I have talked about the end of the Soviet Union as being relatively peaceful, but relatively peaceful is not entirely peaceful. Several conflicts broke out in the aftermath of Soviet collapse. While these conflicts have different origins and timings, they are generally grouped under the name “frozen conflicts” because after they flared up, cease fires were declared and these conflicts remained in this status – unresolved, but without regular active fighting.
The first and most notable of these conflicts is the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within the republic of Azerbaijan. Its population was around 75% ethnic Armenian, 25% Azerbaijani. Conflict began before the end of communism – in 1988, when Nagorno-Karabakh’s soviet (council) petitioned to be administratively unified with the soviet republic of Armenia. Huge numbers of Armenians in Armenia’s capital Yerevan demonstrated in support of unification, which culminated in a protest of around 300,000 people on February 23, 1988. These were some of the biggest mass protests ever in the Soviet Union.
After pogroms against and deportations of Armenians in Azerbaijan took place over the next year, the central Soviet government forcibly intervened in January 1990, sending the military to take control over Azerbaijan’s capital. The war began later in 1990 as Armenians formed militias and began to take territory, forcing out ethnic Azerbaijanis from Karabakh. By the time a cease fire was declared in May 1994, Armenians occupied seven former Azerbaijani districts in addition to most of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia could not get international recognition for expanding its borders, so the new territory declared independence as the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh. Statistics are contested, but around 350,000 Armenians were displaced from Azerbaijan in 1988-90 and 750,000 Azerbaijanis displaced from Armenian controlled territories in the later war. Around 25,000 people died in the conflict.
We’ll talk about the aftermath when we discuss regional security at the end of the semester, but in short, Azerbaijan was able to leverage its much stronger economic resources (oil) into years of purchases of advanced weaponry and a decisive victory in a new offensive in September 2020. As part of a Russian-negotiated ceasefire, Armenia agreed to return control of the seven districts to Azerbaijan and accepted Russian peacekeepers within Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
The next conflict on the timeline was Transnistria, a breakaway territory from Moldova. The region gets its name because it is on the other side of the Dniester river from the rest of Moldova. The region is primarily Russian speaking, while the rest of the country primarily speaks Moldovan (which is related to Romanian). The geographic origins of this conflict arise in the inter-war period, when most of Moldova was part of Romania, and the border between Romania and what is now Ukraine was the Dniester river. Conflict began in 1989 when the Moldavian SSR adopted Moldovan as its official language. After targeted violence against ethnic Russians in 1990, a war took place between November 1990 and July 1992 that killed around 700 people. The breakway region continues to seek unification with Russia.
Moving to Georgia, the first conflict there was in South Ossetia. Ossetia is divided into North and South, with North Ossetia being in Russia. While they are co-ethnics, however, the only link between the two regions is the strategically important Roki tunnel, one of only three of roads that cross the central north Caucasus.
I want to note that I have heard this region pronounced both oh-SEE-sha and oh-set-tee-ah. In Cyrrilic, it is written with a t (Oсетия), so I use that.
Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s second president and the former Soviet Foreign Minister described the 1992-93 war with South Ossetia as the “most senseless and pointless war in the history of Georgia.” It started when local South Ossetian leaders expressed interest in closer ties with North Ossetia and Georgian militias responded with military attacks. A ceasefire was declared in June 1992 and the conflict has mostly been quiet since then.
As with the Ossetians, the Abkhaz are one of the many small ethno-linguistic groups in the Caucasus. Abkhazia may be best known as the location of lovely Black Sea coastal cities and the Kodori Gorge, which is one of the best tourist attractions in Georgia. Their contemporary national roots lie in a rebellion against the Russian empire in the 1860s and a Soviet policy of forced Georgianization under Stalin (who was ethnically Georgian). Abkhazia was an autonomous republic within Soviet Georgia with a diverse local population. In the early 1990s, Abkhaz and Georgian citizens were both being mobilized along national lines, but war did not break out until August 1992, after the ceasefire in South Ossetia. The head of the Georgian national guard took his forces to the capital of Abkhazia (with unclear authorization), prompting an Abkhaz response. The resulting war was short but brutal, with more reports of atrocities (such as torture and rape) against the local population than in Ossetia or Karabakh. In the end, almost the entire pre-war ethnic Georgian population (half the region’s original population) fled to Georgia proper. The republic was formally recognized by Russia (but no other countries) in 2008 after their cooperation during that year’s war with Georgia.
Dogs that did not bark
I want to conclude by touching on conflicts that did not happen in the early 1990s. One of the biggest concerns was about the status of Russian speaking minorities, particularly in the Baltics and Kazakhstan, where the Russian population was both large in size and geographically concentrated. This did not lead to irridentist movements however, due in part to guarantees of political rights by the republican governments. Instead, both regions have seen significant Russian out-migration. While Russian speakers made up 40% of Kazakhstan’s population in 1989, they are around 20% today. Similarly, while Russians were 35% of Latvia’s population (the largest group in the Baltics), they are only 25% of the population today.
Similarly, expected ethnic conflict in the Ferghana Valley never really emerged. The Ferghana Valley is the part of Central Asia where the borders get all tangled up with each other. The valley itself is primarily in Uzbekistan, but is shared with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The main transit routes run east-west across all three countries (not over the mountains). It is ethnically diverse, with Uzbeks primarily living in the valley and Kyrgyz and Tajiks in the surrounding mountains. And while the region has seen violence, notably ethnic riots in Osh in 1990, the violent suppression of protests in Andijan in 2005, and ethnic violence in Osh and Jalalabad in 2010, none escalated to war.
Instead, the civil war that did occur in Central Asia was in Tajikistan between 1992 and 1997. This was not an ethnic war, but a war between political factions and regional clans. It began as a conflict between the former communist elite and their opposition in the 1992 elections. More than the frozen conflicts in the European Soviet space, this war resembled the Afghan civil war in its regionalism and affliation with political parties. Tajikistan is divided between the north (in the Ferghana Valley) and mountainous south, with the south further divided by local affliations. The war was primarily between the former communist Popular Front and parties and clans in north, which received Russian support, and the United Tajik Opposition, which was based on Gorno-Badakhshan. The UTO grew more Islamicized over time, receiving support from the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan as well as some Iranian support. While this was the most serious of the post-Soviet conflicts, it does not get lumped in with the “frozen conflicts” both because it didn’t fit with the story of ethnic nationalism and because it isn’t frozen: A peace agreement was reached in 1997. The agreement was meant to provide a power-sharing arrangement between factions, but despite weak implementation (and likely because of state repression), war has not returned.