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Opinion: Russia's referendum has implications for the neighbours too
08 July 2020

The prospect of president Putin's continued grip on the Kremlin has implications for the near abroad, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu.

On July 1, after a marathon, week-long voting process across all of Russia's regions, results of a referendum on changes to the Russian constitution were announced. According to official data the turnout was about 65 percent and 78 percent of voters backed the amendments put forward by Russian President Vladimir Putin back in January 2020.

The most prominent measure in the package of constitutional amendments effectively cleared the path for President Putin to participate in 2024 and 2030 presidential elections, bypassing the two-term rule. President Putin explained the rational of these amendments by the necessity of preserving stability. He emphasized that Russian statehood is still too young and susceptible to several negative influences. The State apparatus needs to concentrate its efforts on solving problems of people, and not on intrigues to find a successor to Mr. Putin, argued the Kremlin's apologists. There were other significant changes too, among them the decision to cease the automatic implementation in Russia of international agreements and conventions, and of decisions of international institutions including the European Court of Human Rights. Starting from now these conventions and decisions will be implemented in Russia only if they are in compliance with the Russian constitution. However, for Russia's foreign partners and adversaries the most significant impact of the referendum is the prospect of having President Putin in the Kremlin until 2036.

This likelihood definitely influences the policy calculations of external players. The geopolitical giants - the US, China, and to some extent the EU, will thoroughly analyse the impact of these changes on their policy towards Russia and its neighborhood. However, the main  brunt of the consequences of any power transition in the Kremlin, or lack thereof,  falls on the post - Soviet states, especially Ukraine and Georgia, who are stuck in a "no peace - no war" relationship with Russia. Many circles, in both Kiev and Tbilisi, have long-ago lost hope of coming to terms with Putin's Russia, and of restoring amicably their control over the Donbass, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is quite obvious that these states lack the capacity to convince Russia to change its behavior towards them. Back in September 2009 then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Georgia to pursue policy of "strategic patience" regarding the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, 11 years after, Western sanctions have failed to force Russia either to cease its support to Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples' Republics, or to withdraw its military bases from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, there are signs of US and EU fatigue on Ukrainian and Georgian related issues with Russia. The President of France openly supports restoring the EU's strategic dialogue with Russia, while growing US - China rivalry makes discussions of a possible US - Russia strategic deal that will pull Russia away from China whilst recognizing Russian special interests in its backyard, increasingly attractive.

In this context a part of the Ukrainian and Georgian defense and security establishment have articulated the idea that the only realistic way to  regain lost territories is to wait for another Russian state collapse as a result of internal political turmoil, as happened in 1917 or 1991. They hope that in 2024 a power struggle over the succession to President Putin between  different Russian clans may create domestic chaos in Russia, force the Russian establishment to concentrate its focus solely on domestic issues, and "forget about Donbass, Abkhazia and South Ossetia". According to this logic, the key task for Ukraine and Georgia is the formation of strong armed forces, which would have sufficient capacities to use "the short window of opportunity" and take back their territories while Russia is gripped by domestic chaos.

President Putin's possible stay in the Kremlin until 2036 has clearly complicated these plans. Of course, nothing is fixed and it is impossible to say for sure that Putin will participate in 2024 or 2030 elections. Furthermore, the constitutional amendments may only postpone a future crisis connected to a transition of power, potentially making it even more dangerous for Russian statehood. However, if Putin participates in the 2024 elections, most probably any possible Russian domestic upheaval will take place only around 2030. Thus, at least for the coming decade, both Ukraine and Georgia can put aside hopes for quick victories, and remain content with "strategic patience".

The possible extension of President Putin's hold on power will impact Armenia and Belarus too. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Armenia had to counter joint Azerbaijan - Turkey pressure with a strategic alliance with Russia which allowed Armenia to neutralize threats of Turkish military intervention in the Karabakh conflict. Despite the recent thaw in Russian-Turkish relations, given the traditional Russia - Turkey strategic rivalry in the South Caucasus, and the US inclination to use Turkey as a tool to decrease Russian influence in the region,  Armenia and Russia remain natural allies in their intention to prevent the growth of Turkish influence in the South Caucasus. From this perspective any sudden decline in the Russian presence in the region would have a catastrophic impact on Armenia. Thus, President Putin's continued tenure in the Kremlin, at least till 2030, provides Armenia with another decade to better prepare for a possible Russian withdrawal from the South Caucasus.

Russia - Belarus relations have deteriorated since 2015 and entered in crisis mode ahead of the upcoming August 9 Presidential elections. During the whole of 2019 the Kremlin put pressure on President Lukashenko to force him to agree to multiple road maps of Russia - Belarus integration within a "Union State". Lukashenko resisted, and ultimately rejected the offer.

Some experts, both in Moscow and Minsk, sought to explain the persistent efforts of the Kremlin on President Putin's intention to become President of the "Union State" after 2024. In this context the recent constitutional amendments in Russia may decrease the rationale for the Kremlin to force the "Union State" project, and thus may be deemed as a positive development for those who are interested in preserving Belarus sovereignty. However, it is very likely that Russian pressure on Belarus has little if anything to do with the political future of President Putin. Russia, after the Ukraine crisis, views Belarus as its last buffer against malign western activities near its European borders. The Kremlin cannot afford to lose its effective control over   Minsk. In this context, the acceleration of the integration processes serve as iron-clad guarantees that neither the current nor any future leadership of Belarus will make a U-turn in foreign policy. Thus, the constitutional amendments in Russia and the prospect of another decade of President Putin's rule will only increase pressure on Belarus to finalize the integration process with Russia.         

source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan

photo: Vladimir Putin (archive picture)

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