Isolation of Post-Soviet Conflict Regions Narrows the Road to Peace


The lung specialist I consulted for bronchitis recently in Abkhazia exuded competence, warmth and the poetic courtesy of Soviet-era intelligentsia. She apologised for the hospital as she flicked through a notebook from a year-old seminar on the latest treatment protocols in Russia. She said she had been lucky to attend the briefing: most doctors from Abkhazia or other conflict or breakaway regions in the former Soviet space do not learn about modern treatments. Most teachers have little access to new international best practices and methods. Police still work according to old manuals.

A policy called “isolation” by residents of such regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought to secede from Georgia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region at the heart of the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia – severely restricts their links with the world and contributes to a sense of living under siege, sometimes for over two decades. A tendency toward isolating populations is in place also in eastern Ukraine for separatist Donetsk and Lugansk. Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, has more trade and travel ties but development has not followed. In all these regions, different though they are, isolation harms the people, creates resentment and causes positions to harden.

A leading politician in Georgia, speaking privately, recently explained the de-isolation dilemma: those who want to engage the populations in conflict regions more substantively and let the world do so – without recognising their self-proclaimed independence, of course – fear this would “cement de facto realities on the ground”, leaving no incentive for the breakaway entities “to come back” to what they regard as their former countries. On the other hand, isolation proponents wish to put pressure on the breakaway regions, or simply take revenge on them. In the words of a Georgian architect of the approach: “they have made their bed, let them lie in it, whatever that brings.”

Changing isolation-minded approaches is considered perilous by central governments like Tbilisi, Kyiv and Chisinau, which lay claim to these territories. They focus, understandably, on the danger of Russia’s economic and military backing for them. In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku is angry about the breakaway region’s links with Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora. The central governments fear that support for the people in these conflict regions might translate into their acquisition of resources to reinforce their separatism. They also worry that allowing increased engagement with the outside world is a slippery slope toward the very recognition of these territories that they have sought to prevent.

These conflicts in Europe’s east are unlikely to be resolved soon. They play out at different levels – geostrategic, regional and local – all of which are stuck and have in the past years seen a deterioration. Formal conflict resolution processes can at best manage the conflicts for now, and in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh even that is not easy. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan form part of the European Union’s (EU) “Eastern Partnership” – along with Belarus, which has no such conflict. But although the EU would willingly engage with the trapped populations of their breakaway regions, of course without their recognition, there is little diplomatic space for this.

It is hard for governments that have lost control to devise the right approach to breakaway entities, especially when a big power supports that entity militarily, economically and socially or even acknowledges its claim to independence, such as in case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Nevertheless, isolation policies tend to forget the ordinary people, whose choices and calculations matter, and local initiatives can present opportunities for progress towards settlements. Opening up these societies to alternatives – to the degree possible given Russia’s involvement in the regions and also their own concerns about Western political agendas - by building professional, educational and business links, irrespective of political status, can improve lives and prepare long-term conflict transformation.

When a Passport is Not a Passport

Work being carried out on Rukhi bridge, located on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide. A long overdue facelift for the bridge started in summer 2016. CRISIS GROUP

Isolation policies have many faces and are rarely so named, since few would openly underwrite an approach that curtails human contacts. So what do they feel like in the conflict regions?

Travel is restricted. I met a young Abkhaz scientist who would have wished to study in Germany. A pair of newlyweds would have loved to experience Italy’s culture. A South Ossetian professor wanted help to attend a Hungarian archaeological conference. A Nagorno-Karabakh businessman was interested in European brandy-making. A fortunate few could afford travel to Europe for medical help. All these people know it is not on the cards.

In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, people mostly obtain Russian passports from consulates created after Moscow recognised their unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Tbilisi and much of the international community consider these passports illegal. Visas are put in them rarely, and mostly in special cases, meaning that most Abkhaz and Ossetians can only travel to Russia.

As an alternative, Tbilisi developed “status-neutral travel documents” in 2011-12, but the idea got little traction among people from the conflict regions. Most did not accept the Georgia country code on them, or traveling to the Tbilisi-controlled territory to acquire them. The divide is deep and loyalties matter.

