MAS Special ReportWider Black Sea Region

Weekly review NATO - UE LEVANT Western Balkans Black Sea Region

04 februarie 2020 - Special reports - Wider Black Sea Region

D.S.M. Special Report- Wider Black Sea Region (January)

Cristian Eremia

I. Republic of Belarus President seeks alternative energy resources to Russia’s. II. Good news for Kiev coming from Brussels at the beginning of 2020. III. Outlooks for 2020 on the South Caucasus situation shows small chances for region’s conflicts regulation. IV. Cossacks in Crimea and Sevastopol decided to create the Cossacks Troops at the Black Sea.

Sursă foto: Mediafax

I. Republic of Belarus President seeks alternative energy resources to Russia’s

During the last meetings with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Belorussian leader, Alexandr Lukashenko refused to get to an agreement with Kremlin in terms of a deeper integration with Russia. At least not a Russia-Belarus integration directed by Moscow. Therefore, Lukashenko refused to sign the roadmap prepared in Moscow for the consolidation of both states and suggested he is bothered by Russian side’s insistence that he also accuses of wanting to destroy republic’s state sovereignty. This would have lead to Russian president’s “anger”, especially when the Russia-Belarus Union was celebrating 20 years of existence. According to analysts’ circles, after Minsk only transmitted that it is bothered and hostile to Moscow’s integration policy, now things got even worse, as Lukashenko took really “personally” the Russian aggressive policy to integrate his state in the Russian space. This would be the reason why Kremlin can no longer count on the Belorussian leader.

A new episode with Moscow's intentions to open a Russian military base in Belarus took place earlier this year, Lukashenko "categorically refusing" (09.01.2020), again, the dislocation of Russian military units on his country’s territory. Russian Foreign Minister, S. Lavrov, has diplomatically abstained from commenting on Minsk's refusal, although he did not deny it. He suggested that Russia will not cease efforts to to open military bases near the Baltic states.

However, Minsk does not fully deny dialogue with Moscow, but insists on important financial compensation for Minsk, especially those to cover the losses of Belorussian economy due to movements in the Russian fiscal system area for oil industry. In Moscow, technocrats are intensely discussing the establishment of a so-called Russia-Belarus Union government, although President Lukashenko has repeatedly stated that he does not intend to make any compromise that would affect the sovereignty of his state.

But the Belorussian president did not merely express his political disagreements with Russian politics. In order to avoid integration in the "Russian formula", he has triggered some mechanisms to show that his country can find alternatives to get rid of certain economic dependencies on Russia. To that end, he showed that Moscow’s financial assistance is not irreplaceable, Lukashenko approving by presidential decree, in the last days of last year, a five-year fast loan of about 500 million dollars from China’s Development Bank. This was done after Moscow refused Minsk for a similar loan necessary for Belarus to refinance its external financial obligations[1].

Minsk is also looking for alternative oil and natural gas sources from Russia. Thus, in his declarative political rhetoric, the Belorussian president has designated Kazakhstan, the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as states that can provide oil exports to Belarus, which could be alternatives to Russian supplies. In Moscow, these Belorussian approaches to exploring new energy resources sources are regarded by interested circles as "speculation" intended to cause the Russian side to move to "exclusive" preferential prices to Belarus in this commercial area. Some think Lukashenko "boasts" that it can buy oil at international market prices, even though the current Russian prices in relation to Belarus are below international levels by $ 6-7. Moscow claims that Minsk ignores the fact that it would need new logistics infrastructure to move to other external sources procurement, which would increase prices excessively, given that Belarus does not have access to maritime terminals.

In order to prove the existence of alternative sources, Reuters announced (20.01.2020) that Belarus recently bought 80 thousand tons of oil from Norway, following deliveries to Belorussian oil refineries via Lithuanian port Klaipeda and by land. Russian estimations did not take too long, showing that oil’s price imported from Baltic countries is more expensive than the Russian one, to which they added additional transportation costs of at least $ 20 / tonne comparing to those transported through Russian pipelines. Shortly, the Russians believe that Belarus will remain engaged in imports from Russia, Lukashenko only trying to get new economic concessions from Moscow, while avoiding that political and economic integration Kremlin wants and that the Belarusian leadership is afraid of.

On the other hand, however, one can see the discussions on f Russia and Belarus’s future integration are in a deadlock and, in some points, they have returned to their original, traditional positions. Russia has indicated that it will be willing to resume Belarus' economic support only after the essential integration problems have been resolved. Until then, Moscow refuses to respond to "key" demands from Minsk, such as financial compensation for the oil industry, revising the natural gas price, or resuming financial assistance. Gradually, things tend to turn the Russia-Belarus Union integration process into at least a conflict between the two capitals, a political, economic and security interests conflict, which no one know how much it will last.

