Russia and Eurasia: Limited advances in 2018

This woman stands in front of a blown-out building in Kurakhove, in Ukraine's Donetsk region. In 2018, the conflict with Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine will drag on, with the Minsk negotiations at an impasse. (Photo: o.V. SVOboda)

This woman stands in front of a blown-out building in Kurakhove, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. In 2018, the conflict with Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine will drag on, with the Minsk negotiations at an impasse. (Photo: o.V. SVOboda)

In 2018, Russia will retain its renewed prominent place on the world stage. Vladimir Putin’s vision and military spending have made his country a major player in Syria and the Middle East. In Europe, involvement in Ukraine and the absorption of Crimea continue despite western sanctions, and, across the continent, Russian support fuels nationalist politicians who are intent on challenging the EU’s liberal order. Successful meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections through the spreading of disinformation has opened another pathway to fulfil foreign policy goals by keeping the west off guard — most recently in evidence in the Catalonia crisis. This all comes as the economy stabilizes, but living standards for the average Russian remain far below those of their European neighbours.
1. Six more years of President Putin
Elections remain the most important event in the political life of Russia, even though their outcomes can be easily predicted. Putin is almost certain to seek re-election for another six-year term. His competition is unclear. Former contenders — communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky — are unlikely to attract significant support. Alexei Navalny — Putin’s most prominent and vigorous critic — is, for now, barred from running due to a criminal conviction, which he claims is politically motivated. The main concern for the current administration is low voter turnout. Although it does not directly affect the results, it is an important symbolic and reputational factor. An effort to attract younger and even protest voters appears to have motivated the candidacy of Ksenia Sobchak, an opposition journalist, social media star and the daughter of former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s former boss. Other popular figures with insignificant political capital and experience may also run, even at the risk of vulgarizing the elections.
Our prediction is that Putin will win in the first round. The results will matter less than the political course the president will lay out for the new term. The main intrigue will be whether Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will retain his post, or a new figure — perhaps a potential successor — will be appointed.
2. Ukraine amid crises
Ukraine faces crises on two fronts in 2018. First, public dissatisfaction over continued corruption has prompted renewed protests in Kyiv, even as the government takes steps to address grievances. Although the scale is far smaller than the Maidan demonstrations of 2013, suggestions of a coup, perhaps led by the once-president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, circulate. Second, the conflict with Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine drags on, with the Minsk negotiations at an impasse. All sides are now discussing international peacekeeping forces, but implementation, much less a political vision for Eastern Ukraine’s future, remains elusive. The country, whose resilience has allowed it to survive a bloody conflict and virtual partition, remains low on the list of priorities for the European Union and western actors.
We predict Putin will offer various proposals and feints towards a political solution in the east, knowing full well that Ukraine lacks the resources or vision to reincorporate territories behind insurgent lines. Diplomatic manoeuvres will ensure the west does not send arms to Ukraine. Despite dissatisfaction, Ukrainians will lack the stomach for another Maidan.
3. Russia and the West: Same planet, different worlds
Insoluble disputes and continuities in political agendas in Europe, Russia and North America will keep the confrontation between the west and Putin’s regime alive. The west will not accept Crimea’s annexation, nor will Russia reverse it. Beyond this, allegations and evidence of Russia’s interference in the elections and domestic politics of the United States continue to mount. Implicated are the inner circles of President Donald Trump and other leaders seen to benefit from cyberattacks, money or other “dirty tricks.” In Europe, Russia’s open support of ultra-right candidates and parties substantially complicates already uneasy relations. The truce between government and rebel forces in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions remains shaky and renewed violence could see tensions rise.
In 2018, we predict western and Russian leaders will continue to take irreconcilable positions towards major international issues, limiting the possibility for co-operation, despite Trump’s warm feelings towards Putin. Even so, each side recognizes the other’s importance in global affairs, and co-operation will continue, on a case-by-case basis.

 

In October, riot police attacked and detained protesters, many of them supporters of lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny, who is shown at the time of his own arrest in March 2017. (Photo: Evgeny Feldman)

In October, riot police attacked and detained protesters, many of them supporters of lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny, who is shown at the time of his own arrest in March 2017. (Photo: Evgeny Feldman)

