russia will no longer help 

Until January 2022, many people saw Kazakhstan as an example of authoritarian power successful's transition could look like. The permanent leader of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, resigned from the presidency in 2019 and elected Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as his successor, and was surrounded by legislative guarantees against any encroachment on himself and his family members. It seemed that this was the perfect recipe for a painless and safe transfer of power by a ruling strongman.

The picture of stability and enlightened authoritarianism was instantly destroyed in January of this year. Rising fuel prices provoked protests that turned into a bloody massacre in Almaty, claiming the lives of more than 200 people.

The January riot was hardly the first: One can remember the protests against the sale of land to the Chinese in 2016, and the massacres in Almaty in August 2013, and in Zhanaozen in 2011. This riot probably will not be the last: The poverty and inequality are even worse than in Russia. But next time violence erupts, the Kazakh authorities are unlikely to count on Russia — since they've already declared support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: there will be no third one

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are allies in the CSTO and enemies on the border of the two states in the Batken region, that became a battlefield. And during the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, that took place this September, both Presidents of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon and Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov smiled with Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, while their soldiers were fighting each other with heavy weapons.

What role did Russia play in settling the latest escalation? None.

The exact number of deaths is unknown: It ranges from dozens to hundreds. During the hostilities, the authorities of Kyrgyzstan had to evacuate 130,000 people from the danger zone.

The confrontation on the border of the two countries has been going on for more than a decade. The last major incident occurred in April 2021. There are dozens of disputed areas on the border between the two countries. What role did Russia play in settling the latest escalation? None.

Moldova: from Moscow to the Dniester 

In Transnistria, Russia is certainly not a guarantor of stability. In the spring, Russian Major General Rustam Minnekaev mentioned that one of the goals of the “special military operation” was to reach Transnistria. In response, Oleksii Arestovych, the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, noted that Kyiv could easily help Moldova establish control over the rebellious region – Chisinau only needs to ask.

In April, Russian landing force was expected in Transnistria, but the landing never happened. Instead, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva, sank. And lately, the Russian army has mainly "withdrawn troops to better positions" - either in the Kharkiv, or in the Kherson region.

And for Ukraine, the unrecognized republic turns into territories where, theoretically, it is not very difficult to inflict a painful defeat on Russia. In addition to the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria (about 1,5000), it also calls itself Russia and wants to legally become part of it.

In autumn, anti-government protests began in Moldova, organized by a fugitive businessman and politician from Israel, Ilan Shor. Shor is connected with Moscow - not only by the fact that his wife is the famous Russian singer, Jasmine, but also because he personally knows many Russian officials.

Moscow does not hide its sympathy for such rallies, where anti-Western slogans are common.The deputies from the “Shor” party in the State Duma were received by the chairman of the committee on international affairs, Leonid Slutsky, who promised the Moldovan parliamentarians to assist in the supply of cheaper Russian gas.

It doesn’t matter that this is impossible to do, the only important thing is that a simple and understandable message has gone to Moldova: "The Shor party is our people, Shor is our man".

There are growing calls by the pro-Russian camp to hold early presidential and parliamentary elections. But according to the new military reality, the West and Ukraine are unlikely to allow this. And today's Russia will no longer have the strength to insist on its own.

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How War And Censorship Are Killing Russian Rap Culture, One Beat At A Time

Censorship in Russia has increased rapidly over the last couple of decades, especially since their invasion of Ukraine. Russian rap, which has often challenged the politics and society of Russia, has become even more censored than before, even causing some rappers to emigrate.

How War And Censorship Are Killing Russian Rap Culture, One Beat At A Time

Russian rapper Egor Krid performs during a concert in St Petersburg.

John Vandevert

In retrospect, rap in 1990s Russia was truly free. How so? Look around: the bright post-Soviet future of which Russians caught a glimpse during the 1990s has collapsed, replaced with something much darker, with one of its victims being rap.

In my PhD research on 1990s rap in Russia, I find the era allowed Soviet nostalgia, sexual promiscuity, and self-reflection to live alongside political cooptation, much like in the 1999/2000 song “Beat Battle”, a covert political message in support of centrist electoral candidate Grigory Yavlinsky. The 1996 track “Vote or Lose” by Bachelor Party (in Russian: Malchinik, Мальчишник) is yet another case:

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What you can’t find is censorship. Whatever one thinks of Boris Yeltsin’s embrace of the West, thanks to rap, a strong community was created. Come 2023, and censorship has changed that community’s fabric forever.

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