A tight bear hug or looser embrace for Russia-backed separatists

A tight bear hug or looser embrace for Russia-backed separatists
A tank monument in Tiraspol, capital of the unrecognised Transnistria region. / Clare Nuttall
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow October 9, 2022

Long before Russia engineered the breakup of Ukraine by annexing Crimea and backing separatists in the east eight years ago and then invading earlier in 2022, it fundamentally weakened two more of the newly independent states in the post-Soviet space, Georgia and Moldova, by backing local separatists. 

That left the government Georgia with substantial parts of its territory outside its control as the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia set up de facto states; the Transnistrians did the same in the eastern part of Moldova that borders Ukraine. Apart from the five-day war in Georgia in August 2008, these have remained frozen conflicts for the last three decades. They held back Georgia and Moldova from wholeheartedly pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration, and weakened them economically too. The tiny separatist republics are largely cut off from the international community only a handful of states were persuaded by Russia to recognise the Georgian republics and none have recognised Transnistria leaving them shored up mainly by Russian handouts. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine therefore immediately raised questions about the future status of the self-declared republics. South Ossetia announced plans for a referendum on its own annexation by Russia. There was also speculation that Russian forces could quickly take the Ukrainian Black Sea city of Odesa then push through to Transnistria. Neither of these happened. South Ossetia’s referendum plan was rebuffed by Moscow, and the authorities in Transnistria have quietly avoided getting embroiled in the war. Instead, Russian interest and resources have been diverted from the Georgian and Moldovan separatist republics to focus on Ukraine. 

Contested borders 

The ethnic minorities in Georgia and Moldova were just a few of hundreds within the post-Soviet space. Neither Abkhazians nor Ossetians got their own republic when the newly formed Soviet Union was divided into 15 ethnically based republics back in the 1920s, but they started agitating for independence at the same time as other nationalist independence movements erupted in the late 1980s. 

As the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, armed rebellions broke out in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. From the early 1990s, that left both of the regions nominally part of Georgia, but de facto independent, with Russian peacekeepers controlling their borders, and shored up by Russian money. Then in 2008 Georgia’s then president Mikheil Saakashvili actively sought entry to Nato, which was a red line for Moscow. The situation escalated throughout the first half of the year, and war broke out in the summer. Georgia’s army was quickly driven back by Russian troops, and after the war Russia officially recognised both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent. The conflict was re-frozen. 

It suits Moscow to have frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union which it still sees as its ‘near abroad’ or main sphere of influence because it gives it continued leverage over governments that might otherwise decisively reorient themselves towards the West. It’s no accident that the 2008 war in Georgia and the wars in eastern Ukraine from 2014 onwards started as the two states were aiming to join Nato. Neither can join the alliance while part of their territory is at war or occupied by Russia. 

Transnistria is a rather different story; its territory roughly aligns to the part of Moldova that was under Soviet, rather than Romanian, rule in the inter-war period, and its population is mainly Russian and Ukrainian. The trigger for the war in Transnistria was the moves by Chisinau to reintegrate with Romania, which encouraged the emergence of secessionist movements in both Transnistria and Gagauzia, leading to fighting between forces controlled by Chisinau and the Russia-backed separatists between November 1990 and spring 1992 until a ceasefire was declared in July that year. Just like in Georgia, Chisinau had to accept the deployment of Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops along the de facto border with Transnistria, who have remained there ever since. 

Client states 

To a great extent all of the three enclaves are shored up by Russia economically, in patron-client relationships with local elites. Russia spends billions of rubles each year to subsidise them. Transnistria, for example, has been receiving free Russian gas for years, with the bill sent to Chisinau (which refuses to pay). Transnistria then earns money by using the gas to generate electricity, part of which it sells to the rest of Moldova. 

Despite this support, relations are not always smooth. Moscow has been impatient with Abkhazia in particular, because of the large amounts of Russian money siphoned off by the elite, while the Abkhazian population is highly resistant to the country’s land or assets being taken over by Russians. 

This led to an outpouring of anti-Russian sentiment when it was revealed in July that Abkhazia's leaders had agreed to transfer ownership of a sprawling coastal property to Russia. Moscow’s request for the land near Pitsunda “caused huge anger in Abkhazia”, John MacLeod, senior analyst, Russia/CIS at Oxford Analytica, told bne IntelliNews. “People in Abkhazia are very touchy about ceding land even if it appears to be on a lease. People are furious about this. They think Russians are trying to grab hold of the assets energy, bits of infrastructure. They feel they are being economically colonised by Russia,” he said. 

Commenting on the transfer, the de facto president of Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, acknowledged that he had little choice in the matter. He told Tkvarcheli residents: "Russia can live without this property, but can we continue our existence without Russian support? That is the real question." Bzhania later revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked him personally to transfer the property. 

While South Ossetia chafes less against its dependence on Moscow, that relationship too was highlighted by the challenger in this spring’s presidential election campaign, Anatoly Gagloev. He spoke repeatedly about social inequality, claiming that Russian donations ended up in the pockets of a few powerful people while many live in poverty. 

