More than 600,000 people live in the disputed post-Soviet territories of Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. For decades, their lives have been shaped by checkpoints, looming violence and a state of uncertainty.
Maxim Eristavi is a producer with the Russian-Language News Exchange (RLNE), a platform managed by Free Press Unlimited to support independent media in Russian-speaking countries. He believes the stories of the people living in these regions remain untold too often.
"We forget that there are people who do not enjoy basic rights, like the ability to travel freely or invest and build their future" - Maxim Eristavi
“Journalists don’t look at these conflicts through the human story side. We look at the geopolitics, who’s involved and what the conflict resolution could look like. We forget that there are people who do not enjoy basic rights, like the ability to travel freely or invest and build their future,” he said.
To shed light on what life is like in an unrecognised territory, RLNE and five media organisations in the region created 'The(Un)Recognized'. The multimedia story highlights the plight of people living in the contested regions through timelines, infographics and video interviews.
In the piece, locals tell what it’s like to cross checkpoints every day, or run a business in an unrecognised state. One teacher explains how she saw the same faces at police checkpoints in Transnistria every day, yet had to take out her passport every single time. “I haven’t seen any changes for 25-26 years. To me, it seems like this setup suits someone,” she said.
The (Un)Recognized was produced by journalists from 12 countries, a feat Eristavi called “unprecedented”. “Usually journalists don’t work together like this on an everyday basis, especially on such complicated ongoing conflicts,” he said.
With this scale, reaching consensus about the final text was at times “a puzzle” and at times “torturous”, according to RLNE editor in chief Natalia Marshalkovitch.
“Our Caucasian partner couldn’t travel to Nagorno-Karabakh for example, so we flew in people from Belarus. Another big issue was the language. Even some city names have different versions. We had to find some creative solutions,” she said.
"You can’t just bundle journalists together and say ‘trust each other’" - Maxim Eristavi
The (Un)Recognized was the first joint production of this magnitude created by RLNE and its media partners. The reach was at least 1.5 million viewers. But to Marshalkovitch and Eristavi, the main achievement was cementing trust between participating media organisations.
“One of the greatest problems in the region is that independent newsrooms are very often small and struggle financially. We believe that by working together, they are stronger together, but you can’t just bundle them together and say ‘trust each other’. It’s amazing to see how the participating journalists bonded through the working process.”
Marshalkovitch adds: “To me the most impressive thing about this project is that we proved it’s possible to talk in a common language about conflicts in the post-Soviet region. Now, we are much more brave in touching sensitive stories.”