In spite of their contested nature, de facto states in the post-Soviet space engage in substantive external relations across a number of sectors, well beyond the dominant relationship they have with their patron. In recent years, confidence building programmes sponsored by the European Union have represented a venue for interactions between local actors in de facto states and the outside world. Such assistance – including capacity building projects and relatively small initiatives aimed at enhancing the social infrastructure in the health and education sector – contributes to the welfare of the local population and is welcomed by de facto authorities. However, for the most part, it is not conducive to more confidence between de facto authorities and parent state, or between local societies and the European Union. This is partly due to the context of the conflicts and contrasting long-term perspectives, but – as will be argued – is also consequence of the way in which these initiatives are framed. Changing the framing of at least some of these initiatives may be a small but meaningful step towards building a more enabling environment around these territories.
What confidence building is understood to mean in de facto states
In both Transnistria and Abkhazia, confidence building is broadly understood as part of the efforts by the international community and the parent state to achieve territorial reintegration. This is largely due to the fact that most external actors have been unequivocal in their support for territorial integrity of the parent state, routinely issuing statements to this effect. There is nothing in the public statements issued by actors such as the European Union that would suggest that they are open about the final status of these entities: territorial integrity of the parent state is unequivocally proposed as the only option they support.
This is a political decision, broadly shared by all EU member states, and there is no reason to believe that this position is going to change any time soon. From the analytical point of view, this can be understood as a fixed point. One of the consequences, is that – as long as it explicitly supports one of the sides – the European Union cannot possibly be seen as a neutral broker in conflict negotiations. Yet, even in this context, the EU is not perceived in de facto states as an inherently hostile actor. In both Abkhazia and Transnistria, authorities are ready and willing to maintain a degree of dialogue with the EU. Beyond official venues for conflict negotiations (5+2 OSCE-led format in the case of Transnistria, Geneva meetings in the case of Abkhazia), authorities in de facto states find themselves interacting with various manifestations of the European Union. For example, they have a direct line of contact with EU-sponsored missions that – albeit in a very different format – patrol their borders: the ‘EU Border Assistance Mission’ (EUBAM) in the case of Transnistria, and the more explicitly conflict-related ‘EU monitoring mission’ (EUMM) in the case of Abkhazia.
De facto authorities also see the EU as a donor, that either directly or through implementing agencies such as UNDP runs programmes aimed at residents of these territories, as well as NGOs based there. Confidence building programmes represent the “umbrella” under which an important part of these initiatives have been taking place for a few years. For example, the programme “Support to Confidence Building Measures Programme” has been established by the EU in 2009 to approach the conflict in Transnistria, and is currently running its fourth iteration. COBERM (Confidence Building Early Response Mechanism) has been set-up by the EU in 2010 to address conflicts in Georgia, and is currently running through its third iteration, COBERM-3. Both initiatives have a relatively small total budget (between one and four million euro per year); COBERM in particular sponsors mostly small, short term projects, aimed at increasing dialogue among communities.
However, among the various ongoing initiatives sponsored by external governmental and non-governmental actors, it is exactly confidence building programmes that raise most suspicion in de facto authorities. In an interview with this author, a representative of de facto authorities in Sukhumi suggested that at some point they may openly request for such initiatives to be interrupted, as sometimes they feel like people have been using their conflict, suffering, and history to – effectively – earn some money and make tours. Beyond that, quite simply, confidence building initiatives of this kind do not contribute to the goals of the de facto leadership.
Confidence building, sweeter by any other name?
Some of the projects financed under these programmes indeed focus specifically on peace-building initiatives, mostly address civil society actors, and should continue along current lines. In many cases, however, acknowledging that straightforward confidence building initiatives may not be viable or fruitful in these contexts, local officers pragmatically decline confidence building measures as – effectively – capacity building projects or traditional development assistance. It is argued here that this approach should not only be welcomed, but also strengthened and institutionalised, since framing capacity building initiatives as confidence building contributes to defeat their nominal purpose, and hinders their implementation.
