Alexander Dubowy, wissenschaftlicher Direktor des Instituts für Sicherheitspolitik (ISP)

 

The breakup of the Soviet Union did not follow the borders formed during the Soviet period in all cases. In the 1990ies a number of newly independent states, including Russian Federation, have faced severe challenges in the form of separatist movements and even ethno-political conflicts; as a result “de facto entities emerged that have received only partial international recognition or no recognition at all[1].

The so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space differ strongly from each other and should not be put in one basket. The term “frozen conflicts” came into use in the 1990ies to refer to conflicts which occurred on the periphery of the former Soviet Union following its collapse and were difficult or even impossible to settle. According to William Hill these conflicts were “never really frozen, as their nature, dynamics, and prospects changed over time[2].

Due to William Hill it is almost impossible to speak of a clear Russian or Western position or even a strategy at any point in time for all of the frozen conflicts and de facto entities.[3] If at all the central element of the Western approach to these conflicts has been the recognition of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union within their official borders as independent states and to support the principle of territorial integrity.[4] Moscow in comparison as Alexander Gushchin rightly notes did never have a single approach to conflicts.[5] Russian policy toward de facto states is rather pragmatic, realistic and quite cynical, and is not guided by doctrinal guidelines. Moreover, the dynamics of relations between Moscow and the de facto states are not linear, and Moscow’s ability to influence de facto states is often limited.[6]

Russia is and will remain, at least in the next decade, the main stakeholder, the dominant strategic actor in the post-Soviet space. According to Nikolay Silaev this is not due to a deliberate policy, but is simply the result of “overall economic, political and military power[7]. According to Sergey Markedonov Russia will play the key role in determining the configuration of the post-Soviet space “regardless of whether its position grows stronger or weaker[8]. Because of that none of the post-Soviet conflicts can be resolved peacefully and sustainably without Russian engagement. It should be also mentioned that the mother states are quite rightly criticizing Moscow’s post-imperial ambitions in the post-Soviet space but for their part some of these states often lead an openly imperial policy towards ethnic minorities and de facto states.

Despite the annexation of Crimea and Russian military involvement in Donbass conflict Moscow experience since mid 1990ies has shown that “its tasks in the post-Soviet space can be implemented more effectively in a stable environment[9]. Lastly as Nikolay Silaev states “Russia is well aware that overall it is weaker than the collective West, and only in exceptional cases can it resort to unilateral action, while hoping at the same time for a swift return to multilateral talks on dispute settlement thereafter[10].

The conflicts in the post-Soviet space are the result of the Soviet legacy in the first row. They evolved due to protracted territorial disputes, identity problems, metropolitan narratives, complex historical narratives and conflicts of historical memories. Because of that, it would be limiting to reduce the formation of de facto states exclusively to the desire of Russia to secure for itself a geopolitical influence in the post-Soviet space or Western wishes to contain Moscow. According to Sergey Markedonov the question of frozen conflicts and de facto statehood is in the first row about “the inability of the new state elites to pursue national construction without conflicts and in the interests of various ethnic groups and regions[11] and not about the interference of Washington, Brussels or Moscow.

In all cases, there were objective reasons for the conflicts and the formation of the de facto statehood. Most of these reasons are dating back to the Soviet, and even to the pre-Soviet period. Already in Soviet times, some of these conflicts were in a sort of a sleeping state, periodically manifesting themselves in various forms.[12] This sleeping state quickly transferred into an active phase with the growth of nationalism in the years of Perestroika. In the words of Yuri Slezkine, a Russian-born American ethnologist, the USSR was created by nationalists, and it was destroyed by nationalists.[13]

As Sergey Markedonov aptly put it:

The main subjects in the USSR were not citizens, but rather socialist nations. In fact, the Soviet state identified ethnic groups as the key subjects of politics and state law. The priorities were the rights of nations and not of individuals. […] In practice, this created the perception of collective (ethnic) property of this or that ethnic entity (in its highest phase, national entity) of a territory designated as a national republic, an autonomy within a national republic and even ethnically constructed areas. Renunciation of individual rights in favour of collective rights created the prerequisites for the emergence of ethno-national movements for self-determination of future independent states and the emergence of hotbeds of conflict and unrecognized republics.[14]

As it is for today the statehood of the de facto states is in most cases fully-fledged and their interests cannot be ignored in the conflict resolution process. Over the last years de facto states developed themselves to functioning institutions, although in some cases these institutions seem to be quite peculiar.[15] The positions and interests of the societies of de facto states must be taken into account. Without the acceptance of this facts conflict resolution is hardly possible.

