The Coronavirus Emergency in the Post-Soviet Breakaway Regions

Von Elia Bescotti
Despite their non-recognition, the COVID-19 pandemic has also affected the breakaway regions of the post-Soviet space.

Despite not figuring in most of the official statistics, the Coronavirus pandemic has also spread to those areas of the world where separatist administrations are currently governing, but their legitimacy, recognition and independence is contested by most of the international community. Although not secessionist per se, Taiwan is, perhaps, the most important case of the paradox of those de facto states: it represents an outstanding model for the management of the contagion by COVID-19, but is not a member of the World Health Organization (or, at least, not anymore). Most importantly, the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, is not recognised as an independent state by most of the members of the United Nations, as the People´s Republic of China keeps claiming its sovereignty over the “rebel” administration of Taipei.

Taiwan is not the only case of a so-called not or partially recognized de facto state that is affected by the pandemic and reacts to it. In the post-Soviet space, contested states arose when secessionist conflicts broke out during the collapse of the Soviet Union. The last conflict that broke out was the so-called Ukrainian Crisis of 2013-14 with the emergence of two secessionist entities in East Ukraine. Despite their existence, their borders, administrations and their statehood is, as said, contested through means of politics and international law. Yet, also the populations of such entities have been affected by the pandemic. As these de facto states have no direct access to international organizations due to their lack of international recognition, the way they are managing the pandemic is mostly ignored. Being mostly treated as non-existent, however, has not prevented them from the contagion, nor from undertaking their measures in the struggles against the spread of the virus.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia

On February 26 the first case of coronavirus was registered in Georgia. Currently, Georgia has 420 confirmed Coronavirus cases, with 5 deaths and 111 recoveries. However, 5223 people are quarantined and 584 are under hospital supervision.1 Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway regions recognised as independent only by Russia and another handful of states, further restricted their connections with the Georgia from the following day.2 Abkhazia closed its borders to every foreigner and stateless person, even though Russian citizens have been initially exempted from such a restriction. Borders between Abkhazia and Georgia have been completely closed since March 13, while the border with Russia has been closed only starting from April 8, after the first case of Coronavirus was registered in Abkhazia.3 On the other hand, South Ossetia allowed its residents to travel to Georgia for medical treatment, even though they had to stay in quarantine for 14 days upon their return.4

Among the two breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia appears to be more worried and open regarding information on the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic within its borders. The small contested republic on the Black Sea coast has registered its first case on April 8, in the city of Gagra, and is currently under hospitalised at the Gudauta hospital. This facility has become the centre for analysis, testing and hospitalisation ever since the first measures were adopted.5  Before the first case was registered in Abkhazia, a Georgian woman travelling through the region from Russia to Gali district with an Abkhaz foreign passport has been tested positive and hospitalised in Zugdidi, in the Georgian controlled area, on March 29. Those in contact with her during the journey were not infected.6 This latter case is not connected to the first one, who has instead travelled from Moscow. As the number of cases is expected to grow, the de facto Ministry of Health said that more than 700 beds will be prepared to face the emergency.7 As of April 11, Abkhazia registered 3 official positive cases.8 No further case was officially registered, although tests are conducted daily.

The first restrictions to hosting events in the de facto state were adopted as early as March 12. Nevertheless, snap presidential elections took place in Abkhazia on March 22. The elections were won in the first turn by the candidate of the opposition Aslan Bzhaniya. Thus, the upcoming weeks will be crucial in understanding whether the elections contributed to the diffusion of the contagion. Starting from March 25 further restrictions were adopted, and since March 28 the de facto President ad interim, Valeriy Bganba, declared the state of emergency on the territory of Abkhazia to prevent the contagion to spread.9 On March 31 in the Gali district, bordering the administrative line with Georgia, a curfew was imposed.10 Such measure was also imposed in the Gagra district, on the border with Russia, on April 8.11

The state of emergency has been initially in force until April 20. At the beginning, Abkhazia imposed a regime of 14 days of self-isolation to those arriving from abroad and forbid all foreigners and stateless person to enter the territory of Abkhazia. Employees of foreign NGOs helping to fight the spread of COVID-19 were exempted from such a measure. Cultural events, gatherings, demonstrations, and celebrations are banned. Until April 10, preschool and universities have been suspended, school holidays prolonged, and exams cancelled. No visas are issued to foreigners, and the touristic sector has been shut down for the enforcement period. Museums, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, canteens and caterings services are closed too, although delivery and take-away service is allowed. Gyms, hairdressers, beauty centres and SPAs, clothing shops and markets are also closed. Finally, public transportation, excluding taxis, is not operating, and even dentists provide services only in emergency cases. Other working activities, such as those involved in the dairy supply chain and distribution, continue only according to the envisioned safety criteria.12

