The balance of power in the world is changing, as well as the situation at the regional level. This is important to understand for conducting a full analysis of trends and processes that will take place in post-Soviet countries in 2021.
The second stage of the collapse of the Soviet geopolitical space, associated with the weakening of Russian influence in Central Asia, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and the crisis in Belarus, brings qualitatively new players to the Eastern European chessboard who had not previously played a major role in local processes. At the same time, the old problems have not disappeared but even increased in 2020. This is the opinion of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, which made a forecast for the development of Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus in 2021.
The collapse of the Soviet geopolitical space, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, requires the countries of the former USSR to take rapid, concrete and systemic steps to accomplish several important tasks, namely:
- Survive geopolitical upheavals.
- Reboot the national political system to eliminate toxicity, nullify commitments to Russia, and update the social contract.
- Redistribute financial flows to launch a number of reforms necessary for socio-economic stabilisation.
- Form a new foreign policy, taking into account the post-Russian environment and a multipolar, quasi-chaotic and extremely dynamic world.
Ukraine is entering 2021 with a complex institutional crisis of the state and this crisis (not corruption or even the economy or the war in Donbas) will be crucial for the further socio-economic situation in the country.
The European direction will develop weakly and not very actively. The EU is busy overcoming the internal crisis, allocating funds for economic recovery, stabilising political discourse, tackling migration, curbing Chinese expansion and American protectionism.
In recent years, Ukraine has become a minor foreign policy issue of the European Union. Ukraine is viewed through the prism of two important processes that are important for Europeans – the conflict in Donbas and relations with Russia.
Ukraine still has no initiative providing a broad understanding of the settlement of the conflict in Donbas with a serious discussion of humanitarian, socio-economic, legal, property, land, educational issues in the occupied territories and aspects of their potential reintegration. Instead, the only things that often break through the information space are some provocative theses about organisation of local elections in the occupied territories, joint patrols with militants, creation of a free economic area, full amnesty, and so on. Therefore, the agenda in the negotiations is formed not by Ukraine, but by our Western partners, who sometimes take an even more “pro-Ukrainian” position than Ukraine itself as it was seen in the case of the establishment of the Advisory Commission within the TCG in spring 2020.
Ukraine’s relations with Russia are also devoid of consistency and specificity. In the conditions of war, Ukraine does not have holistic and multilateral expertise on Russia, in particular its internal processes, state of the economy, sanctions pressure, or plans for the future. This makes Ukraine vulnerable in 2021 to any potential political maneuvers implemented by the Russian Federation on various sides to gain political and diplomatic benefits, including at the Normandy Four level, in the Minsk talks, in bilateral dialogue with France or Germany, in the Middle East or Africa, etc.
Thus, according to the results of 2020, the foreign policy of Ukraine has not overcome its fundamental problems, which are largely associated with internal political processes. They will remain in 2021:
- Provinciality of Ukrainian politics – semantic limitation, rigidity of state institutions, insecurities in decision-making and lack of confidence in independent path.
- Reflexivity of foreign policy activity – a chronic regime of “fire brigade” in relation to external situations that always arise “suddenly.”
- Short-term vision in foreign policy – inability to develop long-term action plans and impose an agenda.
- Culture of political irresponsibility – fussy decision-making hierarchy, lack of punishment, blurred criteria for evaluating work.
- Disalignment in the interaction of state bodies.
In terms of economic resources, global economic crisis, decline in international trade and an attempt to find new logistics chains have a negative impact on exports of Ukraine and, of course, Ukrainian oligarchic groups. Against this background, the struggle for a surviving available resource base within the country – the energy market, logistics, and finance – is intensifying. At the same time, the transfer of land to people sharply strengthens the role of local authorities in these resource wars. And “land wars” (mostly behind-the-scenes) may become one of the defining features of 2021.
