Ukraine, Kosovo, and Transnistria: Europe’s ‘frozen’ conflicts, or the continent’s ‘festering’ crises?

by Sarah Coolican, Research Associate, LSE IDEAS

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The type of conflicts the world has been witnessing since the fall of the Soviet Union, is different in nature to the European wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. These conflicts now have a very different basis; the actors are no longer regular forces but networks of state and non-state actors, the goals are about identity and affiliation rather than empires, and identity is constructed during the processes of war, as opposed to a cause for war. These types of wars have very different tactics, and their logic leads to the persistence of conflict as both sides are interested in the enterprise of war itself. The conflicts that have come to define the modern territories of Ukraine, Kosovo and Transnistria have been as well known for their tactics and aims as they are for their unresolved nature. These conflicts within nation-states have been present since the fall of the Soviet Union, and even the most recent conflict in Ukraine, which began in 2014, is still seven years unresolved. But are these conflicts frozen, stuck in a state of impasse where stagnation seems to infect all aspects of politics and society? Or are they in fact festering conflicts, where the state of play is changing and mutating, as the post-Soviet space oscillates between the status-quo of the EU and a revisionist Russia?

Much is spoken about Russia’s role in these conflicts, in terms of Russia’s broader interests in Europe and key geopolitical aims. However, there is another, much neglected, aspect that has played a significant role in the mutation of these conflicts – the effects of civil society. The conflicts in these territories have been designed to preserve instability – an aim of revisionist powers – with the added effect of restraining civil society. What has occurred, however, is the opposite; a consolidation of a population around a civic identity, that seeks to unite and stand strong in the face of aggressors.

Ukraine: failures of the state and resolve of the public

Seven years after Russia annexed Crimea and sent troops into Eastern Ukraine, and six years after the Minsk Protocol agreement, the Donbas is still in a stalemate. Former President Poroshenko ultimately met his political demise in 2019, heavily influenced by his failure to thaw the conflict in the East and his complacency in allowing political and economic reforms to stagnate. Political crises after crises, saw an acceleration of the erosion of public faith in the state. Upon President Zelensky’s election in 2019, civil society in Ukraine has grown, and now all these years on, Ukrainian resolve has resulted in a unified population, resulting in the ever-festering conflict changing in shape, style and longevity.

Since the onset of Russian military operations, the Ukrainian authorities have failed to grasp many opportunities for unification and have systematically failed to support their civilians. This has led to people in conflict areas becoming tired and disaffected. Civil society, however, has become a very powerful factor in Ukraine, seeking to compensate for state inefficiencies and unproductive actions. As this collective unity has grown, the seven-year crisis continues with no sign of resolution. Russia has created new enemies but no new allies, and the unoccupied Ukrainian territories have only further unified against Russia. What is at play here is much more than the territories themselves, it is the struggle of identities, struggle of progression versus historical precedent, it is the pull between regimes, between East and West. The stakes have become too high for either side to back down and the Ukrainian conflict has become a festering crisis in which a war of identities has formed. The strengthening of civil society in Ukraine is most certainly decisive in all of this. The state’s inability to look after its population has resulted in communal resolve and civic engagement stepping in in times of crisis. This has ensured that the conflict, far from being frozen, is constantly subject to change.

Kosovo: civil society as a product of war

Since 2008, a total of 113 United Nations member states have formally recognised Kosovo’s independence, although as of 2021, 15 states have withdrawn that declaration, and long-standing opponents to Kosovo independence include Serbia, Russia and China. While this deprives Kosovo of official and unanimous global recognition, it has become a member of many international institutions including the IMF and the World Bank. These conflicting acceptances and rejections of Kosovo’s status is certainly a factor in the unique nature and extended longevity of this conflict. Kosovo is often pigeonholed into a ‘conflict with Serbia’, but there is so much more to what allows this crisis to be festering. Economic as well as political stagnation, the brain-drain of the younger generation and oligarchism, have resulted in the continuation of this crisis as it mutates into different forms. Corruption and the low capabilities of political institutions means that civil society has failed to flourish at a healthy pace, and democratic institutions are under constant strain.

