Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Post-Soviet Wars: Part II
The Post-Soviet Wars: Part II

The Post-Soviet Wars: Part II

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This essay is based on a presentation at the Butcher History Institute for Teachers on What is Eurasia? And Why Does it Matter?, October 21-22, 2017, sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Slavic Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, and Carthage College.

The previous article, The Post-Soviet Wars: Part I, advanced a causal explanation for the post-Soviet wars, the wars that broke out in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To summarize, this explanation argued that the legacies of Soviet ethno-federal policies left some post-Soviet states with institutionalized identity divisions. Where these existed, the collapse of the Soviet Union caused mobilization around these identities and escalation of conflict between identity groups. Escalating conflict invited international intervention, with the type of intervention depending on the geopolitical affiliation of the target state. States seen by Russia and the West as “Western” were targeted for intervention focused on the de-escalation of conflict, led most often by Western states and international institutions. States seen as “non-Western,” on the other hand, were targeted for military intervention by Russia, with Western states and international institutions paying scarce attention to the conflicts.

The previous paper examined four cases to test this causal explanation. Two of these—Georgia-Abkhazia and Moldova-Transnistria—escalated to violent separatist conflict. The other two—Georgia-Ajaria and Estonia and its Russian minority—were resolved peacefully. To illustrate how the process unfolded in these four cases, I will use two historical vignettes. The first will compare the processes of identity construction in Abkhazia and Ajaria during the period of Soviet rule in Georgia, and the second will compare the geopolitical affiliation of post-Soviet Moldova and Estonia, showing how this affiliation influenced intervention decisions by external actors. This paper will then conclude by detailing my research findings and examining the conclusions that can be drawn from them.

Identity Construction in Abkhazia and Ajaria

Both Abkhazia and Ajaria had identities distinct from Georgians and restless—sometimes violent—histories with Georgians prior to the Soviet period. Abkhazia’s distinct identity was based upon an ethno-linguistic difference from Georgians and a history of sometimes being united with Georgia and sometimes separate. Ajaria’s difference from Georgia was grounded in a religious distinction—the majority of Ajarians were Muslims while Georgians are Christian—that was itself part of a 300-year legacy as part of the Ottoman Empire. While Soviet policies served to strengthen the pre-existing identity division between Abkhazians and Georgians, those same policies erased the identity division between Ajarians and Georgians. The policies I will use to trace the process of identity construction in Soviet Abkhazia and Ajaria are language policies, ethnic/national classification policies, and educational policies.

Soviet language policies in Abkhazia privileged the status and use of the Abkhazian and Russian languages over Georgian. As part of the process of korenizatsiia (“indigenization”), Soviet officials classified Abkhazia as a “backward” nation, entitling it to special promotion of the Abkhazian language, among other things. So over the course of the Soviet period—aside from a period of “Georgianization” under Stalin in the 1930-40s—the language of instruction in Abkhazian was Abkhazian or Russian, despite the fact that Abkhazia was part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). The effect of these policies was that by the final Soviet census in Abkhazia in 1989, 97.3% of ethnic Abkhazians living there listed Abkhazian as their native language.[1] In Ajaria, by contrast, Soviet language policies represented a comprehensive and sustained effort to increase literacy in Georgian and eliminate the regional peculiarities of the Ajarian dialect, which contained a large number of Turkish loan words. Prior to the Soviet period, literacy in Ajaria had been primarily in Turkish or Arabic; by the time of the Soviet collapse, literacy in standard Georgian was essentially universal in Ajaria. This change explains Christoph Zuercher’s assertion that the assimilation of Ajarians was perhaps the greatest success of the Soviet Georgian national project.[2]

