Sabine von Löwis: “It will still be necessary to be on site.”


Which countries and which topic does your current research focus on?

Currently, I am researching everyday life in conflict in Transnistria. I am interested in how people perceive the conflict situation and how it restricts and influences their everyday lives. A second project deals with changes in everyday life in the border regions of Ukraine. These regions are currently under pressure for various reasons. The annexation of Crimea by Russia, the war in Eastern Ukraine, and more nationalist and populist politics in Ukraine and some neighbouring countries are changing the relations between the countries and the situation in the border regions in a very concrete way. I am interested in these developments and why they are happening.

What impact does the pandemic currently have on your work?

I wanted to do field research in Transnistria this summer. My plan was to reach out to younger generations. I thought about running a seminar together with a colleague at Taras Shevchenko University. Unfortunately, this is not possible now because strict entry rules for Transnistria and the Republic of Moldova are still in place, for good reasons. I probably could do it later on, using all the experience of digital teaching and learning gained during the pandemic. However, one problem might be obtaining the necessary equipment in the region, and face-to-face contact is still very important. A Research project in Ukrainian border regions is going to start in autumn, but fieldwork will not be possible so soon, and it won’t be as easy as it used to be. Some border regions are already tense places to research, and Covid 19 does not make access easier.

How has Covid-19 influenced your research topic / the objective of your research?

Covid-19 has so far not changed my topics and the goals of my research significantly. On the contrary, developments across the world have shown how quickly practices at borders change in response to a threat, and how much this interferes with the everyday lives of many people who live in these regions and are used to crossing borders undisturbed. These very obvious developments encourage me to ask how border regions and people's everyday lives change if the politics and interests of neighbouring countries, rather than a virus, are perceived as a threat.

Right now I am very interested in the everyday lives of people in Transnistria. From my research in the past year, I know that medical care in Transnistria is not without its problems and that the economic situation is not easy either. Many people depend on remittances from family members who work abroad. These income sources have now fallen away. In this respect, the pandemic is exacerbating the current situation. The de facto state government has to do even more to prove that it is able to meet its citizens’ needs.

In your view, what are the most important long-term effects of Covid-19 in your region?

Transnistria, like other de facto states such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh and conflict regions such as Eastern Ukraine, is already characterised by a very tense and problematic economic situation with corresponding social problems. The consequences of Covid-19 will confront the regions and societies with even greater challenges than they are used to in everyday life. Many negative trends are intensifying; among other things, outmigration will increase if possible again. At the same time, it will make weaknesses and vulnerabilities even more obvious.

Looking at the social sciences / your discipline, how will the experience of the pandemic change how research is done in general?

I do not think the pandemic will change research methods significantly. But it may take some time before we can use various direct interview and observation methods in the regions again. In the meantime, methods may be developed that make greater use of digital media. In order to research everyday life, however, it will still be necessary to be on site and to spend time with people. Certainly new questions will be asked. The effects of Covid-19 are massive. Looking at conflicts, it will be interesting to analyse what a “wildcard” like the Covid-19 pandemic does to the conflict areas. How do those involved in the conflict deal with it? Are there any surprising twists or turns in the conflict situation or does the conflict situation get worse? As much as it complicates people's everyday lives and poses great challenges to any society, it is also a real-life experiment that can raise new questions and offer new opportunities for understanding and dealing with conflicts.

Sabine von Löwis a social geographer at ZOiS. She is the coordinator of the research cluster Conflict Dynamics and Border Regions.