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Introduction: Addressing human rights challenges in Eastern Europe’s grey zones

Article by Adam Hug

September 26, 2019

Introduction: Addressing human rights challenges in Eastern Europe’s grey zones

If the defence of human rights is to be truly universal it is important to examine whether and how these rights can still be protected even in spaces that fall at the margins of the international system. The authors in this Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Foreign Policy Centre publication aim to shine a spotlight on the human rights situations in some of Europe’s most contested but least well understood spaces: Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Crimea. The international community’s focus on managing these conflicts can sometimes overlook the need for the inhabitants of these areas to enjoy the same rights and freedoms from persecution as those in established states.

A very brief history

This publication seeks, as much as possible, to avoid trying to tackle the huge and vexed issues around conflict resolution, the ongoing humanitarian tragedy of internally displaced persons (IDPs) or the status of de facto entities and their wider place in the world, which are much more fully addressed elsewhere.[1] Nevertheless they are issues that frame and shape the discussion so it is important to briefly set out the backgrounds to the conflicts. Each of these conflicts has their own unique challenges and dynamics but nevertheless there are some shared roots that underpin them.

The existence of these conflicts and (broadly) unrecognised entities can trace their roots back to the way the patchwork of ethnicity and territory during Soviet times swiftly unravelled upon the Union’s collapse. Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh have all separated themselves from the larger entities to which they were attached during Soviet times. The flowering of national identity, and with it often radical nationalism, amongst the peoples of the collapsing Soviet Union manifested itself at many different and competing levels. The reassertion of national identity at the level of the former republics, now independent countries, came into conflict with the parallel flowering of identities amongst the national minorities and autonomous regions that sat within their borders, whose relationships with their regional centres and majority populations had been traditionally mediated and managed by Moscow. The newly emerging states saw the presence and divergent priorities of autonomous units within their territory as a challenge to their ability to consolidate their control of the state and national legitimacy. Efforts by these new states to define and build their national identities through cultural markers (such as national religious institutions) and to promote national languages in place of Russian or minority languages further widened the disconnect between local majorities and minorities.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was an ethnic Armenian-majority political entity situated entirely within the borders of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). The movement to, unsuccessfully, persuade the Soviet Union to transfer Nagorno-Karabakh from the control of the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR known as the Karabakh Committee was an important mobilising block within the rising Armenian national consciousness during the 1980s. The Armenian leadership of the Oblast called on the USSR in 1988 to transfer control of the territory from Azerbaijani to Armenian control and organised a local referendum that was boycotted by the Azerbaijani community. Tensions grew between Armenian and Azerbaijani communities across the region with significant inter-communal violence (in 1988 in Sumgait and 1990 in Baku against long-established Armenian minority communities) and significant transfers of population between the two republics. Following on running disputes and shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in November 1991 the Parliament of the Azerbaijani SSR dissolved the legal status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast[2], triggering the Oblast’s leadership to declare independence. War was shortly joined by both the de facto authorities and the new states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with significant loss of both combatant and civilian life, including the massacre of Azerbaijani civilians at Khojaly. By the time of the ceasefire declaration on May 5th 1994 the Armenian forces had been victorious, taking control of Nagorno-Karabakh, creating a new de facto administration called the Republic of Artsakh based out of Stepanakert and occupying the surrounding seven districts of Azerbaijan, forcing the Azerbaijani populations of those regions to flee as IDPs and who have since been unable to return, 644,000 in total.[3] In addition to the IDPs the flow of refugees between Armenia and Azerbaijan comprised 360,000 ethnic Armenians who arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan[4]  and around 250,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis who arrived from Armenia from 1988 to 1994.[5]  

Tensions along the line of contact remain fierce with sniper fire and border skirmishes claiming 20 to 30 lives each year, both military and civilian, with a notable flare-up in 2016 leading to even greater casualties (up to 300) and a small territorial advance by Azerbaijani forces.[6] The continuing risk of such incidents flaring into a wider conflagration remains ever present. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group under the auspices of the three co-chairs from France, Russia and the United States, brings together the Governments of Azerbaijan and Armenia for talks. Ceasefire monitoring is conducted under the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and his small staff of field advisers, but with the parties remaining far apart the overall international effort remains predominantly a conflict management rather than a resolution process. The de facto authorities of the self-styled ‘Republic of Artsakh’ are not represented at the talks.

