ZOiS Spotlight 8/2022

Political and Public Reactions to Putin’s War in Post-Soviet Countries

Georgia is one of the few post-Soviet countries were mass protest against Putin's war in Ukraine took place. Vakho Kareli

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.


Diana Bogishvili

On 24 February, the day of the Russian attack on Ukraine, a spontaneous anti-war demonstration was held in Tbilisi, attended by more than 30,000 people. Protests have taken place every day since then. An additional trigger for this massive social mobilisation was Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s reaction to the invasion. Although the Georgian government described the military action as unacceptable, it refused to join in the sanctions imposed by the West. According to Garibashvili: “In the biggest country in Europe, in the biggest state, a war is going on, the capital of Ukraine is being bombed and we see there is no one to stop it. To be direct, sanctions are not an effective means.” Garibashvili’s position was lambasted by many Georgians on social media as “the undignified rhetoric of a pathetic prime minister”. On 1 March, the Georgian government banned volunteer fighters and medical staff from flying out of Georgia, whereupon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi announced that he was recalling his country’s Ambassador from Tbilisi.

A large majority of the Georgian people are calling for their government to give unconditional support to Ukraine and, in the confrontation between Putin and the West, to adopt a clear position in favour of a democratic world. The Georgian Prime Minister’s statement met with a negative reaction in Ukraine as well. He was reminded that when Russia unleashed its aggression against Georgia in August 2008, the then Ukrainian president came to Tbilisi as a sign of solidarity with the Georgian people. Zelenskyi’s response to the Georgian people’s anti-war position was as follows: "there are times when citizens are not the Government, but better [than] the Government."


Tsypylma Darieva

At official level, Azerbaijan is trying to maintain a neutral stance towards both Russia and Ukraine. It is a hard balancing act, as both countries are Azerbaijan’s strategic partners. Kyiv supported Azerbaijan during the second war over Nagorno-Karabakh by emphasising the principle of territorial integrity. Yet as a key player in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia has stationed 2,000 peacekeepers on this territory, and as recently as 22 February, Azerbaijan signed a joint declaration with the Kremlin on ‘allied cooperation’. But Azerbaijani society is not indifferent to the war.

Local media in Azerbaijan, which are under tight state control, are openly expressing their support for Ukraine. Azerbaijan’s humanitarian aid to Kyiv includes deliveries of food and medicine as well as access to free fuel for ambulances and fire engines at 59 SOCAR petroleum stations on the territory of Ukraine. Similar to Turkey, which is Azerbaijan’s main regional ally, the government in Baku has offered to help in peace negotiations. Apart from the older generation that watches Russian television, the reaction of Azerbaijani society seems to be clear, with many citizens publicly showing their solidarity with Ukrainians. On 27 February, hundreds gathered in front of the Ukrainian embassy in Baku. The police did not intervene this time.


Tsypylma Darieva

Armenia has taken a neutral position in reaction to the war in Ukraine. The government in Yerevan is struggling to strike a strategic balance between its security and economic partnership with Russia and its interest in deepening relations with the West. Armenia voted against the recent decision to suspend Russia from the Council of Europe, but it does not plan to recognise the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Russia is hugely important for Armenia not only as an economic partner, but also as a military ally in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan. This puts Armenia in a difficult position. While Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine has largely been met with silence in official discourse, there are some critical voices within civil society and even in politics.

Public opinion is diverse in Armenia, yet two positions reflect the increased polarisation of Armenian society after the ‘Velvet’ Revolution in 2018 and the lost second war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians who subscribe to the pro-Russian position are critical of Ukraine’s support of Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh and object to the sanctions imposed on Russia, which will seriously affect the Armenian economy, given its dependence on labour migration, remittances and trade with Russia. Those aligned with the pro-Ukrainian position are concerned about how Russia will react to Armenia’s long-term collaboration with the West and good relations with the EU and the US. Demonstrations against the invasion of Ukraine have been few and far between, in contrast to the growing number of critical voices and expressions of solidarity on social media.


