Alexander Iskandaryan
Political scientist, the Director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute. Armenia.

Ethnopolitical conflicts in the post-Soviet space arose almost immediately, as soon as the central government began to weaken in the late 1980s. The first in time was the Karabakh or Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, then the South Ossetian, Abkhazian, Transnistrian, Chechen. There were conflicts that managed, albeit after bloody clashes, to be stopped, for example, the conflict in Tuva, the Prigorodnyj district of North Ossetia and in the Kadar zone of Daghestan. There were conflicts that did not progress into a hot phase, for example, in the western part of the North Caucasus. But there was something in common between all these conflicts. All of them were territorial, that is, their essence was that representatives of ethnic groups came forward with demands to change the status of certain territories. These demands led to the politicisation of ethnicity and the ethnicisation of politics, which in the conditions of a weakening Centre often led to bloody dénouement.

It is logical to look for the reasons behind similar processes in different parts of the decaying empire in the structure of this empire. The boundaries of Soviet administrative units were drawn and changed voluntaristically, without regard for the desires and moods of the population. The purely formal nature of borders and repeated changes in the status of administrative units – all this could be levelled out within the framework of a single, yes, even a totalitarian state. However, at the time of its collapse in each of the republics into which the USSR fragmented, the problems of nation-building became actual, and besides, it became necessary to draw between these republics no longer formal, but real borders. A role here was played by the fact that the administrative division of the USSR, firstly, was a nesting doll, that is, it consisted of units of different levels included in each other in different, often bizarre configurations, and secondly, it was ethnicised, that is, these units in were mainly created along ethnic lines and had the so-called "titular nations". As a result, even in the USSR itself, these administrative units were perceived as ethnic domains, and even under Soviet rule, the concept of “hosts and guests” arose there, viz. representatives of the titular ethnic group of the administrative unit as against all the other ethnic groups living there.

Thus, the bloody conflicts of the late 20th century, which in some places escalated into wars, can be perceived not as random events divorced from the general logic, but as part of a global process of creating political identities and ethnic demarcation at the time of the collapse of the Imperium.

Path to secessions

The formation of the first generation of de facto states took place in the conditions of the collapse of the USSR against the background of the weak legitimacy of the newly formed post-Soviet republics and the incompletely formed rules of the post-Białowieski space [1]. The collapse of a multinational country took place along institutionalised ethnic boundaries. It is characteristic that almost all conflicts took place not just in places of the compact settlement of certain ethnic groups, but in formally autonomous Soviet administrative formations. For example, in Georgia there are the regions of Dzhavakheti Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli, densely populated, respectively, by Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who are more numerous there both in relative and absolute terms than Abkhazians in Abkhazia or Ossetians in South Ossetia. However, ethno-political conflicts did not arise in Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli. There are many such examples. It can be assumed that the existence of ethnicised autonomies back in Soviet times contributed to the consolidation of ethnic groups that received the status of "titular nations", the formation of ethnic élites and corresponding mental maps in them. We can say that the ground for self-determination was being prepared back in the days of the USSR.

The only exception in this respect in the former Soviet Union is the Transnistrian conflict. In Soviet times, there was no autonomy in Transnistria, it was an ordinary part of Moldova, just lying on the left bank of the River Dniester, while the rest of the territory of Moldova, the former Bessarabia, lies on the right bank. In addition, the Transnistrian conflict was distinguished by a lesser degree of ethnicisation: both Moldovans and Russians lived and live on both sides of the Dniester. Presumably due to the lower level of ethnicisation, the Transnistrian conflict is also characterised by less isolation of the two communities from each other (it is still possible to travel from Chisinau to Tiraspol without hindrance), and a lower level of fierce hostilities during the period of aggravation of the conflict in the nineties. In fact, the Transnistrian conflict was originally socio-cultural, not ethnic, and these socio-cultural differences have historical reasons: Transnistria was in the USSR since its creation in 1921 and was then an autonomy within the Ukrainian SSR. The rest of the territory of Moldova, which was part of Romania, ended up in the USSR only in 1940 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Accordingly, having been in the USSR for twenty years longer, Transnistria was not only more Sovietised, but, unlike the rest of Moldova, was largely Russified. In addition, many enterprises of the Soviet economic complex operated on its territory. It can be assumed that it was sociocultural differences that played the role of a simulacrum of ethnic autonomy in Transnistria.

