When Frozen Conflicts Melt Down

by Jim Headle

Transitions Online
13 August 2008
Czech Republic

Can Russian passports become the weapon of choice in disputed regions
of the former Soviet Union?

The label "frozen conflict" as applied to the wars that accompanied
the breakup of the Soviet Union implies that, some day, they may well
"unfreeze." This is what happened in Georgia.

Current events in the Caucasus could be blamed on renewed Russian
assertiveness, provocation by the Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili seeking Georgia’s entry into NATO, and support from
the West in the stand-off with the powerful neighbor – even on the
geopolitics of pipelines.

But the fundamental issue and the immediate spark of what became
a wider war was the unresolved status of the breakaway province of
South Ossetia. In this sense, the broader context is the delineation
of the borders of the republics of the former Soviet Union and former
Yugoslavia, issues which in some cases remain no different to what they
were 17 years ago. So what are the implications of the "unfreezing"
of the conflicts in Georgia for other such conflicts?

The fate of Abkhazia will most likely be the same as that of South
Ossetia. Beyond Georgia, the most direct implications may be for
the comparable frozen conflicts of Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan)
and Transdniester (Moldova). These are breakaway regions which
asserted their independence leading to war in the early 1990s. They
have attempted to create the institutions of statehood, but remain
unrecognized. This limbo status has also contributed to isolation,
economic decline, poverty, and organized crime. Recurrent attempts to
negotiate solutions run aground on the rock of the irreconcilability
of the two sides’ demands: on the one hand, the separatists declare
the sovereignty of their "state" and recognition of independence as
the precondition for any agreement, while the larger state insists
that its territorial integrity be preserved and demands that the
province be under its sovereignty (albeit with autonomy). Meanwhile,
the status quo is preserved by the balance of forces on the ground:
in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Armenia, and in the case
of Transdniester, by Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeepers
(effectively, Russia).

None of these breakaway regions has been recognized as independent
by outside states because so far all governments have operated in
line with the principle that the republic borders of the Soviet Union
became the international borders when that state dissolved. Georgia
can therefore claim to be asserting its legal right to sovereignty
over its territory, by attempting to bring South Ossetia under the
control of Tbilisi and to affirm the Georgian state’s monopoly on the
use of force within its borders. On the other hand, Russia accuses the
Georgian authorities of reneging on the original cease-fire agreement
and resorting to force, with resulting civilian casualties, after
having ostensibly agreed to hold negotiations.


There are echoes here of August 1995, when Croatia forcibly reclaimed
control of the breakaway Republic of Serb Krajina despite talks being
planned for its future. This was supposedly a UN protected area, but
UN forces failed to protect it from the Croatian offensive. Western
governments urged caution but implicitly condoned the action, noting
that the region was part of Croatia, while Russia called on the United
Nations to uphold the cease-fire agreements, and suggested that NATO
should consider using force to protect the region. As the guarantor
of the cease-fire agreement in South Ossetia, Russia is effectively
claiming now to do what it said the UN should have done in Krajina
in 1995.

Yet, in 1995, Russia’s argument was weakened by the fact that, not
long before, it had resorted to force itself to reassert sovereignty
over its breakaway republic of Chechnya. That time it failed, but in
1999 it was more successful when it again overrode an interim peace
agreement with Chechnya, justifying it in terms of regaining control
of Russian territory and restoring order in a lawless region whose
actions threatened the security of the rest of the country. It is
therefore difficult to discern any consistency of principles on the
part of Russia with respect to observing cease-fires or interim peace
agreements and not resorting to force in frozen conflicts. In fact,
in relation to South Ossetia, Russia is acting more in line with
NATO’s response to Serbia’s attempts to crush separatism in Kosovo,
as shown by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s use of the term "genocide"
to describe the initial Georgian offensive.

Until now, there has been more consistency over the status of
breakaway regions. Russia may have provided economic support and
security guarantees to places such as South Ossetia, but it has not
recognized them as independent (unlike Turkey in relation to Northern
Cyprus, for example). Russian policy-makers have, until now, argued
that the principle of territorial integrity should be sacrosanct, thus
justifying their action in Chechnya and condemning countries which have
recognized Kosovo as independent. However, Russian policy-makers have
long made it clear that if Kosovo did effectively become an independent
state there would be implications for comparable breakaway provinces in
the former Soviet Union. It is quite possible that this change is now
occurring, and that Russia will recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia
as independent or incorporate them into the Russian Federation.

Russian policy-makers always accused their Western counterparts of
double standards in their application of principles of territorial
integrity and self-determination in the Balkans, and attributed the
differing outcomes in different political entities of the former
Yugoslavia to NATO’s selective use of force. But we may now see the
outcomes of secessionist conflicts in the former Soviet Union also
being determined by the selective use of force: on the part of Russia,
crushing separatism in the Russian Federation itself, but supporting
it in neighboring Georgia. And, if these conflicts are beginning to
unfreeze, other cases may be settled by relative power if not actual
use of force. Where the state is strong, autonomy may be the outcome;
where it is weak, or where the separatists are supported by a strong
neighbor, independence may result.

President Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan, for example, has also threatened
to re-take Nagorno-Karabakh by force, and may be more successful than
his Georgian counterpart as Russia has no direct interest, Armenia
is weak and isolated, and Azerbaijan has a larger, well-equipped and
-trained army and, like Russia, huge revenues from energy exports.

Russia always accused Western countries of acting inconsistently
and partially in relation to the conflicts in former Yugoslavia,
by condoning the use of force by Croatian and Bosnian authorities to
reassert control of their territories, yet condemning it in the case of
Serbia in Kosovo, and indeed intervening in support of the separatists
in the name of humanitarian values. But this present conflict directly
contradicts the principles used to justify its previous war (in
Chechnya). Rather than look for consistency of abstract principles,
it is probably more realistic to understand events in terms of Russia
asserting its right to use force in its immediate neighborhood and
striving to demonstrate that its influence still counts; indeed,
pursuing the Kosovo parallel, Russian credibility is at stake in
Georgia in the same way that NATO’s was in former Yugoslavia.


Most alarming is the deliberate ploy of extending Russian citizenship
to the inhabitants of breakaway regions of other states – as was done
in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This has always seemed to be a
step toward legitimizing a potential intervention. Will the model now
be applied elsewhere? What, for example, if Ukraine continues to seek
NATO membership, and ethnic Russians in Crimea are granted citizenship?

If events in Georgia are an indication of a wider shift in Russian
thinking toward reconsidering the borders of the former Soviet
republics, then it could have alarming implications. However,
there are no clear ethical reasons why the borders should not be
changed if a significant majority of the population of a province
wish it. After all, the borders were often designed on the principle
of divide-and-rule by Soviet authorities or, in the case of Crimea,
transferred to Ukraine on the whim of Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Of
course, such moves threaten stability in the former Soviet space;
but the existence of frozen conflicts shows that that stability is
sometimes only ice-thin.

Jim Headley is a lecturer in politics at the University of Otago,
New Zealand. He is the author of Russia and the Balkans: Foreign
Policy from Yeltsin to

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS