De facto states research unit

Overview of 2023: De Facto States’ Quest for Survival and Viability


The De Facto States Research Unit looks back at the developments in the lesser recognised world in 2023. In every year we have published such overviews (2021, 2022), we have seen the world around de facto states and secessionist entities become more and more unstable. This trend continues in 2023, with two themes becoming rather in common among this set of actors. Firstly, as the power structures that have sustained many of these entities “unfreeze,” windows of opportunity open for changing the status quo on the ground. Sadly, we are yet to see any of these changes being in the direction of peaceful conflict resolution, rather, they are pursued through force. The second recurring theme in the 2023 overview is that with their powerful patrons otherwise engaged, de facto states are struggling with “keeping the lights on,” and proving not only to the world, but also to themselves, that they are able to afford their state. Given these trajectories, and keeping 2023 events in mind, one can only conclude that for the lesser recognised world, the outlook for 2024 is not very good.

The Republic of Abkhazia

Many of Abkhazia’s main issues in 2023 carry over from last year. But at the centre of everything seem to be the questions how to improve Abkhazia’s economy, and, directly related to that, how much access can be given to Russian money and to the Russian state before Abkhazia is engulfed. Right at the start of 2023, Abkhazia’s long-term energy crisis worsens as water levels drop at the Inguri power station. In February, rolling blackouts are extended. Following public protests, the government initiates a task force to combat the illegal yet popular crypto-mining which has been exacerbating the crisis. Thousands of devices are seized through February, another large crypto-mining farmis found in December. Spring floods in April bring unexpected relief, allowing the Inguri HPP to resume normal operation, and blackouts to be cancelled. But supply deficit issues remain. In November, it emerges that Russia, which following a 2020 agreement has partially covered Abkhazia’s energy deficit and counted it as humanitarian aid, is now demanding payment, estimated to be 2 million USD. In a show of internal tensions regarding foreign investments, the parliament adopts a law whereby the leasing of any hydroelectric power plant exceeding the capacity of 5MW – whether operational or not – would require parliamentary approval. The aim is to stop any administrative decisions regarding privatization that might be unprofitable to the republic.

Abkhazians face an intensifying cost-of-living crisis, although minimum wage doubles from January for private sector employees. Russia’s temporary ban on exporting petrol and diesel fuel, issued in September due to domestic shortages, causes further price hikes in Abkhazia. Tourism season, usually a significant contributor to the economy, is also a bust: while the overall number of tourists is on a comparable level to previous years, they are staying for shorter periods, and spending less. In July, unusually heavy downpours flood the coastal areas, destroying roads and railways and disrupting power and water supplies. Resort areas in Gagra and Pitsunda are among the most affected.

Housing costs have also gone up significantly since 2022, due to increased demand from foreigners. While they are forbidden to buy property, the law is virtually ignored, and many properties go to foreigners, mainly Russians, illegally. The government attempts to fix the situation by proposing a new law on apart-hotels and apartments. In a proposal much favourable to Russian demands over the past years, vacation apartments would be classified as commercial real estate, thus subject to sale. The draft law contains restrictions on citizenship and voting rights, reflecting Abkhazians’ fear of being outnumbered in their own country. The government envisions that 30,000 new apartments would be built over 10 years, the sale of which could be a considerable boost to the economy. But parliament is hesitant to approve the bill. Critics of the proposal worry that high levels of corruption would lead to best lands, including conservational areas, being allocated for these newbuilds, and to an influx of Russian financial groups and capital that pushes out local entrepreneurs.

In another controversial step, a Russian-Abkhaz agreement to reopen the Sukhumi airport is signed in June. According to the deal, a private Russian investor, later revealed to be Rashid Nurgaliyev Jr, the son of the deputy secretary of the Russian security council who has no prior experience in aviation industry, would invest about 84 million USD to restore the airport that has been out of use for 30 years, in exchange for various concessions like exemption from customs duties on all construction materials, equipment, and aviation fuel, a waver on property and income taxes during the payback period of up to 25 years, and the most favourable rate on electricity prices, plus a priority facility status during power cuts. While the government assures that the state would retain ownership of the airport, critics worry that the deal will somehow end with the airport transferred to Russia.

However, the parliament ratifies the agreement, and the airport should be ready for reopening by the end of 2024. Bzhania also announces that the Government House in Sukhumi – burned down at the end of the Georgian-Abkhazian war in 1993 and to many a symbol of defeat of Georgians – might be reconstructed and turned into a hotelwith the help of a Russian investor. Opposition criticises the idea, claiming it should rather be turned into a cultural centre chronicling the war and offering community services. In November, the government reveals a full plan for attracting large-scale investments by offering tax benefits like exemption from income and property taxes for 25 years for those investing more than 20 million Euros to Abkhazia. Opposition claims this is another step on the way of allowing Abkhazia to be completely overtaken by Russian capital and might turn Abkhazia into an offshore zone that is blacklisted for allowing laundering of illegally earned capital.

Abkhazia’s self-isolation from anyone other than Russia grows, as minister of foreign affairs states the need to fight anti-Russian sentiments in the Abkhazian society. In February, Geneva international discussions (GID) co-chairs from the EU, the UN, and the OSCE, intending to visit Abkhazia for meetings with officials, are denied entry on grounds of the postponement of the next planned round of the GID. In June, the minister of foreign affairs claims in an interview to a Russian channel that Abkhazia is expecting provocations from the US that would be aided by the local NGOs – “as happened in Ukraine”. The ministry of foreign affairs later clarifies that the minister meant to criticise the foreigners working in the NGO sector, and not Abkhazians themselves. Still, NGOs face increasing restrictions, and in December, USAID is outright banned in Abkhazia due to their activities being perceived as supporting Georgia. The head of the USAID mission to the South Caucasus is declared persona non grata. Local NGOs as well are accused of engaging in subversive activities by conducting projects that promote national interests of Georgia.

All these developments lead to constant tension between the government and the opposition. In April, the opposition issues the president demands to dismiss the government and to abolish or suspend a number of bills, including the agreements to transfer the Pitsunda estate to Russia. At the end of May, the opposition organises a people’s rally, which draws about two thousand people; a pro-government counter-demonstration takes place at the same time. The opposition also gathers signatures for organising a referendum on confidence in the president, but ultimately cancels the plan, claiming that as the process of “selling off” Abkhazian resources has accelerated, there isn’t enough time anymore to organise the referendum.

Regarding relations with Moscow, a certain hesitancy is observable. In February, a visit to Russia by presidents of Belarus, Abkhazia and South Ossetia creates speculation that a new milestone in the Union State project would be declared. Alas, Lukashenka rejects the idea of new members, nor is he in a hurry to recognise Abkhazia’s independence. But when Dmitry Medvedev states in an opinion piece to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August that Russia would not hesitate to annex the two de facto states “for their own protection,” Abkhaz take issue with his claim that the idea of joining Russia is very popular in Abkhazia. But in September, the foreign minister of Abkhazia embarks on a tour of the regions, where he agitates for even closer relations with Russia. In a meeting between Bzhania and Putin in October, the former once again expresses readiness to participate in Russian integration processes. A day later, Abkhaz president reveals the agreement to establish a new Russian naval base in Ochamchira. While Kyiv indicates it will attack Russian warships even if they are located in Abkhazia, Abkhazia cannot risk saying no to Russia regarding the establishment of the base. Additionally, Abkhazians are simultaneously worried about the Russian-Georgian rapprochement, as well as about a possible change of government in Georgia that would lead to the opening of a second front against Russia. Thus, Abkhazia plans to reform their own armed forces, and to test their mobilization capacities.