It should also be remembered that for some de facto states the issue of full reintegration is actually not on their agenda. The societies and the elites of these countries are not seriously considering the possibility of reintegration and do not want to lose their de facto statehood, despite all the difficulties of the unrecognized status. So in some cases of conflict resolution a guided final separation would probably be the only viable option. Thomas de Waal rightly notes that this final separation process should be managed by international community taking humanitarian factors into account.[16]

The conflict resolution should be based on the principles of inclusiveness and reintegration of people, not just territories. That’s why one of the priorities should be the establishment of dialogue formats between civil societies of de facto states and civil societies of their mother countries. The involvement of civil societies brings more legitimacy to the process and the hope for a more durable peace. But, in this context we should consider the following problem: In societies with an incomplete process of nation-building, in societies with splitted identities, civil society is not always part of the solution of problems, but often part of the problem itself. A civil society, which in theory should confront nationalist manifestations and be interested in a dialogue, is often itself a carrier of ethnic nationalism and prevents dialogue attempts. The solution to this problem, however, requires a sustainable generational shift.

Today, none of the conflicts associated with the formation of the de facto states in the post-Soviet space has a quick solution. Even the probably least problematic conflict, the conflict in Transnistria, is far from being resolved. Although since 1992 there has been no relapses into violence and the parties to the conflict cooperate on a wide range of issues.[17]

According to Sergey Markedonov and Aleksandr Gushchin the most likely scenario for the next years is a dynamic status quo, in which conflicts are neither resolved nor completely frozen.[18] The main danger of the dynamic status quo is that the increasing number of incidents may sooner or later lead to an escalation.[19] Nevertheless, a sharp change in the regional status quo is unlikely, especially for those conflicts which have a very significant degree of freezing. From today’s point of view maintaining the dynamic status quo while strengthening the peace process is probably the best option.

Last but not least, the most problematic point is the geopolitical context of the post-Soviet conflicts. The resolution of conflicts and the future status of de facto states are closely linked to the geopolitical and geo-economic problems between Russia and the West. Different mutually exclusive narratives and self-perceptions are pushing Russia and the West into a vicious circle if talking about interaction in the post-Soviet area. Quite too often Russia sees itself only as an neutral arbiter, while the West sees Russia as part of the problem and vice versa.[20] But after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis Russia seems to regard the Western involvement in the post-Soviet space as a zero-sum game, turning towards “traditional territorial imperative”[21]; although historically this was not always the case.[22]

Despite the fact that all conflicts are primarily a consequence of the collapse of imperial space, the impossibility of resolving them is a symptom of a deep crisis of the European security system. We should not hope for substantial progress in resolving conflicts without a significant rapprochement between Russia and the West and profound changes in the European security architecture. Today, such a prospect seems rather distant, especially in a situation where the existing world order is crumbling, and the world is moving towards a period of confrontational disorder. As for now, all we can seriously expect is a period of a new world dis-order, confrontational multipolarity and “Great Disharmony of New Regional Powers”.[23]

None of the conflicts in the post-Soviet space has a rapid solution. Even more, the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass crisis demonstrated that the disintegration process of the former Soviet Union has been fully completed in formal legal terms. But, from the historical point of view, the legal dissolution triggered “the formation of new state entities and political nations, a process that still continues[24]. In the next decade, we will rather face the appearance of new conflicts in the post-imperial space of the post-Soviet area than a resolution of existing ones; since the “process of exiting from the imperial status is always long and painful[25].

Against this background the first step towards conflict resolution in the post-Soviet space would be for both the West and Russia the acceptance of political realities, the admission of mutual and in some cases divergent geopolitical and geoeconomical interests and of the simple fact that there is no and cannot be total neutrality in resolving conflicts in the post-Soviet space. As for the mother states and de facto entities there is a great need of working out flexible approaches involving OSCE and UNO, encouraging public diplomacy as well as putting the population and its rights above the territorial claims.

However, the process of disintegration of the Soviet Union will be protracted if the national elites of the newly independent states do not become independent political actors pursuing the interests of their peoples and stop exploiting the contradictions between the West and Russia to suit their interests.[26] So hoping for the things getting better, one still should not forget an old Radio Yerevan joke. Once Radio Yerevan was asked: When will it be better? And the answer was: It has been already better.

