Introduction to Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space

As the Soviet Union crumbled, it left behind ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse successor states. As these states tried to form domestic policies and governing institutions, the interests of their various populations were (and still are) often in conflict. Civil war erupted in Tajikistan and Georgia. Riots swept Kyrgyzstan. Armed conflicts broke out in Moldova and Russia. Ukraine long maintained a balancing act between its conservative and liberal forces and its Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar populations. Today, however, the political tensions that can be felt in Ukraine can be understood, in part, as rooted in that country’s Soviet past.

The following reader is meant to introduce students to the still very real legacy of the USSR and how it continues to affect millions of lives across Eurasia.

Students of SRAS’s Policy and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space program should familiarize themselves with this information before beginning their programs. Students are strongly encouraged to read deeply on at least two regions.


1. Ukraine

Ukrainian Politics and Politicians
By Michael Smeltzer 
An introduction to the political issues currently facing Ukraine and the politicians who promise to tackle those issues. Ukraine’s political field includes nationalists, communists, socialists, and conservatives. Major issues include Ukraine’s East/West divide, the tensions between those who favor integration with the EU and those who favor relations with Russia, as well as ethnic, religious, corruption, and economic issues.

A political map of Ukraine showing the results of the 2010 presidential elections. Support for the pro-Russian Yanukovych is shown in shades of blue while the pro-European Tymoshenko is shown in shades of red.

Ukraine – Between Russia and Europe
By Josh Wilson
Flat and highly fertile, Ukraine was historically a divided and occupied territory. Even after its independence, it remains a heterogeneous mix of often conflicting peoples, languages, politics, and foreign policy interests. Yet, despite these pressures, Ukraine has largely avoided the history of civil war and armed conflict that has befallen other former Soviet states. To the student of domestic or foreign policy, history, or culture, Ukraine provides a fascinating case study.

Crimea – Prosperity in Unity, or Separatism?
By Alex Wilson
Crimea is an enigmatic and conflicted mixture of ethnicities and identities. Located in a strategic position between numerous civilizations, it has long been coveted and contested. Populated by a unique mix of nationalities and with a geography separated from that of the Ukrainian mainland, it also hosts some aspirations of independence.

Recent Events: 
– Integration with EU runs Against 360-yr-old Pact: Crimean Lawmakers
– Ukraine Passes Anti-Protest Laws, Sparking Fresh Protests
– Ukraine’s Political Crisis 
 Ukraine’s Besieged Ruling Party Boosted in By-election
– The Problem with Ukrainian Nationalism


2. Moldova

Moldovan Politics and Politicians
By Michael ZellerPost-Soviet-Conflict-Banner
An introduction to the political issues currently facing Moldova and the politicians who promise to tackle those issues. Moldovan politics are some of Europe’s most complicated. The country is evenly divided between the powerful Communists and the loose and fractured coalitions of nationalists, liberals, and others who often unite to oppose the Communists, but who not been able to unite to rule the country. Major divisions in society have thus given the country a slow and inefficient government, an erratic economy, and resultant social and infrastructural problems. Contemporary Moldovan politics have been most shaped by two issues: 1) the 2009-2012 Constitutional Crisis and 2) the War of Transdnestria from 1990.

Moldova: Divided on the Edge of Europe
By D. Garrison Golubock
Moldova has been Western-leaning in its foreign policy for nearly a decade, but is also still heavily influenced by Russia, which in part finances and protects the small, breakaway state of Transdnestria on the country’s Eastern edge. Moldova lacks natural resources and major cities and has struggled economically since gaining its independence with the USSR. The country is also torn by nationalism among its different peoples and cultures, with tensions particularly strong between those with Romanian heritage and those with Russian heritage.

Transdnestria: A European Nowhere
By D. Garrison Golubock
Transdnestria lies mostly within in a single narrow valley on the east bank of the Dniester River. Internationally considered part of Moldova, Transdnestria is a de facto state, having declared its independence in 1990 and successfully defended it in a brief war with Moldova in 1992. Despite numerous and ongoing negotiations between Moldova, Transdnestria, and third parties such as Russia, Ukraine, and the US, little progress has been made on a settlement between the two parties, and at present Transdnestria remains isolated and unrecognized. Cut off from most international trade, Transdnestria has come to rely on aid from Russia and from black market dealings, creating a major security concern for Europe.

Recent Events: 
Georgia, Moldova Endorse EU Agreements
– Moldova Investigates Gagauzia Parliament Referendum

– Moldova is ready to offer broad autonomy to Transnistria 
– Why the EU Needs to Help Georgia and Moldova Now
– Moldova’s European Aspirations


3. Georgia

Georgian Politics and Politicians
By Michael Zeller
It is typically an error to cast any country’s politics in terms of its foreign affairs. However, in the case of Georgia, the foreign policy disposition of a politician frames their conception on several matters. Georgia’s economy and trade, position as an oil and gas transit country, conflicts with the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, state security priorities, and numerous other political affairs are deeply interrelated with the country’s foreign affairs. In all likelihood, whether Georgia leans east or leans west will continue to frame the country’s politics and society for many years to come.

Georgia: New State, Deep Roots
By D. Garrison Golubock
The Republic of Georgia is a state with a heritage of governance and culture going back thousands of years. Divided by the ridges of the Caucasus and squeezed between the Black and Caspian seas, Georgia has immense linguistic and cultural diversity, resulting both in vibrant cultural exchange and widespread conflict.

