2020: The Year in Review | Eurasian Region | By Emily Paxson

The year 2020 was monumental in the Eurasian region for several reasons—Moldova elected its first woman President; Belarusians and Bulgarians took a stand against corruption; violence erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh and continued in Eastern Ukraine; and countries reacted to a global pandemic that has so far claimed the lives of over 1.7 million people worldwide. What is to follow is a list of the top five events in the region that are worth monitoring closely going into 2021.

1. North Macedonia’s EU Accession Negotiations blocked by Bulgaria: At the beginning of 2020, North Macedonia looked poised to finally beginning its EU accession negotiations after settling a name change dispute with neighboring Greece. However, in November 2020, Bulgaria said that it would block North Macedonia’s accession talks until the countries settled their historical language and identity dispute. Some reports claim that the sudden veto by Bulgaria, which has campaigned for EU expansion in the western Balkans, is an attempt to distract attention away from the country-wide anti-government protests that have been ongoing since July 2020.

Regardless of what agreements are reached, North Macedonians have made it clear that any move that bends toward Sofia is viewed as selling out the country’s identity. Looking into the next year, Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev’s difficult position regarding the negotiations appears likely to end one of two ways: with Bulgaria relenting under pressure from other EU members and thus letting the negotiations begin or with Zaev reaching an agreement with Bulgaria which will undoubtedly lead to protests and calls for his resignation.

Temple of Garni

Temple of Garni

2. Peace Agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh in place, but cracks showing: Following a flare-up in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the long-contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a peace agreement was signed on 09 November 2020, with Russia acting as the interlocutor. The agreement calls for the stationing of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers for at least the next five years. The peacekeepers’ main roles will be to place checkpoints along the front line and patrol the corridor that connects Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. The peacekeepers presence is reminiscent of the situation in Transnistria where Russian peacekeepers have been stationed since 1992.

The peace agreement is shaky and has already shown that while it may be sufficient to stop large-scale fighting, it isn’t enough to ensure a firm ceasefire. Unrest amongst Armenians has continued since the agreement was signed with thousands filling the streets demanding the resignation of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Vovayi Pashinyan. The protesters claim that Prime Minister Pashinyan handed over part of the Armenian homeland to Azerbaijan. Whether renewed violence occurs and whether Prime Minister Pashinyan answers protesters calls to resign are two key events to watch for in 2021.

3. Maia Sandu elected President in ethnically divided Moldova: Former Prime Minister Maia Sandu was elected President of Moldova—securing 57.75 percent of the vote—in November 2020. President Sandu campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and an interest in closer western integration. Her victory is seen as a contrast to her predecessor, Igor Dodon, who maintained close ties with Russian President Putin and was accused of being complacent in the country’s rampant corruption.

Within in her first few weeks, President Sandu made comments in favor of the removal of Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria that were cheered by some portions of the population, and angrily dismissed by others—revealing the fine line that Sandu must balance as she seeks to reform and govern an ethnically divided country. The outcome of the snap parliamentary elections (which will most likely take place in early 2021) will be a key determinant as to whether Sandu will be able to push through her reform agenda.

4. Protests in Belarus lead to detentions and promise of reform by president: Protests have rocked Belarus since early August when Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been in power for 26 years, was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election—an election that was rife with fraud. Since the protests began, an estimated 28,000 Belarusians have been detained in Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators. Opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who left Belarus out of concerns for the safety of her children, has emerged as the face of the protests.

Some observers have said that Lukashenka’s grip on power appears to be splintering and sanctions applied by the United States and the EU will help to deepen any cracks in his power. He has expressed the need for a new constitution and hinted at the possibility of stepping aside. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Belarusians has shown no indication of backing down, and whether Lukashenka was merely paying lip service to the idea or actually intends to step aside will become clearer in 2021.

5. Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant “Astravets” Goes Online amidst Lithuanian objections: Belarus brought its first nuclear power plant online in November 2020. The plant’s two reactors—the second of which will come online in 2022—are expected to provide about one-third of the country’s electricity. Just three days after it first went online, the plant stopped electricity output after several transformers exploded. Electricity output resumed again ten days later.

Neighboring Lithuania has long protested the Russian-backed plant, claiming that it is not up to safety standards—and going as far as providing iodine pills to residents living on the border. Some Belarusians have also expressed concern over the plant and the danger that it poses, remembering the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy. As the Nuclear power plant continues its production and moves to bringing its second reactor online, the outside community, specifically the Baltics, will be anxiously watching.

Conclusion: Growing Russian influence and EU accession negotiations will be two major themes that will play out over the course of the new year. Exerting influence over its near abroad is a central pillar of Russian policy. This stands at the forefront of the Astravets power plant coming online, the recent elections in Belarus and Moldova, and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The year 2021 will not be any different. Accession negotiations for both the EU and NATO will also be a key event to watch. North Macedonia right now is in the spotlight, but other countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine hold similar aspirations, which will undoubtedly be reflected in their policies in 2021.