4. Syria’s now diplomatic war
Russia’s military involvement in Syria is winding down, with the defeat of the Islamic State as a territorial entity. Diplomatic negotiations among world leaders concerning the future status of the country will now intensify. It is expected that the main stumbling block will involve the fate of Syria’s current leader, Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s recognition of the legitimacy of Assad’s regime differs drastically from the position of other stakeholders. Putin is assuming a leading role in the status of Kurdish autonomy, which remains unresolved. As one of the winners, Russia will remain active in Syria diplomatically, and use its relationship with the regime to strengthen its geopolitical position in the Middle East.
Given the state of Russia-West relations and diametrically opposed views on the legitimacy of al-Assad, talks on Syria’s future are expected to be long and low on achievements in 2018.
5. Russia’s economy: Muddling along
Russia’s social and economic development will be an important issue in the context of its presidential electoral campaign. Thus, 2018 will mark the fourth year of mutual sanctions between Russia and leading western countries. Operating alongside declining oil prices, sanctions substantially affected Russia’s economy. The ruble’s purchasing power was cut in half, the GDP fell by more than a third — from $2.2 trillion in 2013 to $1.2 trillion in 2016 — and Russia’s growth stagnated. The Kremlin has freely raided its precious piggy bank — the stabilization fund — built during years of high energy prices. Yet, there are signs of stabilization. Moderately conservative forecasts for 2018 predict a steady, but low, GDP growth of between 1.1 and 1.8 per cent. The Russian Central Bank’s strict monetary and regulatory policies satisfy the banking and financial sectors. Russia remains nonetheless vulnerable to energy-price changes or potential further sanctions.
Economic scenarios for 2018 are gloomy, but far from disastrous. The Kremlin will do everything possible to keep the economic situation stable in an election year, so the status quo is likely in the near future.
6. Protests and dissatisfaction in Russia
Anti-regime demonstrations increased in number and intensity in 2017. An October protest on Putin’s 65th birthday spread to 80 cities. Thousands of riot police attacked and detained demonstrators, many of whom are supporters of Alexei Navalny, who was arrested beforehand. The Kremlin has also had to deal with simmering tensions as Moscow city council prepares to eject tenants of downtown Khrushchev-era buildings to begin construction of new towers. Even as protests over seemingly unfettered presidential power, corruption and challenges to daily life grow, Putin remains undeniably popular and his message of Russian unity in the face of western opposition resonates. Living standards have decreased over the last few years, but Russians will say they have suffered through far worse. The Russian economy has stabilized, even as it trails western countries in delivering prosperity for citizens.
In 2018, vocal demonstrations will continue in large Russian cities, perhaps around the elections and inauguration, but their growth potential is limited. Putin enjoys support as a symbol of stability and strength, and he’s able to point to such accomplishments as the annexation of Crimea.
7. World Cup ’18: A coming-out party?
Eleven cities in Russia will host soccer’s World Cup in June and July 2018, an event that dwarfs the Sochi Olympics for placing the country at the centre of the sporting universe. Optimists can point to plans for visa-free entry for visitors and Putin’s desire to show Russian cities as global cultural and tourist destinations. A successful event might thaw relations with the west. Russian police have made progress in battling Islamist opposition, so the threat of terrorist attacks is small, though it can never be completely discounted. Racist and nationalist organizations have also fallen out of government favour in recent years. The potential for organized or spontaneous drunken brawls, however, which might sweep in innocent citizens, tourists or spectators, or racist chants emanating from the stands, is quite real. Putin is already talking about regulating alcohol sales to foreign visitors.
We expect the World Cup will showcase Russia’s provincial cities, which will put on a great show for tourists. A visa-free regime with the west remains a distant hope, however, and Putin is likely to use the event to promote Russian greatness to a domestic audience instead of using it as a springboard to better foreign relations.
8. LGBTQ and Chechnya
Canada has accepted a number of gay refugees fleeing persecution in Chechnya, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov. Ruling the region as a virtual fiefdom with Putin’s blessing, Kadyrov initiated a campaign against homosexuality in 2017. Detention, torture and forced confessions proliferated, with potential targets fleeing the republic for elsewhere in Russia, and, for some, to Western Europe and Canada. Kadyrov has denied the campaign, insisting at times that there are no homosexuals in his republic. Putin has only said he would raise the matter with central government officials. The violence appears limited to Chechnya, with the Russian LGBTQ network offering transit out of the republic, but this will not assure their safety. A similar crackdown against gays is now being carried out in Azerbaijan.
We expect the 2017 campaign will have accomplished its goal of terrifying Chechnya’s LGBTQ community, driving members away or deeper underground. The campaign’s predicted success is just another sign that Putin will allow human rights to be violated with impunity, especially in the North Caucasus. It’s unclear how far such a campaign will spread.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown here with Chinese President Xi Jinping, is expected to seek another six-year term in March 2018. (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown here with Chinese President Xi Jinping, is expected to seek another six-year term in March 2018. (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office)

9. “Uzbek Spring”
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has undertaken initiatives that could lead to significant opening of Central Asia’s most populous and geopolitically significant country. A border agreement with Kyrgyzstan and currency convertibility have been followed by still-tentative efforts to increase judicial independence, reduce child and forced labour in the cotton fields and open the media. Certainly the Uzbek leadership is on a “charm offensive” with the west, and is seeking greater inclusion in the global community. Still, thousands of political activists remain imprisoned and civil society is weak.
Uzbek political decision-making remains opaque, and we can only guess at the relative strength of reformers versus conservatives at the top. The country faces enormous challenges, and instability in Afghanistan might act as a brake to reform. Still, this is the first time this century that a degree of optimism for a more open Uzbekistan is warranted.
Uzbekistan will proceed with great caution in 2018, in the hopes that engagement will boost economic performance.
Significant moves to a more democratic society will be postponed. The fallout from the New York City attacks by an Uzbek who pledged loyalty to ISIS is, as yet, unclear.
10. Two presidential elections
Geographical neighbours and political rivals, Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose relationship has been spoiled by the unresolved territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, will both hold presidential elections in 2018. In Armenia, term-limited President Serzh Sargsyan will have to step down. Another leader will steer constitutional reform in Armenia towards a parliamentary republic, balance relations with its Russian patron and the west and continue to stall negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliev will no doubt win his fourth consecutive term. Reports of rampant government corruption have provoked outcries, but the regime of the oil-rich country has proven capable of cracking down on real or perceived opposition.
As the leader of the popular Republican Party of Armenia, Sargsyan will retain a crucial role in the country’s political life in 2018. In Azerbaijan, political continuity is virtually assured, yet there remains the risk that nationalist rhetoric during the electoral campaigns will affect further dialogue between the two countries as violent incidents mount along the Nagorno-Karabakh border.

Jeff Sahadeo is associate professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and the department of political science at Carleton University. Mikhail Zherebtsov is a researcher at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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Jeff Sahadeo is associate professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and the department of political science at Carleton University. Mikhail Zherebtsov is a researcher at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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