Ethnic classification policies also contributed to strengthening the identity division between Georgians and Abkhazians. Over the more than seven decades of Soviet rule in Georgia, Abkhazians remained on the official list of Soviet nationalities, despite the fact that the Soviet government eliminated almost one hundred other national categories, at least in part in an attempt to demonstrate the “drawing together and merging of peoples” predicted by Marxist ideology. For example, while there were 188 national categories listed on the first all-union Soviet census in 1926, by 1939 that number had been reduced to 92. Among the national categories eliminated in this period was that of the Ajarians. In the 1926 census, a slight majority of residents of Ajaria had classified themselves as Ajarians,[3] but this category had disappeared by the 1939 census. The effects of the disappearance of the Ajarian national category and the relentless Georgianization campaign in Ajaria can be seen in the final Soviet census in 1989, when 86% of Ajaria’s population self-identified as Georgians. As Christoph Zuercher says, the disappearance of the Ajarians has a simple explanation: “unlike other Caucasian ethnic groups, they had not been deported but instead had fallen victim to the Soviet criteria for classifying ethnic groups. Language was regarded as an indicator of ethnicity, whereas religions were not. Hence, the Muslim Ajarians, speaking a version of Georgian, were not qualified as a distinct ethnic group.”[4]

Soviet education policies also contributed to strengthening the identity division between Georgians and Abkhazians while virtually eliminating it between Ajarians and Georgians. As discussed previously, for a large majority of the period of Soviet rule, the language of instruction in Abkhazia’s schools was Abkhazian through the fourth grade and Russian thereafter. Furthermore, in 1978—in response to protests in Abkhazia—Soviet authorities decreed the establishment of an Abkhazian State University. As in many other Soviet universities, the humanities departments in the Abkhazian State University housed what Anatol Lieven has called “crypto-nationalists,”[5] scholars who used their academic positions to advance strong—though often encoded in Marxist language—nationalist research agendas. So in Abkhazia the education system—from the primary schools through the university—promoted an identity and history that emphasized the distinctiveness of the region and its people from the rest of the Georgian SSR. In Ajaria, the process was exactly the opposite. Soviet authorities closed all religious schools, which had been a source of the distinct identity of Ajarians. They also ensured the language of instruction in primary and secondary schools was Georgian, and they declined to allow the establishment of a separate university in Ajaria. The history taught in Ajaria’s schools emphasized the common roots of Ajarians and Georgians and depicted the 300-year period of Ottoman rule in Ajaria as an historical aberration, against which Ajarians had valiantly and consistently resisted.

So the period of Soviet rule in Georgia strengthened a pre-existing identity division between Georgians and Abkhazians, while essentially eliminating a pre-existing identity division between Georgians and Ajarians. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the outcome in these two regions, both of which had been Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics inside the Georgian SSR, was profoundly different. In Abkhazia, there was mobilization around the distinct Abkhazian identity and escalation of conflict between Abkhazians and Georgians. This conflict erupted into war in August 1992, and the war ended 13 months later with the defeat of the Georgian Army to a coalition of Abkhazian forces and militia groups from the Russian North Caucasus, supported by the Russian armed forces. As this was happening, Ajaria remained stable. Although there were political disputes between the central government in Tbilisi and the regional government in Batumi, these disputes remained confined to the relevant political institutions, and did not escalate into large-scale violence.

Geopolitical Affiliation and External Intervention in Moldova and Estonia

As noted previously, the causal framework I advance to explain post-Soviet conflict argues that where there are institutionalized identity divisions, the onset of sudden political transition can cause mobilization around identity groups and the escalation of conflict between them. This escalating conflict draws the attention of external actors and causes them to decide whether and how to intervene. In the former Soviet Union, the factor that shaped that decision was the geopolitical affiliation of the target state. States considered “Western” by Russia and the West—such as Estonia—were targeted for conflict mitigation efforts by Western states and international institutions. States considered “non-Western”—such as Moldova—were often targeted for military intervention by Russia. This section of the paper examines the geopolitical affiliation of these two states and shows how this factor shaped intervention decisions.

Post-Soviet Moldova was seen in the West as “too small, too quiet and too obscure” to be worth significant attention, despite the fact that it sits squarely in Europe geographically. In Moscow, on the other hand, Moldova is seen as a country where “Russian influence ought to be unchallenged.”[6] Although not important in a geostrategic sense, the Transnistrian region of Moldova served as “a custodian of Soviet values and of Russian great-power interests.”[7] In a reflection of these observations, the West was in no hurry to recognize Moldova or admit it to international institutions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moldova declared independence—as did several other Soviet republics—after the collapse of the coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991. Although the Moldovan declaration of independence came on September 27, 1991, Western states did not recognize independent Moldova until the formal end of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. While it seems natural for the West not to recognize the independence of individual Soviet republics while the Soviet Union still formally existed, Western states did not follow this pattern with the Baltic Soviet republics, including Estonia. Western states recognized Estonia’s independence immediately after the collapse of the coup attempt in August, and the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn opened in September of that year, three months before the formal end of the Soviet Union. Estonia was also admitted as a member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now OSCE) in September, while Moldova was not admitted until the end of January 1992.

This difference in how external states viewed Moldova and Estonia provides the best explanation for how they responded to the escalating tensions in each state. In Moldova, escalating tension between the primarily Moldovan-speaking Bessarabian part of the country and Transnistria, where Russian and Ukrainian were the most common languages, escalated into armed conflict in March 1992. The intervention of the Russian 14th Army in support of Transnistrian separatists settled the conflict in their favor by July of that year. As Russia intervened, the West stood by. As the Washington Post observed at the time, “State Department officials conceded there is little the United States can do at this stage other than counsel patience and caution. Western European nations have not been extensively involved, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has set down rules for avoiding ethnic fighting, has yet to take a strong stand on the Moldovan situation.”[8] This is despite the fact that Moldova had called for CSCE intervention in the conflict from early on, hoping that international presence would prevent the conflict from escalating and thereby remove any pretext for Russian military intervention. As William Hill puts it, “the Moldovan authorities in Chisinau appealed for support and assistance to the United Nations, the OSCE, and a variety of European and North American states. The only response came from Russia.”[9]

Estonia’s experience was fundamentally different. Despite the fact that Estonia was strategically important to Russia, since it has extensive Baltic coastline and hosted Soviet naval bases, radar stations and air defense sites, Russia exercised considerable restraint there. The West, on the other hand, involved itself very early in an attempt to prevent escalation of tensions between the Estonian government and the country’s Russian minority, most of whom were concentrated in the northeast, along the border with Russia. The peak of the crisis in Estonia was the sovereignty referendum held in the east in July 1993. As the date of the referendum approached, foreign press converged on the regional capital of Narva, “positioning themselves to catch the early battles in what was perhaps to be the next Transdniester.”[10] When voters in the east voted overwhelmingly for sovereignty and the Estonian government declared the results invalid, expectation for violence rose further. But in the end, the crisis abated with no large scale violence, despite the fact that Russian troops were still stationed in Estonia and could easily have fomented such violence had they chosen to do so. A year after the referendum, despite serious misgivings about how the Estonian government was treating its ethnic Russian population, Russia withdrew its troops on schedule.

Whereas Russia restrained itself in Estonia, the West was active from early on, attempting to prevent escalation to large-scale violence. The CSCE deployed a conflict prevention mission to Estonia in February 1993. Although the Estonian government initially resisted the deployment of this mission out of concern with being put “on the level of Bosnia” and other troubled European states, it eventually accepted the mission, which proved to be helpful in preventing conflict because it gave the Russian population “a trusted agent to go to for arbitrage.”[11] International institutions also used their leverage to force Estonia to change how it dealt with its Russian minority, and these changes almost certainly served to prevent escalation of conflict by reassuring Moscow. The Council of Europe, for example, recommended changes to Estonia’s Law on Aliens—the most threatening of the new laws to the rights of the Russian minority—and Estonian President Lennart Meri insisted that parliament makes those changes before he signed the bill. Another important Estonian law, the one that allows non-citizens to vote in local elections, was also the result of strong pressure from international institutions. Indrek Tarand, the Estonian government’s representative in northeastern Estonia at the time, recalls that the Estonian government was against the idea because of a fear that it would cause Tallinn to lose control in the cities of the northeast and result in ethnic enclaves inside Estonia. In the end, Tarand says the government decided to accept the idea because it concluded that “otherwise we will be outcasts in the international arena and we can stop dreaming about the EU and things like that.”[12]

So the experiences of Moldova and Estonia are fundamentally different. Although both experienced mobilization around identity divisions and escalation of conflict, in Moldova that conflict was enabled and its outcome was eventually dictated by Russian military intervention. In Estonia, the escalation of conflict was dampened by early and active involvement of Western states and international institutions, and the exercise of considerable restraint by Russia ensured a peaceful resolution to the situation. In almost all other respects, Moldova and Estonia were similar cases points to the geopolitical affiliation of each as the variable predicting the outcome.

Findings and Conclusions

The vignettes above serve to illustrate the causal process at work in the four cases discussed here. The following table provides another way of illustrating this process and the observed outcomes in each case:

A review of the findings in the table reveals that the variables of institutionalized identity divisions, political transition, and non-Western geopolitical affiliation are individually necessary but jointly sufficient for the onset and escalation of violent separatism. The cases of Abkhazia and Transnistria follow this pattern. The Ajarian case shows that where institutionalized identity divisions are lacking, rapid political transition and non-Western geopolitical affiliation are not sufficient to cause the escalation of conflict. The Estonian case provides interesting insights, as it does not exactly follow the trajectory predicted by the model, in that the Soviet collapse did not cause the expected level of mobilization around identity divisions and escalation of conflict between the Estonian government and Estonia’s Russian minority.

The reason for this is that the Soviet Union allowed an Estonian nationalist movement to develop inside the Estonian Communist Party, something it strictly forbade in Georgia or Moldova. The development of a moderate nationalist wing within the Estonian Communist Party gave the Party legitimacy and allowed the moderately nationalist Estonian Popular Front to emerge from within the Party, thereby confining more radical nationalists to non-governmental organizations. So in Estonia, the legitimacy conferred upon the moderate nationalists within the Party allowed them to fare well in Estonia’s first post-Soviet elections. In Georgia and Moldova, by contrast, radical nationalists captured the governments, putting the minorities in those countries in conflict with their governments. In Estonia, the government was better positioned to mediate between minorities and radical nationalist groups. Another reason for the lower-than-expected mobilization and escalation in Estonia is its geopolitical affiliation, which had a chilling effect on mobilization of Russian minority, since it expected no intervention from Russia.

We can draw a number of conclusions from researching these four cases. First, states sometimes construct and institutionalize identities among the people they govern. While the construction and institutionalization of identities may serve the state’s interests in the short term, these identities can become bases for mobilization and escalation of conflict if the state loses its capacity to regulate interaction among identity groups. Next, although identities are constructed and not primordial or perennial, they do matter to the people who hold them, and this includes leaders who mobilize people along lines of identity. So, instead of viewing “ethnic entrepreneurs” as cynical opportunists motivated purely by the pursuit of power or wealth, we need to take a more nuanced view of their motivations. This view should consider the possibility that leaders of groups in conflict may in fact be deeply committed to the identity or ideology they espouse, and may therefore not be amenable to being “bought off” by the promise of wealth or power.

Turning to Soviet policies, the cases examined here undermine the claim—often put forward by the leaders of the non-Russian post-Soviet states—that Soviet ethno-federal policy amounted to a policy of “divide and rule.” The accusation here is that the Soviet leaders intentionally embedded “time bombs” inside the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, in the form of ethnically defined autonomous regions, so that if these republics tried to secede, they would in turn be confronted with their own secessionist movements. While there was certainly an element of divide and rule inherent in Soviet ethno-federal policies, they in fact represented a sincere, if misguided, attempt to conform to Marxist ideological prescriptions for ruling over a multi-ethnic state. The idea that ethnic and national identities were but a stage in the development of human consciousness and that the progression through this stage could be sped up by state intervention was more important than power political considerations in the design of the Soviet ethno-federal system. There are two examples that bear out this assertion. First, as the case of Ajaria shows, Soviet polices did not only divide people, but also served to reunite peoples that had been divided for centuries. Second, the assertion that Soviet leaders were motivated by Russian chauvinism and therefore inserted ethnically defined autonomous regions into the non-Russian republics is belied by the fact that 16 of the 20 autonomous republics in the USSR were inside the Russian republic, and only four were in other republics.

