“Frozen Conflicts” in Post-Soviet States and the Future of the Transnistria Conflict

The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has given Transnistria hope that, sooner or later, it will be able to exercise its rights and aspirations to sovereignty as well. Transnistria had no part in the plight of Bessarabia. It had always been part of Russian territory, and that did not change when the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union.

I have long followed the progress of so-called “frozen conflicts” and unrecognized states that have appeared as a result of the incomplete disintegration of the Soviet Union. Experts of the Paris-based institute that I head have repeatedly taken part in monitoring missions in Transnistria, Nagorny Karabakh, and Abkhazia. For reasons of perceived bias, we typically prefer sending French and European experts on international law there rather than Russian citizens. In fact, we call the purpose of these missions research rather than monitoring in order to help our experts dispel potential doubts as citizens of countries that do not recognize these territories. We have followed the example of European agencies that have been sending similar missions for decades to attend the elections in Northern Cyprus, which has been recognized only by Turkey. Having worked as a deputy to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), I’m well aware of these practices.

The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has given Transnistria hope that, sooner or later, it will be able to exercise its rights and aspirations to sovereignty as well. I wrote a number of articles and political documents in the 1990s on this subject, followed by books later on. One of my goals was to prove that Transnistria has one irrefutable argument on its side. It was supplied by the government of the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, which included Transnistria after multiple re-designations of borders, when it announced its independence based on the non-recognition of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939. Bessarabia was restored to the U.S.S.R. as a result of this pact after being occupied by Romania in 1918. However, the U.S.S.R. never recognized this occupation and even made a special reservation to this effect when establishing diplomatic relations with Romania. No matter what one’s attitude to the Soviet-German pact might be, it concerns only the territory that was transferred from one state to another. Meanwhile, Transnistria had no part in the plight of Bessarabia. It had always been part of Russian territory, and that did not change when the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union. Later on, after Bessarabia’s return to Russia as the U.S.S.R., Transnistria was transferred to the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, also part of the Soviet Union. Incidentally, the New York State Bar Association, which has prepared a voluminous legal paper to help Chisinau at possible talks, considers this argument the most difficult to refute.

Every turn in relations between Chisinau and Bucharest is important for Transnistria. Obviously, it will be placed in a difficult position if forces in Chisinau openly demand incorporation into Romania with all its strings attached as a member of the EU and NATO. However, it is clear that these hypothetical developments are closely intertwined with international context and that there are no simple solutions. At any rate, nobody wants civil or any other sort of war.

Having made many trips to Transnistria, I believe that its people are surprisingly united in their vision of a national future. Such sentiment is rare among people of so many ethnic backgrounds. Russians do not by any means form a majority in Transnistria. Most speak Russian but identify themselves not only as Russians but also as Moldovans, Ukrainians, Gagauz, or Jews. All of them consider their history to be part of a larger Russian history and find any attempt to separate the two unacceptable. It was the famous Russian military leader Alexander Suvorov who founded the city of Tiraspol, where soldiers from the Battle of Borodino are buried.

If we are to speak about human rights, we must also speak of the rights of a nation. I am well aware of how complicated this is, but there are legal grounds for raising the issue. Of course, it is also possible to imagine a less radical scenario. Tiraspol and Chisinau could agree on a certain modus vivendi in the form of a confederative agreement with the reservation that the union will cease to exist if Chisinau joins NATO or some other state. I think that these are the only acceptable terms for Tiraspol, but, for the time being, Chisinau is adamantly against them. So, the conflict truly is “frozen,” but NGOs cannot simply turn a blind eye to an unrecognized state when its people are attempting to administer their territory and live within the observance of social, economic, and political rights that are being exercised via democratic procedures, including elections. It is absurd and undemocratic to ignore elections in unrecognized states.

Such conflicts end in a stalemate because the sides are unwilling to accept each other’s main goals. The settlement of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict is facing the same problems. Azerbaijan insists that part of its sovereign territory has been occupied, whereas the people of Karabakh do not want to be part of Azerbaijan, to which their territory was transferred by Bolsheviks. Allow me to cite one interesting historical document in this regard. Responding to Lenin’s inquiry, People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin wrote to Bolshevik Envoy to Armenia Boris Legrand: “Karabakh is ancient Armenian land, but after the Armenians were battered down, the Tatars settled in the valleys and ousted the Armenians to the mountains. We will not give this district to the Armenians so as not to offend the Tatars… Narimanov wants to support the occupational encroachments of the Azerbaijani Tatars… Georgia and Armenia will undergo sovietization at the same time, and all these problems will be overcome.” (Reply of People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the RSFSR Georgy Chicherin to Lenin’s inquiry. Dialogue. Information and analysis bulletin. 1997, No. 7.)