On April 11, a presidential decree prolonged the measures already imposed until the end of the state of emergency, introduced pecuniary sanctions against the transgressors of the self-isolation regime and defined stricter rules. People can leave the house only for basic needs, such as buying groceries, drugs or for work for those activities allowed to operate, throw away their trash, and give assistance to the elderly and to people suffering from chronic conditions or who are not self-sufficient. Law enforcement and emergency bodies such as firefighters, medical and pharmacy personnel, certain public employees, agricultural workers, and volunteers are operating. Moreover, purposely spreading false information in the media and social networks “under the guise of reliable reports” regarding the pandemic and the undertaken measures is sanctioned with a penalty from 15 to 50 thousand roubles.13

The local administration of Sukhumi, the capital of the contested republic and most populated area, already implemented stricter measures since April 2. As reported by the press agency Abkhaz World, these include the prohibition of “public catering facilities […] except for contactless delivery of home orders” and “trade should be carried out without the visitor’s admission” to the stores. “Visitors waiting in line should maintain a distance of one and a half meter.“ Since April 3, sale of bakery products without packaging has been prohibited, and the activity of non-food retail outlets, except stores selling household chemical goods and other household products, has been suspended.14 Some Abkhazian businessmen, the Abkhazian diaspora in Moscow, the UNDP, the Russian Federation and, allegedly, the United States of America, are currently sending their aid to Abkhazia in forms of donations and medical equipment.15 Starting from April 20, some of the measures implemented have been partially relieved: food and agricultural markets all over Abkhazia can reopen, while the curfew imposed in the districts of Gagra and Gali has been lifted. All the other measures have been extended until May 1, while educational institutions will remain closed or on holidays until May 4.16

As of South Ossetia, the other small and landlock breakaway region of Georgia, the website of the Ministry of Health and Social Development does not provide information on the spread of Coronavirus in the republic and is poorly updated: only a medical brochure for detection and treatment of cases is available, and it was originally published by the Ministry of  Healthcare of the Russian Federation.17 No case has been officially registered yet in the region since the outbreak of the pandemic. All the official news concerning the provisions regarding the pandemic are published on the website of the Government. Starting from March 27 until April 12 the Government has shut down activities such as cafes, libraries, sports centres, educational institutions (which adopted distance schooling, as supported by the Government), public catering and food services, although take away and delivery are allowed, and all trade activity besides groceries, pharmacies, households chemicals and personal hygiene, as well as their supply chain. Weddings and other celebrations are prohibited until May 1.18

Further restrictions were implemented on April 1, including the closure of hairdressers and beauty salons, saunas and SPAs. Remarkably, with the same provision, starting from April 2 South Ossetia has restricted movement through its border with the Russian Federation.19 The measures have been prolonged until April 19, and movement restriction to basic needs has been envisaged.20 People entering South Ossetia are to subject to medical examination and mandatory isolation for 14 days. As of April 12, the website of the Government reports 208 people in self-isolation, mostly students coming from Russia, and six of them are currently hospitalised. It is unclear whether these people have been tested and if South Ossetia dispose of the adequate medical equipment to analyse any tampon, or if these need to be sent to Russia or, less probably, Georgia.21 Anyways, on April 17 the measures have been extended until the end of the month, and all suspended educational services, aka lectures, have been transferred to an online format.22

Interestingly, the difference in the availability of information regarding the pandemic in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is mirrored by the news published on the websites of the local sections of the Russian Press Agency Sputnik. On the Russian version of the website of Sputnik Abkhazia, there´s a full section dedicated to the spread of Coronavirus. On the other hand, the Russian version of Sputnik South Ossetia tends to cover less the topic regarding South Ossetia itself, while information regarding the rest of the world is available. This consideration, however, does not take into account the publication of articles in Abkhaz and Ossetian, which seem to publish different articles. Sputnik, however, is not a state agency of either the contested states. Also, the Abkhaz state medias Apsny Press and Abkhaz World provide information regarding the spread COVID-19 contagion.