Abkhazia had the status of an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic with a greater freedom of local governance at the time of the USSR’s collapse than the other entities under examination here. Ethnic Abkhaz had a strong and separate identity but at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union they only accounted for 17 per cent of the population withGeorgians forming a narrow majority of those living in the area.[7] Tensions around the status of the region were exacerbated by the centralising tendencies of the new nationalist President of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, leading it to take steps towards independence. However it was during the chaos and conflict in the wake of Gamsakhurdia’s ouster that saw a military expedition against a pro-Gamsakhurdia militia by Georgian army commander Tengiz Kitovani, who decided to lead an assault on Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi that triggered the outbreak of war. The war would see around five percent of the Abkhaz population either killed or injured. The majority of the Georgian population in Abkhazia fled or were expelled (over 200,000 IDPs)[8] in a victory for Abkhaz forces backed by elements of the Russian military and fighters from the north Caucasus.[9] The de facto authorities gained control over most of the territory of the region save for the Kodori Gorge which remained under Georgian jurisdiction and would prove a source of insecurity and tension between all stakeholders until 2008. The territory has also seen periodic waves of expulsion/flight and then return of portions of the pre-war Georgian population in Abkhazia, most notably to the Gali region adjacent to areas of full Georgian control, where between 45,000 and 55,000 Georgians are now believed to be living in the present day (fluctuations tend to happen around harvest time).[10]

In the 1990s the conflict in the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast between separatist forces and the Georgian government was somewhat overshadowed by the conflict in Abkhazia but was subject to similar trends and forces, with local autonomy clashing with the centralising tendencies of the new Georgian state and a resurgent Georgian national identity and nationalism. Again the war was won by separatist forces, with the local South Ossetian forces backed by local Russian military units, but Georgia was able to exercise considerable control both directly and informally over significant portions of the South Ossetian countryside until 2008. Between 1996 and 2004 the Ergneti market on the Georgian side of the (then) loose boundary line with South Ossetia served as a bustling meeting place between the two communities, bonding over the sale of contraband goods. The closure of Ergneti as part of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s anti-smuggling drive was seen as a significant blow to local community relations.

The situation in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia changed dramatically as a result of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. Escalating geo-strategic tensions between Georgia and Russia, that manifested themselves in 2008 through Russia’s lifting of sanctions against the de facto Governments, increased Russian military activity in both entities and a series of attacks between Georgian forces and their Abkhaz and South Ossetian counterparts took place. After shelling and a number of skirmishes in early August, Georgian President Saakashvili ordered full-scale military action which initially took control of significant sections of South Ossetia from the de facto authorities. Russian forces declared war on Georgia, an action which it argued was in response to the death of its peacekeepers in the region, leading to a conflict from August 7th to 12th 2008. This conflict saw up to 850 dead,[11] the withdrawal of Georgian forces from the entirety of South Ossetia (including all areas it had held prior to 2008), the expulsion of Georgian forces and authorities from Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia, a significant new flow of Georgian IDPs from both regions[12] and for a brief period the Russian occupation of Georgian towns including Gori and Zugdidi. Shortly after the ceasefire on August 26th 2008 Russia formally recognised the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, setting the stage for the status quo in both regions today. [13]

Transnistria’s break from Moldova was mainly political but also spurred by linguistic and cultural divides. In 1990 the leadership of Tiraspol, the Russian speaking second largest city in the Moldavian SSR attempted to claim independence from its Moldovan counterparts, joining with other areas on the east (left) bank of the Dniester River to proclaim membership of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the fall of the Soviet Union this area claimed independence amid the backdrop of movements in Moldova to increase ties with Romania, to transition linguistically from Russian to Romanian and from Cyrillic to the Latin script. A short military conflict took place between March and July 1992, with separatist forces achieving victory with support from Russia’s 14th Army and a mix of Cossacks and other irregular forces. Since the conflict a tri-lateral peacekeeping force and command structure between Moldova, Russia and the de facto authorities has managed the de-militarised zone at the international border with Ukraine. Compared to the current state of other conflict areas examined in this publication there has been a considerable degree of normalisation and engagement between the de facto authorities and their Moldovan counterparts, with trade, both legal and black-market, continuing and the political leadership of the breakaway region traveling freely to and from Chisinau airport as noted by Alina Radu in this publication.[14]

Crimea at different times held both ASSR and Oblast status and sat within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic before its transfer to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. Crimea’s Tatar population was expelled from the region in the 1940s under Stalin and were only able to return in the twilight days of the Soviet Union. Crimea’s status had been the subject of some debate both before and after the collapse of the USSR, with the Crimean Supreme Council attempting to declare independence in 1992 and trying to vote for greater autonomy in 1994. However after this initial burst of activism tensions subsided and began to be folded into the broad linguistic, political and cultural tensions within Ukraine. In the wake of the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests and the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ that saw President Yanukovych removed from office, the tensions over the post-independence territorial settlement resurfaced dramatically. Previous divisions provided an organising hook around which to frame the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbass. Russia sent troops operating clandestinely without insignia (known as ‘little green men’) into Crimea on February 27th 2014 to capture major installations and surround Ukrainian military forces. The Russian backed ‘de facto authorities’ under the leadership of Sergey Aksyonov, who had previously led the small Russian Unity party in the Crimean Supreme Council[15], pushed through a referendum on Crimea’s status on March 16th 2014, boycotted by its opponents and rejected by the international community, which saw a declaration of support for joining Russia as a Federal Subject (Republic), although with thin turnout in substantially lower numbers than claimed by the Kremlin. The Russian authorities completed the annexation on March 18th 2014 declaring the creation of the Republic of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. The conflict saw the displacement of some ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars from Crimea as IDPs. 

