Alternative Reality: Ghost Republics of the Former Soviet Bloc

In 2015, Polish reporter Tomasz Grzywaczewski embarked on a journey to the so-called ghost republics that span from Donbas to Abkhazia, to South Ossetia, and to mountainous Karabakh. His travels resulted in him penning a book about the historical processes and big politics. What he saw in the shadows of ongoing conflicts is that there is still life and people who dream of peace.

Błażej Lenkowski, Liberté! (BL): In your opinion, are the so-called unrecognized states currently a part of an alternative reality? Or are they rather the manifestations of a kind of legal fiction and despite that their citizens can function in a normal manner, which is enabled by the patron of such a situation, namely, Russia?

These states stand somewhat astride – Transnistria is here a good example. They indeed function in an alternative world, because they have their own currency – Transnistrial ruble – that is not used anywhere else in the world. Actually, the majority of people who play Monopoly are rather similar to the Transnistrian population. Iit is even possible that we have a similar amount of money that come from a board game, as the people who own Transnistrial rubles – yet, the value of this currency outside of “the game” but within the borders of the country is similar to that of a piece of paper.

BL: Does the status of these states differ?

Each one is a microcosm that deserves to be recognized.

BL: Does any one of these have any real chance of gaining independence?

I don’t think this is possible for Transnistria as there is no national identity there. Well, officially there is – for the past quarter of a century, a myth of one civic nation of Transnistria, consisting of three ethnoses – Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans existed. However, I have come across only three people who said that they are Transnistrians – Professor Nikolai Babilunga – co-creator of the identity ideology, a young boy who passionately insisted we spread the news of the existence of Transnistrians (people who do not identify themselves as Moldovans) once we come back to Poland, and Mr Nikolai Buczawki, who is a descendant of the Polish-Russian nobility of the times of the First Polish Republic. He is a remarkable person as he fights for a democratic, multi-nation Transnistria that would respect human rights and the rule of law. A beautiful idea as it is, with all its romantic quality, for me Buczawski appears as a kind of a knight-errant. Apart from him, I have never came across anyone who would consider themselves to be Transnistrian citizens.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is Abkhazia. Abkhazians have their own language, culture, yet, they undergo Russification very quickly. And this is terrifying, because it might turn out that Russia gave them independence, yet it refused them the right to their own identity.

BL: Is this a deliberate Russian endeavor? Or maybe Russia is simply so culturally strong that it comes naturally to Abkhazians to adopt its language and culture?

I believe this is a result of various factors that contribute to such developments. First of all, Abkhazians are utterly anti-Georgian. They have some good reasons for it, too. Georgians, in my opinion, treated them in a very cruel manner back at the beginning of the 1990s. Abkhazians rebelled and demanded autonomy. As a consequence, President of Georgia Zwiad Gamasachurdia released the so-called Mkhedrioni – a radical nationalistic para-military organization that consisted mostly of armed bandits.

And this is how the “order” was introduced into Abkhazia. In light of being cut off from Georgia, they naturally turned to Russia; especially in terms of the economy, but also the military, because if it was not for the Russian support, Georgians would likely take over this territory.

Abkhazians also tend to adopt Russian. The language has entered the region as a lingua franca – you must learn it in order to be able to function in the post-Soviet area. This is precisely how the people in the region undergo Russifiction. I spoke with one of the Abkhazian state officers – when asked whether they fear Russification, he replied: “What is there to be afraid of, we’re already Russified”.

BL: In your opinion, would it be a natural consequence to incorporate Abkhazia or Transnistria into the Russian Federation? Or maybe Russia does not want and instead intends to further destabilize the situation in Georgia and Moldova?

I think it would pay off, especially after the signing of the new cooperation agreements with Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008. These agreements give Russia full control over these territories.

BL: Does this mean that the mechanism of maintaining the fiction has been already created?

Yes. The authorities of South Ossetia threaten from time to time that they shall organize a referendum about the incorporation into Russia, but they say this only for the sake of internal politics. The citizens of South Ossetia wish to be incorporated into Russia, but they will not go through with it. First of all, because Russia prefers to have control over an unrecognized state. Secondly, the elites are not interested in such an incorporation. After all, it is better to be the president of South Ossetia than merely a governor of a province.

BL: Do you think that this kind of politics will be further reinforced? Do you see any areas where Russia can still employ the strategy of cutting away parts of the territories of their neighbors?

Yes. I believe that due to the existence of the Russian minority in the Baltic states, they could become the next target. I also believe that the situation in Ukraine is not over yet. Further attempts to create new republics might still take place. I would, however, look farther, outside of the post-Soviet region, and focuse on Western Europe. I think that these mechanisms are likely to be transferred across the continent – what may already be observed in the case of Catalonia and Padania.

BL: Will Russia fiercely support all separatists movements in order to weaken the unity of the European Union?

Actually, to weaken the integrity of the Western states in general, I would say. For years there existed a threat of Basque terrorism; why shouldn’t they introduce well-organized Catalan terrorism supported by Russia? Let’s not focus only on Eastern Europe – this is a mechanism that applies to the entire Europe. Let’s not look only at the situation in Ukraine, but also at what is happening in Zakarpattia with regard to the Hungarian minority. Recently, two Poles who set fire to the center of Hungarian culture in the region were arrested. These were the people who had ties to radical nationalist website xportalpl, financed by Russia. Nice move, truly – Poles financed by Moscow set fire in Zakarpattia in order to drive a wedge between Hungarians and Ukrainians.

The interview was inspired by a recently published book by Tomasz Grzywaczewski, Granice marzeń. O państwach nieuznawanych, and was originally published in Polish at: