By: Nguyen Huong Tra My
The term “frozen conflict” has been used most importantly, but not exclusively, with reference to the post-Soviet space.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of conflicts arose in areas of some of the post-Soviet states. These conflicts tended to take place where the new international borders did not match the ethnic affiliations and self-determination of local populations.
This Links Dossier touches upon the post-Soviet frozen conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The term 'frozen conflict' refers to regions that are unable to exercise their sovereignty in part of their territory as a result of a dispute that is not resolved. The conflict has essentially been frozen in a state without any violence but without any solution.
On 26th December 1991, the Soviet Union was no longer in place, and fifteen countries stood in its place, either regaining their independence or taking it for the first time.
A further four regions effectively won their independence. However, they were rejected by the international community. Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Artsakh have remained de facto independent (unrecognized countries) to this day, and are often referred to as the “frozen conflicts” – disputed territories that serve as a Cold War era hangover.
The Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Prior to the process of internal disintegration within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), aach nation, including the Russian Federation, had either renounced the founding treaty of the USSR or declared independence.
Nevertheless, for some groups, including those who wanted further division along ethnic lines, these borders were not satisfactory. As a result, a variety of wars broke out throughout the Soviet region from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
Not all of them succeeded – in 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence from Russia, but four years later it was defeated and reabsorbed.
However, there were four regions that succeeded which ended in 'frozen conflict.' Transnistria, a long, small, land-locked strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine, is the first of these. Moldova became a state based on the Moldovan ethnic identity after independence.
The Transnistrian population were predominantly ethnic Russian and Ukrainian, and thus conflict began to brew, leading eventually to war. This is where Russian forces stepped in, supporting the rebels, and helping Transnistria in 1992 to gain de facto independence.
Since then, although they promise to leave by 2004, Russian forces have remained in the area. Now, there are growing concerns that Transnistria is drifting even closer to Russia, posing a threat to pro-Western Moldova and flanking Ukraine, whose territory it claims is also under the control of Russian forces.
Abkhazia & South Ossetia
The next two territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia also won independence with Russian support, this time from Georgia. Both regions are located between Russia and Georgia, although Abkhazia also has a coastline along the Black Sea.
Both claim independence based on the basis of ethnic lines and historical claims; and have won their de facto independence from Georgia.
In 2008, as diplomatic relations deteriorated, war broke out between Russia and Georgia. Russian forces helped both regions to further expand sovereignty over their claimed territory during the five-day conflict.
From a Western perspective and in-line with its policy, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are views as areas under Russian occupation, rather than legitimate states.
The latest elections have been generally peaceful and transparent and Abkhazia functions effectively as an independent state.
Nevertheless, Georgia's refusal to accept the sovereignty of Abkhazia forces the breakaway region to trade through its other neighbor Russia - almost exclusively.
The Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh)
The final of the four, Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh as it is otherwise known) varies in that it was not backed in its struggle for independence by Russian forces – instead it was supported by Armenia, as Artsakh is predominantly made up of ethnic Armenians.
Conflict began by the late 1980s, when Azerbaijan remained a Soviet Republic, when ethnic Armenians and Azeris fought over control of the territory. Armenian forces took Nagorno-Karabakh by 1994, which proclaimed itself as an independent state.
Today, the Republic Artsakh, remains under the control of ethnic Armenians and operates as an independent state. The unrecognized country is still in a state of war with Azerbaijan.
Instead of referring to the region as part of historic Armenia, Armenia does not officially recognize Artsakh, but argues that it should have the right to self-determination.
The four regions have decided to stick together because of their breakaway nature, each recognizing the independence of the other. These states have few formal relationships with the international community, with Transnistria and Artsakh lacking recognition even from a single United Nations member state.
In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the situation looks different, as each is recognized by five UN member states,: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, and Nauru. Obviously, Russia has the greatest interest in the two regions and encouraged its allies to support the breakaway regions.
Each region has succeeded in growing their economies and trade relations in spite of political status. Transnistria has agreed to be included in Moldova's trade deal with the EU by working with the Moldovan government when it is compatible.
