Accessibility links

Georgia Woes Could Send Ripple Through Other Frozen Conflicts

  • Claire Bigg

A Ukrainian border guard near one of 150 posts set up by Ukraine along its border with Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester

A Ukrainian border guard near one of 150 posts set up by Ukraine along its border with Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester

Separatist leaders in South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been eagerly awaiting a sign from the Kremlin after the Russian parliament urged President Dmitry Medvedev to recognize Georgia's two separatist regions.

They were not disappointed.

Medvedev's decision the following day, August 26, to officially recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia marked a major strategic shift for Moscow. Russia has backed both provinces since they broke away from the central Georgian government in the early 1990s. But until this week it had stopped short of recognizing their sovereignty, and had been a nominal participant in international efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

The move, which followed a large-scale Russian military operation in South Ossetia this month, is sure to have ripple effects on other frozen conflicts areas where Moscow wields considerable influence -- Moldova's Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority territory located within Azerbaijan.

Medvedev himself has been quick to draw parallels with the different frozen conflicts simmering in the post-Soviet region.

"Certain recent events have shown how dangerous the conflict potential in some frozen conflicts, as they're commonly called, can be," the Russian president told his Moldovan counterpart, Vladimir Voronin, on August 25 in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, in a tacit warning against any attempt by Chisinau to retake its breakaway province by force. "This became particularly apparent in South Ossetia, where, as a result of aggressive actions -- after Georgia's leadership had basically gone crazy -- all those problems became exacerbated and essentially an armed conflict took place. This is a very serious warning to everybody, and I think we should consider other existing problems in this context now."

The South Ossetian conflict has sparked fears in Moldova that Moscow could now move to recognize the independence of Transdniester, whose separatist leadership has been pushing for integration with Russia.

The conflict has given the province new strategic importance, since it borders Ukraine -- which, like Georgia, has angered Moscow by seeking closer ties with the West and the NATO military alliance.

Medvedev's decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia has certainly raised hopes of independence in Transdniester and radicalized the stance of its separatist leadership, which announced last week it was breaking off all contacts with Moldovan officials until they denounced Georgia's "aggression" against South Ossetia.

But Grigory Volovoi, who heads a human rights group in Transdniester, says the odds of Russia recognizing Transdniester are low.

"Most people in Transdniester think that, since the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was recognized, Transdniester can expect the same. But the situation is completely different," Volovoi says. "Relations between Moldova and Transdniester lack the ethnic element characteristic of the Georgian-South Ossetian-Abkhaz conflict. More importantly, Transdniester doesn't have the trump card that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had -- a common border with the Russian Federation."
Moldova's President Voronin (right) with Medvedev in Sochi

Medvedev, perhaps eager to repair the diplomatic damage caused by Russia's heavy-handed actions in Georgia, has offered Voronin reassurances that Moscow is still committed to finding a peaceful solution to the crisis. "I see good prospects of reaching a settlement," he said on August 25.

Voronin appeared receptive to the message, likening frozen conflicts to dangerous "volcanoes" and vowing to prevent a repeat of the violence that rocked South Ossetia.

Political analysts say a quick resolution of the conflict is not on the cards. Despite his conciliatory tone and his close ties with Moscow, Moldova's Voronin may be reluctant for now to accept a Russian-brokered deal that grants Transdniester broad autonomy -- a move that could hurt the popularity of him and his Communist Party at home ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

The deal would also allow Transdniester to secede if Moldova chooses to join neighboring EU member Romania in one state.

Watching Closely In Baku, Yerevan

Then there is Nagorno-Karabakh. The disputed territory -- which is home to an Armenian majority but lies within Azerbaijan's borders -- differs from the other frozen conflicts.

Unlike South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transdniester, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh doesn't hold Russian passports and doesn't seek extensive Russian patronage. Rather, its goal is outright independence, or barring that, reintegration with Armenia.

Officials in both Azerbaijan and Armenia have been notably muted on Russia's actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Baku is keen to regain control over the disputed territory and has steadily built up its military in an implicit threat to take the region by force. But Azerbaijani officials have avoided any harsh statements on Russia in recent weeks, perhaps wary of stirring resentment in Moscow.

Azerbaijani political commentators and journalists, however, have been much more vocal in denouncing Russia's military operation in Georgia.

"I think Russia is capable of repeating this aggression against Azerbaijan by using the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh," says Vefa Quluzade, who served as foreign-policy adviser to former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev. "It's Russia that occupies 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory under Armenia's flag, it's Russia that hampers any step toward a resolution. Russia doesn't want this conflict to be settled because it needs this conflict to harass Azerbaijan, to get Azerbaijan back into the Russian empire."

Armenia, which has far stronger ties with Russia, has been slow to take sides in the Russia-Georgia conflict.

Military maneuvers in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2005
Russia helped Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and has a military base in Armenia. Russia's efforts to gain a grip on Azerbaijan's vast energy resources has also served Armenia's interests in Nagorno-Karabakh by blocking a resolution of the conflict in Azerbaijan's favor.

On the other hand, the landlocked country depends heavily on neighboring Georgia, through which the bulk of its imports -- including Russian oil -- transits. Setting a collision course with Tbilisi could also prove disastrous for the 450,000 ethnic Armenians currently living in Georgia.

Recent events have raised concerns in Armenia that the Russian offensive in South Ossetia could embolden Azerbaijan to launch a similar military operation to seize Nagorno-Karabakh. But Tom de Waal, a London-based Caucasus expert, says Armenians have no reason to worry for now.

"I think it would actually show them how dangerous it would be to start a war in the Caucasus, the amount of destruction that can be caused and how dangerous that could be for Azerbaijan," de Waal says. "I think that would be quite a sobering lesson."

Medvedev's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is nonetheless bound to affect the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh since Russia, together with the United States and France, co-chairs the Minsk Group, a body created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to foster a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

"It will complicate the Karabakh peace process because of the fact that the Russians and the Americans are two out of three mediators," de Waal says of a process that has already been dragged out over more than 15 years. "Russia and the United States have managed to cooperate quite well in the Minsk Group up until now on Karabakh, but I think the U.S.-Russian relationship is now so bad in the Caucasus that it will be hard for them to trust each other as they have in the past in the Minsk Group."

The World Stage

Russia's recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions further soured relations with Washington, which has consistently backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's drive to bring back South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the fold.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branded Moscow's decision "regrettable," saying it violated UN Security Council resolutions.

Perhaps one of the greatest casualties of Russia's intervention in Georgia are the international monitoring bodies that until now played a formal role in determining the fates of the region's disputed territories.

De Waal says the violent standoff between Russian and Georgian forces over South Ossetia dealt a severe blow to international peace efforts in frozen conflict areas.

"It has shown that having monitors on the ground means very little if one of the two sides, or both the sides, want to fight," de Waal said. "The OSCE monitors in South Ossetia were completely irrelevant, just as the UN was in Abkhazia -- when the Abkhaz wanted to retake the Kodori Gorge, they just basically told the United Nations: 'We're going in, and you'd better get out.'"

RFE/RL's Moldovan, Azerbaijani, and Armenian services contributed to this report
  • 16x9 Image

    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​