Despite mass protests, the Abkhaz parliament renews discussions on transferring the Pitsunda estate to Russia at the very end of 2023, after Bzhania assures that previous issues with the coordinates – that would have transferred ownership of not just the dacha itself, but also large parts of the surrounding resort area – are fixed. On December 27, the agreement on the transfer of the estate is ratified and signed into law. Thus, around 180 hectares of the estate, including the coast, a pine reserve, and the town itself, will be transferred to Russia on a lease for 49 years, with a symbolic annual payment of one Ruble for each land parcel. For Abkhazia, 2023 ends with yet another public protest.

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville

In 2023, Papua New Guinea’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville continues its quest for full independence. The process is structured by the 2019 referendum, where 97.7 percent of the participants voted in favour of independence, and the Era Kone Covenant signed in 2022 with commitments to table the referendum results at the PNG parliament by no later than 2023, and to implement the decision made between 2025 and 2027. Bougainvilleans expect that the results will be tabled at the parliamentary session commencing on June 6. At the start of the session, however, it is announced that the results will be tabled “later in the year” due to some additional parliamentary procedures that need to be put in place. The PNG minister for Bougainville affairs then lays out the parliamentary process, but also acknowledges that there is still no consensus on the meaning of “ratification” and “decision” in the proposed constitutional regulation. The key issue is that while Bougainville argues that the tabling is just a formal acknowledgment, the PNG central government views the referendum as non-binding. Further tensions rise regarding the tabling procedure: first, PNG decides to set the threshold for the vote on referendum results to an absolute majority, a few months later, they also push for a secret ballot. Both proposals undermine the Bougainvilleans’ confidence in the PNG government. Both plans are discussed at the Joint Supervisory Body, and while the representatives of the sides agree that the voting threshold will remain set at the previously agreed upon simple majority, the second issue remains unresolved before the end of the year. The PNG government fails to table the referendum results in 2023, and Bougainville requests that for a moderator to be appointed for moving forward.

Bougainville also grapples with several natural disasters throughout 2023. In June, heavy rains cause floods around the site of the Panguna mine, exacerbated by the mine tailings waste – a liquid slurry of fine mineral particles left over after extraction – building up in rivers, and causing water supplies and food crops to be compromised. In July, while the heavy rains continue, the Mt Bagana volcano begins to erupt in the centre of the island, emitting ash and lava for the first time in 11 years. A state of emergency is declared, and later extended through October. The villages around the base of the volcano are evacuated, the eruption contaminates all water sources and affects food and medical supplies, and the heavy volcanic ash leads to the collapse of many traditional rural homes with sago leaf roofs. Tens of thousands of people are affected by the floods and the volcano eruption. The international community steps in with aid, and for the first time since the end of the 2001 civil war, the PNG Defence Force enters the region to deliver aid.

Considering the global copper shortage, discussions on reopening the Panguna copper mine receive renewed attention. Revival of the mine is also seen as critical to the economic survival of Bougainville, whose government takes over the majority ownership of the Bougainville Copper Limited in 2023. Almost USD 90 billion of return is estimated to still be in the pit by the government. New exploration licence is expected to be issued in 2024, but a partnership with a global company is likely needed for operation. The selection of this partner is also a geopolitical issue, as several countries, including the US and China, vie for dominance in the region. In November, Bougainville’s president Toroama, who has appointed himself the mining minister, visits Washington to garner support for independence, and to seek cooperation on the mine, taking an anti-Chinese stance.

The Republic of Kosovo

For Kosovo, 2023 is characterised by renewed tensions with the Serb communities in the country’s north, leading to some of the most violent clashes in years. The year starts promisingly: in February, an EU-mediated 11-point plan, endorsed by France, Germany, and the US, is tentatively agreed upon, foreseeing Kosovo granting rights to Serb municipalities in the north, while Serbia agrees to Kosovo’s accession to international institutions. Although seen as a “breakthrough,” critics still point out that while talking about normalisation, the plan distinctly avoids the topic of mutual recognition. In March, implementation talks follow in North Macedonia. Both sides agree to the plan only orally; the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweets “We have a deal.” But Serbian president Vučić backtracks almost immediately, blocking Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe in April. Kosovo remains vary as well: prime minister Kurti points out that as minority rights are embedded in Kosovo’s constitution, no special regime for Serb municipalities is needed. At the next negotiation round in May, both sides are now openly against signing the deal.


Image: NONEWBR – Kosovars have rearranged the letters of their famous NEWBORN statue to protest the planned creation of Serb municipalities in the country’s north (Source: Eiki Berg)


On April 23, Kosovo holds snap local elections in four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo to fulfil mayoral places that Serbs vacated in protest in 2022. Turnout is only 3.47% due to Serbs’ boycott, and ethnic Albanian candidates are declared as winners. As the mayors attempt to head to their posts at the end of May, Serbs block the entrances at three of the four town halls. Clashes break out between the protesters, and the Kosovar police accompanying the mayors to their offices and KFOR mission soldiers, aiming to guard the town halls. More than 30 KFOR soldiers and over 50 Serbs are injured, amidst accounts that the demonstrators included masked men with guns and explosives.

In response to the clashes, Serbia raises its army’s combat readiness to the highest level. International community also reacts quickly and strongly: NATO Secretary-General calls for Pristina to de-escalate the situation, promising to send 700 extra troops for KFOR as back-up. Other international allies, leading with the US, strongly rebuke Kosovo for using force to gain entry to the town halls, and call for the removal of the new mayors. The US annuls Kosovo’s involvement in the upcoming NATO exercises and puts diplomatic meetings on hold. EU leaders echo the call for early elections. While Kurti initially rejects these calls as appeasement of Serbia, other government members are open to early elections.

In mid-June, the EU organises crisis talks with Serbian and Kosovar leaders in Brussels, following Serbia’s arrest of three Kosovar police officers a few days before. Both sides claim the officers were on their side of their border. The crisis talks achieve no breakthrough, although Borrell calls once again for new elections in northern Kosovo. On 28 June, the EU Commission announces new sanctions against Kosovo, including putting on hold the work of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement bodies, and suspending funds and high level events and bilateral visits to Kosovo. In mid-July, Kurti presents the government measures for defusing the tensions, including the reduction of the number of special police officers at the municipal buildings under boycott, and holding new elections. The opposition criticizes Kurti for taking months to react at the cost of Kosovo’s international reputation, and a brawl breaks out after an opposition MP throws water on him.

