Conflicts Thawing from Within

The recent crisis between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia has created speculation over possible further eruptions over the "frozen conflict" territories of the former Soviet Union, namely the regions of Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, instead of continuing the recent trend in conflict resolution, rather than seeing them as a playground for grander, political pursuits between international powers, the troubled regions of the CIS need a new localized approach in solving their impending crises.

The war in South Ossetia and the recognition that followed of two Georgian breakaway regions by Russia set one's sights back on the two remaining so-called "frozen conflict" republics in the CIS - Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the considerable diplomatic efforts, it still seemed that the end of the crises was further away than it was thought, once again shedding light on the insufficient political mechanisms within the CIS. The odds of another flare-up are not high, but the situation, which has been dragging on for almost two decades, could be seriously harmed by further prolongation and made more complicated by the growing tensions between Moscow and the West.

"When the Belavezh Accords were signed, I don't think the heads of the states who signed them thought of the legacy they were leaving to the future independent states," said Tudor Sorochanu, a Moldavian political scientist.

The new states were left to deal with their own problems alone, the territorial disputes of which stood out as the most heated debates, gravely tarnishing the relationships between the countries. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were recognized by Russia in the end after a brief military feud between Russia and Georgia, constitute only one half of the breakaway regions on the CIS territory. The separatist ambitions of the other two, Moldavia's Transnistria and Azerbaijan's predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh (the latter regarded by Baku as an Armenian-occupied territory), also caused bloody armed conflicts in the late 1980s and early 1990s and have since been stalled amid peace talks mediated by multiparty international organizations.

These cases, along with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, were dubbed "frozen conflicts," a notion which lasted until August 2008 when the war erupted in Ossetia, resulting in - with Russia's assistance - partial recognition of the de facto independent republics on the international level.

The recent events have compelled the international community to treat the two remaining troubled regions with more caution and speed up the process of sealing up the chasms between the separatists and their claimant governments to prevent any bloodshed.

Apart from Russia and Nicaragua, the Georgian breakaway regions were almost immediately recognized by Transnistria; yet the reactions on the streets of its capital city of Tiraspol were mixed.

"In view of the new events, some people in Transnistria think it's going to serve as a premise for their independence, yet the majority believe that Russia will now have a desire to show that its views are free of unipolarity and give the region away to Moldavia," said Sorochanu.

The conflicts surrounding the four troubled regions have one thing in common - they all have resulted in military confrontations, sometimes on more than one occasion. Now, following the war in Georgia, it is widely assumed that any military solutions are out of the question.

"The Caucasus events prodded the international community to find ways in resolving these situations, but now everyone is talking about peaceful solutions," said Sorochanu. "That's what Moldavia has always wanted," he added.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has since met with both the President of the unrecognized republic of Transnistria Igor Smirnov and Moldavian President Petr Voronin, cautioning them not to resort to military means in solving the crisis; in doing so, he virtually guaranteed Tiraspol protection, should it share the fate of South Ossetia.

About 100,000 Russian citizens currently reside in Transnistria, giving Moscow a pretext to respond to any military action, just like in South Ossetia. After talks with Medvedev, Smirnov lifted the moratorium on any talks with the Moldavian government which was imposed as a result of Moldavia's failure to condemn Georgia's actions.

"I recently spoke to the Polish ambassador in Moldova, [Krzysztof Suprovich]. He said that a positive resolution of the Transnistrian crisis can serve as a good example for the EU in solving regional crises," said Sorochanu.

The resumption of negotiations, as well as Moldavia's willingness to receive Russia's support in bringing an end to an almost 20-year dispute, is seen as a major step forward after the five party negotiations between Transnistria, Moldavia, OSCE, Ukraine and Russia were frozen in 2006. The talks between Voronin and Smirnov resumed only in 2008, following the intervention of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis has been considered a more distant prospect than the Transnistrian case and a more likely scene for a military conflict to erupt.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was eased when Turkey acted as a mediator. With its close ties to Azerbaijan, Turkey could be very efficient in making a positive impact in bringing the dialogue between Baku and Yerevan closer in search of progress.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul made his first official visit to Armenia in early September, marking a new beginning in the bilateral relations between the two countries, which have been marred by issues surrounding the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire and Armenia's feud with Azerbaijan. Gul held talks with Armenian and Azerbaijani officials about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and urged Azerbaijan to be more open to dialogue with Armenia.

"There is a difference between the Georgian republics and Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria," said Alexei Vlasov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Social and Political Processes in Post-Soviet Countries. "Over the past four to five years, the conflict in Georgia has been an issue between Russia and Georgia, and we see more participants in both Transnistria and especially Nagorno-Karabakh."

The recent developments are seen as a positive, but an excessively deep involvement of third parties could eventually hamper the progress.

"Non-regional players are becoming more and more active in their attempts to draw Georgia and Azerbaijan into anti-Russian military and political alliances; it is becoming clear that the multilateral involvement policy that Moldavia and Azerbaijan are following will not allow them to balance between Moscow and Washington for too long," Vlasov noted. "If the confrontation between Moscow and Washington grows, I'm not sure Moldavia and Azerbaijan will be able to maintain a balance; then the odds of the resolution of these conflicts will diminish considerably," he added.

Moldavia and Azerbaijan, as well as Armenia, are members of the CIS, a Russian-dominated international organization comprised of post-Soviet countries. Over the past years, it has been seen as weak and not doing enough to establish strong political ties between the member countries, and has been regarded as a failure in terms of setting up and maintaining mechanisms of resolving tensions on the post-Soviet territory.

All these factors spark the necessity of seeking the involvement of third parties which in the long term could complicate the situation, rather than appease it.

"I am certain that the problems that occur between the former Soviet republics should be solved within the CIS," said Azerbaijani political scientist Rashad Rzakuliev. "Its functionality and significance depend on Russia; as of today, this structure is absolutely amorphous, it doesn't work."

"We need straight rules for mutual relations in the CIS which should be set by Russia," said Rzakuliev.

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