The South Caucasus is a region with three unresolved armed conflicts that began in the 1990s: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, previously semi-autonomous territories within Georgia, fought for independence from Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), previously a semi-autonomous territory within Azerbaijan, fought for independence from Azerbaijan.
Thus, while Georgia and Azerbaijan both consider these respective territories and their elites as separatist and therefore illegitimate, in the view of the de facto independent republics, they are practicing their right to self-determination and claims to secession are based in a history of alleged discrimination, marginalization, and human-rights violations.
The three countries of the South Caucasus have reached varying degrees of democratization after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Similarly, the three unrecognized, de facto independent republics have had diverging degrees of democratic development. While overall, de facto independent states present an important anomaly in the international system, they are often dismissed as polities in their own right. In Freedom House rankings of democracy, however, they sometimes perform better than their parent states, as was the case with Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) with regards to Armenia, at least until Armenia’s 2018 revolution. While the reasons for each de facto territory’s level of democratic development are complex and remain understudied, continued non-recognition brings with it a very real lack of economic development on the one hand as well as dependence on Russia as a counterweight to regional threats.
Abkhazia, with a population of 243,936 (as of 2016) is located to the northwest of Georgia, on the Black Sea coast, bordering Russia’s Krasnodar territory. A Russian peacekeeping contingent has been deployed in the de facto republic since 1994, just after the UN-brokered ceasefire agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia was signed. A UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was also deployed in 1993, but withdrew in 2009 after Russia vetoed the extension of its mission. As of 2011, 17.93% of Abkhazia’s population are ethnic Georgians, mostly concentrated in the southern Gali District. Georgians in Abkhazia are often subjected to targeted discrimination, with curtailed rights to property. While Abkhaz residents can cross the border into Georgia, often special permission is required. Rules are less stringent for ethnic Georgians who often have relatives on the other side. The Moscow-backed authorities of Abkhazia however arbitrarily close the border with Georgia from time to time, restricting travel for all. Ethnic Georgians are often denied entrance to Abkhazia, even for family matters such as attending funerals.
South Ossetia, with a population of 52,532 (as of 2015) is a landlocked territory situated to the north of Georgia. It shares a border with North Ossetia, a subject of the Russian Federation, the population of which is also majority Ossetian. Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in South Ossetia since 1992, after an agreement between then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Georgian President Eduard Sheverdnadze created a trilateral Joint Peacekeeping Force comprising an equal number of peacekeepers from Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia, and North Ossetia. Georgia withdrew from this arrangement in 2008. As of 2015, 7.4% of South Ossetia’s residents are ethnic Georgian. Since the outbreak of hostilities between Georgia and Russia in 2008, the border between South Ossetia and Georgia has been largely closed and militarized. Ossetians can enter Georgia through the official Russia-Georgia border checkpoint, and border crossings are also allowed for ethnic Georgians who live in Akhalgori/Leningor, a town near the Georgian border in South Ossetia’s east. Processes to cross the border are complicated. Farmers on one side often cannot enter their fields that remain on the other side and detention for coming too close to the South Ossetian/Russian border are common.
The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia both formally ended with the signing of the Sochi Agreement between Georgia and Russia and 1992. While the situation in Abkhazia has been relatively stable over the years, there have been instances of renewal of hostilities. In April and May of 1998, the Abkhaz conflict intensified again, when several hundred Abkhaz forces entered the Gali District, ending with a new ceasefire agreement signed in May. In September 2001, several hundred Chechen fighters together with several dozen Georgian fighters entered Abkhazia’s Kodori Valley. The Russian Air Force began air strikes on the fighters and a UNOMIG helicopter was shot down by unknown attackers, killing all nine people on board. The fighters were eventually defeated by Russian and Abkhaz forces. The situation in South Ossetia had been more stable than in Abkhazia, until the Russo-Georgian war in 2008. Tensions between Georgia and Russia began to escalate after Georgia's pro-Western shift in 2003, resulting in a diplomatic crisis by April 2008. In August 2008, South Ossetian forces began shelling Georgian villages, with Georgian peacekeepers sporadically returning fire. Artillery attacks by South Ossetian forces ensued and the Georgian Army was sent in and took control of most of South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali. Russian forces then launched a large-scale land, air, and sea invasion of Georgia and recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, causing the Georgian government to sever diplomatic ties with Russia. While Russia withdrew its troops from undisputed areas of Georgia in October 2008, Russia forces occupied, and continue to occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
There are no active conflict mediation efforts currently underway with regards to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Nagorno-Karabakh, with a population of 145,053 (as of 2016) is a landlocked territory, sitting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh does not share a border with Iran, territories around it, occupied by Armenian forces, do extend to the Iranian border. No states recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, although Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria all enjoy mutual recognition of one another. There are no peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States, leads efforts to find a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While there are possible ethnic Azerbaijanis who have remained in Nagorno-Karabakh due to intermarriage with Armenians, their numbers, if not negligible, are extremely small. Nagorno-Karabakh can only be entered through Armenia through two entrance points: the southern Lachin corridor and through the Martakert-Vardenis road through northwestern Karabakh. Non-Armenian citizens may enter with a visa.
