oDR: Opinion

What happened in 2021? We ask our contributors

Contributors from around the post-Soviet space reflect on a year of repression, corruption and economic mismanagement, and the fight for a better future

Editors of oDR
20 December 2021, 1.20pm
Igor Ilyash, Knar Khudoyan, Sopiko Japaridze, Ilya Budraitskis, Dmitry Mazorenko and Tetiana Bezruk

The second year of the global pandemic has left the world in a traumatic state, without loved ones and with increasing pressure on the systems that support societies’ wellbeing.

The public health crisis that has gripped the globe has not displaced other crises – economic, authoritarian and military – that continue to affect millions of people. The effects of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the unrelenting crackdown in Belarus, the repression campaign in Russia and the possibility of escalation over Ukraine's Donbas are just some of the urgent challenges facing the world. From our side, we have covered everything we could - from the ongoing struggle over urban space in Uzbekistan or the fuel poverty that is affecting thousands of people in Ukraine - as well as growing our investigative strand into the role of the UK in the post-Soviet region.

oDR, openDemocracy’s section for the post-Soviet space, asked several of its regular contributors to offer their opinions on the main events of 2021. Check out our 2020 reflections here.

“How long can this experiment last?”

Igor Ilyash, Journalist (Minsk, Belarus)

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In Belarus, 2021 has become the year of a monstrous totalitarian experiment. Starting from August 2020, in just some 16 months, the relatively mild Belarusian dictatorship has transformed into an aggressive misanthropic regime which has absorbed the worst features of 20th-century totalitarianism. Terror has become the only way to govern the state; the legal segregation and dehumanisation of dissidents have become absolute. Threats to “clean up”, “cut out”, “destroy” or simply “kill” 100 people at a time – this is the language the Belarusian authorities now speak.

However, violence is only an instrument of totalitarianism, and its ultimate goal is conformity. A totalitarian system is impossible without broad popular support. But in 2021 [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka was unable to even come close to that goal. The outgoing year has shown that the dictatorship is unable to get out of the electoral abyss which it fell into during the summer of 2020, and therefore is now in a state of permanent instability. It is the awareness of this instability that forces the regime to embark on the most desperate adventures: to force a passenger plane to land in its territory, artificially create a migration crisis and provoke a border conflict.

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Migrants at a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border, 15 November 2021 | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Thus, the past year has shown the entire hopelessness of the totalitarian experiment started by Lukashenka, but, unfortunately, it has not answered the main question: how long can this experiment last?

I have fully experienced the consequences of this experiment myself. Journalism in Belarus has turned into a de facto forbidden profession: most of my colleagues are now either behind bars or have been forced to emigrate.

My wife, Katsyarina Andreeva, was sentenced to two years in prison for live-streaming a protest rally; in a penal colony she was singled out as an ‘extremist’ dissident. Our book ‘Belarusian Donbas’ [about the role of Belarusians in the conflict in eastern Ukraine] was banned. The Belsat TV channel, where we worked, was declared an “extremist formation”. I spent ten days in jail and remain a suspect in a politically motivated criminal case. I could be behind bars again at any time.

But at the same time, this year we have experienced support on an unprecedented scale. In prison, my wife has received letters from hundreds and hundreds of caring Belarusians. On the street, strangers have approached me regularly, conveying words of admiration and support to Katsyarina, or simply thanking me for my work. In a place where totalitarianism has won, this would be impossible. It means that everything is not so bad.

“Money loves silence”

Tetiana Bezruk, Journalist, Censor.net (Kyiv, Ukraine)

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Tetiana Bezruk

I’m a court reporter and over this past year, I’ve started covering anti-corruption cases in Ukraine more regularly.

I used to follow cases related to Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies – when their representatives commit crimes or they are suspected of doing so.

For example, the 2019 killing of a five-year-old boy, Kyrylo Tlyavov, allegedly by off-duty police officers, or the rape of a young woman in a police station in Kaharlyk, outside Kyiv, in 2020.

There were also many cases relating to the events on the Maidan [Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central square] in 2014, some of which I followed carefully and continue to do so – mainly cases in which Ukrainian ex-security officials are accused or suspected of shootings and beatings of people during the revolution.

"While the war has been going on these past seven years in Ukraine, people have continued stealing and paying bribes – and none of this strengthens democracy in the country"

But now Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court has begun work, and in general there is a favourable infrastructure for monitoring cases where leading politicians and public officials are suspected of corruption. Anti-corruption cases have begun to be systematically investigated and submitted to the courts, and this makes it very convenient.