The next lesson we can draw is that we often overuse the label “ethnic conflict’ to describe internal wars, when in fact ethnicity is not at the heart of many of them. The Transnistria conflict is an example here. Although it has been labelled an “ethnic conflict” between Moldovans on one side and Russians and Ukrainians on the other, in fact members of all three ethnic groups fought on both sides, the conflict was not characterized by ethnic cleansing, and the ethnic groups involved remained relatively dispersed after the war, rather than concentrating themselves into defensible ethnic enclaves. The conflict in Transnistria was more about different interpretations of Moldova’s history and different visions of its future geopolitical affiliation than it was about ethnic groups fighting each other. While clearly not all internal wars are ethnic conflicts, those that have a significant ethnic component, like the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, are often far more violent and more intractable than conflict devoid of a significant ethnic component.

The final lesson we can draw from an examination of the cases in this paper is this: the geopolitical affiliation of a state is a better predictor of the intervention decisions of external actors than is the strategic significance of that state. The Moldovan and Estonian cases provide a good contrast here. Estonia’s Baltic coastline, hosting of Soviet air, naval, and radar installations and uranium-processing facilities made it significantly more strategically important to Russia than was Moldova. However, Russia intervened militarily in Moldova in response to the escalation of conflict there, while it played a comparatively benign role in Estonia. Russian reluctance about escalating the situation in Estonia included withdrawing its troops on schedule despite the fact that Moscow remained unhappy with Estonia’s citizenship laws, which it saw as disenfranchising Russian-speakers in the country.

This two-part series has argued that the post-Soviet wars deserve further study and have advanced a causal explanation for them based on the factors of institutions, identities, and international intervention. They have argued that the legacies of Soviet ethno-federal policies led to institutionalized identity divisions within some Soviet republics. Where institutionalized identity divisions existed, the sudden political transition of the Soviet collapse caused mobilization around these identity divisions and escalation of conflict between identity groups. This escalation of conflict drew the attention of external actors and invited international intervention. In turn, the geopolitical affiliation of the target state determined both who intervened (Russia or Western states) and the type of intervention (military or non-military). Further research of the phenomenon of post-Soviet conflict will be critical to understanding the ongoing war in Ukraine, in determining what the post-Soviet conflicts might tell us about internal conflict in other areas of the world, in allowing policymakers in Western states to make more effective decisions about intervention in foreign conflicts and in allowing them to better understand the intervention decisions of other states.


[1] This is significantly above the average of 91.3% for all Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics, of which Abkhazia was one of 23 in the USSR.

[2] Christoph Zuercher, The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict and Nationhood in the Caucasus (New York: NYU Press, 2001), p. 201.

[3] Mathijs Pelkmans, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 10.

[4] Zuercher, The Post-Soviet Wars, p. 201.

[5] Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Road to Independence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 93.

[6] William H. Hill, Russia, the Near Abroad and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transnistria Conflict, (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson center Press, 2012), p. 7.

[7] Andrew Williams, “Conflict Resolution after the Cold War: the Case of Moldova,” Review of International Studies 25 (1999), p. 76.

[8] Don Oberdorfer, “End Fighting in Moldova, U.S. Urges; Bush, Baker Unable to Halt Escalation,” The Washington Post, June 23, 1992, p. A18.

[9] Hill, Russia, the Near Abroad and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transnistria Conflict, p. xi.

[10] David Laitin, Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 182.

[11] Indrek Tarand, former Estonian government special representative to the northeast. Interview with the author, July 17, 2012.

[12] Indrek Tarand, former Estonian government special representative to the northeast. Interview with the author, July 17, 2012.

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