This is also why many in Abkhazia also say it is too optimistic to expect large numbers to take Georgian passports when Tbilisi finally receives the visa-free regime with the EU expected by year’s end. Abkhazia’s own de facto foreign passport is considered illegal by Georgia and not recognised by others, except Russia and the other three countries that recognise it. Some legal experts argue that if used purely for identity, that document would not imply recognition. But since Russia annexed Crimea, the appetite in the West for imaginative solutions is minimal, not to speak of migration concerns.

Nagorno-Karabakh residents mostly hold an Armenian passport with a serial number tied to Karabakh residence into which Western embassies will rarely stamp visas. Azerbaijan also keeps a watchful eye for those who may represent Karabakh abroad even in apolitical civil society forums. Political hurdles block some much-needed dialogue, and even overshadow sports and culture. Would a football team representing a breakaway republic abroad be a sports enterprise or a political statement – or both?

Abkhaz register in Russia and Karabakh Armenians register in Armenia, though the latter get regular passports and can travel more easily. But this forces them deeper into political dependency on third actors, and further away from those they would need to be addressing to reach a long-term settlement.

The Sukhumi to Moscow train, passing through Novyi Afon station in Abkhazia. CRISIS GROUP

Abkhaz from all walks of life – intellectuals from Sukhumi, war veterans from Gudauta, youths looking for jobs in the ancient monastery town of Novyi Afon on the coast – spoke of frustration at exclusion from the Europe they feel they belong to. Many call it a human rights violation that their visa applications are not even considered. However, the considerations have less to do with human rights than with politics of the conflict. But political hurdles also mean there could be space for pragmatic solutions.

Transnistria, perhaps because there is no prominent ethnic component, is a rare post-Soviet conflict that evidences some pragmatism.

Although a part of the population holds Russian passports, some also have Ukrainian and even Romanian passports, and a number of residents have Moldovan passports, which became more attractive with the visa-free EU access gained in 2014. But these solutions are hard to replicate.

Holding Back Education

Education and healthcare work have been held back in the conflict regions, where infrastructure was destroyed and post-war dilapidation followed. Like the Abkhaz doctor, professionals struggle to keep their knowledge current.

Russian social and economic development and military aid supports Abkhazia, Ossetia and Transnistria. Armenia and its diaspora assist Nagorno-Karabakh. But support for human development is fitful. Russians occasionally invite doctors and teachers for training. Armenians seem more systematic about aiding Nagorno-Karabakh professionals. To a small degree, international organisations also help in health and education, but they are careful to avoid classical, long-term development strategies that could get them into political trouble.

Regional governments should give more space to allow for external actors like the EU to provide more professional training and exchanges, locally and in Europe, without raising excessive central government concerns. Better trained, more empowered doctors, teachers and police would produce a more competent, better-adjusted population, whatever the political future.

The environment is another apolitical sphere where the need for basic technology and know-how are high. Waste water management and garbage disposal need investment, especially after a generation of neglect. An ex-leader admitted that this could improve the Black Sea coast, shared by six countries and Abkhazia’s greatest tourist attraction. Engagement would benefit everyone, irrespective of geo-political disputes.

It is local people who must buy into settlement processes, but a new generation has come of age in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh knowing no Georgians or Azerbaijanis on the other side of the front lines and considering them enemies. Their world may be smaller thanks to the internet but it is also very far away due to isolation. In eastern Ukraine, a propaganda war is working to deepen the polarisation.

The isolation leads to entrenched self-sufficiency and saps any appetite for developing links across divides or recalibrating calculations about the conflicts. Yet, it is such links that can ultimately work to restore the ripped social fabric in eastern Ukraine or, in Karabakh, inspire some rethinking of the cost of conflict, and pave the way to enable compromise and sustainable transformation.

Economies in Limbo

One of Sukhumi’s Black Sea piers; some piers host cafés and restaurants. CRISIS GROUP