This is due to the fact that authorities and individuals in de facto states often look suspiciously at such interventions, assuming that their final goal is territorial reintegration with the parent state, rather than their welfare. This state of affairs leads to a paradoxical situation. If similar programmes were labelled as development assistance or capacity building, they would likely be received more warmly by local authorities and residents alike, thus increasing confidence of local societies towards international organisations and perhaps even the parent state. On the contrary, the label of ‘confidence building’ politicises what could otherwise be welcomed as humanitarian or development assistance; as things stand, de facto states remain understandably suspicious of the motivations behind these initiatives, and disapprove of the seemingly unaltruistic nature of assistance.
Surpassing the triple bottleneck of assistance to de facto states
The framing and substance of external assistance to de facto states (beyond that received from their patron) is the result of a triple bottleneck: assistance must be acceptable for de facto authorities, for the central government in the parent state, and must focus on aspects that international donors are willing to fund. “Confidence building in form, capacity building in content” is one of the formula that made it possible for continued operation of international programmes in Transnistria and Abkhazia. It is less than ideal, but it has served its purpose.
The parent states appreciate the framing of confidence building, as they feel such efforts contribute to their declared goal of territorial reintegration. As long as the contents are not exclusively focused on the conflict dimension, de facto authorities see the benefits of programmes that in some circumstances complement assistance they receive from the patron. Finally, maintaining the label of confidence building allows donors such as the European Union to implement meaningful projects while leaving out of the question the issue of conditionality, that would anyway be effectively impossible to apply in the context of de facto states that receive considerable assistance from a patron that exerts different (and mostly implicit) conditionality.
However, as has been argued, the current setting is less than ideal: it contributes in some form to the welfare of local residents, it maintains a channel of communication open, but it is hardly conducive to increased confidence between key actors. Besides, this framing discourages local actors from taking ownership of EU-sponsored initiatives and programmes. Is there a way to enlarge the bottleneck, i.e. to ensure that activities are acceptable to all actors involved, while creating the space to implement projects in a context that encourages ownership of relevant initiatives by local stakeholders and is at the same time conducive to actual confidence building? Changing the framing of some initiatives currently being sponsored within confidence building programmes would be a small step, but one in the right direction.
Of course, the approach outlined above is not new, and indeed, in the context of post-Soviet de facto states there are a number of initiatives sponsored by the European Union and other donors that do not employ the language of confidence building. For example, the EU is currently implementing in Abkhazia a 4 million USD programme on rural development (the ENPARD II programme – European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development) which is no way related to confidence building mechanisms. Fundamentally, the reasoning proposed here should not be construed as suggesting a decrease in the already limited resources dedicated to confidence building, which is certainly not a sector that has been funded with particular generosity. Quite on the contrary, in the case of Georgia, even within the EU budget dedicated to issues related to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, much more EU resources are invested in the EU monitoring mission (with a yearly budget of 18,3 million Euro as of 2017) than in confidence building programmes such as Coberm (Coberm II had 5 million euro budget in total for three years), or other forms of assistance targeting residents in these territories.
To summarise, it is argued that shifting the framing of assistance (as well as resources) away from conflict-related terminology and initiatives and towards labels and practices such as ‘inclusive capacity development’ or ‘inclusive growth’ (which is already mentioned as the single ‘focus area’ of the ongoing EU/UNDP confidence building programme related to Transnistria) may bring positive externalities, including an enabling environment that would be more conducive to trust and confidence among stakeholders and local societies. While geopolitical context and realities on the field make it difficult to imagine a radical change in perceptions in the foreseeable future, such an approach would contribute to build a positive image of the European Union and other external actors involved, and send the message that other external actors – besides the patron – are willing to commit themselves to enhance the welfare and livelihood of local residents in post-Soviet de facto states.