Putin looks on as revolutions and conflict pile up in Russia's 'backyard'

Nataliya Vasilyeva
·4-min read
Retired police officer Genadiy Avanesyan, 73, searches for belongings in the remains of his house, which is said was destroyed by Azeri shelling
Retired police officer Genadiy Avanesyan, 73, searches for belongings in the remains of his house, which is said was destroyed by Azeri shelling

Armenia and Azerbaijan accused each other of breaking a fragile ceasefire mediated by Moscow, in the latest blow to Russian efforts to manage mounting crises on its borders.

Bitter rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to a cease-fire in the early hours of Saturday morning after two weeks-long fighting in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moscow invited the foreign ministers of both countries for talks in a clear bid to boost its role as power broker between post-Soviet states that once formed a solid pack with Russia.

In just two months, three former Soviet republics have been rocked by protests, revolution and conflict unseen in years.

In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, the country’s leader of 26 years, won a widely contested presidential election only to face an unprecedented public backlash, ranging from massive street rallies to industrial strikes and acts of civil disobedience.

While the Lukashenko regime was still scrambling to curb the unwavering protests, fighting broke out in the decades-old conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist, ethnically Armenian exclave within the internationally recognised borders of Azerbaijan.

Earlier this week, angry protesters stormed the government headquarters in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, leaving the country in a vacuum of power.

Putin is facing unrest in former Soviet states
Putin is facing unrest in former Soviet states

The tumultuous developments on Russia’s western, southern and south-eastern frontiers where Moscow has often played the role of a key mediator have multiplied headaches for President Vladimir Putin who also has to deal with Western reaction to the nerve agent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Russia’s regional influence, however, has often been exaggerated. Despite its image of a post-Soviet kingmaker, the Kremlin in the past failed to squash a single revolution or prevent a flare-up in hostilities.

“The Kremlin keeps an eye on things. It’s aware of a lot of things but its ability to do something on the ground without incurring major risks is very much limited,” Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst, told the Telegraph, adding that Mr Putin “has been risk averse lately.”

When hostilities flared up in Nagorno-Karabakh late last month, many viewed it as a sign that the Kremlin no longer keeps tabs on the conflict which broke out amid the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and had largely been dormant since 1994.

Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Kremlin-connected Russian International Affairs Council, in a piece published earlier this week described recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh as “Russia’s grave mistake”.

He added that the emergency of Turkey as Azerbaijan’s key backer in the conflict has broken the previous status-quo:

“Russia is losing its place as the main foreign partner in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict which has been to keep the balance between the two Caucasian nations and prevent hostilities.”

To Russia’s south-east, the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan plunged into chaos on Monday night when protesters clashed with police and seized government buildings in response to what was widely perceived as a rigged parliamentary election.

A demonstrator dressed in white wears a protective face mask and holds a banner during the a Women's march for Belarus in Poland
A demonstrator dressed in white wears a protective face mask and holds a banner during the a Women's march for Belarus in Poland

The Kremlin took its time to react to the political turmoil which would mark the third time a Kyrgyz government would be toppled by a revolution in the past 15 years.

Four days after protesters stormed government buildings, languishing inside the president’s office and smoking cigarettes, there still did not appear to be any working government and there were no police on the streets of the capital Bishkek.

On Friday several different groups organised rallies in the centre of the city. Many shops and businesses closed for the day, expecting trouble.

Overlooked by a statue of Vladimir Lenin with his right arm outstretched, thousands of supporters of Sadyr Japarov, one of the men vying for power since a revolution on Monday, gathered outside the Government House.

In another part of the city, hundreds of other people gathered for rival protests.

Businesses and shops in recent days complained of looting, and volunteers, mostly young, middle-class Bishkek residents, came out on street patrols.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, on Thursday described the developments in Kyrgyzstan as “a mess and chaos” and singled out the chief of the Kyrgyz intelligence as someone who could “help stabilise the situation.”

In Belarus, the Kremlin faces relentless opposition protests and an increasingly unpredictable President Lukashenko whose security forces unleashed a ferocious crackdown on demonstrators in the aftermath of the presidential elections in August.

After investing too much effort in cementing its influence in Ukraine during the 2014 pro-democracy protests which toppled a pro-Russian president, the Kremlin may now be cautious to get too involved in the ongoing turmoil on either side of the country.

“There’s no appetite (in the Kremlin) to create more problems especially when you don’t know the outcome,” Mr Frolov said.