Where we are today

These conflicts have remained unresolved until the present day, with de facto authorities becoming more entrenched year by year. International attempts at mediation, primarily through the OSCE, have floundered between the Scylla and Charybdis of competing, and often opposing, rights to self-determination and territorial integrity, the involvement of parties to the conflict (primarily Russia) in the mediation mechanisms and the IDP issue.

So as Dr Dennis Sammut points out in his piece perhaps the greatest humanitarian and human rights challenge falls outside the scope of this specific publication[16], the IDPs left in the wake of these conflicts. The numbers of IDPs and refugees[17] are greatly contested as noted above but remain in the hundreds of thousands[18], providing an enormous logistical strain on the governments taking care of them and a so far irreconcilable issue in the attempts at conflict resolution. This essay collection is not the best place to elucidate or litigate the IDP or conflict issue as there are already a number of major publications exploring this vital topic.[19]

The publication’s aim is to focus on the situation on the ground in and around these disputed territories and what the status quo means for residents living under the control of the de facto authorities. In a number of cases there are new dynamics and potential uncertainties. Focusing on the human rights standards within the disputed territories the annual Freedom House rankings provide their usual brief pen picture of the situation with Abkhazia[20] and Nagorno Karabakh[21] listed as partially free, while Transnistria[22], South Ossetia[23] and Crimea[24] are listed as not-free.

Abkhazia has seen internal tensions that, as well as personal rivalries, partially contain divisions between those wishing to build up its independent institutions and those wishing to promote (or who see no alternative to) closer integration with Russia, with Moscow more clearly supporting the latter project since the 2008 war. In 2014 when President Alexander Ankvab was forced to resign after public protests against corruption and mismanagement, then opposition leader Raul Khajimba defeated Aslan Bzhania in an election between candidates both seen as closer to Russia than Ankvab but where the victor’s supporters were alleged to have been influential in removing ethnic Georgians from the voter rolls.[25] Particularly in the area of security it is an open secret that the de facto authorities are expected to defer to Russian demands and with a significant presence of Russian security personnel on the ground.

In April 2019 Aslan Bzhania, who was seen as a front runner in the 2019 de facto Presidential election, along with his bodyguards were hospitalised in Moscow with a mystery illness that was subsequently identified by a German laboratory as  mercury (and other toxic metal) poisoning.[26] Bzhania’s position towards the Russians has shifted overtime and in 2016 he was arrested by the Russian security services while he was seeking to build pressure on Khajimba to resign, so overall he was seen to be more wary over Moscow’s integration efforts towards Abkhazia than the current leadership.[27] With Bzhania’s health still recovering, including continued difficulty breathing, his ally Alkhas Kvitsinia stood as the main opposition candidate. Also worth noting is that a few weeks prior to the first round Khajimba had a well-publicised meeting with President Putin, seen as an indication of Russian backing.

In the closely fought first round the incumbent President Khajimba received around 26 per cent of the vote to Kvitsinia’s just over 25 per cent, while the ally of former President Ankvab, former deputy minister Oleg Arshba, was narrowly beaten into third with just below 25 per cent.[28] In the horse trading that followed the first round former President Ankvab had endorsed the candidacy of Kvitsinia in return for an agreement for Ankvab to become Prime Minister in the event of victory. However despite this alliance Khajimba was able to defeat his rival by a mere 999 votes on September 8th 2019.[29]

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other formal international human rights mechanisms have had access to Abkhazia (and South Ossetia) rejected by the de facto authorities.[30] However unlike their Ossetian counterparts the Abkhaz authorities have allowed some forms of international access. Former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, in partnership with the International Crisis Group’s Magdalena Grono, were tasked by the European Union (EU) to undertake a review of the human rights situation in the disputed territory and were granted access. Their report became stuck in wrangling over the language used to discuss status issues between Georgia and the EU,[31] leading the authors in exasperation to release their findings independently via the Olaf Palme Centre.[32] Their report covered a broad range of issues noting the need for reform of detention facilities, corruption in law enforcement (particularly the traffic police-a common problem in the wider region) and that NGOs were seeing the narrowing of civic space and had received less funding and greater pressure since the 2008 conflict. Their report also drew attention to the problem surrounding property rights, particularly in relation to ethnic Georgians and IDPs, findings that were also echoed by the UN who have also identified that the practice of demolishing the ruins of houses owned by IDPs had restarted in 2017.[33]While still freer than the other unrecognised states assessed in this publication the general view (in-line with the Hammarberg and Grono report) is that the overall civic space in Abkhazia has gradually been shrinking in recent years, with increasing pressure put on those working with international partners, though a formal foreign agents law has been avoided.[34] A recent paper by Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group shows how the ethnic Georgian community in the Gali region have been struggling to deal with the increasingly closed crossings and the implementation of new Abkhaz residence permits which limits their ability to visit Georgian controlled territory.[35]