Abkhazia is a disputed territory that is internationally recognized as part of Georgia. In 1992, Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia and has enjoyed de facto independence since the end of its civil conflict with Georgia in 1993, which killed at least 10,000 people. Abkhazia’s government is financially dependent on Russia, which also maintains a military base in Abkhazia with around 4,500 personnel. Abkhazia’s civil society is active and there is strong opposition political activity. However, there are persistent problems such as a flawed criminal justice system, discrimination against ethnic Georgians, and high unemployment.
Fighting resumes in Abkhazia’s Gali region near the Abkhaz-Georgian border, leading to the deaths of Russian peacekeepers and civilians and frustrating international conflict mediation efforts. In March, tensions grow from the Abkhaz authorities’ rejection of voter participation by ethnic Georgians in local elections. Clashes between ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians erupt as the elections are deemed ‘illegitimate’ by Russia, Georgia, and the Security Council of the United Nations. Both sides agree to a withdrawal of forces from the Gali region in December, but fall short of a political solution.
Vladislav Ardzinba is the only presidential candidate running for office in the October elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) does not recognize the election to be legitimate. Georgia denounces a referendum held concurrent to the presidential elections on independence.
Several hundred Georgian and Chechen fighters seize a village on October 3, which results in at least five deaths. Five days later, five UN staff are killed when their helicopter is shot down during a routine monitoring flight over the Kodori Gorge. The Abkhaz authorities blame Chechen and Georgian fighters for the attack and for a raid on another Abkhaz village the next day which resulted in 14 casualties.
Candidates loyal to President Ardzinba sweep the March parliamentary elections, during which the two opposition parties withdraw their candidates in protest against the conduct of the campaign. Officially backed candidates win all 35 seats in parliament. Georgians were not able to vote, and official media outlets promoted pro-government candidates.
A new political player, United Abkhazia, emerges in advance of the presidential elections, with the aim of putting forward an opposition candidate. The human rights situation in Abkhazia continues to be a problem with the rule of law remaining weak and not able to protect the right to life or physical security.
Former Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh wins the presidency. The Gali district’s security situation deteriorates over the course of the year with robbery and extortion becoming commonplace. Gali residents are denied access to education in Georgian.
Pro-presidential parties take a majority of seats in the March parliamentary elections. Russia’s influence continues to grow in the territory.
Russia departs from a treaty imposing sanctions on Abkhazia and increases the number of Russian peacekeepers. While Georgian troops engaged in repelling a Russian invasion in August, Abkhaz troops capture the Kodori Gorge which was under Georgian control. Russia unilaterally recognizes Abkhazia’s independence, prompting wide international condemnation.
President Bagapsh signs an agreement allowing more Russian military bases in the territory in February. The Abkhaz opposition and independent media criticize the government for ceding too much control to Russia.
President Bagapsh dies unexpectedly and snap presidential elections are held in August. Vice President Aleksandr Ankvab wins the vote in an election that was broadly accepted as free and fair.
President Ankvab survives an assassination attempt in March and parliamentary elections are held that same month. This latest round of polling marks a move towards independent candidates. Only three ruling party candidates win seats in the parliament.
Abkhaz authorities stop issuing Abkhaz passports to Gali residents as a response to opposition criticism that forebode Abkhazia’s ‘Georgianization’. The ruling party United Abkhazia moves to become an opposition party, noting dissatisfaction with President Ankvab’s policies.
President Ankvab resigns from the presidency following protests from a joint opposition group. In August, snap presidential elections are held, bringing Raul Khajimba to power with more than 50 percent of the vote. Still, thousands of Gali Georgians are prohibited from voting. Abkhazia signs a treaty envisioning closer Abkhaz-Russian relations which is criticized by the opposition for expanding Russian influence in the territory.