Abkhasia: Grandeur to Ruin… and Back Again?
By D. Garrison Golubock
Abkhasia, with some natural resources, considerable arable land, and significant potential for tourism development, is probably the most viable of all the breakaway states within the former Soviet Union. Although recovering from nearly two decades of strife, Abkhasia is seeing its fortunes turn, profiting in part from Russia’s official recognition of its statehood and from the considerable investment pouring into nearby Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

South Ossetia: Old Territory, New Problems
By D. Garrison Golubock
Despite a tiny population and its geographically tenuous position crushed into a land-locked, mountainous land between the two larger states of Russia and Georgia, South Ossetia is desperately poor. What little economic activity that existed before has been largely extinguished by two recent wars and decades of isolation. At present, all gas, electricity, and large quantities of foodstuffs are imported from Russia which shares South Ossetia’s only open border.

Recent Events:
– Geopolitical Implications of Georgia’s Conflicts
– Georgia’s Election: End of Saakashvili’s Reign
– Can McDonald’s Play a Role in Conflict Resolution?
– Russia Expands Olympic Border Zone into Abkhasia
– Trans-Caucasian Rail Through Abkhazia Proposed
– The Issue of the Merger of South and North Ossetias
– Putin Ratifies Free Trade Deals with Abkhazia, S.Ossetia
– South Ossetia Cabinet Sacked Over Economic Failure
– Georgia Promises “Reconciliation,” Not “Reintegration”


4. Russia

Russian Politics, Politicians, and US-Russia Relations
By Josh Wilson
This resource from SRAS’s The Library project presents wide-ranging information about Russia’s political parties, major politicians, political NGOs, youth movements, government structure, and even political humor.

A detail of a map showing the ecoregion of the Northern (Greater) and Southern (Lesser) Caucasus. The Northern Caucasus form a nearly impassable wall between Russia and the geopolitical powers to the South. For the full, original map, click here.

Chechnya: A Difficult Cornerstone in Russian Security
By Christine Jacobson
Despite the difficulties in retaining the region, Russia continues to see the Northern Caucasus as integral to Russian security. The rugged highlands provide one of Russia’s few naturally defensible mountainous borders and separate Russia from its historical Middle Eastern rivals. Russia also sees Chechnya as a key to retaining Dagestan and Ingushetia, which are strategic to much of the Transcaucasusian transport infrastructure. It is also feared that an independent Caucasus would be even more unstable and militant than one under Russian control. Thus, Russia has fought hard to retain Chechnya despite the massive cost and difficulty in doing so.

Sochi: Russia’s Summer Capital
By David Parker
Nestled between the Black Sea and the steep Caucasus mountain slopes, the city of Sochi and its surrounding area occupies a critical part of the Caucasus land bridge linking Europe with the Near East. The land bridge represents one of the few natural passes around the exceptionally rugged Caucasus – themselves contested for centuries between many civilizations as a natural barrier between warring empires. Thus, control of the land bridge represents substantial opportunities for trade, but also a crucial military bottleneck.

Tatarstan: Semiautonomous and Thriving
By Christine Jacobson
Tatarstan is a semiautonomous republic within Russia. It has one of Russia’s strongest, fastest growing, and diverse regional economies. Furthermore, the majority-Muslim republic is often referred to as a model of an effective multiethnic state, with Muslims and Christians living side-by-side in peace. It is also often regarded as a model for effective economic development and anticorruption measures. The republic, however, also faces several problems in managing its diverse population.

Recent Events:
– Why the Terrorists Chose Volgograd 

– Islamic Group claims Volgograd Attacks and Threatens Sochi Visitors

– Russia Places Region Near Sochi on Alert as Six Found Dead
– Chechnya Says Islamic Warlord is Dead. Does it Matter for Sochi?
– Russia’s Population Growing – Thanks to Muslim Families, Immigrants


5. Countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Osh: Diversity and Division
By Alex Wilson
The diversity of Osh has clashed in violence in a few recent occasions – primarily between the ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who populate the city in nearly even numbers. The government has tried to stabilize the situation and efforts have been made to alleviate the ethnic tensions, with some success. However, Osh, in many ways far removed from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, has come to represent the diverse and divided history of Kyrgyzstan and the wider tension between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Nagorno-Karabakh: The Volatile Core of the South Caucasus
By David Parker
Legally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, it declared independence in 1991 and then defended that independence in a war with Azerbaijan that lasted until 1994. It has since been supported militarily and economically by neighboring Armenia. Tensions have been heating recently and an Azerbaijani invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh could potentially draw both Russia and Turkey into war. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue has negatively impacted the relatively prosperous South Caucasus’ economic, democratic, and cultural development.

Recent Events:
– Osh Mayoral Elections Spark Tensions
– Osh Mayoral Race Contest: A Two-Horse Race
Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan: What’s Next After Border Shootout?
– Kyrgyzstan’s Dilemma over Russian-led Customs Union
 Azerbaijan Alleges Karabakh Cease-Fire Violations
– “Karabakh Conflict is a Major Threat”
– Iran Calls for Peaceful Settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict


6. Frozen Conflict – 20 Years Later

The following video is part of a series of panel discussions held at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. The particular video below covers international law and focuses on US-Europe interests as thus is especially recommended. All three videos can be found on YouTube.


About the Author

Josh Wilson

Josh has been with SRAS since 2003. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. He lived in Moscow from 2003-2022, where he ran Moscow operations for SRAS. At SRAS, Josh still assists in program development and leads our internship programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: All Programs

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