The first case of Coronavirus in Nagorno-Karabakh, the non-recognised Artsakh Republic, has been registered on April 7. The infected patient is a man from the Kashatagh Province, bordering Armenia and Iran, who has previously been to Armenia. He was hospitalised on April 2 and isolated with another person who also showed the symptoms but resulted negative to COVID-19. Both the tests were sent to Armenia for the analysis. People who were in contact with him have been isolated.23  The Artsakh Republic has introduced the state of emergency on April 13, after the number of infected people in Nagorno-Karabakh has raised to six on April 12. The state of emergency will remain in force for one month.24 As of April 22, the official number of positive cases in the Artsakh republic is 7.25

There is a general lack of official available news regarding the spread of Coronavirus in Nagorno-Karabakh, whether in English, Russian or Armenian, the only language in which the Ministry of Healthcare provides information about the pandemic. Both the websites of the Government and of the President of the breakaway region provide a chronology of the meetings and discussion conducted to deal with the contagion, but do not mention the measures hitherto implemented. On the contrary, information regarding restrictions to movement and foreigners are published, in Armenian, on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Artsakh. These include restrictions of visits to citizens of the republic as well as general visa restriction to foreigners, whose entries are restricted. The citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh are instead recommended to strictly refrain from travelling abroad.26 Such recommendations include returning to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia as well, were emergency measures have been implemented to stop the spread of the contagion.27 To date, Armenia counts 1523 cases, 24 deaths and 659 recoveries.28 Armenia has currently closed its borders, those with Georgia, Iran and Nagorno-Karabakh, with the exception for trade, and has implemented an internal lockdown. The borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have always been closed since Armenian independence due to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

On March 31, despite the ongoing pandemic, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in the Republic of Artsakh, surrounded by the international criticism and obvious non-recognition. During the presidential elections, none of the candidates reached passed the 50% of preferences and the second turn remained scheduled for April 14.29 The second turn was won by Arayik Haroutyunyan, the governmental candidate. According to the Constitution of Nagorno-Karabakh (article 132, part 1, article 76, part 2, and article 93, part 20), a state of emergency is imposed only if the constitutional order is threatened, and elections are not postponed if a state of emergency is imposed. Not only the international community of states, but also the opposition, refused to recognise the outcome of the elections.30 Massive violations have been reported by Armenian and local observers during both electoral turns.31 As security measures, the President of the Republic has given the necessary guidelines to be followed through the vote, such as “complex sanitary and hygienic measures in all the electoral precincts, administrative buildings of electoral commissions, [Central Electoral Commission] press center building, as well as providing voters and people involved in the elections with disinfectants, personal masks, gloves and pens.”32

In Azerbaijan, 1548 cases have been reported, 948 recoveries and 20 deaths.33 The authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh have recently reported violations of the ceasefire agreement and strongly criticised Azerbaijan for committing shelling attacks despite the pandemic.34 At the same time, Azerbaijan also reports shelling of villages in the conflict area conducted by the separatists.35 Remarkably, the website of the de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Artsakh mentions the COVID-19 pandemic, but only in the context of the implementation of a global ceasefire called by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.36 The confrontation with Azerbaijan is better covered in the communication of the authorities than the contagion.

People’s Republic in Donbas

While still waging war against Ukraine, the People´s Republic of Donetsk and Lugansk have both been hit by the first infections of COVID-19. The first case was registered in Lugansk People´s Republic (LPR) on March 30,37 while Donetsk People´s Republic (DPR) registered it on the following day.38 As of April 22, 67 cases have been registered in the DPR, with 64 active cases, 2 recoveries and one death.39 In LPR, on the same day, the registered cases amounted to 48, with one death.40 Different statistics are however referred to by Ukrainian authorities, which on March 13 claimed that 12 positive cases were already present in Horlivka (Gorlovka in Russian), under the control of the separatists, although no source was mentioned.41 Both the unrecognised contested republics took their first measures later than Ukraine, the claimant state, and Russia, their supporter. Kyiv introduced the quarantine regime on March 16 and imposed a special regime for crossing the line of contact. A few days later, the DPR has blocked the transit through the checkpoints with Ukraine from March 21, while the DPR suspended the operation of the only pedestrian checkpoint through the contact line with Ukraine on March 23. The border with Russia remains open. Russia has exempted the people living in the areas controlled by the People´s Republics de facto authorities from the restrictions applied to foreigners.42

In the DPR, all educational institutions have been transferred to distance learning since March 19. The decree of the head of the Republic Denis Pushilin shortened the opening hours of cafes and restaurants, banned mass events, as well as the entry of citizens without registration or a certificate of permanent residence, and imposed mandatory self-isolation for 14 days to those entering the republic. Besides, residents of the DPR are obliged to observe social distancing.43 Pushilin has also said in an interview that there are currently four alternative packages of measures to be taken for introducing the quarantine regime. In the same interview, the head of the self-proclaimed republic has also underlined the shortcomings of medical equipment and personnel the DPR is facing and has reminded the precious support that Russia is giving. Such aid includes medical support and test kits, while he claimed that the republic is self-sufficient in terms of mask production.44 The Ministry of Healthcare of the DPR is also taking strict safety measures to avoid the spread of the contagion in medical facilities and laboratories, whose functioning is necessary to prevent the further spread of the contagion.45