Despite its position as one of the more closed societies being explored in this collection South Ossetia’s electoral politics is surprisingly competitive with active parliamentary elections and incumbent presidents losing to rivals in both 2001 and 2017.[36] Freedom of expression is limited with local media under the control of the de facto authorities and pressure on independent journalists and activists taking place. As with a number of neighbouring states in the region the use of criminal defamation has been used to intimidate critics in South Ossetia, such as social media activist Tamar Mearakishvili.[37] In 2017 Jehovah’s Witnesses were classified as an extremist organisation, creating a de facto ban on their activities and highlighting freedom of religion concerns. Schools teaching in the Georgian language are being phased out, discriminating against the Georgian minority community remaining within South Ossetia and echoing similar changes in Abkhazia.[38] According to the UN the introduction of a ‘foreign agents’ law in 2014, mirroring the similar Russian legislation, has significantly closed the space for civil society in South Ossetia leading to the closure of NGOs and reduced engagement in ‘track two’ dialogue with international NGOs around confidence and peacebuilding.[39] The Russian presence in South Ossetia is more pronounced than in Abkhazia, not least as the result of the linkages with North Ossetia, where many South Ossetians have moved to find work[40].

Until recently the politics of Nagorno-Karabakh has perhaps been more stable and less competitive than in Abkhazia,[41] an environment shaped by the military pressure from Azerbaijan and the close political relationship with its patron Armenia, from which it receives over 60 per cent of its budget.[42] Local human rights challenges remain similar to those elsewhere in the region, such as corruption, executive influence over the judiciary and a limited space for independent civil society. Also in Nagorno-Karabakh a 2017 constitutional referendum sanctioned increased presidential powers, abolished the post of prime minister, and postponed elections until 2020 for incumbent leader Bako Sahakyan, a move described by opponents as a ‘constitutional coup’.[43]

While not changing the fundamental position in respect to the conflict, the impact of the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Armenia has created political uncertainty in the relationship between Yerevan and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Prime Minister Pashinyan is the first leader of Armenia whose political identity is not extricable linked with Karabakh.[44] The political tensions inside Armenia, such as between Pashinyan and former President Kocharyan[45], are pitting the new Armenian government against a Karabakhi political elite who had previously dominated public life in both Yerevan and Stepanakert.[46] Pashinyan even accused the current de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh of conspiring to hand over territory to Azerbaijan in an effort to discredit him.[47] Amid the tensions between Yerevan and Stepanakert and in the wake of June 2018 demonstrations by citizens opposing abuses by the Nagorno Karabakh security services de facto President Sahakayan announced he would not be standing for re-election.[48]

The upcoming de facto 2020 Presidential election in Nagorno-Karabakh could be potentially more competitive than previous ballots,[49] which were personality contests within the ruling regime rather than featuring significant genuine opposition. With relations with the new Armenian government providing a potential dividing line, and presenting both opportunities for reform and for destabilisation, given the old guard are likely to try and protect their position against radical change.[50]Overall the human rights situation is improving with people more able to speak out and make critical Facebook posts, with the previous threat of retribution including arrest significantly reduced.

The situation of Crimea remains somewhat different to its counterparts in that it has been annexed by a metropolitan state, a member of the UN Security Council at that. While the vast majority of states have not recognised this annexation as legitimate, the fact that Russia formally deems Crimea to be part of its territory requires it to place the same human rights safeguards and legal protections over it (for what they are worth) that apply in the rest of the Russian Federation, including recourse to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Previous Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) publications have touched on some of the major human rights challenges facing the local population, particularly for those unhappy with the annexation. The 2017 ‘Closing the Door’ publication showed how Crimean Tatar political leaders[51], in particular, have been targeted. One tool for increasing pressure on the Tatar community has been the prosecution of members of religious groups, such as the proselytising Tablighi Jamaat movement and the non-violent extremist groups Hizb ut-Tahrir, which are legal in Ukraine but outlawed in Russia.[52]

Relations between the de facto Transnistrian Authorities and the Moldovan Government are less tense than the other relationships addressed here. Back in 2013 Thomas Hammarberg, then in the capacity of being a UN Senior Expert, was able to provide a comparatively comprehensive overview of some of the human rights challenges faced by the region.[53] The international community was allowed access to help deliver a ‘Human Rights Joint Action Programme 2016-2018’ in the Transnistrian region as a partnership between OHCHR, UNDP, UNAIDS and UNODC, focusing on important but less politically challenging issues identified by Hammarberg such as: disability rights, tackling HIV/AIDs, rights of prisoners and domestic violence.[54] Corruption, language rights and space for independent civil society and media remain significant challenges.

