12 October 2020

Dangerous developments in the immediate surroundings of Romania

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

2020, which is two steps away from ending, will be remembered in the recent history as the difficult period which, through the emergence of the pandemic crisis, has slowed down or even blocked the states’ economic developments, produced dysfunctions in the political processes, has rebuilt the physical borders where these became, long ago, virtual, especially on the map of European Union’s countries. This year’s challenges have forced the European states and regional international organizations to focus more on the inside, try to solve their own problems and not invest that much energy on monitoring the crises in their immediate vicinity. And these have continued to emerge, especially in the former Soviet space, which proves to be, three decades since URSS’s disappearance, a never-ending source of unsolved tensions between the successor states, but also on the inside, a perfect field for authoritarian experiments.

Image source: Profimedia

Two crises in the Near East

Among these developments which can have a dangerous impact, including for Romania, two of them can have, I think, an increasingly important impact over the region, in the following period, through their destabilizing potential.

And we are not referring to east of Ukraine of Crimea, where although the situation is still unsolved and the military forces concentrations are, for sure, worrying, there is a sort of stabilization of the confrontation lines and, through the status of the involved actors, a certain predictability, at least for the near future.

In other two spaces, however, placed in the extremities of our East-European vicinity, Belarus and Karabakh, we are still inside some uncontrollable crises that we can hardly talk about in terms of their ending.

In one of the cases we are talking about the survival of a regime – Belarus, still tied to another one, which gets its oxygen portion – Russia, meanwhile the other one – Karabakh, the local Azerbaijani and Armenian nationalist feelings got mixed with a complicated drawing of regional geopolitical interests, of historical contradictory and burdening inheritances.

Belarus – more scenarios, none of them positive

The situation in Belarus is, by all definitions, unsure in terms of the development direction and the possibilities to solve it, but there is one certain thing: regardless of how this will end, the tensions between Russia and the European states, the organizations there are part of: the EU or NATO, will be a lot bigger than before the crisis’s start.

Why will this happen?

Because for Belarus there is only an exceptional win-win solution to solve this crisis. Maybe, in an international circumstance, a de-escalation of the two sides’ conflict would be possible  but, at this times, with an economically sanctioned Russia, politically isolated and questioned for the bad treatments applied to Kremlin’s regime opponent, a bilateral dialogue can hardly take place.

The collateral effects of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline are just the icing on the bitter cake Moscow will get from its possible partners in the natural gases commerce.

In other words, any of the two possible ways to solve the Belarus crisis would have a negative impact on the situation in this area of Europe:

-if Minsk and Moscow will get even closer, reactivating the already existing common Union, which was put on standby president Alerxandr Lukashenko, the tensions between Russia and the West will be even bigger than now. Russia’s actions will be seen by the European states and the US as well as a getting back a state which, at least from people’s perspective, claimed its right to democracy and orientation towards the West.

-if in Minsk it will be applied the “Ukrainian scenario”, an option wherein Belarus would look after the West, after holding some elections or using a different circumstance wherein Luckashenko – but also its regime! – would give up the power, the security situation, in Kremlin’s approach, would become extremely vulnerable for Russia. There are only 400 km from the Eastern border of the country to the Red Square. On great roads, because this is not Siberia!

The crisis started only two months ago and the main two internal actors in Belarus, the street opposition and the exiled one – on one hand, Lukashenko and its regime – on the other hand, seem to continue to follow different paths, parallel– as both want the power – and opposed – because both seem to hope that the other will give up first. Each of them takes its energy from the outside as well, but meanwhile the opposition seems to be more decisive, bold and organized, even in the inside, Lukashenko seems more and more dependent on Moscow’s decision.

And this is something everyone expects because it is not yet very clear which is the direction domestic developments will take, but also because the stakes of the crisis in Belarus are different from that in Ukraine. And a way out of the imposed situation must involve as less collateral losses as possible.

It is quite clear in Moscow that Lukashenko's days or months at the head of the Belarusian state are numbered. It is an assessment that is not based on considerations of democratic legitimacy or caused by the excesses of the regime's law enforcement forces against its own population. The Kremlin has lost confidence in the Minsk leader from the moment he thought he could play at two ends, hoping the West would be happy to provoke a rift between Belarus and Russia, but maintaining the internal coordinates of his regime and Moscow will, in turn, accept the continuation of the security partnership with Minsk, not giving too much importance to its eyes on the West.

Probably, at this moment, they are already working on identifying those internal political figures, but not exclusively, who can take over the leadership of the Belarusian state, through a process that meets certain public consensus criteria, allowing the implementation of democratic reforms through a popular consultation for the necessary legitimacy, to be allowed a certain autonomy degree from the Kremlin, but which, in the end, to be loyal to Russia. As much as possible, after such a crisis.

The leadership will probably not be so personalized, it is also possible that people from outside the political world, perhaps even representatives of the opposition or opponents of the current regime, may be part of these potential new structures, in order to avoid focusing criticism on the new person and create the image of an integrative national rescue structure.

Whether the current opposition leader, Svetlana Tihanovskaia, is one of them or not, can hardly be stated now. Most likely, she is not. Tihanovskaya is seen as a symbol of the opposition rather than a true leader. Her anti-Kremlin statements have been repeated (there is already a Russian mandate in her name), and the Belarusian opposition had and has a number of other personalities who will claim this role when the time comes.

For Kremlin, this would be an ideal scenario for minimizing image losses and keeping Belarus in its influence sphere.

It is possible that this process will take place without the coordination of the Kremlin, by people right inside the current political structures in Belarus who already realize that in their power circle there is a malignant structure that they must get rid of in order to survive.  

In either case, Russia's influence is decisive. And in either case, failure is not ruled out. Internal developments have become unpredictable. And time also has an important role, the crisis cannot last indefinitely, at some point, probably after some months, up to a year, it could produce a new explosion.

South Caucasus – a space that’s too hot for a frozen conflict

The crisis situation in Karabakh, actually, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, restarted again most likely due to internal reasons, a series of political tensions related to the political situation in the two countries. A confrontation between these two would allow them to resettle on new coordinates. Hereof, the motivation of these fights should not be sought too far from the two capitals, Baku and Yerevan.

But this does not mean that there are no external reasons or opportunities created by the regional security situation, possible support coming outside the region for one or another of the involved actor behind the start and escalation, until now, of the confrontations.

The most worrying aspect for the regional security situation is not, in fact, the conflict itself, although its continuation is tragic and probably already hundreds of lives have been lost so far by both sides. The extremely determined involvement of Turkey supporting Azerbaijan and, according to the media reports coming from the region, not only politically but also with military technique, suddenly changes, however, the data of the problem.

An extension of the conflict in Armenia, or a request for support from Moscow, as a result of a direct threat to the country's national security, would also involve Russia’s entry, wherewith Yerevan has a strategic military partnership.

A negative response to such request would have negative consequences for Russia over the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

A positive answer would lead to a Russia-Turkey confrontation

And Turkey, despite its “special” behavior in the Wider Black Sea Region and the Middle East, is a NATO member state and can call on Article 5, as it already did before. And, hereof, anything can happen. In the analytical environment, it was comparatively invoked the time before the World War I.

Indeed, this is an apocalyptic scenario, as the two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have already proved, many times, that they can find reconciliation bridges even when the situation seems out of control.

Until then, a moment that’s already being planned through the negotiations initiated by Moscow between the two sides at conflict, the field situation becomes increasingly dramatic than it used to be a few months ago, when the first conflicts took place along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border, or in 2016, when there were violent confrontations recorded, which ended up causing hundreds or deaths and wounded for both parts.

Azerbaijan needs more than a simple agreement; it must also achieve a significant move of the front lines on the ground, which could be the basis for a new, even temporary, settlement of the conflict. Baku has invested heavily in military infrastructure, its military budgets are several times larger than Armenia's, its population is also three times larger than that of its neighbor. A force regime, such as that of President Ilham Aliyev, must periodically provide evidence that it is in control of the situation and can bring home the lost territories. Even if he does it in stages.

So far, the situation on the front lines, in order not to use even a war terminology, is only partially in favoring Azerbaijan. Some breaches have been made in Stepanakert's defense - for the time being, Armenia is indirectly involved, through volunteers, with the burden of the defense being, at least declaratively, exclusively on the local authorities in Karabakh. It is a position that allows Yerevan to deny when Baku accuses Armenia of artillery and missile attacks on localities in Azerbaijan. On the other hand, Azeris can only claim that Armenians bomb themselves, provocatively, when a rocket falls on one of the Armenian cathedrals.

The villages captured by the Azeris are located in the North and South of the autonomous region, larger in the South, where a city was taken under control (information denied by the Armenian side), generally territories that are not part of Karabakh itself, but are parts of Azeri districts captured by Armenians in the early 1990s to ensure the viability of their front lines. The Azerbaijani offensive was also allowed by terrain’s nature, especially in the South, but what was flat and easily accessible to the Azerbaijani units of infantry and tanks was almost over. The mountains follow, where there is another story!

Most likely, after several rounds of negotiations and the developments on the battlefield will not be spectacular, Russia, Turkey and, let's not forget, Iran will say "Enough. Keep the ammunition for later". I mentioned Iran, because this country can also be attracted in these uncontrollable developments, given that there are twice as many Azeris on its territory as in Azerbaijan itself, and their autonomy and independence dreams are not even a secret. Weakened economically, with a mediocre epidemic situation, Tehran only needed a border conflict…

Thus the situation in the South Caucasus can become a replica of Syria, where three states, the same three states - Russia, Turkey, Iran - with different political and ideological alignments, often international confrontational agendas, often antagonistic, are controlling the local developments. Turkey will not have the advantageous position in Syria, with a direct military deployment on the ground, but the fact that the Baku regime is already considered a proxy for Ankara marks a strategic gain for Erdogan, who covers Moscow’s right in its influence sphere, on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

The solution to be found on the shores of the other sea in the region is still to be found out, in a city located on almost the same latitude with Constanta, in Sochi, where discussions about border changes in the region are still allowed. And pencils with a wide core, to draw them on the map, are always available.

Both the developments in Belarus and south Caucasus have a strong unpredictable doses, which can surprise even the authoritarian or pragmatic leaders. The gunpowder is deposited in both places. Nor the tense context this year has brought is helping too much. But, as we have learned to accept the new coronavirus, we can also get out of this regional context, created by the frozen and restarted conflicts and the masses waves, who seek changes and reforms in spaces where democracy was present so far only on the TV.

Translated by Andreea Soare