In the LPR, residents must observe a social distance of at least 1.5 meters, including in public places, and public transports where possible; use respiratory protection equipment (masks, including self-made ones) in public places, trade facilities, services, and transports. The Emergency Sanitary and Anti-epidemic Commission of the LPR decided to extend the validity of previously adopted decisions, which were limited to 12 April 2020, until further notice. These measures include the transfer of all educational institutions to distance learning, the ban to the participation of children in mass events, and the temporary suspension of all public catering activities, except for the preparation and delivery of ready meals. The Commission also decided to temporarily suspend events, as well as the shut-down of night clubs (discos) and other similar facilities, cinemas, beauty salons and fitness centres, libraries, and cultural institutions. Public services that can be provided in electronic form are provided exclusively this way. Business activities not selling food, animal products, veterinary drugs, household chemicals, personal hygiene products, not providing remote retail business with delivery, or which are not pharmacies or gas stations, have been suspended.46 Other forms of business were exempted from such restrictions on  April 3.47 Two cities were also put under isolation: Krasny Luch and Antratsit. There, a strict regime of self-isolation for citizens, with mandatory compliance with the requirements for the use of respiratory protection and the prohibition of all types of public transport (urban, suburban, intercity, international), except for specialized, emergency and food delivery transport, was enforced on April 4.48 Those measures were lifted on April 22,49 while in the city of Pervomaisk a strict regime of isolation was enforced on April 17, as the contagion still spreads.50 Since April 22, visits to patients in hospitals and medical institutions have been prohibited in the whole republic.51

The website of the Ministry of Healthcare provides an interesting insight inviting the population to „be responsible for [their own] health“ and is informed that the incidence of SARS infection, as well as flu, is due to seasonal reasons.52 Admittedly, the advice reads unclear, as no apparent distinction between the SARS virus and the current epidemic of Coronavirus, which itself bears the coded name of CoV-SARS-2, is present. Moreover, Ukrainian authorities claim that a relevant amount of people in the separatist-controlled areas, especially the LPR, show the symptoms of COVID-19 infection, such as pneumonia, but they are not registered as infected. Indeed, Ukrainian media claim that the de facto authorities are hiding the real number of positive cases and deaths, which are instead registered according to the symptoms they showed.53 Although a lack of testing kits might not allow to register those infected ones as positive cases of coronavirus, on April 10the government of LPR stated that almost 20,000 people were tested, and the de facto Ministry of Healthcare, Natalia Pashchenko, declared that testing kits are currently available.54

The pandemic is taking place in the usual context of the war between Kyiv and the separatists, and any unclarity regarding information on infections could well be part of the never-ending information war both sides are waging. War is still a priority for both sides, in a situation where the medical capabilities remain extremely precarious and risk to be overburdened with losses due to both the war and the pandemic, where a potential humanitarian crisis adds on top of another one. RIA reports that the DPR pledged the French and German call to stop the hostilities, blaming Ukraine for its unwillingness.55 One tragic example of the protraction of the conflict is the death of a 25 years old girl resident of Horlivka, killed by Ukrainian shelling according to reports from the People´s Republics.56 In this context, UNDP and EU are currently providing medical aid to the areas in the Oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk under the control of the central government.57 Currently, Ukraine has registered 7170 positive cases, with 187 deaths and 505 recoveries. 21058 tests have been done.58

Transnistria/Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic

Among the post-Soviet contested states, the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR) seems to have been the most affected by the spread of coronavirus. This could be due to the lesser degree of isolation of the right bank of the Dniester river from both Moldova and Ukraine. The first two positive cases were registered on March 21 in the cities of Rybnitsa and Bender-y (or Tighina).59 As of April 23, 338 cases of infection, 16 deaths, and 24 recoveries have been registered in Transnistria. Most of the infected people (57%) are from Tiraspol, the de facto capital of the breakaway region, followed by Slobozia district (20% of the infected), 20 km southwards.60 The hospital of Slobozia has become the Transnistrian hub for the management of those infected of COVID-19, while tests are also sent to Chisinau to detect the virus.61