The conflicts in the Caucasus also differed from one another. In South Ossetia, from the very beginning, there was a strong irredentist component in the form of the desire of the Ossetians of the south to unite with the Ossetians of the north and become part of Russia. This was originally due to the existence of two Ossetians bordering each other, inhabited by the same ethnic group – one as part of Russia, the other, much smaller, as part of Georgia. Accordingly, the South Ossetian project began in the Soviet paradigm, so that even South Ossetia’s statement of self-determination, which occurred on 20 September 1990, took the form of a declaration of "sovereignty within the USSR". South Ossetia's movement towards independence began already after the collapse of the USSR and the war of the early 1990s in the light of the obvious impossibility of joining Russia. Such tendencies persist in South Ossetia to this day. From time to time, desires to join the Russian Federation are voiced there at various levels, albeit still without finding any response in Russia.

The situation in Karabakh was similar. The movement of the Karabakh Armenians from the very beginning was also irredentist and for the same reason: the Armenian SSR was nearby, which was also an order of magnitude larger than Karabakh both in terms of territory and population. As in South Ossetia, the movement that began in Karabakh under the slogan of reunification (in Armenian miatsum) was only relevant before the dissolution of the USSR, since it was an attempt to annex Karabakh to Armenia within the framework of the USSR. When it became clear that this attempt had failed and the USSR was doomed, a referendum was held in Karabakh a few weeks before the formal collapse of the USSR and independence was proclaimed, rather than reunification with Armenia.

Along with de facto independence, Nagorno-Karabakh gained a war with Azerbaijan, which ended by 1994, and eventually became a classic unrecognised state. Reunification with Armenia was no longer seen as a relevant political prospect. There was a negotiation-process within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group ­– the immediate joining of Karabakh to Armenia in the eyes of the international community would look like an annexation, and so even Armenia has not yet officially recognised the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

But in Abkhazia, a fully-fledged secession took place, since from the very beginning it fought precisely for secession from Georgia. When this struggle took the form of a war, representatives of the ethnic groups of the North Caucasus who are kindred to the Abkhazians also fought alongside the Abkhazians, but there was no question of union with the republics inhabited by these ethnic groups. The problem of the Abkhazians was that, unlike South Ossetia or Karabakh, they did not make up the majority of the population in the republic  of which they were the titular nation. There were almost three times more Georgians in Soviet Abkhazia than Abkhazians. However, most of these Georgians had to leave Abkhazia as a result of war, as was the case in other conflict zones in the Caucasus.

Thus, by the beginning of the 21st century, four de facto states in the post-Soviet space created an inertia of existence, built political systems of varying degrees of internal legitimacy and found ways of economic survival, usually with the support of third states (Russia in the case of Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Armenia in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh). A reality has emerged that is fairly typical of the collapse of large multinational empires, with numerous border problems from Silesia and Alsace to East Timor and Eritrea. In none of the agreements on peaceful settlements of the conflicts of the early nineties (Dagomys Agreement on South Ossetia, Moscow Agreement on Transnistria and Abkhazia, as well as the Bishkek Protocol on an indefinite ceasefire in Karabakh) are these entities mentioned as separate states.

Geopolitically, the existence of these states did not play a special role, although it created problems for major actors, but still not on such a scale as to require serious intervention. These states remained unrecognised, and it was customary to treat the borders formed after the collapse of the USSR as sacrosanct, at least in legal terms. This also applied to Russia itself, in which there were periods of political sponsorship of some unrecognised states, which did not, however, affect their status. “I think it is immoral to encourage separatist tendencies,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov said in a March 2008 interview with Rossijskaja Gazeta, specifying that the “Kosovo precedent” had already encouraged separatists in other regions of the world, and that “we see only the beginning of an extremely explosive process”. Literally five days after the declaration of Kosovo's independence, President Putin called this act a “terrible precedent” that “essentially ruins the entire system of international relations that has evolved not even over decades, but over centuries. And without any doubt, it can lead to a whole chain of unpredictable consequences” [2].