But Kosovo also receives some international support when influential politicians, including the chairs of the US, German and British parliamentary foreign affairs committees, urge the US and EU leaders to reconsider their approach to Kosovo and Serbia. The group criticizes both the EU and the US for the lack of pressure placed on Serbia in easing the tensions – essentially seen as siding with Serbia in attempts to keep them away from Russia –, and the EU-facilitated dialogue for failing to yield positive results. EU leads yet another round of talks in September, which breaks down as Kurti, echoing the public criticism, declares the process to have reached a deadlock, and accuses the EU special envoy of having lost neutrality. In response, the EU criticises Kurti for breaching the confidentiality of the negotiation process; and Borrell warns that the parties “risk losing opportunities for progressing on their European paths.”

Shortly after these talks, tensions in Northern Kosovo flare up once again, when unidentified militants ambush Kosovar policemen during patrol, killing one. About 30 militants then retreat to a nearby monastery in Banjska, where an hours-long gun fight ensues. Kosovo police manages to subdue the attackers, killing at least three, and arresting several more, although some members of the militia escape to Serbia. A large weapons cache is recovered by Kosovo police, including heavy weapons, anti-infantry weapons, explosives, as well as equipment for barricades and food for “several hundred” people. Considering the types of weaponry found, Pristina accuses Belgrade in supporting the paramilitary group. The deputy leader of Serb List – a party representing Serbs in Kosovo – who is a close ally of Vučić, openly admits to being involved. He flees from the ambush site to Serbia, where he is later detained, but then released.

But Serbia also begins an “unprecedented” build-up of troops near the Kosovo border, with Vučić claiming the attack a response of “desperate local Serbs” that have been terrorised by Kurti for months. Some are pulled back after the US warns of “measures against Serbia” if they do not de-escalate. NATO authorises a further reinforcement of the KFOR troops in Kosovo. Kosovo’s president states that Kosovo will not re-enter talks to normalise relations with Serbia unless sanctions are imposed on the latter, and demands Serbian troops to be pulled back from the border. The international community steps in rapidly to try to revive the talks, and following interventions from the US, France, Germany, Italy and the EU, it is announced in mid-October that Kosovo’s prime minister and Serbia’s president have agreed to meet an international delegation. No progress is made at the meeting. Kurti and Vučić continue to blame each other for the deadlock, while French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni try to get them to commit to implementing the agreement on normalisation of relations and establishing the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities.

In October, the Serb List party elects new leaders. The new party head enjoys Belgrade’s backing and is expected to closely follow their line in Kosovo, although the party is also promising they would no longer boycott new local elections. In December, locals in three out of four northern municipalities start submitting citizens’ petitions to start a complex process for the removal of the Albanian mayors elected earlier this year in accordance with the requirements of the administrative order issued by Kosovo’s ministry of local government three months before. Shortly before the end of the year, Serbia announces that as of 1 January 2024, cars with Kosovo licence plates would be allowed into Serbia, bringing an end to a years-long dispute on the matter.

Nagorno-Karabakh (the Republic of Artsakh)

As 2023 starts, there is little to celebrate for the 120,000 inhabitants of NKR. From December 12, 2022, Azerbaijani “eco-activists” have blocked civilian traffic on the only road that connects NKR and Armenia through the so-called Lachin corridor, which is supposedly under the control of Russian peacekeepers. For many, this indicates potential for renewed fighting in 2023, with the question rather being not if, but when?

News of food shortages arrive shortly: having received over 400 tonnes of food and other supplies from Armenia daily, with the road closed, the shelves in NKR are emptying rapidly. Rationing of basic food goods starts from January 17. Due to damages to gas, electricity, and internet lines connecting NKR and Armenia that are now running through Azerbaijani-controlled territory, services are disrupted, and NKR needs to rely on local energy production. Warnings of a looming humanitarian crisis abound. Azerbaijan repeatedly denies the eco-protesters’ responsibility for the road closure, maintaining instead both that the road was closed by the Russian peacekeepers, and that the NKR authorities themselves prevent citizens from using the road. It is using the fact that some humanitarian vehicles – mainly Red Cross transferring critical patients from NKR to Armenia – are passing through as confirmation that there is no blockade. NKR asks that the Stepanakert airport would be allowed to begin operating to provide “humanitarian airlifts,” but Azerbaijan is not granting permission. On 23 April, Azerbaijani border troops set up a checkpoint at the entry of the Lachin corridor on the Armenian side, taking control of all traffic. According to Azeris, this step is needed to prevent the transfer of weapons and soldiers from Armenia to NKR. As Russia’s reaction to this step remains muted, NKR issues a rare rebuke of their peacekeepers. Soon after, the eco-activists end their protests.

Months of worsening conditions follow. By summer, an energy crisis looms as the main water reservoir for hydro energy production is nearing critical levels due to overuse and the start of a drought period. Local businesses, including those producing food, are forced to close to conserve energy, while farmers in the countryside lack irrigation water, and as fuel shortages kick in, means to transport their produce to the cities. NKR authorities introduce increasingly stricter rules, by July, sugar and sunflower oil rations would only be provided for families with children, and selling fuel to individuals is banned to save supplies for emergency use. On 15 August, the first starvation death is reported.

After a June 15 shooting incident between Armenian and Azerbaijani border guards at the Lachin checkpoint, Azerbaijan halts all traffic, only Red Cross is able to resume some activities temporarily after that. News of arrests at the checkpoint increase fear among Karabakh Armenians that they cannot safely pass to Armenia. Several attempts are made to send humanitarian aid that are blocked for political reasons. In July, Red Cross states it was unable to deliver aid to NKR “despite persistent efforts.” In July and August, one Armenian and two French humanitarian convoys are blocked from passing the Lachin checkpoint. Azerbaijan wants to provide humanitarian aid through its own territory, by the Aghdam-Stepanakert road, and while the international community is supportive of the idea – emphasising that it should be complementing, not substituting the Lachin road –, NKR rejects this offer. Only in September, under dire circumstances, is NKR accepting humanitarian aid via the Aghdam road, on the condition that it is Russian aid, and Azerbaijan agrees to simultaneously open the Lachin corridor for humanitarian shipments.

During these months, repeated attempts are made in various formats to stop Azerbaijan’s activities and to solve the crisis. There are talks between NKR, Azerbaijan the Russian peacekeepers, successive rounds of talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan led variously by the EU, by the US, or by Russia, call outs of Azerbaijan for waging genocide, calls to lift the blockade and open the Lachin corridor, but Azerbaijan remains defiant through it all. Using increasingly threatening rhetoric, Azerbaijan keeps insisting that NKR must be fully integrated. At the same time, the NKR community gets increasingly frustrated with the local authorities, with the Russian peacekeeping mission, with Armenia, and the rest of the world. For many, Russia seems to be the only hope, while others fear that trusting Russia would only lead to a slow death.

Armenia, increasingly worried about its own security and eager to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan, is distancing itself from NKR, saying for example that it is willing to accept Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, that negotiations to reopen the Lachin corridor should be conducted by Russia whose peacekeepers oversee it based on the 2020 peace agreement, and that NKR should hold direct negotiations with Baku. Russia, however, remains rather silent. Several high-level staff changes also occur in NKR during the blockade: in February, state minister Vardanyan is dismissedand general prosecutor Nersisyan is appointed as his successor. But on August 31, both president Harutyunyan and Nersisyan announce their resignation. Harutyunyan suggests that this move is due to his holding the post being an impediment to negotiations with Azerbaijan, and due to the eroding trust in NKR authorities. Samvel Shahramanyan is then elected as the president, seen by a number of MPs as someone who is able to bring together the opposing groups in the society, and potentially bring about a breakthrough in the blockade. In a speech to parliament, he calls for direct negotiations with Baku.

After weeks of mobilizing its troops, the feared military attack comes on 19 September, with Azerbaijan demanding complete surrender. Pashinyan says Armenia will not intervene militarily to avoid a larger confrontation but calls for the UN Security Council and Russian peacekeepers to take action. Russia also refuses to intervene, since because Armenia itself recognises NKR as part of Azerbaijan, it is not covered by the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. NKR appeals for an immediate ceasefire, and on 20 September, accepts Azerbaijan’s demands to dissolve NKR’s armed forces and to integrate into Azerbaijan. The number of casualties is unknown, while NKR has confirmed at least 200 people killed, over 400 wounded, and about 500 missing, Azerbaijan has not released casualty figures.

Meetings between the representatives of NKR and Azerbaijani officials are launched to discuss the future of the region and its people. But the people, fearful of what life under Azerbaijan might bring, start evacuating to Armenia en masse, with heavy traffic congesting the road through the Lachin corridor. On 26 September, as people queue for petrol by the Askeran depot, the depot explodes, killing at least 290 and injuring 20. By the beginning of October, over 100,000 Karabakh Armenians have fled to Armenia; a UN mission is deployed to NKR (for the first time in 30 years) to “identify the humanitarian needs” of both those remaining, and those leaving – far too late for many locals. EU attempts to organise further talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the future of NKR, with the leaders of France, Germany, and the EU Council president present, but Azerbaijan decides to drop out, citing “an anti-Azerbaijani atmosphere” and anger at France’s decision to supply military equipment to Armenia as reasons.


Image: Cars queue on the road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. (Source: Marut Vanyan/


NKR’s president signs a degree ordering the dissolution of the NKR by 1 January 2024. Azerbaijan also arrests several current and former high-level NKR politicians, transferring them to Baku. On 15 October, Aliyev visits Stepanakert, and raises the Azerbaijani flag in front of the former presidential administration building. While this looks like a swan song for NKR, the story does not end fully here: in December, Karabakh Armenians start discussing the idea of forming a government-in-exile, based on NKR’s last president disowning the surrender document dissolving NKR in late October. The discussion sparks tensions with Armenia, which is also straining to take care of the more than 100,000 refugees.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

Conflict resolution – or lack thereof – is a recurring theme for TRNC in 2023, with Turkish Cypriots themselves divided over whether to pursue unification or separation. Negotiations have been on pause since 2017, which is the longest hiatus since talks began after the 1974 invasion, and in January, the UN chief Guterres expresses concerns over the political climate marked by significant hardening of positions on both sides. At the end of January, TRNC’s president Ersin Tatar states to The Guardian newspaper that the conflict needs to be resolved soon, otherwise, northern Cyprus will become even more dependent on Turkey. The resolution needs to be based on the two-state format, whereby TRNC and the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) would remain permanently divided with an equal sovereign status; and accuses Greek Cypriots in becoming more hardline in their refusal to share power. Tatar’s critics respond that it is the two-state plan that will turn TRNC into an isolated economic colony of Turkey. Former president Mehmet Ali Talat is among these critics: in an interview for Greek Cypriot radio, he says that the supporters of the two-state solution do not know what they want, and that the plan brings no benefit to the TRNC. Another influential TRNC politician, Serdar Denktash, adds more, saying that the current government “has not done one good thing” during its time in office. According to him, no significant plans, goals, or programmes have been put forth, nor is the government able to provide hope for the people. He accuses the Tatar administration of alienating people from the state and from Turkey. While Tatar remains opposed to unification, some see that shifts in his team are possible, as his influential special representative Ergün Olgun retires during the summer. In his final appearances, he suggests that the requirement that the ROC recognise TRNC as a precondition for future talks has been dropped. Some also see signs that Turkey might be more favourable to new negotiations.

Presidential elections in the ROC seem to create some positive momentum, won by the former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides. He campaigns on promises to renegotiate the basis on which the UN-mediated talks have been held, although he also says that he supports the bi-zonal, bi-communal federation in line with the UN framework but wants a greater EU role in the negotiations. Christodoulides and Tatar meet soon after the former’s election in February, in what is described largely as a courtesy call. In March, a senior UN official visits the island to find a way forward in the conflict settlement process, reporting the visit as fruitful. But in his report to the Security Council in July, Guterres warns that time is working against a mutually acceptable political settlement in Cyprus. Still, ROC diplomats try in July to revive the peace talks, proposing the appointment of both UN and EU envoys to support the process. But tensions emerge between the UN and the TRNC in August, when Turkish Cypriots attack UN peacekeepers in the buffer zone as the latter attempt to stop the building of an illegal access road in Pyla. Three peacekeepers are reportedly mildly injured. The UN secretary-general condemns the assault.

TRNC leaders maintain a close relationship with Turkey: in January, it is announced that an airport will be turned into a full military airbase for Turkey. In June, Erdogan makes his first “state visit” since re-election to TRNC. In his speech on the occasion, he calls for international recognition of the TRNC, hinting this to be a pre-condition for negotiations. Yet while Erdogan ended up winning the election rather comfortably, he actually lost by 15 percent points to his secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Northern Cyprus, where nearly 144,000 people were eligible to vote. The results demonstrate underlying tensions in the TRNC society, where there is real concern for growing conservative Islamification. In October, Tatar visits Azerbaijan with a 200-people delegation.

Erdogan returns to the TRNC in August, when he participates in the opening of a new terminal at Ercan airport. With a cost of about 450 million Euros, the new terminal is six times larger than the old one, able to hold about 10 million passengers annually, although only flights to and from Turkey are possible. About 2.9 million passengers are reported to have passed through the Ercan airport in the first nine months of 2023, the number up by a third from last year. Indeed, there is a tourism boom. According to statistics from the TRNC tourism ministry, the numbers of Iranian, Russian, and Greek Cypriot visitors grows significantly in the first five months of 2023, and ROC media reports that noticeably more tourists landing at Larnaca airport head straight to north for their holidays, most likely seeking the lower prices in the North. TRNC’s casinos are especially popular among Russian and Turkish visitors. TRNC’s deputy prime minister calls for the development of more tourism facilities, proposing that forest areas could be allocated for this purpose. A construction boom has already started, funded with Russian money, as more and more Russians settle in TRNC: official figures show more than 39,000 settling here this year alone (by November), the entire community is estimated to be around 50,000 Russian nationals. In August, Russian news agency TASS reports that Russia is to “begin providing consular services” in TRNC “in the very near future.” TRNC foreign minister clarifies that the move does not amount to recognition, nor to the opening of a formal consulate.

Energy consumption in the North keeps growing, and TRNC is unable to keep up with the demand. In July – in the middle of the tourist season – a malfunction at one of the power stations causes rolling blackouts in TRNC over the next days. TRNC also requests energy supplies from the ROC to cover the consumption needs, but the South does not always have a surplus. TRNC pays about 14 million Euros to the ROC for the supplied energy. Water shortages are also announced, as the power cuts prevent the normal operation of the pumping systems.

Towards the end of the year, TRNC politicians create some mystery around the TRNC population size, as the prime minister declares in an interview that while he knows the TRNC population size, he can’t say it, as “there are some numbers that cannot be talked about.” Tatar later says that the official population size of TRNC is 410,000. On November 15, TRNC celebrates the 40th anniversary of the declaration of TRNC, with high-level officials from Turkey also attending the celebrations.

The State of Palestine

As 2023 starts, many fear that the outbreak of the third intifada is imminent. Two key developments in 2022 contribute to this conflict spiral: Operation Breakwater, started by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) that March to subdue Palestinian armed groups in West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus, is still ongoing. It has already made 2022 the deadliest in recent history. And on 29 December 2022, Benyamin Netanyahu’s new government is sworn in – it is the most far-right, openly anti-Palestinian government in Israeli history, which has already announced making West Bank settlement expansion a priority.

Worsening of the situation on several fronts begins from the start of the year. The new government starts rapidly preparing for the largest expulsion of Palestinians form the West Bank since occupation began. Additionally, it decides to withhold about 39 million USD tax money from the Palestinian Authority (PA), and transfer it to a compensations programme for the families of victims of Palestinian militant attacks. This comes in retaliation after the UN General Assembly backs a Palestinian request to launch an International Court of Justice probe regarding the occupation of West Bank. The PA describes these Israeli payments as necessary social welfare, while Israel claims they are used to support terrorists. Within a few days in January, several killings of the Palestinians by the Israeli forces are reported from the West Bank, the 26 January raid in the Jenin refugee camp with nine dead marks the deadliest single day in the West Bank in years. Although UN and Arab mediators rush in to prevent the violence from escalating further, holding negotiations with Israel and Palestinian factions across West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Jenin raid turns out to be a trigger for back-and-forth violence that ends up lasting for months.

On 27 January, a Palestinian gunman kills seven people, including children, near a Synagogue in East Jerusalem, the deadliest Palestinian attack in the city in years. This prompts the Israeli government to announce more punitive measures in response to Palestinians’ attacks on Israelis, including pursuing sanctions against the families of the assailants, and making it easier for Israelis to obtain weapons. Netanyahu also promises to deliver a plan for strengthening Jewish settlements. Some of the other measures that are reportedly explored against families of assailants are illegal under international law, these include revocation of Jerusalem residency rights and Israeli citizenship, allowing employers to dismiss workers who have “supported terrorism” without the need of a hearing, stripping the family members of attackers of social security and health benefits, and demolishing homes of Palestinians who carry out terrorist attacks. Some of these proposals make it into law, from February, it is allowed to strip citizenship or residency from Arabs convicted of terrorism and deport them to the West Bank or Gaza Strip if they have accepted financial aid from the PA. Israel also deploys five additional army battalions to Jerusalem and the West Bank, in anticipation of copycat and “price tag” attacks.

Months of attacks follow: airstrikes on Gaza, IDF raids in the West Bank, rocket fire from Gaza, Palestinian shootingsand car attacks. On 26 February, Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs meet in Jordan, for the first such high-level talks in years. The aim of the meeting is to defuse tensions in the region before the holy month of Ramadan, which is seen as a possible catalyst for a wider escalation. In a joint statement at the conclusion of the meeting, Israel and PA express their readiness and commitment to work on preventing further violence, and that both sides would revive efforts towards reaching a just and lasting peace deal. However, that same night, a violent rampage is organised by hundreds of Israeli settlers in the northern West Bank in retaliation of the killing of two of them, which is described as a “pogrom” by an Israeli general, setting back the progress made earlier in the day, and ensuring the continuation of the mutual violence, that only eases some over the summer and early autumn.

On October 7, Hamas launches a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza, killing an estimated 1200 people, and taking about 240 as hostages into Gaza. The unprecedented, brutal attack receives quick condemnation from the international community. On the same day Israel declares war on Hamas, calling up army reservists and launching a wave of airstrikes on Gaza Strip. It also tightens the blockade on the Strip, announcing on October 10 that exports of water, electricity, and fuel has been halted and borders are closed to trade and new aid deliveries. On 27 October, an Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip follows. Following mediation by Egypt and Qatar, a four-day ceasefire agreement is reached on 22 November, with Hamas promising to release 50 hostages held in Gaza, while Israel will release approximately 150 Palestinian women and children from Israeli prisons. The truce ends up lasting for six days, during which Hamas releases 78 Israeli and dual-national hostages, three Israeli-Russian dual nationals as part of a separate Hamas-Kremlin agreement, and 24 foreign nationals outside the exchange deal. Four hostages had been released before the truce, and one rescued in an Israeli operation. Altogether, 110 hostages are freed by the end of November, an estimated 107 still remain in Gaza. The ceasefire also provides a chance for much-needed humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza, and to evacuate some critical patients from the northern Gaza.

As Israel’s war on Gaza continues, international criticism grows regarding the amount of damage caused to Gaza’s infrastructure by extensive bombing, as well as the amount of civilian casualties. Gaza’s roughly 2.2 million inhabitants have nowhere to escape as already prior to Israel’s tightening of the blockade, Gaza has been likened to the world’s largest open-air prison. Israel defends its approach by claiming that Hamas is deliberately using Palestinian civilians as human shields, having hidden their facilities in between and under civilian infrastructure. By the end of 2023, reported casualties in Gaza reach over 21,000 people, many of them children, about 1.9 million people are internally displaced within Gaza’s 365sq km, as living conditions keep worsening.

Questions of what’s next for Gaza also start to rise. In October, US president Biden declares that according to the US view, what comes next must be a two-state solution. It’s a long-promised solution, often presented as the only prospect of a lasting settlement. But support for this solution has reached an all-time low in 2023 on both sides, as the expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and lack of connection between the West Bank and Gaza make it extremely difficult to implement in practice. Additionally, there is no party whose leadership would be acceptable for all Palestinians, as Gaza has been under Hamas’s control since 2007. The Palestinian Authority, nominally in charge of the West Bank, is ineffectual. Led by 87-year-old Abbas since the last presidential elections in 2005, it lacks credibility even among Palestinians themselves, as PA usually cooperates with Israel. On the contrary, lack of trust in the PA, along with the high death tolls from the Operation Breakwater, has led to the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian fighters, with increasing coordination between different factions in different areas. And as Israel’s hunger for revenge continues through to 2024, prompting new fears of a wider regional conflict escalation, it might be a while before the question of “what’s next for Palestine” could be discussed in earnest.

Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara)

Western Sahara kicks 2023 off with elections. In mid-January, members of the Polisario Front fighting for the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), gather in a refugee camp in Algeria for their 16thcongress. About 2,000 members of the movement discuss the direction of the PF and hold leadership elections. The sitting president of the SADR and secretary-general of the PF Brahim Ghali – in office since 2016 – is re-elected for a new three-year term. He wows to intensify the armed struggle against Morocco, which controls about 80% of the territory claimed by SADR, and to continue fighting until sovereignty is established for the whole territory, a promise he keeps repeating throughout the year, as the local news agency reports on the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army attacks on Moroccan forces.