Beate Eschment

Traditionally, Kazakhstan is close to the Kremlin, although during the early years of its independence after 1991, it was confronted with Russian nationalists’ claims to parts of its sovereign territory close to the border. In light of current events, Kazakhstan is in a difficult position. Despite that, the statements issued so far by Kazakhstan’s leadership show remarkable independence of mind. On 22 February, the Foreign Ministry explicitly rejected any recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Eastern Ukraine, and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, every effort has been made to maintain strict neutrality despite the obvious pressure from Russia for its alliance partners to issue declarations of solidarity. Statements released after talks between Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev merely indicated that they had discussed the economic situation. And notwithstanding the initial peace talks on the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, the Kazakhstani leadership proposed the country’s own capital Nur-Sultan as a venue for future peace negotiations, with Kazakhstan to act as mediator.  

In contrast to the situation in the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan’s media coverage of the events in Ukraine is based on information from both sides. There have also been frequent reports of protests taking place in Almaty and Nur-Sultan since the day of the invasion. Although there are just a few dozen protesters each time, many of the comments posted on social media show that there is a great deal of solidarity with Ukraine. This is also borne out by the fact that social welfare organisations were able to collect 40 million tenge for humanitarian relief within a matter of days, despite the sharp fall in the value of the national currency on foreign exchange markets.


Beate Eschment

Unlike Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic does not share a border with the Russian Federation. However, as one of the poorest of the Soviet Union’s successor states, it is heavily dependent on Russia both economically and in security policy terms. President Sadyr Japarov’s official position is unclear at present. On 23 February, Japarov publicly expressed understanding for Russia’s recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the Donbass and added that recognising a specific country is the sovereign right of any country. The various media reports two days later that President Japarov had voiced his support for Russia’s action in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and had said that Ukraine itself was responsible for it originated with the Russian President’s own press service, however. Japarov’s official website merely makes passing reference to discussions on topics that included the situation in Ukraine. So far, the Kyrgyz leadership has avoided issuing a clear statement. The Ukrainian President therefore recalled his country’s Ambassador from Bishkek on 1 March. Various protests with up to 100 participants outside the Russian and Ukrainian diplomatic missions in Bishkek and Osh are consequently demanding not only an end to the war but also the Kyrgyz government’s unequivocal condemnation of the Russian invasion.


Beate Eschment

Uzbekistan is politically and economically far less dependent on Russia than Kyrgyzstan, but has drawn closer to Moscow politically in the years since the death of former president Islam Karimov. Nevertheless, Tashkent’s reaction was clear when President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, like his Kyrgyz counterpart, was characterised by the Russian president’s press service as a supporter after telephoning with Vladimir Putin. Mirziyoyev’s spokesperson explained in no uncertain terms that Uzbekistan is taking a neutral position in the conflict and that disagreements between states should be resolved on the basis of international legal norms. As in the two neighbouring countries, state-controlled media are striving for neutrality and reporting from both sides. There have been no reports of demonstrations, either in solidarity with Ukraine or against Putin. Even in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan, expressing a political opinion on the street is not an option. On social media, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been strongly condemned.


Sabine von Löwis

The Republic of Moldova has a complex relationship with the war in neighbouring Ukraine. It is embroiled in an unresolved conflict with the Moscow-dependent government of the de facto state of Transnistria, which adds to the current insecurity within the region, both for Ukraine and for Moldova itself, not least due to the presence – since the early 1990s – of around 1500 Russian troops, as well as Transnistria’s own forces.

The government of the Republic of Moldova has sharply criticised Putin’s war against Ukraine and has imposed a 60-day state of emergency. It has closed Moldovan airspace, making it more difficult to enter and exit the country. It also intends to block Russian media, such as Sputnik Moldova, which is aimed at the Russian minority in the country. However, although President Maia Sandu has condemned the war, Moldova has adopted a neutral position towards EU sanctions, justifying this by claiming that it is too dependent on the Russian economy. Within the public at large, there has been an outpouring of solidarity with their neighbours, including the formation of various initiatives to provide relief to people in Ukraine.

Naturally, the government of Transnistria has not voiced any condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, but it is providing accommodation for refugees from Ukraine, some of which is already being used. However, the majority of refugees from Ukraine aim for Moldova or continue onwards to Western Europe.

Despite the Transnistrian government’s loyalty to Russia, fears that the war will spread to their home countries are likely to be equally high among the populations on both sides of the Dniester.

Diana Bogishvili is a researcher and sociologist, Dr Beate Eschment is a researcher and Central Asia expert, Dr Tsypylma Darieva is head of the ZOiS research cluster ‘Migration and Diversity’ and Dr Sabine von Löwis is head of the ‘Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions’ research cluster, all at ZOiS.