‘Frozen conflicts’ blight a number of ex-Soviet states where reformist voices seek a more democratic and liberal path. Resolving these disputes has proved exceptionally difficult as a result of vested interests, which depend on the status quo, and outside interference.
By Robert Ledger
The frozen conflicts of the former USSR lie at the very fault line of East and West. After the Ukraine crisis erupted in early 2014, EU leaders have made efforts to encourage reform in the country. Critics say that linking economic ties with security alarmed Russia so much in late 2013 that it increased the likelihood of intervention by the Kremlin, while others say the West was too sluggish in responding to the events of the Maidan revolution. In any case, Ukraine has subsequently been the latest ex-Soviet state to be blighted by ‘frozen conflict’, in Crimea and now in Donbas. Once left to fester, these disputes – often concentrated on contested interpretations of nationality, allegiance and territory – are notoriously difficult to resolve and develop their own dynamic.
In 2009 the EU launched its ‘Eastern Partnership’ (EaP) programme, an attempt to build closer ties with six ex-Soviet countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. After Russian incursions into Ukraine the EU has moved to sign association agreements (‘Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements’) with the three countries where the voices for reform are loudest: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, while the others have edged cautiously closer to Russia and its Eurasian Economic Union. Five of the six countries experience (Belarus being the exception), and to varying degrees, frozen conflict. What are the implications of these disputes?
It is worth pointing out that some of these conflicts are not really frozen. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have repeatedly clashed over the last year in Nagorno-Karabakh, recognised as part of Azerbaijan by the international community but since the 1991-1994 war controlled de facto by Armenia. Frozen conflicts foster insecurity and instability and prevent reform and development. In each country there are reformists that seek a more democratic, liberal, and crucially pro-European course. The EU has attempted to resolve the conflicts and bring the countries into its orbit with both carrots and sticks, including promises of integration, funding, visa-free travel and trade agreements, as well as sanctions in the case of Moldova’s frozen conflict in Transnistria.
So far, however, progress has been painfully slow. Each frozen conflict contains vested interests, backed by Russia, who oppose resolution. In 2014 NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said “Putin wants protracted, frozen conflicts in the neighbourhood.” It has been clear during the war in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine more recently, that Russia does not want to see these states move closer to Europe, and in particular NATO. The West has been too slow to realise this and criticism of its offer to Ukraine in late 2013 has some relevance. The Kremlin has exercised a modified form of imperialism – although ‘divide and rule’ is imperialism 101 – in its ‘near-abroad’ after the uncertainty of the 1990s. Despite claiming to respect the inviolability of state sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ affairs, Russia supports corrupt elites, fuelling crime and corruption, in maintaining the status quo. This is particularly true in the case of Georgia’s frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Transnistria in Moldova and now Crimea and Donbas in Ukraine. Although less obviously involved in Nagorno-Karabakh – Russia backs Armenia – it tacitly arms both sides, causing a volatile militarisation of the South Caucasus. The real losers, as ever, are the inhabitants of the conflict zones. In 2013-2014 photographer Liza Premiyak produced a fascinating photo-journal that demonstrated the trauma and prolonged under-development experienced in these frozen conflict regions.
Russia is not alone in apparently supporting frozen conflicts in order to further its interests. Other examples of conflicts that seem intractable include Kashmir, Korea, the Palestinian territories, Northern Cyprus and Kosovo, and blame for each can be apportioned to various actors, depending on your point of view. What is certain, however, is that once the dust settles and the lines are drawn, these conflicts are very difficult to settle. Into this vortex are drawn propaganda, corruption, militarisation and arms spending. Those who seek to compromise and solve the disputes are deemed unpatriotic. Civil society groups in Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, have sought to meet to build ties to resolve the stalemate over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, only to be dubbed treacherous at home. The process of an increasingly draconian turn by Azerbaijan’s government and its impact on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process was explored in TransConflict in July 2015 by Haykaram Nahapetyan. Corrupt autocrats – not brave leaders who seek to build peace – have usually been the product of this environment. The EU’s overtures to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova could be a bold move, but much will need to change before the frozen conflicts in the region can be resolved.
Robert Ledger is a researcher and writer on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London. He is editor of the next issue of the Journal of International Relations Research.