II. Good news for Kiev coming from Brussels at the beginning of 2020

 The EU-Ukraine Association Council concluded the sixth meeting, in Brussels (28.01.2020), Delegations being led by the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and Ukraine Prime Minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk. 

When the meeting was over, the two parties issued a joint statement, by which the EU noted the "macroeconomic stabilization success " of Ukraine, as well as the concrete results for Association Agreement’s implementation, which is demonstrated, among other things, by the volume increase of EU-Ukraine bilateral trade by 13% in the first nine months of 2019 compared to the year previous. It was agreed on improving Ukraine's economic integration and aligning it with EU regulations in fields such as the digital economy, trade development, customs cooperation, justice and home affairs. The EU reaffirmed its continued support with financial assistance, welcomed Ukraine's effective work in implementing the political conditions of EU's macro-financial assistance program (currently being evaluated by the Commission). This creates the proper conditions for Ukraine to receive, during February, the second and last rate of EU’s macro-financial assistance, worth of 500 million EUR.

Both sides agreed on Ukraine’s need to continue strengthening the rule of law and structural reforms. The significant progress in Ukraine's reforms was also praised, underlining Kiev’s need to continue efforts to strengthen the rule of law and structural reforms. Kiev was recommended to continue to achieve transparent and equal conditions for the business and investment environment, respectively energy reforms. Of course, Brussels criticized the slow pace of the fight against corruption.

However, perhaps the most important and long-awaited European initiative for Kiev was the EU announcement that it will ask Russia to ensure the free and safe transport of all ships or vessels running through the Kerch Strait from the Black Sea to the Ukrainian coast of Azov Sea and vice versa. EU’s request will be launched in full compliance with international law provisions in this field. To better manage this issue and help mitigate Russia's destabilizing actions impact in the Azov Sea, Brussels has announced its intention to open an EU representation in the Ukrainian Mariupol port city and will take different measures to stimulate economic diversification in the area.

According to Borrell, the Union took this initiative (which has long been expected by the Ukrainian side, but also by other states whose ships are flown under various pavilions for commercial purposes to the Ukrainian coast of the Azov Sea) precisely to reduce Russia’s actions destructive effects in Ukraine’s Azov Sea region and the unilateral establishment of Russian control in this aquarium. Ukraine has previously addressed international organizations (including the International Sea Organization, along with Georgia), repeatedly, claiming that Russia's border troops under the Federal Security Service (FSB) backed by the Russian Black Sea Fleet are simply blocking the mentioned strait, withhold or produce controls that cause major delays to ships under a flag other than the Russian flag, especially those that have as their destination or departure point the Ukrainian ports Mariupol and Berdiyansk. It has also been claimed that all these Russian manoeuvres cause great financial-economic losses to the Ukrainian state, a real economic blockage[2], as expressed by the Ukrainian authorities.    

 Brussels reiterated their well-known support position for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, he insisted on the need for full Minsk Agreements implementation by the parties involved, recalling that economic sanctions period against the Russian Federation remains linked to these agreements full implementation. The EU will "fully" support efforts in Normandy, OSCE and the Trilateral Contact Group, as well as mine clearance activities and the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. It was also appreciated Kiev’s inclusive approach on the people in areas affected by the East Ukraine conflict, but it was also underlined the concern on continuous deterioration of the human rights situation in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as the deterioration of human rights situation in the Crimean Peninsula. EU continues to blame the Kerch Strait Bridge construction without Ukraine's agreement, the opening of connecting railway, in December last year, peninsula’s subsequent militarization, as well as the aggressive military activities in the Black Sea and the Azov Sea.

At the same time, it turned out that EU’s institutions will cooperate with Kiev in combating cyber and hybrid threats, as well as propaganda and misinformation, precisely to increase Ukraine’s national resilience.

As an uncomfortable issue for Kiev, Brussels has emphasized (most likely at an imperative request by Hungary) Ukraine’s need to provide observance of national minorities rights, as enshrined in the UN and Council of Europe Conventions, to ensure non-discrimination of minorities to and respect for diversity, based on a deep dialogue with national minorities. The Council insisted for Ukraine to fully implement Venice Commission’s recommendations on the education law and the law on the state language.  

The head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, has announced that he will carry out a work visit to Ukraine, in the following period.

III. Outlooks for 2020 on the South Caucasus situation shows small chances for region’s conflicts regulation

South Caucasus is still a scene of more or less visible confrontation of Russia’s  geopolitical interests, some Middle Eastern (OM) states and the West. Discussions about the future of South Caucasus republics have been, lately, more frequent in interested circles, given the security disturbances that mark the Extended Black Sea region and MD’s security. China has clearly become a new player in this region, which, for the moment, is less interested in regional geopolitical games[3], but wants to occupy as much space as possible through its economic projects derived from the "One Belt – One Road" initiative.

It is noteworthy that there are all the premises for the armed conflicts in the South Caucasus to stay unsolved during 2020. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, have achieved minimal international recognition eased by Moscow, but to be challenged by both Georgia and its Western partners. A special attention to Russia applying a scenario similar to the "Crimea" one brought the attention of political and analytical interested circles debates, starting with Putin's gesture to approve (September 2019) that Russia will finance the modernization and the endowment of self-proclaimed Abkhazia army. For Tbilisi, it will be important for NATO and the EU to support security risks in the South Caucasus, particularly in the Georgian area.

Developments in South Caucasus will also be influenced by security developments in Middle East, in particular the Iran-US conflict escalation and Turkey's actions in the area. Iran is bordering Armenia and Azerbaijan and considers South Caucasus a platform where it can use the appropriate tools to undermine Western interests, strengthening cooperation on this space with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union (EUE). On the other hand, Turkey's military involvement in Syria is concerning Armenia, as it is a dangerous precedent for its national security. Also is Ankara’s political, economic and military support by Azerbaijan, with direct reference to the Azerbaijani operations in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict settlement over Karabakh has, for many years, been deadlocked, with armed incidents between the parties alternating with endless rounds of negotiations between Yerevan and Baku representatives, with the participation of international mediators. Prime Minister Pashiniyan's ongoing political process in Armenia succeeded in minimizing the security costs of a hybrid peace ("neither war nor peace"), rather than de facto conflict resolution.

Regardless of positive developments, the South Caucasus area will, most likely, register a lack of effective regional integration and cooperation this year. Georgia has no diplomatic relations with Russia and is in a difficult situation to choose cooperation with one of its two neighbours, Armenia or Azerbaijan. All the more so since the short-term normalization of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations is unlikely because these two states’ approaches are diametrically opposed in terms of solving problems opened up in the past, but also those arising from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

On the other hand, one can say that Azerbaijan will seek to avoid involvement in a large-scale military conflict with Armenia. Azerbaijan's key decisions and actions will follow its independent foreign policy and be dictated, in particular, by the strategic interest for Karabah, whether it is about Azeri participation in certain regional integration flows, or bilateral relations with the US, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Israel. Therefore, Baku will act on different external vectors without paying much attention to the fact that certain capitals are experiencing confrontations. State’s financial and economic independence - especially with the huge hydrocarbon resources, will save Baku from "cautious approaches".

Internally, President Alyiev changed frameworks, eliminating the "elite generation" and bringing new people to the political scene, yet devoted to his regime. It will hold early parliamentary elections on February 9th, with the intention of recreating a parliament that it can control extremely simply. The president, however, said that the new elections "will start social-economic reforms". However, in the medium and especially long term, Aliyev’s regime will face the non-systemic political opposition threat and the increasing political influence of radical Islamists. The authorities have considerable experience in counteracting these threats, but the erosion and fragmentation of secular political force will substantially simplify the actions to strengthen the extremist political segments. 

As for Armenia, the authority of Prime Minister Pashinyan seems to be high, which is why the Yerevan authorities do not expect special socio-economic problems. The main problem is the way in country's internal stability can be maintained against the active involvement background in the unresolved ethnic and political conflict with Azerbaijan. Pashinyan is extremely determined to remain in power for a long time and, in the short term, is likely to perpetuate his power by other means than the "revolutionary" ones. In some circles, Prime Minister's idea of ​​moving Armenia back to the presidential system is already being discussed.

Several personal meetings with senior officials in Moscow prompted Pshiniyan, shortly after assuming power, to accept that developing an alliance with Moscow remains the only determining factor of Armenia's foreign policy in the regional geopolitical environment. This is why the Prime Minister has decided to keep the traditional line, trying a foreign policy as diverse as possible, but with a clear focus on cultivating relations with Russia. Moreover, given that Pashiyan has excelled in some cooperation areas with Russia over his predecessors - the most suggestive example is his decision to deploy Armenian militaries to Syria alongside Russian forces, it is likely that this behaviour will continue, especially as Moscow will, in exchange, accept its political "extravagances" internally and externally on the relationship with Baku.

Georgia remains captive in the geopolitical constraints created by its unresolved conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively complicated relations with Russia, although it has tried to solve these problems by intensifying relations with the West. However, 2020 is extremely difficult due to non-democratic domestic political developments perspectives, which could affect Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. This is currently EU and West’s main concern, as Georgia is considered one of the "success stories" of European initiatives in the Eastern neighbourhood. Sliding Georgia into an area of ​​imposing autocratic governance would dissolve all political and economic efforts so far, with all the negative effects in terms of stability and democratic political development. A more bleak perspective would be that of entering under the influence of "illiberal actors", such as China and Russia. And if the Tbilisi authorities' tendency to criticize Western organizations will continue into 2020, it will be a pretty serious sign that Georgia is moving away from the West.