The two republics’ isolation from both Georgia and international markets other than Russia put them in a difficult position when international sanctions were imposed following the invasion of Ukraine. They rely on goods imported via Russia, and are thus affected by the same difficulties in securing the imports they need post-sanctions. The three republics are also dependent on remittances from Russia but here the hit has been smaller than originally anticipated. While it has contracted since the invasion, the Russian economy hasn’t gone into meltdown as initially forecast, and remittances are kept high by the strong ruble. However, there are undoubtedly fewer resources in Russia to dispatch to poorer parts of the former Soviet Union. 

Abkhazia has to some extent benefited from the huge inflows of Russians fleeing their own country, many of whom chose Abkhazia given its reputation as a holiday destination for the rich and famous. The experience of other countries has suggested that these Russians are generally educated and come from high value sectors such as IT, thus lifting such sectors in their host countries. Without these advantages, South Ossetia has fewer options, making it more dependent on Russia.

Transnistria is in a better situation, as its main ‘export’ market is Chisinau-controlled Moldova, with Russia just one of the top four markets along with EU members Romania and Poland that together account for almost 80% of its foreign trade turnover. Since Chisinau signed its Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU back in 2014, Transnistria has benefited with access to EU markets along with the rest of Moldova, reorienting its trade away from Russia towards Western markets. 

Rebuffed by Moscow 

After the invasion of Ukraine, the government of South Ossetia quickly proposed a referendum on its own annexation to Russia that would allow it to unite with North Ossetia just across the border. The republic’s then president Anatoly Bibilov said at the time: “We have taken an important step we are returning home, we are returning to Russia.”

However, despite Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine, where it illegally annexed four eastern regions in September, it didn’t welcome the request from South Ossetia. 

The annexation “could have been easily engineered, but instead apparently Moscow had cold feet, and was not keen on the idea”, said MacLeod. In short, he added, “here’s a place saying we are just like the Ukrainian territories, take us too. And Russia said no.”

Russia may indeed have considered absorbing Abkhazia and South Ossetia back at the time of the Georgian war in 2008, after which it recognised both as independent, but appears to have lost interest since then. Similarly, while Transnistria held a referendum in 2006 in which its citizens voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia, Moscow has never formally recognised it as independent or made moves towards annexation. 

Tiraspol goes quiet and Chisinau asserts itself 

When Russia first invaded Ukraine there were immediate fears that Russian forces would take Odesa then move on to Transnistria. From there, it would have been easy to take the whole of weakly armed Moldova if Moscow chose to do so. However, that didn’t happen, and Russia is now struggling to hold on to territory in the east of Ukraine. 

Within Moldova, far from Transnistria trying to drag the country into the war, the authorities on both sides of the Dniester have been trying to avoid conflict. Calls for calm on the Chisinau-controlled side of the Dneister river were echoed by the president of Transnistria, Vadim Krasnoselsky, who urged people to avoid panic and said the situation in Transnistria was peaceful and stable. It has remained so, despite a series of explosions and attacks within Transnistria in the spring; the perpetrators are still not known but they are believed to have been an attempt whether by Russia or pro-Russian hardliners in Transnistria, or by Ukraine to drag Transnistria into the war. 

Since then, MacLeod said, “the Transnistrian leadership has been very much engaged in a peculiar dance of engaging with Moldova. They are playing it both ways. They are not terribly hostile towards Ukraine, and the one thing we don’t see them is saying come and get us [to Russia].”

As Russian forces are pushed back by the Ukrainian counter-offensive, Moldova appears to be getting tougher. Initially, Chisinau, where a pro-EU president and government are in power, said it would stay neutral. Even before the war, President Maia Sandu said that while she is committed to Moldova’s European integration she won’t needlessly antagonise Russia

However, now that the potential danger to Moldova has receded, Sandu called at the UN General Assembly in September for all Russian troops to leave Moldova, arguing that their presence in Transnistria violates Moldova's neutrality and increases security risks. She also warned in late September that Moldovans who also hold a Russian passport risk losing their Moldovan citizenship if they fight on the Russian side in the war in Ukraine. Taking a bullish tone on the outcome of the fighting, Sandu argued that Moldova will have a window of opportunity to settle the conflict in Transnistria “when Ukraine wins the war”. 

No longer the regional stability guarantor 

The recent outbreaks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Central Asia showed that with Russia distracted by the war in Ukraine there isn’t really anyone to keep the peace in the former Soviet space. There has even been a physical withdrawal, with Russia removing soldiers from Georgia to fight in Ukraine. 

Nagorno Karabakh, the Fergana Valley and the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova are all very different situations but some parallels can be drawn. “The big parallel I draw is that Russia’s distraction by Ukraine is going to create a lot of instability in the so-called frozen conflicts where, for want of a better word, Russia played a role as a stability provider, and now it’s not going to be able to play that role so well,” said Mary Glantz, senior advisor, Russia and Europe Center at the US Institute for Peace (USIP). 