The UN also reports on the continuation of low-intensity hostilities and firing incidents in 2023, with the caveat that their number, location, and even impact cannot often be independently verified. Both the Polisario Front and Morocco accuse each other of conflict escalation and targeting civilians. In separate letters to the UN secretary-general, Morocco claims that the PF uses unmarked vehicles and fighters disguised as civilians, while the PF saying that Morocco uses all types of weapons, including drones, to target civilians. Throughout the year, the SADR government warns its people that the entire territory of the republic, including the maritime and air space, remains an open war zone. The volatile situation affects the UN MINURSO mission as well, as their movements on the ground are restricted by the PF for security and safety reasons. In March, the MINURSO team’s convoy attempting to resupply a team site is stopped by the PF fighters before its destination, ordered to return to base. Safe passage is eventually granted, following interference from various UN officials and members of the UN security council. In the next few months, several resupply convoys are successfully organised with the cooperation of the PF.

The UN remains perhaps the most active site of political engagement for Western Sahara through 2023, as the organisation is attempting to relaunch the peace process. At the end of March, the UN invites the senior representatives of Morocco, the PF, Algeria, and Mauritania, as well as members of the Group of Friends of Western Sahara – France, Russia, Spain, the UK, the US – to New York for informal bilateral consultations regarding the political solution to the Western Sahara conflict. At the meeting, the PF reaffirms its stance that self-determination must be at the basis of any process. In September, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara also visits the region, holding meetings with all sides and with various stakeholders in preparation of the release of the UN’s annual report on the conflict in October. This is the personal envoy’s first site visit since his appointment in 2021. Ghali then returns to New York, holding meetings with the UN secretary-general as well as with the personal envoy. The prospects of advancing the political process on the conflict settlement are discussed, with Ghali upholding the need for a referendum for the Sahrawi people. He also shares his vision document for relaunching the UN peace process with the personal envoy. In October, Ghali states that conflict resolution needs to be based on the UN-African settlement plan from 1991, as it is the only agreement signed by both the Sahrawi and the Moroccans, and approved by the UN security council.

The Republic of Somaliland

2023 proves to be rather turbulent for Somaliland. The year starts with protests in Las Anod, capital city of the Sool region, which is disputed between Somaliland and Puntland. Somaliland, which controls the area since 2007, wants the region as its claim for statehood is based on colonial boundaries, while Puntland’s claim is based on kinship ties with local clans. The protests are initially driven by the assassination of a local opposition politician in December 2022. Somaliland forces attempt to subdue them, but as footage on social media emerges showing them firing at demonstrators, the forces withdraw due to local and international pressure. The reprieve is short-lived: as local clan elders declare their intent to form a new state of SSC-Khaatumo within Somalia’s federal system, heavy fighting breaks out in Las Anod on February 6 between Somaliland armed forces and the local militia. Over the next few months, the death toll grows rapidly, with about 300 reported to have been killed by May, and more than 200,000 Somalis, mainly women and children, flee the area. Amidst reports of Somaliland forces shelling civilian areas and targeting hospitals and ambulances, international criticism grows, as Somaliland declares, but then quickly breaks an unconditional ceasefire, claiming that Somalia and Puntland are preparing a joint invasion. In response, the US cancels a joint military exercise planned for February in Somaliland. Several states, including the UK and the US, issue a joint statement in March, calling for adherence to the cease-fire, de-escalation, unhindered humanitarian access, and dialogue. Fighting continues through August, when Somaliland forces are forced to retreat from an outpost in the Sool region. In October, heavy fighting picks up again, raising concerns that what started out as primarily a territorial conflict, is rapidly turning into tribal warfare. However, in a battle on November 8, SSC-Khaatumo forces gain another victory over Somaliland, resulting in further loss of territory for the latter.

Clan tensions erupt elsewhere as well, partly driven by the increasing unhappiness with Somaliland’s president Bihi, who has been delaying presidential elections since 2022. In July, a new insurgency starts mobilising in Somaliland’s Sahil region, quickly gathering about 1,000 men. The so-called Ga’an Libaah forces or the Garhajis Liberation Front claims to be fighting for the “liberation of the Gahajis clan territories”, and against Bihi. Somaliland deploys forces to the area, and multiple clashes are reported over the next weeks, despite Bihi trying to downplay the seriousness of the situation. In August, another new rebel group emerges in the Sanaag region, referring to themselves as twin group of the Ga’an Libaah. The new group starts to quickly make way towards the regional capital Erigavo. The Ga’an Libaah forces also advance, reaching the Ethiopian border by 9th of August: by now, they are assumed to control about a 100km stretch. By the end of August, they have reached the Marodi Jeh region, where Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa is located. In September, the Awdal State leadership declares that they are breaking away from Somaliland in favour of Somalia, and yet another sub-clan proceeds with forming their own militia. By September, Somaliland looks to be on the brink of civil war, when the Ga’an Libaah militia unexpectedly agrees to cease their military activities following mediation by clan elders, thereby de-escalating the tensions.

The Las Anod conflict damages Somaliland’s international reputation as on oasis of stability on the Horn of Africa. Furthermore, the continued postponement of the presidential elections raise concerns of “democratic backsliding,” with international partners pressing for an electoral roadmap to be produced. In a joint call on April 17, 15 international partners, including the EU, the US, Turkey and the UK, warn Bihi that these issues are affecting their engagement with Somaliland, as well as undermining Somaliland’s legitimacy. A significant warning, considering that Somaliland has previously pinned its hopes of recognition on its democratic credentials. One ally remains more steadfast: Taiwan, which has previously opened a representative office in Somaliland and is also developing an economic presence, backs Somaliland as a “nascent democracy” that needs “time to grow up.”

The long-awaited update on elections comes in July: next presidential elections will be on November 2024. On another positive note, after years of deadlock, Somalia and Somaliland announce on 30 December their agreement to resume dialogue for resolving outstanding issues and reaching sustainable solutions on issues like security and fight against organised crime, and peace and stability in conflict zones. Unity, however, is not on the agenda, as Somaliland’s minister of foreign affairs reaffirms that talks with Somalia would only be possible on how the two countries can move forward separately.

Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania

In South Ossetia, 2023 is perhaps best characterised by public’s increasing unhappiness with president Alan Gagloev, and economic concerns. There is a persistent power struggle between the opposition, led by former president Anatoly Bibilov from the United Ossetia party, and the coalition, headed by Gagloev. His win at the 2022 presidential elections was partly the result of an “anyone is better than Bibilov” mentality, but as time passes, people are growing critical of his leadership. Almost a year into his presidency, he has yet to fully staff the government, although some top jobs have been given to his family and friends. Gagloev has also not resigned as party head, which is against South Ossetian laws. In May, the minister of justice threatens to suspend the activities of the United Ossetia party, saying they have not submitted their annual financial report for 2022 on time. The party claims it is being deliberately targeted, and that a small delay in submitting the report was the result of the ministry requesting more expensive reporting than required by law. Already by mid-year, the state budget is in jeopardy, as the state struggles to collect some anticipated revenues. Sanctions against Russia play a part here, for example, the Russia-South Ossetia investment program for 2023-2025 has received about one billion Rubles less than the previous program. Also, due to sanctions, prices of essential goods, food, and industrial goods grow in South Ossetia as well, and some state employees face salary cuts.

