Four years ago, Armenia’s failure to sign the EU Association Agreement was an early indication of the impending Ukraine crisis. Now, an Association Agreement-lite has been signed with Brussels. While this doesn’t represent a normalization of relations between Russia and the EU in the post-Soviet space, it’s important symbolically. Rather than an “either/or” approach to integration, the EU and Russia are gradually moving in the “both/and” direction.
Russia and the West have a choice in the South Caucasus. They can either treat the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as being isolated from other conflicts—such as those in the Donbas and Transdniestria—or they can use it as an additional argument in their overall confrontation.
Recent speculation that Russia wants to topple the “traditional” clan system in the North Caucasus misses the point: the clan system is in no way traditional, and it is collapsing on its own. The real question is whether the federal center will find other allies in the region when it falls.
Dagestan’s outgoing leader was also once presented as a figure who would instill order in the republic and combat clan rule. Indeed, Ramazan Abdulatipov tried to reform the regional elite. But clan rule, nepotism, corruption, and the threat of terrorism are still there four years later. It has proved impossible to modernize Dagestan without changing the Russian system as a whole.
The conflict in Karabakh is the only one in the post-Soviet space where Russia and the West are ready to work together. But none of the mediators are currently discussing the core issues in the dispute.
Russian Muslims are protesting the situation in Myanmar. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is laying claim to a separate regional foreign policy based on the defense of Muslims abroad. It is a broader phenomenon than that and reflects the distinct identity of Russian Muslims and the failure to build a proper nationalities policy in Russia.
The parliamentary elections in Armenia aren’t just about President Serzh Sargsyan’s effort to stay in power by swapping his current post for the prime ministership. Armenia’s international allegiances are also up for grabs, leaving Moscow to choose between supporting some opposition politicians and simply throwing its weight behind the ruling party.
Despite Ramzan Kadyrov’s attempts to retain his special status, the old ways of doing business between Grozny and Moscow are over—and the new contract is here to stay.
Events in the Middle East and Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict have left the majority of Russian Muslims indifferent and have not inspired them to take any particular action, let alone protest. Even the hundreds of militants who have returned from fighting for the banned Islamic State terrorist organization in the Middle East are behaving passively.
Even as Russia is again engaged in a confrontation with the West, it is confronted by very real threats coming from the south.