A global proletarian revolution did not take place and the “sovietization” of the South Caucasus is no longer relevant. Russia departed from the region as a stabilizing factor in the 1990s. Towards the end of the 20th century, the region became an arena for ongoing local and global rivalries against the backdrop of its new importance as an oil producing and transit region for hydrocarbon shipments in the Black and Caspian seas.

This example demonstrates how Bolshevik dogmatism engendered conflicts that are now affecting other historical accretions such as the relations between Turks and Armenians as a result of the Armenian genocide. Turkish authorities still find it inadmissible to acknowledge the genocide – and not only on the grounds of potential economic claims. Ankara officially denounces and even brings to court those dissident scholars who insist on the recognition of historical data.

France is the only country to have recognized the Armenian genocide as historical fact that is not subject to discussion or rejection in the same way that some countries prohibit revisionist claims against the veracity of the Holocaust. I think that in the context of the freedom of speech and opinion – that is, genuine freedom and democracy – such laws create a dangerous precedent for bans on independent judgment. However, I accept it politically. Frozen conflicts and unrecognized states exist and international attitudes towards them are directly derivative of the general political context. If a certain region or state ceases to suit the powers that be, it is instantly denounced as a tyrannical regime that is violating human rights and becomes a target of “humanitarian interventions.” In reality, bombs are dropped to aid one side in a domestic conflict, as was the case in Kosovo.

If, by its independence, a given state does not prevent the international powers that be from subjugating it and doing what they please, no amount of human rights violations will give rise to criticism, even if this state is, to put it lightly, a far cry from Western democracy. Endless business and political delegations from Turkmenistan come to the United States, but American politicians never lash out at them for lack of Western democracy.

The idea of human rights has never been used as hypocritically as it is used today, and that alone is disconcerting. I am a firm supporter of classic sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. I believe that every state has an inalienable right to choose its own road without imposing it on anyone.

It’s time to determine the true criteria for interference in the internal affairs of other states. I have strong doubts that without such criteria we can hope that our self-proclaimed global mentors will use armed force without applying a double standard. Human rights issues have long since occupied a place at the forefront of Western minds and social identities. The media generates prejudice against some states and almost impeccable images of others that act as regional or global mentors with growing self-conceit. Human rights, democracy, and the rights of ethnic minorities have become instruments for dismemberment objectionable states that do not submit to global management. They have become pretexts for using force against sovereign states in direct violation of the UN Charter.

A certain group of countries is currently using human rights as a pretext for securing their long-standing military, strategic, geopolitical, and economic interests. That explains why they primarily interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Still, I admit that we are not at all indifferent to human rights in other countries. The UN Charter first embodied the very idea of universally recognized international standards not only between states but also between people within a state. Their mandatory recognition and observance has become the foundation of international law.

Nonetheless, the UN Charter links the proclamation and observance of human rights with such basic principles of international law as non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and the recognition of their sovereign equality. The UN Charter provides us with a consensus on fundamental human rights without giving us a meaningful interpretation of them that could thereby run the risk of contradicting the principles of different national cultures. Obviously, this is true for a reason, inasmuch as the interpretation of human rights depends quite highly on the values of each nation.

There are no firm criteria yet for intervention, and if we don’t want right to make might or weak countries to fall prey to stronger ones, we must recognize the urgent need for such criteria.

This is a complicated but essential task primarily because these criteria are so different from one culture to another. Strictly speaking, it represents a divide not only between states but between civilizations that have different ideas of cruelty, the proper and improper treatment of inmates and prisoners, and the ethics of relations between men and women, parents and children, and individuals and society.

It is not merely derivative of different economic conditions but of popular conceptions of good and evil, freedom and justice, and the meaning of human life and its purpose on Earth. The Trotskyite idea of coercing the world onto a single procrustean bed, now refigured in the language of liberal cliché, has nothing to do with democracy.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.