In August, both public transport workers and the support staff at the Republican Hospital go on strike due to low salaries and deteriorating working conditions. The postal workers are promised pay raises to the level of the minimum wage from 2024, while the hospital workers’ strike points to the deeper crisis in the South Ossetian health system, as all surgical practitioners have resigned, and patients are being redirected to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. For the harvest season in August, access to territories controlled by Russian border guards will be temporarily simplified. Usually, farmers wanting access to their farmlands in these areas – which encompass many South Ossetian villages – need to apply for the permit in the Tskhinvali KGB office, now they can do so at the FSB border department nearest to them. At the same time, farmers say that access permits are not the main issue impacting yields, but rather the lack of water, as access to the old Soviet-era irrigation systems is controlled by Georgia who has blocked waterways after the 2008 war.

Good relations with Russia are still being seen as essential. Gagloev has his first meeting with Putin in March, ten months after taking office. Putin emphasises the special nature of the South Ossetian-Russian relations, which are developing in all directions. Gagloev raises the issue of gasification of South Ossetia, although experts see this as advancing the business interests of his own kin. In August, Gagloev meets with Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian security council, after the latter writes in Russian media that Russia would be ready to welcome both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Medvedev states that Russia could formally annex them “if there are good reasons,” such as Georgia joining NATO. While the Abkhaz react to this statement with disdain, the idea is rather popular among South Ossetians, and Gagloev also conveys to Medvedev that South Ossetia is ready to intensify integration processes, and to join Russia. Becoming part of Russia is also seen as the only credible defence against Georgia, as South Ossetians fear a possible attack and that Russia might abandon them in favour of rapprochement with Georgia. Yet others consider joining the Russian-Belarussian Union State to be the better option, as it would preserve the South Ossetian state apparatus and would thus ensure employment for many.

On 6 November, Russian military fatally shoots a Georgian citizen and captures another within the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone. Ossetian KGB claims that the men tried to drive a car across the “border” while intoxicated, and had resisted arrest with an axe, while Georgians say that the men were on their way to light prayer candles in a church within the conflict zone. Georgian and South Ossetian authorities meet in Eregneti, where Georgians demand the release of the detained person, and the punishment of the border guard responsible for the killing. The fatal shooting is also condemned by the EU, the US, and the UK, calling for the immediate release of the detained Georgian. He is returned a few days later.

At the end of the year, South Ossetians are hit with additional price hikes and shortages of goods due to Russia increasing customs duty rates for certain categories of exported goods. Both South Ossetian president and businessmen appeal to Russia to abolish the customs duties for South Ossetia, but without luck. Amid food shortages, heavy precipitation, and the closure of the only road linking South Ossetia to Russia, people fear that a serious food crisis is imminent.


Image: A kimono-wearing Putin statue was erected in South Ossetia, 2023. (Source: @JAMnewsCaucasus)


The Republic of China (Taiwan)

Although Taiwanese presidential elections take place in January 2024, the topic of who will be the next president, and subsequently, which approach will be taken regarding cross-strait relations, dominates 2023, all while China tries to bully Taiwan into choosing someone China-friendly. The main candidates are Lai Ching-te (William Lai) for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Hou You-yi for Kuomintang (KMT), the biggest opposition party, and Ko Wen-je for Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Of the biggest competitors, DPP frames the election as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism and KMT as one between war and peace. Billionaire Terry Gou joins the race in August as an independent candidate, having failed to secure the nomination through KMT. Current vice president Lai and the DPP represent a more China-critical direction, arguing for sovereignty separate from China and placing good relations with the US and other likeminded countries at the centre of foreign policy. Both KMT and TPP, while not questioning Taiwan’s independence, call for better cross-strait relations. TPP’s Ko promises to boost Taiwan’s military capabilities as well. With Gou promising similarly to fix cross-strait relations, and boost Taiwan’s economy, KMT and TPP attempt in November to join forces to avoid splitting the votes, as this would favour DPP. They fail to reach agreement on how to divide the president’s and vice-president’s position. One more attempt is made to form a coalition by all three opposition candidates, but this fails as well. Following this, Guo drops out of the race.


Image: National elections ahead in Taiwan, 13 January 2024. Guo Beihong, the candidate of Formosa Alliance promises constitutional revisions to safeguard the Taiwanese independence. Whether this takes him to the Legislative Yuan, remains to be seen. (Source: Eiki Berg)


In 2023, Taiwan hosts increasing numbers of foreign delegations and high-level politicians. There is also a visit by a Chinese government delegation organised by the KMT-led Taipei city government; the first such visit since the COVID-pandemic. Small groups of Taiwanese gather to both protest the visit, and to welcome the delegation. Notably, former president of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou, KMT member, also visits mainland China to promote friendly cross-strait exchanges. This is the first time a current or former Taiwanese leaders visits the mainland since 1949. During his visit, Ma calls for people on both sides of the strait to work together for peace, as “we are all Chinese.”

Ma’s visit to China coincides with president Tsai’s visit to Taiwan’s allies Guatemala and Belize, with stop-overs in New York and Los Angeles on the way. China reacts to the planned US stops with anger, first demanding that US would not allow the transit, then threatening retaliation, should Tsai meet US politicians, especially house speaker McCarthy. Tsai says that external pressure will not stop Taiwan from engaging with the world, and that face-to-face meetings with US officials are important for regional peace, calling on Beijing to remain calm. Both in New York and in Los Angeles, she is greeted by crowds of supporters and protesters. After meeting with Tsai in LA, McCarthy states that the US needs to continue arms sales to Taiwan, deepen economic ties, and defend their shared values. China retaliates by imposing sanctions on US figures linked to Tsai’s visit, including McCarthy, and further restrictions on Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US.

China has continued its grey zone warfare against Taiwan, sending almost daily military sorties across the Taiwan Strait into Taiwan’s airspace. In the first half of the year alone, 854 incidents are counted, up from 555 in the same period in 2022. But following Tsai’s visits to the US, China launches three-day “combat readiness” exercises around Taiwan as a stern warning, where strikes on the island are simulated. Chinese aircraft crosses the Taiwan Strait median line, a carrier strike group is brought into vicinity, and disinformation attacks are launched. These drills are considered more targeted and “war-like” than the drills following Pelosi’s visit in August 2022.

In August, vice-president Lai also stops in the US, namely New York and San Francisco, during a trip to Paraguay. Once again, China reacts angrily, staging a total encirclement of Taiwan’s main island with aircrafts and ships. Taiwan strongly condemns “such irrational and provocative behaviour”. In September, China sends a carrier strike group and dozens of warplanes near Taiwan, in one of its biggest operations in months, in response to the US and Canada sailing through the Taiwan Strait. In November, Tsai says that while China will most likely interfere in the upcoming elections, the invasion of Taiwan anytime soon is unlikely, as China is overwhelmed by various domestic problems. Her government also hopes that the support of the international community acts as a deterrent.

