Post-Soviet 'frozen conflicts' heat up as big-power interests collide
Tensions are growing as NATO and a resurgent Russia divide over future of breakaway statelets.
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Amid the hopeful 1990s, few people noticed the savage wars of secession that rocked the Caucasus region, leading to the emergence of fiercely pro-Moscow statelets like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Along with Transdniestria, a rebel Slavic republic in Moldova, these little pieces of post-Soviet unfinished business were tagged "frozen conflicts" because it seemed unlikely that any big country, even Russia, would ever recognize their de facto independence.
But dramatic geopolitical changes are threatening a return to hot war, this time with an oil-rich, stronger Russia standing unambiguously behind the separatist territories.
After many Western countries recognized the former Serbian territory of Kosovo earlier this year, despite Moscow's angry opposition, Russia eased its 14-year-old economic embargo on Abkhazia and the State Duma passed a resolution demanding full recognition. The prospect of NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine – a question that was postponed at NATO's Bucharest summit in April – has prompted Moscow to crank up its rhetoric against Georgia and send construction troops, not covered by the 1994 agreement, into Abkhazia. Those troops were tasked with reopening a dormant railroad link that runs from Rostov, Russia, through Sochi to Sukhumi, and would be crucial for supplying troops in the event of a conflict.
Though war does not appear to be on the immediate horizon, many here fear that it's coming. "Tensions are growing very fast, and we find ourselves on the line of confrontation between Russia and the West," says Oleg Damenia, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, an official think tank in Sukhumi. "Georgia's military budget is now 10 times larger than Abkhazia's. In this situation, we have no choice but to turn to Russia for support."
The Kremlin says the existence of separatist statelets in Georgia should make Europe wary of admitting such a fissiparous country to NATO. At the Bucharest summit, then-President Putin reportedly told President Bush that Ukraine is a similarly unstable place, whose pro-Russian east could tear away.