All the longstanding disputed states that maintain their independence have created human rights ombudsman or similar offices akin to their counterparts in the metropolitan states. The Ombudsperson in Abkhazia since March 2018 is the widely respected former co-director of The Center for Humanitarian Programmes, Asida Shakryl[55], but like its counterpart, the Presidential Commission of Human Rights in South Ossetia, it has been described as ‘hollow in terms of their real powers and importance’ by the European Parliament research division, though Shakryl’s status and expertise helps offset this to a certain degree.[56] The Ombudsman in Nagorno-Karabakh has an active engagement on issues relating to the conflict and has made efforts to strengthen its institutional legitimacy, such as through membership of the European Ombudsman Institute, but until now has played a limited role. The Transnistrian Commissioner for Human Rights, Vyacheslav Kosinsky, reported to a plenary session of the deputies of the Transnistrian Supreme Council that his office received 871 appeals for assistance in 2018.[57] However  looking at the cases he raised highlights how the remit of these offices are often extremely broad as they are acting as ombudsman in fields as broad as consumer protection, employment rights and monitoring government performance in its administration of social security payments.[58] While it is somewhat understandable given the size of populations to consolidate this activity into one office, it means the ability to focus time on more challenging human rights issues, including abuse of power, is more restricted. 

A number of the de facto authorities have used references to international human rights conventions as at least a notional ambition for local practice and certainly as a signal to the international community. For example Transnistria has unilaterally pledged to respect the two UN Covenants on human rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Similarly Abkhazia’s de facto constitution recognises and guarantees ‘the rights and freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Economic, Social, Cultural, Civil and Political rights, and other universally recognised international legal instruments’.[59] Despite such unilateral efforts and attempts at local capacity building, as Illya Nusov points out in his essay given the level of control they wield the ultimate legal responsibility lies with the ‘patrons’ of these de facto states, Armenia for Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia for the remainder, and to a lesser, more narrowly defined way, with the countries from which these de facto authorities are attempting to secede from.

What our authors say

The essay by Gunnar M. Ekelove-Slydal, Ana Pashalishvili and Inna Sangadzhiyeva discusses methods of strengthening respect for human rights in Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh. Based on case law of the European Court of Human Rights, it concludes that both the patron and the parent states as well as de facto authorities are obliged to uphold human rights to the extent that they have effective control over the territory. The authors argue that supporting development of civil society groups and training of journalists and lawyers to work together on human rights issues may be the most effective strategy to improve human rights. Many issues can be solved in status-neutral ways such as improving prison conditions, health care, education, social services, and housing; eliminating discrimination; and increasing respect for fundamental freedoms. International actors should increase support for such co-operation.

Ilya Nuzov writes a contribution that addresses the international law aspects of responsibility for violations of international human rights law committed in Eastern Europe’s ‘grey zones’. It provides an overview of the human rights obligations of non-State actors and States vis-à-vis the individuals in the ‘grey zones’. It argues the contested nature of these ‘grey zones’ under public international law, arising among others from disputed sovereignty and territorial control, results in the obfuscation and fragmentation of human rights obligations between state and non-state actors, causing ambiguities and gaps with respect to the attribution of international responsibility for violations. The essay examines these gaps in light of the available mechanisms of redress on the international level against both individuals and entities that commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and other abuses, and suggests gap-filling alternatives.

Dr Dennis Sammut explains some of the history and background to the current unresolved conflicts. He explores the particular role played by Russia as both a conflict party and a putative peacemaker. The essay seeks to explore the similarities and differences between these unrecognised states and other micro-states. He sets out the case both for non-recognition and for engagement, while arguing in favour of greater European involvement in efforts to move the situation forward.

Caucasian Knot’s essay acquaints readers with the current situation of non-profit and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in the ‘unrecognised’ states of Southern Caucasus, and examines the history and peculiarities of the electoral process in these territories. It provides a brief overview of the most well-known NGOs and the main areas of their activities. It looks at the interactions between NGOs and de facto state structures including what civil initiatives are supported by officials, and in which areas people need to overcome the bureaucracy’s pressure. It provides a special focus on the electoral practices in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, in the context of the international ‘non-recognition’, examining the level of civil control during voting, the status of international observers, and cases of abuse by the authorities.

Rustam Anshba’s contribution focuses on the Georgian-Abkhazian unresolved conflict over the status of Abkhazia. He gives a very brief overview of the present day status of the conflict, before focusing on the issues that are related to the limitations and constrains the young population of Abkhazia are facing on a daily basis. The lack of development and long-term isolation have lasting negative effects on the younger post-war generation, which in the future will be faced with the question on how to resolve the ongoing conflict. His essay concludes with open-ended questions and ideas on how to engage with the population of Abkhazia and build skills and capacity to address the conflict related issues in the future. 

The essay by Caucasian Knot and Alan Parastaev argues that the non-recognition of independence of South Ossetia by the international community is the main reason for the underdevelopment of the human rights sphere in this region. It looks at the positive steps taken by the Ombudsman’s office and the President’s institutions in resolving humanitarian issues at various stages of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. The research also looks at the main problems and difficulties faced in the formation of full-fledged institutions for the protection of human rights and independent NGOs; absence of monitoring, isolation from international organisations, the general level and peculiarities of legal awareness, and pressure from law enforcement agencies.

Mariam Uberi’s research shows that the continued violations of the ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia has resulted in Russia’s creeping ‘borderisation’ into Georgia. The human dimension of the conflict has had a devastating effect on both communities living alongside the administrative boundary line (ABL) of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, restricting their freedom of movement, access to their livelihood and sometimes resulting in unlawful death. The essay examines the political and legal responses from the Georgian authorities and its efforts to safeguard human rights of its citizens exposed to economic, social and human vulnerabilities post-conflict.

The essay on Nagorno-Karabakh by The Norwegian Helsinki Committee seeks to shed light on perceptions of the people living there about their future, especially prospects of strengthening rule of law, democratisation and human rights after the so-called 2018 ‘velvet-revolutions’ in Armenia. It points to both Soviet heritage and militarisation due to the conflict with Azerbaijan playing a negative role in obstructing democratic and economic developments, although civil society groups, journalists and many ordinary people seem to have been inspired to press for reforms by recent events in Armenia. The essay argues for a people-centred approach to improve the situation for residents and internally displaced people both in Nagorno-Karabakh and in Azerbaijan.

Anton Nemlyuk’s essay touches upon the effective way human rights activists, journalists and lawyers work together when protecting human rights in Crimea. It notes that the opportunities to get access to the international human rights mechanisms are limited in the occupied territories. It makes the case that in Crimea the court system has a political function, prosecuting those who are not loyal to Russia.

Alina Radu’s essay draws attention to the ways in which access to the Moldovan legal system is an important part of taking cases of human rights abuse in Transnistria to the European Court of Human Rights. It also draws attention to the lack of media freedom in the areas controlled by the de facto authorities. 


Photo by ECFR, Life in the Grey Zones, Reports from Europe’s breakaway regions, https://www.ecfr.eu/wider/specials/life_in_the_grey_zones. Photo has been modified from original for this publication.

[1]  For example see Thomas de Waal, Abkhazia: Stable Isolation, Uncertain Ground: Engaging with Europe’s De Facto States and Breakaway Territories, Carnegie Europe, December 2018, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/12/03/abkhazia-stable-isolation-pub-77842

[2] Law of the Azerbaijan Republic of November 26, 1991 No. 279-XII, About abolition of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region of the Azerbaijan Republic, https://cis-legislation.com/document.fwx?rgn=2890

[3] See information  from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre at http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/azerbaijan, the International Crisis Group, Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden, February 2012, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/caucasus/azerbaijan/azerbaijan-s-idp-burden; and FCO, Refugees & Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) in South Caucasus: The Numbers Game, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/384760/South_Caucasus_II__2_.pdf

[4] Jennifer Clark, Some 65,000 refugees from Azerbaijan gain Armenian citizenship, UNHCR,  https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/latest/2004/2/40239bba4/65000-refugees-azerbaijan-gain-armenian-citizenship.html

[5] EU Commission and UNHCR, Azerbaijan: Analysis of Gaps in the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, October 2009,  https://www.unhcr.org/4bd7edbd9.html

[6] Laurence Broers, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Defaulting to War, Chatham House, July 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/nagorny-karabakh-conflict-defaulting-war

[7] Jared Ferrie, Can they ever go home? The forgotten victims of Georgia’s civil war, The New Humanitarian, May 2019,  https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2019/05/27/Abkhazia-georgia-civil-war-forgotten-victims

[8] By 2007 Georgian official figures listed 247,000 IDPs from the Abkhazia conflict in the 1990s  (a figure including subsequently born dependents) see Laurence Broers, Out of the margins: Securing a voice for internally displaced people: Lessons from Georgia, Conciliation Resources, December 2009, https://m.c-r.org/resources/out-margins-securing-voice-internally-displaced-people-lessons-georgia . Also see the Georgia IDP Project, Homepage, https://georgia.idp.arizona.edu/

[9] Ibid.  

[10] Thomas Hammarberg and Magdalena Grono, Human Rights in Abkhazia Today, July 2017, https://www.palmecenter.se/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Human-Rights-in-Abkhazia-Today-report-by-Thomas-Hammarberg-and-Magdalena-Grono.pdf. See also https://www.c-r.org/downloads/CR_The-Realm-of-the-possible_Gal-i_43_webEn.pdf for more information about life in Gali.

[11] ECHR, Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia – Report, Volume I, September 2009, https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/HUDOC_38263_08_Annexes_ENG.pdf. Section 2.7 of this Human Rights Watch report documents the controversy over assessment of casualty numbers putting the civilian casualty figures probably in the 300-400 range,  https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/01/23/flames/humanitarian-law-violations-and-civilian-victims-conflict-over-south

[12] According to data from Georgia immediately after the 2008 conflict up to 279,000 Georgians claimed to have been displaced from Abkhazia, however most of these (247,000) were those who were originally displaced in the 90s. For South Ossetia the longer-term displaced population was believed to be just over 19,000 as of 2009, though again there remains fluidity on the ground. For further information see Laurence Broers, Out of the margins: Securing a voice for internally displaced people: Lessons from Georgia, Conciliation Resources, December 2009, https://m.c-r.org/resources/out-margins-securing-voice-internally-displaced-people-lessons-georgia .

