The landscape view of Karabakh mountains
The South Caucasus is a region that borders with the regional powers of the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey and includes internationally recognised states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and three unrecognised or partially recognised states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have developed diverging foreign policy orientations, which embody their distinctive prospects for their countries, the whole region, and relations with neighbouring countries and international actors. At the basis of these approaches there are the often politically exploited thorny issues related to the disputed territories within the South Caucasus, which have contributed to rise cleavages among states in the region and in the neighbourhood. Although at a different level, concerns over nationalistic tendencies, endemic corruption, lack of respect of minorities as well as of human rights, democracy and rule of law are being reported in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and in the breakaway territories.
Georgia has made the most unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with the European Union, NATO, and European political, economic and security institutions. Among other factors, the decision relates to Georgian demands of regaining control over the breakaway entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as to the troublesome Georgian-Russian relations that the strife has contributed to sharpen. Although at times wavering, Georgia’s has made substantial progresses towards closer integration with the European Union, as witnessed by the decision of the European Parliament (February 2017) to grant a visa waiver for Georgian citizens entering the European Union for short stays. 
Armenia has prioritized closer relations with Russia, mainly because of security considerations related, but not limited, to the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, and joined the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) as well as the Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Armenia is seeking to balance its foreign policy by establishing closer tailored ties with the European Union as a member of the Eastern Partnership.
Unlike Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan has adopted a more independent foreign policy agenda focused mainly on economic cooperation with international actors, thanks to its vast wealth of oil and gas resources. Azerbaijan maintains a strong and significant bilateral relations with Turkey, a country with which it shares cultural, religious and linguistic ties. Despite disagreements on specific domains, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan is trying to establish a friendly relations with the European Union and Russia.
A complex situation has emerged in the South Caucasus after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a result of the region’s historical peculiarities, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity, Soviet legacy, strategic position and energy resources. These circumstances have created instability, friction and hostilities in the region, particularly in relation to the three heavily disputed areas of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, whose status remain ambiguous. Amid ongoing instability, regional fragmentation, and simmering tensions, these protracted conflicts remain unsolved and negotiations on their peaceful settlement are deadlocked.
The de facto Republic of Abkhazia, de jure belonging to Georgia, is a direct result of the ethno-political conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia in early 1990s. The conflict is rooted in concerns of ethnic Abkhaz over losing their identity while being a part of the newly independent Georgia. The demands of Abkhazia for greater autonomy increased as the Soviet Union unravelled, nationalism was rife, tensions flared, and a 13-month war broke out in 1992. As a result of the conflict nearly 12.000 people were killed and tens of thousands of Georgians were forced to leave their homes in Abkhazia. In 1993 the sides involved in the conflict signed a ceasefire, while in 1999 Abkhazia declared independence. However, it is worth to mention that ceasefire between the parties was repeatedly violated in May 1998, October 2001, July 2006 and finally in August 2008.  Following the August 2008 Russian-Georgian War over South Ossetia, the Russian Federation, along with a handful of other states, officially recognised the independence of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia), and in 2009 allowed military base there.  Georgia considers Abkhazia as a breakaway region and these actions as a violation of its territorial integrity. Since then, relations between Russia and Abkhazia have strengthened and in 2014 the parties have signed a treaty on ‘alliance and strategic partnership’, which foresees closer cooperation in the areas of defence, foreign policy, customs and border control, law enforcement, education and social welfare. 
Alike Abkhazia, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict flared-up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is rooted in the secession demands of South Ossetia from Georgia and over the status of the de facto Republic of South Ossetia within Georgia. Tensions erupted in the 1991-1992 South Ossetia War leaving some 2,000 dead, 120 missing, extensive destruction of homes and infrastructures, and a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).  Despite the 1992 ceasefire and peace talks efforts, clashes have continued to occur in the region. With the 2006 elections and referendum, South Ossetians overwhelmingly voted for independence – results being not recognised by the Georgian government – while the minority of South Ossetia’s ethnic Georgians voted to stay as part of Georgia.  Resumed tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia military forces in spring 2008 led to the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which lasted five days until a ceasefire agreement was reached. According to official Georgian sources, military operations started as a reaction to provocations from South Ossetia and the direct threat of a Russian aggression. Meanwhile Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the reasons of Russian troops deployment to South Ossetia was the aggression of Georgian forces and the consequent humanitarian crisis, 30 thousands refugees fleeing the region, loss of Russian peacekeepers and South Ossetians lives. Shortly afterwards, Russian Federation officially recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent entities. Since then, tensions and skirmishes have been reported on both sides.
The roots of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan traces back the early 1920s when Josef Stalin, the acting People’s Commissar of Nationalities, decided to establish the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an Armenian ethnic majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Whereas the struggle seemingly died down for decades under Soviet control, the question of the Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In this period, Karabakh Armenians called for a reunification with Armenia, resulting in demonstrations, confrontations, large numbers of refugees leaving Azerbaijan and Armenia, and violence against minorities – such as anti-Armenian pogroms in Azeri cities, namely in Baku, Sumgait and Kirovobad.  As both Azerbaijan and Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and Karabakh Armenians overwhelmingly voted in favour (99.89%) of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh state in a referendum boycotted by the Azeri population of Karabakh, the strife escalated in a subsequent full-scale ethno-political conflict.  The war caused thousands of casualties, atrocities, and an immense number of refugees and IDPs on both sides. In 1994 internationally mediated ceasefire signed between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan put an end to the violent conflict leaving Nagorno-Karabakh and a buffer zone in Azeri territory around the enclave in hands of ethnic Armenians.  Despite diplomatic progresses have occurred at times, since the truce, internationally brokered talks to settle the dispute have not succeeded. Negotiations on a peaceful “settlement based on mutual compromise” as advanced in the 2007 Madrid Principles mainly include “the return under Baku’s control of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by ethnic Armenian forces; the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh; return of displaced persons; and security guarantees”. However, the struggle remains a tool of political influence for both sides, and numerous ceasefire violations have been reported. Among these, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution in January 2016 deploring the deliberate deprivation of water to inhabitants of frontier regions of Azerbaijan and the creation “of similar humanitarian and environmental problems for the citizens of Azerbaijan living in the Lower Karabakh valley”. As both sides have increased their defence spending and built up their military capacities, incidents and exchanges of fire have intensified since 2014, while in April 2016 fierce clashes took place leaving hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead. Renewed OSCE Minsk Group efforts resulted in Armenian and Azeri commitment to resolve the conflict peacefully, however since mid-2016 progresses are stalled, the situation on the ground deteriorates and the risk of new escalations of hostilities is high.