The global crisis and restrictions on the movement of citizens have already created the problem of lower foreign remittances. In 2021, this will be supplemented by a decrease in available financial resources from international organisations, and a drop in investment volumes (globally). Ukraine’s internal problems also include the crisis of the pension system, which is experiencing a growing deficit every year, rising unemployment (in particular, due to deteriorating conditions for small businesses), a drop in consumer demand and lack of loans, as well as the problem of economic inefficiency. Finally, a significant part of the financial resource in 2021 will be redistributed to the local level.
Thus, the government’s economic resource is low. The economic resource of oligarchic groups is decreasing. There are prospects for the growth of economic resources among local elites, creating additional conflict points in today’s conditions as local authorities will defend their resource from attempts by the center and oligarchic groups to control it.
The political crisis in Belarus was a clear manifestation of Russia’s attempts to maintain control over its periphery and to re-sew the geopolitical space inherited from the Soviet Union. The post-electoral protests in the summer took place with the active information, media, ideological and financial support from Russian oligarchic groups. The weakening of Alexander Lukashenka by undermining his legitimacy after the election was a way for the Kremlin to keep him under its control and force him to return to close cooperation with Moscow.
The recent overtures by Lukashenka and his team to use a multi-vector approach, which led to the normalisation of relations with the United States, improved communication with Europe and the strengthening of Chinese capital in Belarus, worried Russia. Moscow began to enter into new conflicts with Minsk, ranging from oil price disputes to a long process of integration into the union state.
In 2021, Belarus will be a test for Russia in its ability to project influence, manage processes at its periphery, maneuver between external partners and negotiate with elites. In fact, in 2021 Belarus is to conduct a controlled transit of political power, which is likely to lead to the resignation of Lukashenka and the election of an accommodating candidate to his post who will restore loyalty to the Kremlin.
Trapped geopolitically between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia, Armenia has always been in a difficult geopolitical situation, the only way out of which was either a dynamic and competent multi-vector approach, or the settlement of the conflict with Turkey. In any case, this implied a gradual move away from an unequivocal dependence on Moscow and a drift towards other alternative centers of power such as Iran, China, India, the United States or France. However, for 2.5 years of his rule, Nikol Pashinyan failed to complete the appropriate reforms. Defeat in the war deprived him of political capital and domestic legitimacy, which allowed him to come to power in the anti-elite wave of 2018.
The Russian Federation played up the Nagorno-Karabakh escalation with Turkey precisely to maintain control over Yerevan, cement its position in the South Caucasus, consolidated back in the 1990s, and weaken Pashinyan’s political position in order to subsequently replace him with a more Kremlin-loyal politician.
In 2021, Armenia has to go through a political upheaval, overcome the psychosocial trauma of defeat in the war, and begin a new phase of restructuring its policy in accordance with the tasks described above. Otherwise, it risks losing its sovereignty and becoming dependent on one or two centers of power for a long time.
Interesting processes are taking place in Moldova as well as it’s another territory where the collapse of the Soviet geopolitical space is coming to an end. The victory of pro-European and pro-unionist opposition leader Maia Sandu in the presidential election returns the country to the 2019 status quo. Pro-European, Romanian- and Western-oriented political forces again got a chance to gain a foothold in power and oust their pro-Russian opponents.
However, the escalation of the internal political struggle is unlikely to radically change the situation in Moldova in 2021. First, the country is still highly dependent on the national oligarchy, which dictates the rules of the game from the “deep level,” which politicians often do not have full impact on. Therefore, President Maia Sandu will have a limited window for political maneuver, and most decisions will be made outside the public state.
Secondly, Moldova is still extremely dependent on external forces. The key stakeholders in the territory are the Russian Federation, which retains control over Chisinau through Transnistria, the United States, which operates in Moldova through Romania, and the European Union, whose financial support the internal legitimacy of Moldovan politicians depends on. This dependence on the will of external partners does not make it possible to talk about the full subjectivity of certain political leaders in Moldova. Therefore, president Igor Dodon, no matter how much he wanted rapprochement with Russia, was forced to negotiate with the EU, and Maia Sandu, being a supporter of the Euro-Atlantic course, will be forced to speak with Moscow.
It will depend on external players whether Moldova sees certain progress in resolving the Transnistrian conflict or whether everything will remain frozen.