Letter From the Editors
To say that the outgoing year has been a monumental one would be the understatement of the decade. But while some events that were still nascent in January (like the 300-pound gorilla in the room, the COVID‑19 pandemic), others carried a lot of expectations but did not live up to the hype. This brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s famous lines from the poem “Hollow Men” – “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” So what events in Russia (and beyond) created the most resonance in the past year? And which fizzled?
The constitutional amendments vote. – Take your pick which column this hyped-up event falls into. Announced back in January, the amendments were from the very start seen for what they were: a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power after 2024 (the conundrum that pundits have dubbed “the 2024 problem”). The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in the authorities’ plan to turn the referendum into a national jubilee (originally set for May, to coincide with the May holidays, the vote was then moved to July and held under pandemic restrictions), but even the biggest epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic could not stand between the Russian president and his goal. Predictably, the referendum approved the changes.
Belarus protests. – While Putin managed to push through his bid to rule Russia for at least two more terms with relative ease, his Belarussian counterpart was not so fortunate. The Aug. 9 election in Belarus sparked protests never before seen in the republic – which are in fact still ongoing. Some blame Aleksandr Lukashenko’s heavy-handed moves against the more moderate opposition candidates, such as former Belgazprombank head Viktor Babariko, who was called a Moscow “foreign agent” and arrested. Even a show put on for Belarussians involving the arrest of supposed Russian mercenaries tasked with stirring up trouble in Belarus failed to consolidate people against the “common enemy.”
The US Secretary of State’s Minsk visit. – Talk about an event that fizzled! In early February, Mike Pompeo stopped off in Minsk on his “Rock the Post-Soviet Space” tour. Meeting with Lukashenko, Pompeo promised to Minsk all the oil it needed (thus removing the need for Russian oil) and even said the US Embassy in Minsk, shuttered since 2008, could be reopened. Perhaps that’s what got Lukashenko on his anti-Russian streak, culminating in “as seen on TV” arrests of the purported Russian mercenaries. But either Lukashenko didn’t read the fine print, or Pompeo didn’t sufficiently sweeten the deal – in the end, batka was once again forced to seek help from Russia when the situation spun out of control.
Aleksei Navalny poisoning. – When the Russian opposition leader became ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow, the incident set off a chain of events that few saw coming. After initially being treated in Omsk (Rimma Polyak credits the pilot’s decision to make an emergency landing with saving Navalny’s life), he was eventually evacuated to Germany, where specialists determined he was poisoned with a Novichok-class nerve agent. This revelation, coupled by official Moscow’s tone-deaf treatment of the incident, conclusively soured Russia’s relations with Germany and France, and put the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in limbo.
Nagorno-Karabakh war. – The tragic six-week conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh ended in a bitter truce that Russia helped mediate. While the outcome of the brief but intense conflict is somewhat ambiguous for Russia, and even Armenia and Azerbaijan, experts tend to agree the clear winner was Turkey. And mainly President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who established a firm foothold in Russia’s traditional playground – the South Caucasus – and got a bargaining chip with Russia in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, to boot.
The world woke up in a new reality in 2021, vastly different from Jan. 1, 2020. But as hopes get intermixed with anxieties, it’s once again T.S. Eliot who said it best: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.”