 

[1] Markedonov Sergey, Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-350, p. 343

[2] Hill William H., The Thawing of Russia’s Frozen Conflicts, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 10-13, p. 10, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[3] cp.: Hill William H., The Thawing of Russia’s Frozen Conflicts, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 10-13, p. 10, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[4] cp.: Hill William H., The Thawing of Russia’s Frozen Conflicts, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 10-13, p. 10, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[5] cp.: Gushin Aleksandr, Dankov Artem, Markedonov Sergey, Rekeda Sergey, Konflikty na postsovetskom prostranstve: perspektivy uregulirovaniya i rol’ Rossii, Working Paper, Russian International Affairs Council, 36, 2016

[6] cp.: Gushin Aleksandr, Dankov Artem, Markedonov Sergey, Rekeda Sergey, Konflikty na postsovetskom prostranstve: perspektivy uregulirovaniya i rol’ Rossii, Working Paper, Russian International Affairs Council, 36, 2016

[7] Silaev Nikolay, Resolving the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 4-9, p. 6, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[8] Markedonov Sergey , Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-349, p. 348

[9] Silaev Nikolay, Resolving the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 4-9, p. 6, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[10] Silaev Nikolay, Resolving the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 4-9, p. 7, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[11] Markedonov Sergey, Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-350, p. 349

[12] Markedonov Sergey, Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-350, p. 344

[13] cp.: Slezkine Yuri, The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism; Slavic Review. 1994. Vol. 53. No. 2. pp. 414–452. p. 416

[14] Markedonov Sergey, Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-349, p. 345

[15] cp.: Gushin Aleksandr, Dankov Artem, Markedonov Sergey, Rekeda Sergey, Konflikty na postsovetskom prostranstve: perspektivy uregulirovaniya i rol’ Rossii, Working Paper, Russian International Affairs Council, 36, 2016; Zemelnie spory, opasnoe delo, https://zonakz.net/2018/11/27/zemelnye-spory-opasnoe-delo/, 18.02.2019

[16] de Waal Thomas, Uncertain territory. The strange life and curious sustainability of de facto states  http://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/04/26/uncertain-territory-strange-life-curious-sustainability-de-facto-states/, 18.02.2019

[17] cp.: Silaev Nikolay, Resolving the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 4-9, p. 8, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019; Markedonov Sergey, Gushchin Aleksandr, Transnistria: Dilemmas of Peaceful Settlement, Russian Internation Affairs Council (RIAC), July 14, 2016, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/pridnestrove-dilemmy-mirnogo-uregulirovaniya/, 18.02.2019

[18] cp.: Gushin Aleksandr, Dankov Artem, Markedonov Sergey, Rekeda Sergey, Konflikty na postsovetskom prostranstve: perspektivy uregulirovaniya i rol’ Rossii, Working Paper, Russian International Affairs Council, 36, 2016, p. 42

[19] cp.: Gushin Aleksandr, Dankov Artem, Markedonov Sergey, Rekeda Sergey, Konflikty na postsovetskom prostranstve: perspektivy uregulirovaniya i rol’ Rossii, Working Paper, Russian International Affairs Council, 36, 2016, p. 42

[20] cp.: Silaev Nikolay, Resolving the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 4-9, p. 9, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019

[21] Trenin Dmitri, Russia and CIS Countires: the Relations Getting Mature, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 9-17, p. 17

[22] cp.: Silaev Nikolay, Resolving the conflicts in the post-Soviet space, in: Frozen Conflicts in the post-Soviet Space, Russia Direct Brief | 23 | August 2015, pp. 4-9, p. 6, https://russia-direct.org/catalog/product/russia-direct-brief-frozen-conflicts-post-soviet-space, 18.02.2019; Trenin Dmitri, Russia and CIS Countires: the Relations Getting Mature, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 9-17, p. 13

[23] Dubowy Alexander, The New World Disorder. A Long Way Back From the End of History, https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/book/The-New-World-Disorder-19715, 18.02.2019

[24] Markedonov Sergey, Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-349, p. 345

[25] Trenin Dmitri, Russia and CIS Countires: the Relations Getting Mature, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 9-17, p. 9

[26] cp.: Markedonov Sergey, Goodbye Post-Soviet Space?, in: Evolution of Post-Soviet Space: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. Moscow: NPMP RIAC, 2017 pp. 343-349, p. 349

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