ZOiS Spotlight 37/2020

Autarky instead of solidarity? The border situations in Transdniestria and Abkhazia

by Nina Lutterjohann 14/10/2020
Border crossing between Abkhazia and Georgia before the closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic (photo taken in 2019). © Juan Alberto Casado / Alamy Stock Photo

The continuing protests in Belarus, the forthcoming elections in Georgia and the Republic of Moldova and the latest clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh have diverted attention away from other conflict zones existing in some Eastern Partnership (EP) countries. An EU official working on the EP describes the general situation in Transdniestria, still currently embroiled in a conflict with the Republic of Moldova, and in Abkhazia, which is seeking independence from Georgia, as particularly grim. The border closures imposed to curb the pandemic are having serious impacts – not only economic – in these regions.

Limited movement of persons

The internal boundary line was shut on the Transdniestrian side from March to May in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The movement of goods was still allowed, but special permits were required for the transit of persons. Currently, movement across the Transdniestrian section of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border is permitted solely for goods. Work routines have been disrupted everywhere, however. Special permission is required for a 12-hour absence from Transdniestria, but is often impossible to obtain due to the 10-hour mandatory advance notice period, according to diplomatic circles.

The movement of imports and exports across the intra-Moldovan border is also restricted. Trade in services has fallen sharply due to the curbs on freedom of movement. An exemption applies to people in the Moldovan enclaves on Transdniestrian-controlled territory, who are permitted to cross the border every day, and to teachers and pupils, who are able to continue their education during lockdown. The number of quarantine places, which was temporarily increased to 30 as a precautionary measure (40 per cent of infected persons came from the Republic of Moldova), has now been reduced to 11.

The movement of exports and imports between Moldova and Transdniestria is integral to the economy; by contrast, there is almost no trade between Abkhazia and Georgia. The two economies are heavily dependent on tourism, which is under great strain due to the current situation. Since 14 March 2020, the administrative border line has been largely closed due to the pandemic, although according to EU sources, it is now open on the Georgian side. Georgia opened its borders for travellers from Germany, France, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on 31 July 2020; visitors from other EU countries must spend a mandatory 14 days in quarantine. Abkhazia then opened its border on 1 August 2020, but only to Russia. Understandably, the de facto states have closed their conflict-affected border crossings in an effort to  minimise the spread of the pandemic, but this comes at a high price, namely free movement of persons. 

Mental barriers boost self-confidence

The border closures aimed at curbing the pandemic not only make transit more difficult in a practical sense; they have also reinforced mental barriers. Examples from the humanitarian sector illustrate the ramifications of the situation. According to the information of an EU official,  a woman from Abkhazia needed to be transferred to a hospital in Georgia due to her health status, but the Abkhazian authorities prevented her from crossing the border line. Similar incidents have been reported in Transdniestria, where the authorities required doctors crossing the border river every day to work in a Moldovan hospital to take a test or quarantine on their return and refused to make exceptions for commuters. The EU stepped in and covered the costs of renting accommodation at the physicians’ place of work.

In the economy, too, there are signs of growing tensions in the conflict regions. The closure of Transdniestria’s border with Ukraine was intended to boost trade with the Moldovan capital Chisinau; however, due to the lack of clarity over the border closure, illegal trade via the Transdniestrian economic hub of Tiraspol has surged and official economic relations have worsened under these stringent controls. The state of emergency imposed in Transdniestria in response to the pandemic – which has eased for movement of persons since June – includes checkpoints manned initially by temporary border guards and now by police. International government officials observed that during this period, more self-confidence developed on both sides, making a solution to the conflict a more distant prospect.

Reconciliation processes continue

The talks in the 5+2 format on a settlement to the Transdniestria conflict resulted in the adoption of the “Berlin Plus Package” in 2016; this added three further areas to the five previously agreed and was followed by meetings in Vienna in 2017 and in Rome in 2018. The areas covered include freedom of movement, telecommunications, banking and Latin-script schools. Despite the interruption of the process for internal reasons in autumn 2019, Austrian Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting, the OSCE’s Special Representative for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process, has encouraged the President of Moldova, Igor Dodon, and his Transdniestrian counterpart, Vadim Krasnoselsky, to resume the constructive dialogue soon.

The Georgian peace initiative, “Step toward a Better Future”, announced on 4 April 2018 – and which the Abkhazian representatives only found out about when it was published – has been dormant for more than two years. Although the package aims to expand official trade and boost quality education, it lacks both support and viability. The main reason is the continued existence of Georgia’s Law on Occupied Territories of 23 October 2008, which defines Abkhazia and South Ossetia as territories under Russian occupation, after Russia – and, to date, four other states – recognised their self-proclaimed independence. The Abkhazian de facto government, in turn, is reportedly imposing further curbs on the rights of ethnic Georgians on its territory. This reinforces the impression of ethnocracy in Abkhazia. The EU remains engaged through its Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia, Toivo Klaar.

The pandemic has been a major factor in the imposition of new restrictions on people’s freedom of movement. Although this is by no means an isolated case at present, the strict controls have put up barriers that point to partial autarky rather than solidarity.

Nina Lutterjohann is a political scientist and was a guest researcher at ZOiS from May to September 2020. Her research focuses on conflicts and migration contexts in the post-Soviet space.