Letter From the Editors

Such were the upheavals of the past year that Russian commentators see the new round of EU-US sanctions against their country as merely part of a global return to normalcy. With the end of COVID‑19 (and the economic crises it brought) within reach, the West is returning to its traditional raison d’être of championing democracy and human rights. As Fyodor Lukyanov writes, “The world has reached a stage where each state or alliance is primarily concerned with its own staying power, stability and, if possible, development.” Applying this assessment to the recent sanctions decision, he elaborates that, for the EU, “The values-based, ideological component serves as an additional binding substance.” In other words, Russia should not take these minor restrictions too much to heart, since the EU has not enacted them in anger, but rather to reinforce its own legitimacy. Now that the European countries have collectively reaffirmed their commitment to human rights with regard to the Navalny case, they may individually work with Russia on economic issues.

Several ongoing stories show how states and leaders can lose legitimacy due to failures not only in domestic policy, but in their relations with other countries. Aleksei Tokarev has investigated public opinion in the breakaway Donetsk people’s republic, and found that locals believe their leaders are “corrupt, incompetent, [and] cannot manage Russian aid effectively.”

Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko continues to seek legitimacy after protesters challenged his reelection last year; his latest gambit was a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi. As Anton Khodasevich explains, Lukashenko must thread the needle by both demonstrating the material benefits of the alliance with Russia and maintaining his independent authority at home. In the past, he would flirt with seeking NATO protection as leverage when pressed on Union State integration, but “now he says that most of the road maps are ready to be signed.” Kira Latukhina writes that a key sweetener for Lukashenko is the opportunity to manufacture Russian COVID‑19 vaccines in Belarus.

The success of the Russian vaccine programs has handed Putin a trump in his dealings with many foreign partners, including EU countries, which makes it all the more shocking that over six in 10 Russians are unwilling to receive the flagship Sputnik V vaccine. Ilya Yablokov blames this on the Kremlin’s failures in reforming the health care system and history of encouraging conspiracy theories.

A more dramatic crisis of legitimacy is facing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan after his country’s military defeat against Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020. Pashinyan, already hounded by several previous Armenian heads of government to step down, claimed that the defeat was due in part to faulty Russian weapons systems, which enraged his country’s General Staff. Opponents have now gathered in a permanent camp around the National Assembly building in Yerevan, demanding the immediate resignation of Pashinyan’s government and new elections organized by an interim government.

Pashinyan is now facing accusations of treason in the war with Azerbaijan. Gevorg Mirzayan sees in Pashinyan’s statement the continuation of a general coolness toward Russia he has demonstrated since coming to power in 2018. “The surrender of Karabakh was yet another step aimed at severing Russian-Armenian ties. . . . During the war, Pashinyan did everything in his power to lose.” Armenia’s second president, Robert Kocharyan, echoed this sentiment in a press conference he gave in Russian (rather than Armenian) to Russian news outlets. There, he openly mulled the positive aspects of a military coup. While Moscow has officially declared itself neutral, Pashinyan cannot escape the message that maintaining an alliance with Russia, and not only a parliamentary majority, is a vital component to an Armenian leader’s power and legitimacy. As of this writing, Pashinyan is still prime minister, and he intends to hold snap elections on his own terms. One hopes these elections will give the next Armenian government the legitimacy it needs.