[13] RFE/RL,  Russia Recognizes Abkhazia, South Ossetia, August 2008, https://www.rferl.org/a/Russia_Recognizes_Abkhazia_South_Ossetia/1193932.html

[14] After the initial displacement of IDPs during and immediately post-conflict, ethnic Moldovan IDPs have mostly reintegrated into Transnistrian or Moldovan society with only 200 families/households still identified as being IDPs as of 2013- see  Zuzanna Brunarska and Agnieszka Weinar Asylum seekers, Refugees and IDPs in the EaP countries: Recognition, Social Protection and integration – An Overview, European University Institute, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/45683667.pdf

[15] The most recent Crimean Supreme Council elections in 2010 had been dominated by President Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions and the Ukrainian Communist Party with Aksyonov’s Russian Unity Party holding only 3 of the 100 seats. See Interfax Ukraine, Regions Party gets 80 of 100 seats on Crimean parliament, November 2011, https://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/52929.html

[16] One about which.

[17] Refugees were mainly ethnic Armenians and Azeris who fled between the two metropolitan states in the 90s.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Some examples of relevant research include: Laurence Broers, Out of the margins: Securing a voice for internally displaced people: Lessons from Georgia, Conciliation Resources, December 2009, https://m.c-r.org/resources/out-margins-securing-voice-internally-displaced-people-lessons-georgia; Conciliation Resources,  Displacement in Georgia:  IDP attitudes to conflict, return and justice, April 2011, https://rc-services-assets.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Displacement%20in%20Georgia_Policy%20Brief_201104_ENG.pdf;  OHCHR, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons on his follow-up mission to Georgia (10–14 June 2013), June 2013, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session26/Documents/A_HRC_26_33_Add_1_ENG.doc;
International Crisis Group, Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden, February 2012, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/caucasus/azerbaijan/tackling-azerbaijan-s-idp-burden; OSCE, Conflict-related Displacement in Ukraine, July 2016, https://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/261176?download=true

[20] Freedom in the World 2019, Abkhazia, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/abkhazia

[21] Freedom in the World 2019, Nagorno-Karabakh, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/nagorno-karabakh

[22] Freedom in the World 2019, Transnistria, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/transnistria

[23] Freedom in the World 2019, South Ossetia, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/south-ossetia

[24] Freedom in the World 2019, Crimea, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/crimea

[25] Polina Devitt and Jason Bush, Abkhazia elects opposition leader as president, Reuters, August 2014, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-georgia-abkhazia-election/abkhazia-elects-opposition-leader-as-president-idUSKBN0GP09K20140825;  and Donnachia O Beachain, Dubious Election Produces a Divisive New President in Abkhazia, Global Observatory, September 2014, https://theglobalobservatory.org/2014/09/dubious-election-divisive-new-president-abkhazia/

[26] Abkhaz parliament confirms opposition leader was poisoned, presidential elections may be rescheduled. Jam News, Abkhaz parliament confirms opposition leader was poisoned, presidential elections may be rescheduled, May 2019, https://jam-news.net/abkhaz-parliament-confirms-opposition-leader-was-poisoned-presidential-elections-may-be-rescheduled/

[27] Liz Fuller, Russia Reportedly Detains Abkhaz Oppositionist Following New Demand for Khajimba’s Resignation, RFE/RL, December 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-detains-abkhazia-opposition-figure-follow-khajimba-resignation-demand/28155105.html

[28] Giorgi Lomsadze, Abkhazia presidential election heads to runoff, Euasianet, August 2019, https://eurasianet.org/abkhazia-presidential-election-heads-to-runoff

[29] Inal Khashig, Incumbent Abkhaz President Khajimba wins second term in surprise victory, JAM-News, September 2019,  https://jam-news.net/incumbent-abkhaz-president-khajimba-wins-second-term-in-surprise-victory/

[30] Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on cooperation with Georgia, September 2018, https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/1443533/1930_1537260340_g1824969.pdf

[31] Jonathan Steele, The Abkhazia human rights report the EU doesn’t want you to read, August 2017, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/abkhazia-human-rights-report-eu-doesnt-want-you-read

[32] Thomas Hammarberg and Magdalena Grono, Human Rights in Abkhazia Today, July 2017, https://www.palmecenter.se/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Human-Rights-in-Abkhazia-Today-report-by-Thomas-Hammarberg-and-Magdalena-Grono.pdf

[33] Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on cooperation with Georgia, September 2018, https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/1443533/1930_1537260340_g1824969.pdf

[34] Examples of some of the issues are document in articles including Inal Khashig, NGOs and journalists accused of treason in Abkhazia, June 2017, https://jam-news.net/ngos-journalists-accused-of-treason-in-abkhazia/ JAM-News, Abkhaz officials banned from participating in international meetings organized by NGOs, June 2018, OC-Media, Challenges faced by NGOs in Abkhazia, May 2017, https://oc-media.org/challenges-faced-by-ngos-in-abkhazia/

[35] Olesya Vartanyan, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/caucasus/abkhazia-georgia/easing-travel-between-georgia-and-breakaway-abkhazia

[36] Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Electoral Politics in the De Facto States of the South Caucasus, CAUCASUS ANALYTICAL DIGEST No. 94, April 2017, http://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest94.pdf

[36] Ibid.

