Almost one million people from the former Soviet Union live in unrecognized breakaway republics, a phenomenon that has gained even greater prominence with the Ukraine conflict which has led an additional three million people to live under secessionist rule. But are secessionist entities inherently authoritarian and undemocratic? The experience of post-Soviet quasi-states may suggest otherwise.
The last five years have seen the development of a curious phenomenon. Peaceful and democratic processes of power change have appeared even in the most unlikely cases, the unrecognized quasi-states of the post-Soviet space, deemed by Freedom House as only “partly free” (Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh) or “not free” (Transnistria, South Ossetia). As Nicu Popescu wrote in 2006, “in such claustrophobic and closed environments, with small territories, little money, no jobs, constant fear of war, lack of possibilities to travel, high emigration, it is more difficult than ever to build democratic regimes.” Yet, pluralism had started taking root in the mid-2000s, with the 2005 elections in Transnistria and the 2007 and 2012 elections in Abkhazia. And it reached a new quantitative level in the 2010s, spreading across the region.
Electoral democracy in these territories remains contingent on domestic and international conditions rather than a consolidated right, in the lack of a proper constitutional order and the rule of law. Yet, these episodes show that international isolation does not imply the impossibility of building a democracy, and that a stronger domestic legitimacy for the elites of breakaway regions may empower them and strengthen their presence and agency in future negotiations over the final status of a given territory.
In 2011, in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, incumbent President Igor Smirnov did not make it to the second round and even the Russia-backed candidate Anatoliy Kaminski was defeated by the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Yevgeny Shevchuk. Smirnov had lost the backing of Russia after his 20-year rule, and the split between Kaminski and Shevchuk within the dominant party, Renewal, allowed the latter to rise to power. Although only Russian observers were present, the election was deemed orderly, and for the first time Transnistrians were offered a wider choice – which they appeared eager to exploit. Shevchuk’s victory, nevertheless, did not herald a new approach to the frozen conflict with Moldova, which has witnessed acute confrontation since 2004, although relations did soften somehow.
Also in 2011, the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, object of two short wars in 1991-92 and in 2008, witnessed a political crisis when incumbent President Eduard Kokoity declared his will to respect the constitutional ban on a third mandate. In the subsequent election, the Kremlin-backed candidate Anatoliy Bibilov was defeated in the second round by the independent Alla Dzhioyeva. The election was however controversially declared invalid, and its repetition in 2012 with four new candidates saw the victory of Leonid Tibilov, who later nominated Dzhioyeva as Vice Prime Minister – while the candidate who was considered closest to the Kremlin, Medoyev, did not even reach the second round. Tibilov later denied any plan of a union with Russia, although the 2014 Integration Treaty may have enshrined South Ossetia’s limited sovereignty.
Then again in 2012, elections confirmed Bako Sahakyan as head of state in Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenian-inhabited territory of Azerbaijan under unstable peace since its declaration of independence in 1992. Although non-recognized by the international community due to the controversy with Azerbaijan over the status of the region, the electoral process was deemed free. This was confirmed in 2015, when parliamentary elections (monitored by more than 120 international observers) were deemed transparent, regular and in line with the main international electoral standards.
The final case is Abkhazia, another swath of territory on the Black Sea coast between Russia and Georgia, de facto independent since 1992, where snap presidential elections were held in 2014. The vote managed to put an end to the political crisis triggered by the protests (leading to the resignation of President Ankvab) over the issue of the “passportization” of ethnic Georgians. The opposition leader Raul Khadzhimba emerged as the new head of state of the unrecognized breakaway republic. Ten years earlier, as candidate of the Kremlin, Khadzhimba had come in a close second to Sergei Bagapsh, with whom he had then agreed to share power after a post-electoral crisis.
In all four cases, the elections have not been recognized internationally, as a result of the controversy over these t quasi-states’ international status. Their independence remains recognized only by Russia and a few other UN states (for Abkhazia and South Ossetia) or not even by the kin state (for Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh). The EU, its member states, as well as the OSCE, the US and the parent countries(Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan) all have gone to great lengths to underline that the legal and constitutional framework for the elections is irregular, and how these should not prejudge the definition of the final status.
It is an unexpected and positive development that unrecognized breakaway regions, usually deemed to be governed by puppet regimes of the Kremlin, may hold competitive elections and have peaceful and relatively orderly changes in power. Paradoxically, this is made possible by the very fact that their sovereignty remains clearly limited, as exemplified by Russia’s 2014 and 2015 integration treaties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Kremlin does not need to fear a “color revolution” in these offshore regions, for which the lack of international recognition creates a situation of necessary dependence on Russia as a sponsor state. Moscow may thus allow local politicians to self-organize domestically also through electoral processes, since it already holds a veto over candidates who might wish to change the status quo. At the same time, local elites use electoral processes to strengthen their legitimacy and keep a distance from Moscow, gaining some room of maneuver so that their quasi-states do not end up swallowed by the Russian Federation.
Internal self-determination of the population through the electoral process is positive in several ways. First, it empowers domestic elites and enables them to take part actively in any future negotiation on the final status of the territories, thus ensuring the sustainability of an agreement and breaking free from the self-interested and often mutually stalling positions of external powers. It may also encourage the search for a negotiated solution, showing external powers that there is no reason and no legitimacy to resort to force to impose a certain solution. Finally, it demonstrates that international isolation does not impede
Elections in these de facto states are competitive and thus can lead to a genuine change in political leaderships, unlike in many other countries of the post-Soviet region. Yet, while it is possible to speak of democratic processes, there are also shortcomings. Often, as in the case of Abkhazia, ethnocentrism leads to the marginalization of resident minorities from the political process, adding to the legacy of the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s. Opposition is often stifled, as in Nagorno Karabakh. And electoral results are managed within the range of acceptability for foreign sponsors, as shown in the case of South Ossetia in 2012. Finally, pluralism is more likely to emerge in distinct and homogeneous entities, as in Abkhazia, for which it may also work as a strategy of legitimization of the secessionist project vis-à-vis outside powers. It is instead less likely where the seceding entity is not clearly demarcated from the parent state, as in Transnistria – or today in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk – where many groups may not share the secessionist project at all.
Overall, the strengthening of electoral democracy in these breakaway regions should be welcomed by western countries and international organizations, even if conditioned by a status-neutral clause. Some fissures, in fact, start to appear in the official positions of international indifference and the non-recognition of electoral results. In 2012, the OSCE Minsk group (the diplomatic grouping of France, Russia and the USA on Nagorno-Karabakh) “acknowledge[d] the need for the de facto authorities in NK to try to organize democratically the public life of their population with such a procedure.” It is time to recognize that isolated and unrecognized countries are not condemned to authoritarianism, but may self-organize domestically in a democratic way. Experiments in local democracy at the periphery of the Russian Federation, in the end, will be positive even for the eventual re-establishment of democracy in Russia itself.
The author would like to thank Giorgio Comai, Emanuele Cassano and Pietro Rizzi for their insightful comments.