Among others, I am covering the ‘Rotterdam+’ case, in which criminal proceedings have already been closed four times. The suspects are employees of DTEK, the company owned by Rinat Akhmetov, a leading Ukrainian businessman, and representatives of the National Energy Regulator. The case for proceedings to reopen is now being heard in the Court of Appeal of the High Anti-Corruption Court.

This is a historic case. According to estimates from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the total damage caused by the alleged scheme is 39.9bn hryvnia [approx. £1.1bn]. And according to the victims who have filed claims, this money belongs to Ukrainian citizens. If the defendants’ guilt is proven and the detectives are right, every citizen of Ukraine will have suffered losses.

In my opinion, the main problem with the Ukrainian courts is that cases last for a very long time: for example, when some people are arrested, they hire professional lawyers, and they do everything possible to keep a case from going to court. Because of this, the statute of limitations may expire. So even if people are found guilty, they won’t actually have to go to prison or serve a sentence. This is a problem: if even their guilt is proven in court, then they face no punishment.

Sometimes it seems to me that court reporting is useless, and sometimes just boring – like when you come to a hearing, and half of it is devoted to discussing what you already know. And it’s not as if you came to the courthouse just to hang out, you need to write about it.

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Ukraine's High Anti-Corruption Court | (c) SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Why is court reporting still important? Because real investigations can begin after a journalistic investigation – someone could be detained or charged. For me, it’s not enough that there’s a journalistic investigation and people find out some new facts. Take the ‘Rotterdam+’ case: so many journalists and media outlets have already written about it.

But when you recognise the chain of different actions that were behind an alleged offence, and when you describe it to your readers or friends, colleagues and parents, you are not only communicating a dry fact. You are telling them that a huge number of people could be behind this alleged crime. And perhaps someone who reads your article will know that they believed a person who may have been involved.

When you describe corruption schemes in detail, you give people the opportunity to find out that while the war has been going on these past seven years in Ukraine, people have continued stealing and paying bribes – and none of this strengthens democracy in the country. As a journalist, you enable your readers to remember that all this is still happening and that they should not forget about it.

There is a saying in Ukraine: “Money loves silence.” It is more often used in a good context – that is, if you are earning good money, then you shouldn’t go on about it. But there is another side to it: that corrupt money also loves silence, and the less we talk about it, the easier it is for corrupt officials to get cases covered up.

“Growth has been almost exclusively reserved for the ruling class”

Dmitriy Mazorenko, Editor at Vlast.kz (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

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For Kazakhstan, 2021 was the year of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of independence.

For one-third of a century, we have been transitioning from the Soviet regime to a kind of ‘peripheral capitalism’. This year, the transition has been exacerbated by inequality.

In this second year of COVID-19, we witnessed the real economic consequences of the pandemic. We recorded high inflation, the same as in the rest of the world, alongside a rebound in GDP growth. Yet growth was mostly registered within the natural resources sector, and measures to counter higher prices were only piecemeal remedies. In the second half of the year, the government announced that the minimum wage will be increased from January 2022. This was clearly a reaction to a predictably tough socio-economic situation, which the government failed to address ahead of time.

Growth has been almost exclusively reserved for Kazakhstan’s ruling class. The country’s official list of billionaires increased from four to seven in just one year, and that’s just those whose wealth is not in the shadows.

The experience of the pandemic has made it clear that the narratives of economic growth and people’s prosperity have diverged: the rich are getting richer, and some of the largest businesses have looked to expand abroad to neighbouring countries. This is a trend that is common across the world. At the same time, economic measures to tackle inequality have failed to reach the general population. While Kazakhstan’s real estate and the luxury sectors are now booming, the retail and service sectors are experiencing yet another crisis. People can’t pay rent or for medical services, and so they have chosen to privatise their health risks. The real tragedy is that our public healthcare system ultimately does not and cannot care for people’s health, so they are forced to use private healthcare.

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May 2021: Wolt couriers mobilise against changes to the company's algorithm in Kazakhstan | Image: Dmitriy Mazorenko

Those who continued to receive the short end of the stick were working people in the country’s peripheries. Unemployment is less noticeable in big cities, but it has plagued remote areas in the north and south of Kazakhstan. This year, the volume of internal migration is growing to pre-pandemic highs. As the underemployed migrate from the periphery to the cities, educated professionals living in the cities increasingly choose to leave the country. I can say that many of my acquaintances and friends are going abroad in search of opportunities that they can’t find here.

