In many ways the 2008 conflict between the Russian Federation and Georgia was a surprise. It would be too much to say that the former USSR was peaceful before that event, but there had been no new outbreaks of major violence since the collapse of Soviet power. The major conflicts of the post-Soviet period – the fighting in Chechnya, the ongoing disputes over Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia and Ossetia, and the civil war in Tajikistan (which ended in 1997) – all started during, or were provoked by, the collapse of the USSR. Most of these conflicts have never really ended, but they have ‘frozen’ due to stalemate or Russian force. Consequently, whilst they are not free of violence, the violence they have suffered has been generally low in intensity and extensity. Where there has been new conflict it has been short-lived and localised. Clashes between state forces, rebel and other armed groups in various parts of the former USSR since 1991, such as the fighting in Moscow following the closure of parliament in 1993, or in Central Asia with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) after 1999, were either small-scale or contained, and did not spread despite some apocalyptic warnings. Violence against civilians in the form of human rights violations has in at least one case – Andijan in Uzbekistan in 2005 – led to large-scale loss of life, but, again, the violence was contained and short-lived as mass and open fighting and repression. There has been violence during political succession struggles, as during the 2005 ‘Tulip Revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan. However, again, the extensity of conflict associated with these events is low so that in the post-Soviet space overall the scale of new conflicts, the Russo-Georgian war aside, has been relatively low.
This zone of comparative stability across the former USSR is the topic of this chapter. It discusses why there has been no widespread violence – in the form of civil war or interstate conflict in the region – since 1991. It then examines whether this absence of conflict can be expected to continue in the near future. In particular, it will focus on Central Asia and Russia, although mention will be made of other cases too, and to the relationship between domestic politics and civil war and interstate conflict. Russia and Central Asia are areas where more conflict has been expected than has occurred, and where gauging the prospects and sources of future conflict is important because of their geopolitical and economic significance. They are also broadly comparable to other parts of the former USSR, so that understanding them – and the potential for conflict within them – may give us some clue to the reasons for conflict in other post-Soviet areas in the past, and the prospects for future conflict there.