The new Bloc of Opposition Forces of Abkhazia is established, demanding Khajimba’s resignation. Russia holds financial aid to Abkhazia, stating the money was contingent on the adoption of a controversial 2014 treaty which envisaged the creation of a coordination center between the interior ministries of Russia and Abkhazia, prompting more fears among the opponents that the move would expand Russian power in Abkhazia.
Khajimba signs a draft law that criminalizes all abortions in the territory in a move to increase the birth rate. Khajimba agrees to appoint opposition members to several government posts in response to demands for his resignation.
While the March parliamentary elections brought many independent deputies to office, ethnic Georgians are still barred from voting.
Artsakh is a disputed territory that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. It achieved de facto independence after an extended war for independence, eventually reaching a ceasefire with Azerbaijan in 1994. Its population is mostly ethnic Armenian and it maintains close ties with Armenia. While the territory is not currently at open war with Azerbaijan, regular ceasefire violations along the Line of Contact and the continuing threat of war has had a detrimental effect on domestic democracy, and has given the authorities a pretense to solidify their own power.
International efforts to find a permanent settlement to the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) conflict showed some signs of improvement in 2001, but had stagnated by mid-2002. Talks in Key West, Florida failed to bring a comprehensive resolution by the end of the year. Despite warnings from the Council of Europe that municipal elections scheduled for September might undermine peace efforts, Artsakh held the vote, in which the ruling Democratic Union Artsakh (ZhAM) received most of the local government posts.
While no major cases of fraud were reported during these elections, ZhAM candidate Hamik Avanesian reportedly received significant support from the Artsakh authorities, including in the state-run media. The Council of Europe stated that the elections were not legitimate and Azerbaijan called the vote illegal.
Both presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharyan and Heydar Aliev, sought reelection in 2003. The political risk associated with either leader’s making significant public concessions to the other side left little room for any breakthroughs in the conflict’s resolution. An increase in shooting incidents along the Line of Contact in the summer fuel worries over a more widespread escalation of violence.
Parliamentary elections were held in June 2005 amid criticism from the opposition that the authorities used state resources to shape the vote. According to the Central Election Commission in Stepanakert, President Arkady Ghukasyan’s ZhAM received 12 seats while the Free Motherland Party receives 10 seats. Another eight seats went to unaffiliated candidates who were believed to be allied with Ghukasyan. Only three seats go to opposition candidates.
In December, the republic holds a referendum on a draft Constitution which is criticized by the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which did not recognize the vote and called it “counterproductive to the ongoing conflict settlement process.” Official reports state that 98 percent of voters supported the referendum, which aimed to declare the territory an independent and sovereign state.
Artsakh holds a presidential election in July which replaces incumbent Arkady Ghukasyan with former security chief Bako Sahakyan. The election, not recognized internationally, was criticized domestically as not completely free and fair, and local NGOs expressed concern about pressure from the authorities and repression of media after the vote. Sahakyan reportedly takes more than 85 percent of the vote while his main opponent Masis Mailyan takes 12 percent. All four political parties represented in the republic’s parliament, as well as outgoing president Ghukasyan, supported Sahakyan’s bid. The republic’s small NGO sector supported Mailyan’s candidacy. Mailyan contended that Sahakyan’s victory was due in part to his use of state resources during the vote.
The independent newspaper Demo and Karabakh-Open.com, Artsakh’s only independent news website are both shut down by their publishers.
A law banning religious activity by unregistered groups and which makes it more difficult for minority religious groups to register is passed. While three groups were registered, a Protestant group and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are reportedly denied registration.
In May, Artsakh holds parliamentary elections in which there are no opposition candidates.
Artsakh officially remains under martial law which contributes to media censorship and the banning of public demonstrations in the republic. The government controls many of the media outlets, and most journalists engage in self-censorship, especially on topics related to the conflict’s resolution process. The public television station, which has no local competition, broadcasts only three hours a day and internet access is limited. Freedom of assembly is limited, but trade unions are allowed to organize. The several local NGOs that operate in the republic are almost all progovernment. The territory’s judiciary is not independent in practice and the courts are influenced by the executive branch as well as other powerful political, economic, and criminal groups.
Bako Sahakyan is reelected with 67 percent of the vote. In contrast to the 2010 parliamentary elections, this presidential vote featured real political competition, with opposition candidate Vitaly Balasanyan getting 32.5 percent of the vote.
In May, parliamentary elections are held, with marked improvements noted by observers from the 2010 vote. More specifically, the conduct of the vote was noted as fairer and the participation of a broader array of parties was observed. Two opposition groups, Movement 88 and National Revival win seats in parliament.
In April, the conflict escalates with the most intense fighting since 1994, killing approximately 350 people on both sides. While the current situation has reverted back to the logic of the 1994 ceasefire, the possibility of resumed large-scale fighting temporarily increases.
In June, a group of men in military uniforms attacks and kidnaps a National Revival Party legislator. After his release, he claims that the attack was politically motivated and intended to intimidate. In November, a constitutional commission publishes a new draft Constitution that would shift the territory’s government from a semi-presidential to a presidential system.
In February, an overwhelming majority of voters approve constitutional changes to shift Artsakh’s political system to a fully presidential system. Some voting irregularities are observed. Despite previous assurances that President Bako SahakYan’s tenure would not be lengthened, parliament votes in July to keep him as president for a transitional three-year period, after which the president’s and parliament’s terms would be aligned under the new Constitution.
Inspired by protests in Armenia that ousted Serzh Sargsyan, dozens of people in Artsakh demonstrate after National Security Service officers assault a group of civilians. The conflict was resolved in part through the mediation of Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan. As a result of the rallies, State Minister Arayik Harutyunyan and other senior security officials step down and Bako Sahakyan pledges not to seek reelection in 2020.
South Ossetia is a disputed territory internationally recognized as part of Georgia but which declared independence in 1990. The resulting fighting resulted in 1000 casualties and a significant population exchange with 40,000-100,000 Ossetians fleeing to North Ossetia in Russia.
After weeks of sporadic fighting along the de facto border between South Ossetia and Georgia, Georgian forces launched an assault on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, prompting Russia to invade Georgia. Hundreds of people are killed on both sides and thousands of ethnic Georgians are expelled from their homes in South Ossetia. Russia recognizes South Ossetia’s independence in August, inviting widespread international criticism. Russia begins to gradually take control of the territory’s political and economic system, effectively thwarting any chance that the territory would be reintegrated into Georgia for the foreseeable future.
Parliament rejects efforts by Kokoity loyalists to suspend term limits which would have allowed him to participate in the presidential elections in November.
Ahead of the November presidential election, Kokoity supporters jail and threaten opposition figures and change legislation to prohibit the registration of some candidates. Leading opposition candidate Alla Dzhioyeva appears to win the November runoff against Russia-backed Anatoly Bibilov, but the Supreme Court invalidates the vote over electoral violations and calls for a repeat election for March 2012, spurring protests. The political crisis takes place amid an atmosphere of intimidation and with both Russian and South Ossetian authorities suggesting the territory’s annexation by Russia. Dzhioyeva and the opposition are soundly against joining Russia while Bibilov and some officials push to commence the unification process.
Security forces block Alla Dzhioyeva from fulfilling her inauguration in February by raiding her headquarters. A repeat election, in which Dzhioyeva is barred from running, is held in March, resulting in former security chief Leonid Tibilov winning the presidency. Tibilov includes Dzhioyeva in his cabinet, appointing her deputy prime minister. Russian influence in the territory continues to grow and threaten the territory’s stability.
Russian border guards begin to install wire fencing between Georgia and South Ossetia, moving the de facto boundary approximately 300 meters into Georgian territory and impeding movement between settlements on both sides. The resulting international criticism of this move leads Russian guards to suspend the fence installation.
The political chaos from the 1-2 years prior begins to fade, bringing more political stability, even as Tibilov deepens ties with Moscow. At this point, Russia wields almost total control over the territory and finances the South Ossetian government’s budget.
In June, South Ossetia holds parliamentary elections, characterized as peaceful and without significant violations. Several new opposition parties take part in the election. The United Ossetia Party, headed by Anatoliy Bibilov, takes 20 of 34 seats.
President Tibilov signs a bilateral treaty agreeing to synchronize South Ossetia’s security and border guarding mechanisms with Russia’s.
Presidential elections held in April bring Anatoly Bibilov to power. A concurrent referendum on renaming the territory ‘Republic of South Ossetia–State of Alania’ passes by a large majority. The change is considered a precursor to allowing unification with North Ossetia–Alania, a subject of Russia. Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned as an ‘extremist’ group.