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 Сергей Маркедонов. Грузино-абхазский конфликт 1992-2012. URL: http://politcom.ru/14358.html․Дата обращения: 09.04.2017
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As Transdniestrians celebrate Victory Day with a military parade – complete with Soviet-era tank – Russian [and Transnistrian] flags line the streets of Tiraspol. Photo by Thomas Vanden Driessche, Institute, in Zuckerman C. “The Country that Doesn’t Exist”, Picture Stories, National Geographic, 23/03/2017.
The small Republic of Moldova is one of the post-Soviet states facing a conflict on its territory over the unrecognized self-proclaimed region of Transnistria, officially known as Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic. Located between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and it is since then undergoing a transition both in the sphere of politics, economics and within its society.
The river Dniester separates the state into two parts, which differ in their history and attitude, but were amalgamated into the Moldovan Soviet Socialistic Republic in 1940. The Transnistrian part situated on the Eastern side of the river was harbouring the industrial economic sector and was inhabited mainly by Soviet, Russian-speaking elites, while the Western part of the country was an agricultural hub with cultural and linguistic ties to Romania. The way to independence was accompanied by an emancipation movement which strove to break with Soviet and Russian predominance over Moldova. The Soviet elites in Transnistria opposed this development to safeguard the Soviet and Russian ascendancy in the political and cultural spheres and feared discrimination. At the same time, they refused to accept any subordination to Chisinau and yearned to keep a direct and privileged connection to Moscow. They also refused a reunification with Romania, which parts of the Moldovan population aspired to achieve.
With military support of the Soviet and later Russian 14th army, stationed near Tiraspol, the Transnistrians gained control of the area eastward of the Dniester as well as of the city of Bender, which is located on the Western bank of the river. The attempt by Chisinau to win back Bender led to a short war in 1992, with several hundred casualties and around 100.000 people fleeing the region. On behalf of the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic (TMR), Russia reached a ceasefire agreement with Moldova, which included a trilateral border regime and cemented the separation of the Transnistrian area. Since then, all attempts to reintegrate the TMR into Moldova have failed. In 1994 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) tried to reach a consensus involving not only Moldova and Transnistria but also Russia and Ukraine. In 2003 Russia proposed the so-called “Kozak-Memorandum” which suggested a reunification, while at the same time granting strong autonomy to Transnistria. Moldova refused the proposal, fearing that a veto right for Transnistria would block any decision from Chisinau and secure the influence of Moscow, which has kept its military presence in the breakaway region up to date. In 2005, the so-called “5+2” negotiation format was established between the sides, Moldova and TMR, as well as the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States. However, also this format has failed to make any progress regarding the disputed status of the TMR. The EU further intensified its engagement by launching a European Boarder Assistance Mission in Moldova and Ukraine to strengthen the control of movements across the border from and to the TMR.
Since 1992, the TMR has built up a de facto statehood and it has strived for integration with Russia. In 2006 the majority of its inhabitants voted for an incorporation with Russia. Up to date, Russia has neither recognized the TMR as a state nor it has showed willingness to incorporate the TMR into the Russian Federation. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 raised hopes regarding a Russian change of mind, however, the developments in neighbouring Ukraine have actually worsened the situation of the small unrecognized Republic for two reasons. Firstly, the TMR is highly dependent on financial aid and loans for energy supply from Moscow, which it in fact does not pay back. This support is endangered by the costs of the economic crisis and the conflict in Ukraine for Russia. Secondly, since the founding of the TMR, the economy of Transnistria and its elites profited from a flourishing trade over the Transnistrian-Ukrainian border, which also included illegal trading. Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation, Kiev is much more willing to prevent these trade flows, because it views the TMR, with its Russian military presence, as a threat to its security and the stability in the region around Odessa.
For the time being there is no settlement in sight for the disputed Transnistria region due to various reasons. The Transnistrian elites oppose reunification because the de facto statehood of the TMR is at the basis of their influence and economic privileges. For Chisinau, a reintegration of Transnistria would be costly with respect to political will, economic and financial resources. The political conflict over the diverging foreign policy orientations deepen these cleavages. While the TMR opts for integration with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, Moldova seeks rapprochement with the EU, regardless of shrinking public support for this course. On the Moldovan side there is no will to strive for reunification and people on both sides of the Dniester have come to accept the division of the country. As a matter of fact, in 2015 just 9% of Moldovans believed that reintegration was among the three most important questions regarding the future of the country.
 Vahl, Marius; Emerson, Michael: Moldova and the Transnistrian conflict. In: JEMIE – Journal on Ethno-politics and Minority Issues in Europe (2004), 1, 29 pages. URN: http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-61961.
 Institutul de Politici Publice: Barometer of Public Opinion. November 2015.