In 2020, Elma Demir from Balkan Insight, used the Hague Tribunal archives to show how economic violence like theft and property expropriation was conducted against citizens in the 1990s, which in turn financed the continuation of military operations. Demir notes that civilians of Kosovo were prevented from reclaiming their homes, and property was relocated to the state. Economic violence like this means the consequences of conflict persist much longer than the consequences of military action. Land, houses and other valuables serve as resources in a war economy, and control over the allocation of such resources provides extensive wealth and power for political and military leaders. The economic nature of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia facilitated the emergence of criminal groups and provided them with connections to the political establishment, through illegal trafficking and smuggling networks. This has led to extensive socio-economic damage across the civilian population and acts as a continued hinderance to the development of political and judicial forces, alongside a vibrant and active civil society.

But to dismiss Kosovo as a ‘quasi-nation state’ stuck in a frozen and unresolvable dispute would be amiss. In recent years, there has been a local, grassroots movement from Kosovan civilians to alter the course of this festering crisis. An initiative supported by the UN’s Human Rights Section titled, ‘Engaging with civil society on human rights monitoring and reporting’, has resulted in upwards of 20 human rights civil society organisations in Kosovo publishing a joint report in June 2020 on the human rights situation inside the state. This report is the result of a civilian-initiated and third sector-led participatory process which has brought together representatives of civil society organisations from different ethnic backgrounds, living in Kosovo. The significance of this report cannot be overstated. Human rights violations in the country, both historical and ongoing, have been a point of contention since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The answer to who was responsible for these abuses has traditionally been answered along ethnic lines – the Muslim majority in Kosovo, backed by Albania, have blamed the Serbs and the Serbian minority in Kosovo have pointed to the Albanians. Civil society has made huge steps in recent times, and this report is just one example of a population’s sustained push to move past old divisive ideas and unite in human rights advocacy. Localised civil society organisations have once again stepped in to create the necessary changes to move this festering crisis towards a resolution.

Transnistria: Moldova now seeks to lead by example

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, pro-Russian separatists have controlled the territory of Transnistria, drawing support from the Russian military presence and troops who have remained there as a legacy from Soviet times. As Transnistria is situated on the borders of The Republic of Moldova, it seems shocking that for too many years the Transnistrian conflict has not been a political priority for Moldovan authorities. Ignoring this conflict has kept Moldova stagnating, as it seeks to battle the political stalemate it has within its own nation. The pervasive factor in the Transnistrian crisis has been stagnation due to corruption – one of Moldova’s own major impediments to growth. Civil society organisations, therefore, have arisen at various points to seek a resolution to this conflict on their own. To create a vision, to raise concern in the international community, and to inspire hope among the Transnistrian population.

The December 2020 Moldovan presidential elections, however, saw the removal of pro-Russian president Igor Dodon, and the first female President, Maia Sandu, assume office. President Sandu is far more pro-EU and has consistently demanded the removal of Russian forces from Transnistria. Dr Cristina Gerasimov has spoken of the push in Moldova to ‘be better’, to be less corrupt, to provide a viable and attractive alternative to the stagnant and unfree society of Transnistria. This aim is echoed by the new Moldovan President who has stated her desire to consult with civil society representatives across both territories, in the search to establish a rule of law and to find citizen-led solutions to help both Moldova and Transnistria emerge from this festering political crisis.

What now?

These conflicts were designed to be frozen and to create an impasse in each respective territory. In the case of Ukraine and Transnistria, Russia’s role was certainly geopolitical and sought to pull these territories back towards Moscow. In the case of Kosovo, the abandonment of any claims of independence is sought by Serbia. Contrary to these efforts, what has occurred is a sustained push from the civil society sector in each respective state to create an ambitious reform agenda, pursue international acceptance from EU members, and unite internal populations devastated by these conflicts, especially where the state has failed to act. This strengthening of civil society has played a defining role in the development of these conflicts, the events on the ground and the political aspirations of their respective populations. What the future holds for the region is hard to predict, but watching the EU Eastern Partnership’s progress, alongside continuous analysis of measures such as the Freedom House Democracy Index, will surely provide a current and up-to-date picture of civil society’s ongoing effects here.

If you would like to hear more about the ongoing developments in these conflicts, click here to listen to the podcast of our event with Professor Marly Kaldor, James Sherr, Julia Himmrich and Christina Gherasimov.

Sarah is the Program Coordinator for the Central and South Eastern Europe Program at LSE IDEAS. She has a BA in Politics and Eastern European Studies from UCL, and an MSc in International Relations from LSE. Her research interests include modern Russian society and politics and the post-Soviet space. Twitter: @Sarah_Coolican

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