In addition to military tactics, China continues to use diplomatic and economic tools to undermine Taiwan’s statehood. In March, the outgoing president of Micronesia reveals China’s tactics in ensuring its dominance over the Indo-Pacific region, to render the region’s countries neutral in a potential war over Taiwan. He also discusses publicly the price of switching recognition from Taiwan to China. A few days later, Honduras announces the switch of ties from Taiwan to China, leaving Taiwan with just 13 formal recognitions. Honduran government is not concealing that their decision is based on pragmatism, not ideology, and is motivated by the country’s debt, as Taiwan was unwilling to contribute the amount of aid they were asking for. Taiwan responds by saying they would not compete monetarily with China to keep their allies, and warns Honduras not to “quench your thirst with poison and fall into China’s debt trap.” As the derecognition is formalised on March 25, with Honduras saying it recognises only one China, Tsai accuses China of engaging in “dollar diplomacy.” Taiwanese opposition uses this occasion to criticise Tsai’s foreign policy as “incompetent,” since Taiwan has lost nine recognitions during her presidency, despite also using a mix of measures like financial assistance or providing access to Taiwan’s medical system or university scholarships to keep partnerships. But in addition to coercive tactics, China is also occasionally trying to use honey: in September, China unveils a new economic integration plan, including proposals that make it easier for Taiwanese people to live, study and work in China. The coastal province of Fujian would become a demonstration zone for integrated development.

Domestically, Taiwan attempts to step up its defence: in May, annual emergency drills include for the first time a simulated military strike on Taipei. It is a step in the right direction, although critics also point to critical gaps, like protection of critical infrastructure and communication between the government and the public. Taiwan is also reforming its army – from 2024, military service will be one year instead of the current four months, and from 2023, women are allowed to join. During military drills, strategies used by Ukrainians against the Russian military are also tried. Again, worries about defence capabilities remain, only a fraction of the two million reservists is believed to be truly combat ready, and there are concerns about the morale among the population: if defeat is seen as inevitable, then fighting becomes pointless. At the same time, public polls show that about 85% is opposed to Beijing’s “one country, two systems” proposal, as 78.4% say that Taiwan and China do not belong to the same country and more than 60% consider themselves Taiwanese. But 80% also feel that the threat from Beijing has worsened, while trust in the US as a stable partner for Taiwan has declined, partly over Taiwanese perceptions over US’ role in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Despite China’s scare tactics and threats, Taiwan has some success in deepening international (economic) ties: in June, Taiwan and the US sign a comprehensive trade deal, deepening economic ties by streamlining customs checks, improving regulatory procedures, and establishing anticorruption measures. In November, an enhanced trade partnership agreement between the UK and Taiwan follows, the first bilateral agreement between Taiwan and Europe. As the UK is Taiwan’s third biggest trading partner in Europe, Taiwan hopes this deal might serve as a model for other countries. At the end of the year, Taiwan announces it is also considering joining the International Criminal Court, in part to deter Chinese attacks or invasion, as ICC membership would allow launching investigations or issuing warrants under international law regarding acts in Taiwanese territory. In his New Year’s address on 31 December, China’s president Xi once again reiterates that “the motherland will surely be reunified.”

Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (Transnistria)

In 2023, Transnistria ends up garnering less international attention than in 2022, although some attempts are made to address the state of the Moldovan-Transnistrian negotiations. At the start of the year, Transnistria’s president Vadim Krasnoselsky sets tasks to the ministry of foreign affairs, which include continuing the negotiation process with Moldova, increasing interactions with UN agencies in the field of human rights, and further systemic bilateral ties with Russia, both in terms of institutional cooperation, as well as strengthening trade and economic relations and cultural and humanitarian interaction. Moldova, on the other hand, starts the year with passing a new law that prohibits “separatist actions that undermine Moldova’s integrity, sovereignty and security.” Concerns are raised in Transnistria over the impact the law will have on the negotiation process, and the Transnistrian regime claims that the new provisions of the Moldovan Criminal Code will endanger not only Transnistrian leaders, who could be detained by Moldova as separatists, but will also undermine the rights and freedoms of all Transnistrians. Perhaps as a response, Putin revokes on February 21 the 2012 degree whereby Russia committed to resolve the Transnistrian conflict based on respect towards Moldova’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and neutrality.

In February and March, Transnistrian people are scared by reports on Russian TV stations that an Ukrainian attack on Transnistria is imminent, which are amplified by Moscow’s local mouthpieces. Transnistria also accuses Ukraine of a plot to kill its president, as Transnistria’s state security ministry claims on March 9 that an assassination attempt organised by Ukraine’s national security service has been thwarted, though no evidence is provided. In April, Russian military conducts previously unannounced military manoeuvres in Transnistria, upsetting Moldovans and inciting some fear as the troops infringe the existing Security Zone regime by moving outside of the range of the Joint Peacekeeping Forces.

In July, the leader of the oppositional Transnistrian Communist Party is murdered at home, in what Transnistrian authorities assume to be related to a robbery due to an open safe in the house. NGO activists in Moldova reveal that the murdered politician was a vocal critic of the pro-Russian Transnistrian leadership, and had shortly before his death signed a declaration on cooperation with the Moldovan Civil Congress on behalf of the Union of Opposition Forces of Transnistria. Moldova’s Reintegration Policies Bureau states that they have proposed to launch an independent investigation into the murder under the auspices of the OSCE’s mission to the region.

Economically, Transnistria is feeling the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine. While mid-year reports show an increase of foreign trade in comparison to the previous year, the trade deficit grows by 22.6% in year-on-year comparison, still mainly financed by the non-payment for Russian gas supplies. Almost half of Transnistria’s exports went to Moldova – the lion’s share of this was electricity produced in Transnistria –, while more than a third of the exports went to the EU, and about 9% to Russia. However, Russia still dominates in imports by about a 70% share, mostly due to the same gas imports. Thus, while Transnistria is highly dependent on Russia for imports, it is very dependent on Moldova and the EU for exports – should either side become suddenly inaccessible to Transnistria, its economy will face collapse.

In June, the OSCE extends the mandate of its mission in Moldova by six months, until the end of 2023. The short period is a Russian demand, their representatives add the condition that in the next six months, the mission should dedicate itself to reviving the peace process in existing formats, and particularly aim at reviving the 5+2 talks. Failure to do so would result in Russia cutting its support to the mission from 2024 onwards. While Transnistria and Moldova resume the dialogue on economic issues under the auspices of the OSCE in September, at the next OSCE meeting in December, Lavrov accuses the EU and NATO of killing the 5+2 negotiation format – “the last thing left of the joint efforts for a Transnistrian settlement.”

Transnistrian president Krasnoselsky states in a TV interview in December that unlike her predecessor Dodon, Moldova’s current president Maia Sandu has rejected Transnistria’s proposals for direct bilateral talks. Krasnoselsky states his readiness for such 1+1 format meetings, saying that topics such as the preservation of peace and security guarantees, economic, social, and humanitarian issues and citizen rights could be discussed. His remarks come just a few days before the EU decides to open accession negotiations with Moldova. Both the EU and Moldovan leaders have mentioned throughout the year that Moldova’s accession may happen without Transnistria.


Author: Kristel Vits