“Abkhazia and South Ossetia are settling into more of a ‘see and watch' mode, keeping the status quo. However, in Nagorno Karabakh we definitely see the latest round of violence as a sign Azerbaijan is testing Russia’s red lines, capacity, willingness and interest in intervening on the part of peace in that conflict,” Glantz commented. 

While Abkhazia has remained quite assertive vis a vis Russia, Glantz believes the situation will "probably weaken the government in South Ossetia. It has definitely made them a little more nervous. I think that’s why they are reaching out to Georgia by opening border lines”.

She pointed out that in case of a deterioration of the security situation, “there had to be some concern when Russia pulled troops out that if something were to happen there are no Russian troops to go in and help at this point. With the distraction of attention [to Ukraine], money and resources are probably not going to be going down to those republics the way they were before the war.” 

Useful but expensive 

The separatist republics are unlikely to be retaken by force, not least because both Chisinau and Tbilisi have said they don’t want this. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said in April that Georgia is committed to the peaceful settlement of issues in relation to the Russian-occupied regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, indicating Tbilisi does not plan to try to retake them by force. Meanwhile, Moldovan officials were unenthusiastic about Ukrainian claims they could take back Transnistria. 

For Russia’s part, it may have considered absorbing Abkhazia and South Ossetia back at the time of the Georgian war in 2008, after which it recognised both as independent, but it never made a move to do so. This would be both politically and economically costly, and does not have broad popular support in Russia. Unlike the annexation of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, these regions are not seen by Russians as integral parts of Russia.

“Even though the annexation of Crimea was popular in Russia, because Russian people consider Crimea to be historically theirs, the cost of rebuilding Crimea and integrating it was high. [The Russian population] saw a lot of tax flow go out of Russia into Crimea at a time when the economy to the average Russian is not doing well. So I think Putin would be hard pressed to sell [taking on] another Caucasian republic and supporting it financially while he’s making budget cuts back in Russia. He has probably got more than he can handle with Ukraine right now and he’s not interested in taking on an extra burden in absorbing South Ossetia,” said Glantz. 

Abkhazia in any case has consistently said it does not want to be annexed by Russia, and tensions have surfaced in the past over its misuse of Russian subsidies. 

MacLeod points out that long before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia was “trying to scale down subsidies, transfers and grants because it feels it’s being fleeced. Their relationship [between Russia and Abkhazia] includes a lot of bargaining and haggling. Now things are even tighter in the Ukraine war for Russia fiscally, there will be even greater scrutiny of money to Abkhazia … Russia doesn’t like its subsidies being pocketed by rich Abkhazians.” 

He expects that Russia may have more interest in investing in infrastructure and the economy in South Ossetia (compared to Abkhazia), with a view to possible future annexation or at least maintaining it as an irritant within Georgia, but South Ossetia too can expect smaller subsidies while the war is ongoing.

Room to talk 

On the other hand, if the war continues to go badly, a weakened Russia creates the potential for better relations between the governments in Chisinau and Tbilisi and the separatist regimes. 

Relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol are already well established, but there have recently been some developments in Georgia too, such as establishing people-to-people contacts with South Ossetia. 

“If Russia loses it is going to create a lot more instability and lot more opportunity, and if Georgia wanted they could start talking to those republics and making overtures not recovering them, but this could give the government of Georgia and the people of Georgia the opportunity to re-establish contacts with these regions and welcome them back if need be,” said Glantz, while acknowledging “that’s a very optimistic take” on the situation. 

For a rapprochement to happen, however, “You would have to address whatever disputes you have between ethnic populations before Russia intervened in the first place,” she added. 

With physical fighting much further in the past, the relationship between Chisinau and Tiraspol is already much closer, and Transnistria has benefitted from Moldova’s integration with the EU. This makes absorption into Russia a less appealing option.

Continuation of this strategy would lead gradually to deeper integration of Transnistria with Moldova, which in its turn is moving towards integration with the EU, having secured candidate status in June.

However, any such steps would naturally be resisted by Russia. As a result, MacLeod believes that even with fewer resources, Moscow will hold onto the rogue republics all the more tightly, whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine. “If Russia is driven back a bit, and aggrieved, I think it will maintain the enclaves as it did before, with limited subsidies,” he forecast. “They are little projects Russia began at various points in the 90s and continued. It is pretty good [for Russia] having two entities in Georgia when Georgia is a Western partner, so I think the Russians will hang onto them as long as they can.”

The war is still far from over. Putin has responded to Ukrainian gains by annexing parts of its territory, announcing a partial mobilisation and openly talking of using nuclear weapons. Whatever the outcome, Russia may have fewer financial and military resources to devote to the separatists it backs in Moldova and Georgia, but with the scope they provide to influence two states moving towards European integration, the last thing Moscow is expected to do is cut them loose.