As a result, Transnistrian trade with the EU through Moldova has continued to grow, with exports to the EU now exceeding those to the EEU trading bloc supported by Russia.
In Georgia, the government has chosen a policy of reconciliation over isolation, and so, despite political hostility, trade with Abkhazia continues on small levels and the border remains open. South Ossetia's situation is a little more hostile and the unrecognized country is more isolated than its Abkhazian cousin.
As a result, for over 25 years, the four regions have been de facto independent and their economies have not been entirely cut-off from the outside world.
The Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations
The Community for Democracy and the Rights of Nations, also commonly known as the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States (CIS-2), is an international organization uniting several states in the former Soviet Union, all of which have limited or no recognition by the international community.
The Soviet Union's dissolution gave birth not only to states previously the former republics that made up the union, but also to nationalism within the new states' recognized borders.
Geographical, racial, national, religious and cultural disparities in the post-Soviet power vacuum caused many people to refuse belonging to the new borders accepted by the international community
There are now four unrecognized counties on the territory of the former Soviet Union: Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Together they form the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States, or “parallel CIS” (CIS-2).
Donetsk and Luhansk may also fall into the categories of unrecognized countries in the post-Soviet space, however they are not members of the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations. These are entities recognized as part of eastern Ukraine, and are also been stuck in frozen conflict.
The main task of the international community is to find acceptable solutions applicable to a particular case, because each of these conflicts is distinctive in its own way.
The problem of unrecognized countries is a major geopolitical issue for Russia. Russia's mission is to reassure the international community that the post-Soviet area's unrecognized countries have the right to exist. As such, Russia is also one of the main forces supporting the settlement of these conflicts.
The US and the EU can not allow Russia to be the only leader in the post-Soviet region as it depicts Russia's growing influence in the region, which from a geopolitical point of view is extremely unfavourable for Western states.
Therefore, supporting anti-Russian sentiment is the main strategic direction of Western countries ' policy toward the CIS-2.
These four unrecognized countries reached an agreement in 2001 at the meeting of foreign ministers in Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh. The Community for Democracy and Human Rights was founded by the presidents of three of these states on 14 June 2006 in Sukhumi, Abkhazia: Sergei Bagapsh representing Abkhazia, Eduard Kokoity representing South Ossetia and Igor Smirnov representing Transnistria.
Artsakh, a member of the Agreement of 2001, left in 2004 but became a member in 2007. All four member states have limited or no international recognition: with Abkhazia and South Ossetia are claimed by Georgia, Transnistria by Moldova and Artsakh by Azerbaijan.
On 17 June 2007, the Community for Democracy and Peoples' Rights signed joint Declaration on principles of peaceful and fair settlement of the Georgian–Abkhazian, Georgian–Ossetian, Azeri–Karabakh and Moldovan Transnistrian conflicts in Tiraspol - the capital of Transnistria.
It calls for barring all types of pressure, such as military deployments, diplomatic isolation, economic blockades, or information wars, during negotiations toward resolution of conflicts. It also calls for external guarantees to eventual political settlements of these conflicts.
The members of the CIS-2 agreed to abolish the visa regimes for their citizens on the 27th of September 2009. The treaty came into force one month after all three parliaments had ratified it.
It lasted for five years, after which it was automatically extended for a period of five years. This agreement excludes Artsakh, who reserved the right to join this agreement at a later date.
As of 2017, the four member states have a population of 947,480 people in combination. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been recognized by member states of the United Nations such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Russia and Syria, as well as by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic - another unrecognized country located in Africa.
Meanwhile, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria's political leaders have all promised to integrate their economies and perhaps seek membership in the Eurasian Union led by Russia.
The international community is inclined to the issue of unrecognized republics regarding to post-Soviet, especially Russian. Clearly, the Russian position can be traced to the conflicts among Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Artsakh, but its presence in international crises are viewed by Western nations as not contributing to the resolution of these conflicts.
Unrecognized countries are perceived today as the basis for the revival of Russian greatness as a major regional factor, whereby Russia has used their existence as leverage over American and European-alligned states.
However, from the point of view of the citizens in these four states, that statement could not be anymore incorrect.
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