Revisionism and geopoliticisation

Problems started a few months later and had nothing to do with Kosovo. The reason was the crisis in relations between Russia and Georgia, which had been deteriorating since President Saakashvili came to power. Georgia's unambiguously pro-Western stance had long irritated Moscow, and its emerging orientation towards NATO and EU membership was perceived by Russia as a threat. Relations were on the verge of breaking down several times. The result was the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, also known as the Five Day War. There is no need to analyse in detail the causes and course of this war, as there is already a lot of literature on this topic (the Tagliavini report, for example) – in this context it is not the war itself that is important, but Russia’s subsequent legal recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This act actually changed the paradigm of Russia's behaviour in the post-Soviet space from traditionalist to revisionist. Russia considered it possible, based on political considerations, to encroach on the inviolability of post-Soviet borders.

It is extremely important here that, in an effort to punish Georgia, Russia, following the outcome of the Five-Day War, recognised not only South Ossetia, where this war began, but also Abkhazia. Thus, the recognition of the independence of the two unrecognised republics stemmed from Russia's attitude towards Georgia (and not towards these republics themselves), and Russian-Georgian contradictions turned out to be more important than the principle of the inviolability of the borders of the states of the former USSR. An indirect confirmation of just such a motivation was the fact that Russia did not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, thereby differentiating entities that are completely identical from a legal point of view.

As a result of Russian recognition and its consequences (viz. the opening of Russian military bases on the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the complete and final closure of their borders with Georgia; as well as Georgia’s deprivation of any tools to influence this situation), Abkhazia and especially South Ossetia are actually migrating from the South Caucasus to the North, not, of course, in a geographical but in a political sense. Their complete unilateral dependence on Russia in terms of finance, investment, security and other respects leads both to internal political changes and to the absence of even a theoretical option to establish relations with third countries, as well as to a deterioration in the conditions for the activity of civil society, etc.

The next step towards revision of post-Soviet borders was the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. As a result of the sharp confrontation after the Euromaidan, Russia's relations with Ukraine deteriorated to such an extent that Russia decided, and was able, to carry out an operation to annex Crimea. A referendum was held ignoring the Ukrainian constitution, and the union was thus legitimised (from Russia's point of view) . In this collision, we are again interested in the change in Russia's position from traditionalist to revisionist, which again occurred for political reasons that have nothing to do with Crimea itself and the aspirations of its population. Before the conflict with Ukraine, Russia had no territorial claims against it. In an interview in 2008, Putin said bluntly that even the question of Russia's possible claims to Crimea is provocative: “Crimea is not a disputed territory... Russia has long recognised the borders of today's Ukraine.... I believe the question about Russia having such goals implies a provocative meaning” [3].

At the same time, a conflict began in eastern Ukraine, mainly in the Donbass, which resulted in the creation of two new unrecognised entities – the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Of course, the conflict also had its own internal causes, but from the very beginning the Russian state provided the new entities with substantial material and military assistance, at the very least condoning the recruitment and sending of groups of mercenaries and volunteers from its territory to the conflict zone. It is unlikely that the self-proclaimed republics would have been able to hold out for any length of time in opposition to a country of the size of the Ukraine.

The DPR and LPR are already unrecognised states of the second generation, radically different from those formed in the early nineties. There is less ethnicisation here than in the Caucasus or even than in Transnistria: the population on the two sides of the newly formed borders does not differ at all in an ethno-cultural sense. The desire to create independent states in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has never existed even at the level of ideas and discourses. In a new twist, the logic has become reversed. This is not secession and attempts to build viable states which then become a problem for the surrounding recognised states, but on the contrary, the creation of unrecognised entities as one of the forms of confrontation between major regional, or even global, players.

The latest event in this series was the Second Karabakh War of 2020, in which, for the first time in the history of post-Soviet conflicts, a non-post-Soviet player directly supported one of the parties to a post-Soviet conflict, thus entering the territory that was previously considered purely the territory of the national interests of the Russian Federation. Nothing like this had ever happened before in the former Soviet Union: there was no direct intervention of an external force in any of the conflicts. The extent and even type and manner of Turkish assistance to Azerbaijan during the Second Karabakh War are still the subject of controversy and research, but it is certain that without Turkey's participation, the outcome of the war might have been different.

Thus, we can conclude that conflicts in the post-Soviet space are being geopoliticised, while turning into their opposite: from a problem for external actors, these conflicts have been transformed into an instrument of influence and rivalry between major players.