Instead of consolidating westernization and democratic transformations, Ivanishvili regime did not bring the South Caucasus small republic some realistic solutions to any problem, whether in social-political, economic development, or territorial security and integrity field. The internal democratic political processes were affected, and the Georgian society is quite aware that the regime "Georgian Dream" regime often worked only for its leaders own interests. The street protests of 2019 – will, most likely, not lead to a fall of the current government, given that the general elections are scheduled for autumn, this year. But they have created a negative domestic political atmosphere, trying to push Ivanishvili regime away from power. This process may take more than a year, but it has already been launched. On the other hand, it depends largely on the ruling party whether it will sacrifice Georgia's democratic future only for staying in power, regardless of the conditions.

IV. Cossacks in Crimea and Sevastopol decided to create the Cossacks Troops at the Black Sea.

Cossacks in Crimea and Sevastopol have decided to unify their forces into a single "army of Cossacks", which will bear the name Unified Cossack Troops on the Black Sea. This decision was made at a meeting, in Simferopol, of a circle of Cossack leaders from across the region. They also established the commander of these troops, Anton Sirotkin. The meeting was attended by the commanders of the sub-units of Cossacks in the region and the atman of the entire Cossack Community of Russia (CCR), Nikolai Doluda, as well as the head of the Crimean administration, Sergey Axenov, respectively the interim governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev.

Following Cossacks’ meeting, Razvozhaev emphasized in an interview that the establishment of a single army of Cossacks in the Russian Black Sea region "will give a new impetus to the development of the Cossack movement especially in south of Russia", in a region where, traditionally, the Cossacks play an important role in the civic and especially nationalist-patriotic activity. And Aksenov and other participants in the meeting called the decision a "historical" one, noting the significant support of Russian Cossack formations in concrete actions to defend region’s public safety law, especially in complicated times or actions that could affect the legal order.

Therefore, it is important to mention that the RCC has officially become an organization since 1995, when it was established and received the legal right for its members to perform the "state service", that is to say they are used by local administrations in particular to support the public order. The organization initially had responsibilities in state service execution in cooperation with the Ministry of Russian Federation for Nationalities and Regional Policy, but had not received the right to constitute military units and armed formations in its composition.

Since 2010, the RCC has been granted the right to organize and manage the military records of Cossack communities’ members, to carry out recruits’ military-patriotic education, their preparation for the military service and the military training of Cossacks during their stay in the active reserve. At the same time, Cossacks troops went on to ensure the protection of vital facilities for the public life, to guard the objectives owned by the state and the municipalities, to protect the cultural heritage objectives, as well as to take actions to prevent and eliminate the natural and technological disasters. Moreover, the Cossack troops could be engaged or participate independently in ensuring the public safety, security and guarding of Russia's state borders, as well as in counter-terrorism actions in the areas of responsibility.

Through the Russian President’s decree, from December 2019, the process of establishing the RCC was practically completed, thus becoming a new federal structure organized according to (almost) military rules, with a total number of subordinates of about 600 thousand people, with troops in many Russian regions. Organization’s headquarters was established in Moscow, and the federal government will provide funds from the state budget for its operation. By the same presidential decree, Doluga – who, until recently, was deputy governor of Krasnodar County and simultaneously the chief of Kuban Cossack troops, became organization's atman.

Currently, there are 11 officially registered Cossack troops’ communities, each with their own governing bodies, uniforms and ranks. The modern Russian Cossack troops take on tasks or even act by duplicating the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry for exceptional situations powers, compensating for the significant lack of staff in those ministries, which translates into real savings in the state budget. 

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1]Minsk’s general state financial debt to Moscow rises up to about $ 16.7 billion. By 2020, Minsk is expected to pay back about $ 2.5 billion of that debt. The Belarus Ministry of Finance wants to cover these amounts, by launching Euro-bonds. It is also noteworthy that, in December 2019, it’s been a year since Kremlin began to apply strong pressure on the Belarusian leader to allow the latter to accept substantial integration processes following Moscow's dictates, which has Belorussian party feared that it would lose the sovereignty of the state. This is wherefrom the extremely strong and vocal opposition of Lukashenko come, who accuses that his country would be practically "reincorporated" into the Russian space. For Minsk, however, it will be very problematic to undermine, block or postpone the bilateral agreements on integration with Russia.

[2] Kiev cannot go over the November 2018 incident, when Russian security forces blocked and detained Ukrainian military vessels and sailors in an attempt to cross the Kerch Strait. Russia's conducts worsen the situation by strengthening the customs control regime, even though Ukrainian ships and military were relayed to the Ukrainian side,  last September.

[3] In this regard, the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs visit in the three states (May 2019) - a visit called "historical" by the three capitals, during which Beijing emphasized that it respects the territorial integrity and the interference in respective states’ internal affairs can be recalled, having only the objective of developing a "pragmatic economic cooperation".