The de facto administration on the right bank adopted the first preventive measures against the contagion on March 13, when no infections in the PMR were detected yet. These included a ban on “mass events [and] an enhanced disinfection regime” while local public transportation could still operate as usual.62 Additionally, educational institutions were closed on March 16 and, from March 17 until May 1, the state of emergency been declared in the whole republic. Important restrictions were introduced on April 2, including the closure of borders to foreign citizens and stateless people, and restriction of movement within and outside the republic, with some exceptions for funerals, assistance, and supply. A 14 days regime of self-isolation has been imposed to all the other residents entering the republic from abroad (which of course includes Moldova). All kind of public transportation, excluding taxis, was forbidden to operate, although several checkpoints with Moldova and Ukraine keep functioning. Events are banned and most of the business activities, with some relevant exceptions including supermarkets and their supply chain as well as pharmacies, are shut down. These include food markets which cannot grant a physical separation between the activities and vendors. Many businesses are allowed to operate only if they can establish and maintain such physical barriers and ensure enough space for workers to maintain the safety measures.63 Citizens are recommended to stay at home and go out only in exceptional cases, such as official needs, to buy essential goods and to help those in need. On April 7 the President of PMR Vadim Kransoselsky took charge of all the prerogatives regarding healthcare in the republic.64 As of April 22, mechanics are allowed to work in safety conditions, citizens are obliged to wear masks in crowded areas, vehicles and commercial areas and the delivery of postal items, including periodicals published outside of the PMR controlled areas, is suspended, unless it follows the directives of the Operational Headquarter (Operativnii Shtab) agreed beforehand.65

The Ministry of Healthcare has published a full guideline to help the citizens to detect the symptoms and avoid the spread of the contagion.66 The authorities and media of the PMR seem to cover relatively in detail the chronicles of the contagion in the self-proclaimed republic, providing daily updates on the websites of the Ministry of Healthcare and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The state online media “Novosti Pridnestrovia” has a full section dedicated to the progression of the infection and the measures undertaken on the right bank of the Dniester and abroad. Currently, the Republic of Moldova, whose belonging of the Transnistrian region is internationally recognised, has registered 2926 cases, 80 of which have died and 661 have recovered.67 Ukraine, bordering the unrecognised de facto state, closed its borders as early as March 16, while Moldova followed on March 17. Due to the Ukrainian closure, Transnistria has found itself in an emergency due to the lack of regular supply of drugs, which currently arrive through Moldova, despite pharmaceutical companies are present on the right bank.68 5.000 test kits have also been sent to Transnistria from Russia.69 Compared to the situation of the other breakaway regions, the authorities in Chisinau and Tiraspol show a discrete level of cooperation amongst each other in fighting the spread of the contagion, although the surrounding political dispute maintains at odds the relations between two banks of the Dniester. 70  Interestingly, the website of the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Moldova reports the cases registered in Transnstria, although separately.

The authorities are currently involved in establishing COVID-19 dedicated hospitals in PMR. The largest is being prepared for opening in Rybnitsa, while in Tiraspol a new building has been assigned to the COVID-19 hospital by the decision of Krasnoselsky himself. According to PMR authorities, this separate building, equipped with modern equipment, furniture, and inventory, would allow places and provision for high-quality treatment for at least two hundred patients in isolation. 71 Currently 90 ventilators are available and 12 more were repaired and returned to service. The shortage of personnel and a clear lack of respirators are two problems that concern almost all heads of medical institutions, and Transnistrian laboratories will be operating during the weekends to speed up the testing process. Rapid testing kits should also help to detect the spread of the contagion. 72


In the already complex context, the post-Soviet countries and their breakaway regions find themselves, the COVID-19 pandemic has ignored any of their political dispute and border during its spread. However, it seems that their different degree of isolation has also influenced the management of the contagion. Transnistria, compared to the other post-Soviet de facto states, has been tremendously hit. On the contrary, in the South Caucasus, the crisis tends to be more contained, although, with the partial exception of Abkhazia, the information remains more nebulous. It is unclear whether the pandemic will positively or negatively affect the relations between the central states and their breakaway regions. What remains clear, however, is that the contagion has not prevented the most heated conflicts to continue, as the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and East Ukraine remains highly tense. Nevertheless, even these mostly ignored areas, whose alleged border normally do not figure on any map, must deal with an emergency spreading worldwide. Some of them are doing it more efficiently and transparently than others, even with often extremely poor sanitary conditions, and without any access to most of the external aid due to their odd situation caused by their secessions.

Featured image: The border between Transnistria and Moldova. Source: Clay Gilliland via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Elia Bescotti is a Research Associate at the Leibniz Institute of East and Southeast European Studies (IOS) in Regensburg, Germany, and a PhD Candidate at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is currently a member of the IOS Junior Research Group “Between Conflict and Cooperation: Politics of International Law in the post-Soviet space”, funded by the German Ministry for Science and Education. His research interests include secession, self-determination of people, ethnic conflicts, and geopolitics of the post-Soviet space.

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