[37] Amnesty International Public Statement, Georgia: De facto authorities in a disputed region stifle freedom of expression, August 2017, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR5669742017ENGLISH.pdf

[38] Maxim Edwards, No More Georgian in South Ossetia’s Schools?, Eurasianet, September 2017, https://eurasianet.org/no-more-georgian-in-south-ossetias-schools

[39] Ibid. 

[40] Thomas De Waal, Abkhazia and the Danger of ‘Ossetianization’, Moscow Times, July 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/07/16/abkhazia-and-the-danger-of-ossetianization-a66437

[41] Donnacha Ó Beacháin , Elections without recognition: presidential and parliamentary contests in Abkhazia and Nagorny Karabakh, Caucasus Survey, Volume 3 – Issue 3, September 2015, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23761199.2015.1086571?scroll=top&needAccess=true

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ter-Petrossian as chair of the Karabakh Committee, Kocharyan who served as Prime Minister and President of Nagorno-Karabakh before transitioning to the same roles in Armenia, and Sargsyan who served as military leader and minister of defence for Karabakh before becoming Minister of Interior and Security, Minister of Defence and then Prime Minister-twice- and President of Armenia.

[45] Covering historical crimes and relations with the judiciary

[46] In the tumult in Yerevan surrounding the attempts to prevent the release of Kocharyan on bail, Armenian police stopped a car containing Vitaly Balasanyan, the secretary of the National Security Council of the NKR and ally of Kocharyan, under suspicion of having illegal weapons in his car leading to a tense standoff. Panorama, Pashinyan comments on Artsakh leaders’ petition for Kocharyan’s release, May 2019, https://www.panorama.am/en/news/2019/05/08/Pashinyan-Artsakh-leader-petition/2111736

[47] Joshua Kucera and Ani Mejlumyan, Armenia: After ex-president released, premier opens conflict with judges and Karabakh leaders, Eurasianet, May 2019, https://eurasianet.org/armenia-after-ex-president-released-premier-opens-conflict-with-judges-and-karabakh-leaders

[48] Weekly Staff, Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan Not to Seek Reelection in 2020, The Armenian Weekly, June 2018, https://armenianweekly.com/2018/06/12/artsakh-president-bako-sahakyan-not-to-seek-reelection-in-2020/

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ani Mejlumyan, Race for Karabakh leadership gets off to early start, Eurasianet, February 2019, https://eurasianet.org/race-for-karabakh-leadership-gets-off-to-early-start

[51] Eugenia Andreyuk and Philipp Gliesche, Crimea: Deportations and forced transfer of the civil population, Foreign Policy Centre, December 2017, https://fpc.org.uk/crimea-deportations-forced-transfer-civil-population/

[52] Ibid. and Halya Coynash, 5-year sentence demanded in Russia’s “safari hunt of Muslims” in occupied Crimea, KHPG, January 2019, http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1547933586&w=crimea

[53] Thomas Hammarberg, Report on Human Rights in the Transnistrian Region of the Republic of Moldova, UNDP, February 2013,https://www.undp.org/content/dam/unct/moldova/docs/pub/Senior_Expert_Hammarberg_Report_TN_Human_Rights.pdf

[54]Embassy of Sweden, Impressive results for Human Rights in Transnistria!, January 2018, https://www.swedenabroad.se/fr/ambassade/moldova-chisinau/current/news/impressive-results-for-human-rights-in-transnistria/

[55] Conciliation Resources, Asida Shakryl: partnering for peace in the Georgian-Abkhaz context, May 2018, https://www.c-r.org/news-and-insight/asida-shakryl-partnering-peace-georgian-abkhaz-context

[56] Directorate-General for External Policies – Policy Department, The frozen conflicts of the European Eastern Neighbourhood and their impact on the respect of human rights, European Parliament, 2016, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/578001/EXPO_STU(2016)578001_EN.pdf

[57] The Supreme Council of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, Taken into consideration, May 2019, http://en.vspmr.org/news/supreme-council/prinyat-k-svedeniyu.html

[58] Novosti Pmr, Ombudsman answered questions of ‘Pridnestrovie’ daily readers, May 2018,https://novostipmr.com/en/news/18-05-22/ombudsman-answered-questions-pridnestrovie-daily-readers

[59] Ibid; and Thomas Hammarbeg and Magdalena Grono, Human Rights in Abkhazia Today, Palme Center, July 2017, https://www.palmecenter.se/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Human-Rights-in-Abkhazia-Today-report-by-Thomas-Hammarberg-and-Magdalena-Grono.pdf

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