Throughout the past year we have seen an unusual rise in strikes and worker protests. Most of these actions are localised and don’t even make the news, so we only know about a fraction of the protests. The situation is becoming increasingly stressful. And the government has shown that it has no cure, no social policies that can fix this discontent.

"The decisions in this country have been made by one family for 30 years. We cannot appeal to the government to represent us or listen to us"

Whenever there is a crisis, Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government points the finger at global processes, reasons beyond its control. Yet the decisions in this country have been made by one family for 30 years. We cannot appeal to the government to represent us or listen to us.

At the beginning of the year, in the wake of parliamentary elections, grassroots protests were suppressed. Even if these elections weren’t as ‘dirty’ as the 2019 presidential election, when former President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned, we don’t expect anything new from the government.

The ruling party even called for internal primaries before the vote, bringing new faces to the party. Nevertheless, we were faced with an election that granted the party a supermajority and we see a continuation of the previous logic of scarcity and allocation of resources to a small elite group, which gains from a system that is rigged to serve its own interests and not the public good.

“It is still unknown what unblocking the South Caucasus actually means”

Knar Khudoyan, Journalist (Yerevan, Armenia)

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Knar Khudoyan

This past year, I’ve been following the negotiations over new regional infrastructure that would connect Armenia and Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

This process is often referred to as ‘unblocking’ – since the 1990s, many of the Soviet-era railways and roads that connected the two countries have been closed due to the decades of war.

The first joint meeting as part of the new peace talks was held in January 2021, just a few weeks after the ceasefire was signed. While the public expectations from these meetings, which are quite bureaucratic and technical, were minimal, I was looking to see what the main trajectories were, which could develop later. What roads will reopen, who will own them and how – specifically – will they operate? I came from a position that infrastructure doesn’t have innate uses, and that the important thing is what uses we assign to it. I saw these official talks as a moment when the public could be debating about whether the new infrastructure will bring freer trade, economic liberalism, prospects for export or free movement for people – and wondered whether all this infrastructure will eventually help bring about peace.

Unfortunately, the government has so far only declared the opening of connections for freight. The minister of economy recently predicted that the country will see a 30% rise in GDP with these new transport connections.

"Casting a vote for the Pashinyan government in June now appears to be an endorsement for any decision it might make regarding the unblocking of transport with Azerbaijan"

Over the past year, there are now more "unknowns" than "knowns". The EU has declared its willingness to support freight transport via rail between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But apart from a few leaks, and international think-tank predictions, the Armenian media doesn’t offer much debate on the subject. The government keeps the negotiations completely secret, justifying it by the need to keep the Armenian position strong at the negotiation table, and to prevent the opposition from manipulating the process for its own ends. As a result, the Armenian public does not even know the names of the experts who are involved, or even the industries they work in. As a matter of fact, casting a vote for the Pashinyan government in June now appears to be an endorsement for any decision it might make single-handedly regarding the unblocking.

It feels like the Armenian side is dragging these negotiations out, postponing them. And of course, Azerbaijan is trying to speed them up, including by force. But I wonder if Armenia is overestimating its importance. We saw in the past how you can create a pipeline network that completely avoids Armenia – the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that just goes round the country. And just a few days ago, Azerbaijan declared that it had agreed to build an Iranian pipeline to Europe through Azerbaijan.

Ultimately, perhaps the Armenian government’s own rhetoric tells us what will happen with the unblocking: it sees it as a way to transport goods at lower cost, and has ignored the possibility of people exercising their right of free movement, which I find sad. These infrastructure issues require real debate, and we’re yet to see it.

“Most people don’t care what happens to Saakashvili”

Sopiko Japaridze, Co-founder, Solidarity Center (Tbilisi, Georgia)

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Since October, the entire country and my newsfeed have been gripped by one issue: saving former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who lives for scandal.

I don’t know another country where this could have happened: you sneak back into the country after giving up your citizenship, then get arrested and start a hunger strike before the election, claiming to voters that if they do not vote for your party, the very worst will happen to either you or them.

But here is the paradox: most people don’t care what happens to Saakashvili, unless they’re a supporter of his political party, the United National Movement (UNM), yet the urgent socio-economic issues that matter most to Georgians fail to provoke the same kind of protests.

Right now, our centre is involved in organising Georgian nurses and we’re collecting signatures from staff in support of a living wage. I asked one nurse if she would sign our petition – and she must have misheard or been confused. She refused to sign it when I explained that the petition wasn’t for Saakashvili, but a living wage for her and her colleagues.

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14 October 2021: a rally demanding to set free Georgia's ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili | (c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

When the rights of the elites get violated in Georgia, the poor, the rich and the international community come out, but when it’s regular people, no one cares at all. Indeed, the only thing that has broken this cycle this year has been the famous protest campaign against a hydroelectric dam in western Georgia, but that turned out to be a pretty conservative movement.

And in that sense, I foresee an even worse period emerging in Georgia. The cultural and religious conservatives, often with their strange conspiracy theories, are really starting to cohere and strengthen. A lot of people are sick of the liberal political forces and the ruling Georgian Dream party and Saakashvili. And Saakashvili’s theatrics have just pushed people towards the conservatives, given that Georgian Dream is having some kind of identity crisis right now. If Roe v Wade is overturned in the US, it will probably catalyse further conservative political action here.

What I am positive about is this: we are seeing new leaders emerge. We also have a campaign organising social welfare agents: they haven’t had a raise in 13 years – 13 years! – and make $80 a month. One of their leaders is a working woman outside Tbilisi with three children, who takes care of her elderly parents. She is a completely different woman now from three years ago when we started. Once the social welfare agents actually started fighting, they realised their strength – and that is beautiful.

“The political atmosphere inside Russia has rapidly deteriorated”

Ilya Budraitsksis, Lecturer in political science (Moscow, Russia)

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I will name a few events that were significant for me in 2021. Of course, the beginning of the year was all about the protests over the arrest of Alexey Navalny.

On the one hand, these protests had a certain air of despair about them, yet on the other hand, they showed great political potential, so the impressions from them are very mixed.

Most of the people involved in these actions were motivated by a political emotion which belonged entirely to the moment.

These emotions are very short-lived: first, there is a rush of moral and political duty, followed quickly by disappointment that these protests did not lead to any positive results – and, on the contrary, turned into unpleasant consequences for many.

I would like to view these protests from a broader perspective. I had no expectation that they would fundamentally change something, that it was a ‘now or never’ opportunity. I just didn’t look at them that way from the beginning, so I may have been left with more positive impressions than many who experienced a quick emotional upsurge and then an equally quick disappointment.

In addition, a large number of young people who participated in these events had nothing to compare them to. For many, it was their first experience of protest. And the opportunity to assess them from a historical perspective is, unfortunately, the privilege of those who have observed a large number of protests.

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Protest in the wake of Alexey Navalny's imprisonment, 2 February | (c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

The next important event came in the summer: the Russian parliamentary election campaign. I tried to the best of my ability to help Mikhail Lobanov, who ran in Moscow’s Kuntsevo constituency. Lobanov, an independent Leftist candidate, was backed by the Russian Communist Party and then by the ‘Smart Voting’ tactical voting programme on the eve of the elections. It was a very successful campaign: Lobanov actually won his constituency, despite the results of the online voting, which stole this victory from him. This campaign showed the great potential of independent left-wing groups even in the current political conditions.

At the federal level, the election results were also very important – they showed a serious increase in discontent, which was mainly expressed by a massive vote for the Communist Party. I would not put this Communist Party success solely down to the fact that the Alexey Navalny team [behind the Smart Voting programme] had called on people to vote for it. After all, the Communists received a high percentage in regions where the recommendations of the Smart Voting programme were not of any decisive importance – Khabarovsk, Komi, Ulyanovsk and many other regions.

Smart Voting did play a role, however, especially in large cities. For example, in Moscow, the Communist Party received a phenomenal, unprecedented result. But on the national scale, voting for this party was used as an opportunity to express dissent, including among those groups of the population who previously showed themselves to be loyal to the current regime in politics.

The third important event for me is the situation at the Moscow Higher School of Socio-Economic Sciences [popularly referred to as Shaninka after its founder, Teodor Shanin], where I teach. In November, the university’s rector Sergei Zuev was arrested on criminal charges. I am not a fan of discussing different scenarios of why it happened and who is behind it, but I am very worried about Zuev, and for Kristina Kryuchkova, another university employee who was arrested. What is happening to them is terrible, especially when you look at all this from inside the university.

But I see that there is a very strong sense of solidarity, mutual support and loyalty to the values that Shaninka is based on – from teachers and students – and this also inspires positive feelings, despite the unclear fate of the institution.

In general, it was a difficult year – the political atmosphere inside Russia has rapidly deteriorated. On the other hand, there has been the feeling that we still live in an extremely diverse, heterogeneous society, where there is no tacit consensus and universal agreement. Despite the fact that the real mood of society has not shown itself, with the exception of the September parliamentary election, there is still reason to believe that it will manifest itself in the near future.

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