Publicism: Armenia, the Caucasus, Europe

Thinking about the future of South Caucasus

Please see the publsihed version in pdf 


Thinking About the Future of South Caucasus

A review of the project Towards Transparent and Accountable Regional Politics: South Caucasus Political and Civil Society Dialogue (in short, ‘South Caucasus Region[1]’ project, or SCR) conducted by an independent consultant on behalf of the project leaders and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy[2].

1. What Was the Project About?

This was a project about Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians negotiating, brainstorming, and discussing the idea of a common South Caucasus region, in the context of expanding Europe. This should be a democratic region where there is security, trust and common economic space, where people, goods and ideas move freely, and which via that very mechanism, would resolve its conflicts and prosper.

This vision is neither unknown nor fashionable in today’s South Caucasus. ‘Stability Pact for the Caucasus’; ‘Caucasus House’ and other similar ideas have been mushrooming from early 1990’s[3]. The reasons why all the previous initiatives were unsuccessful, is worth analyzing separately. If the idea is reborn nevertheless, it is worth being studied again. According to the participants of the SCR project, the previous ideas were coming ‘from above’ or ‘from outside’, whereas this time they are coming ‘from inside’ and are being advanced by well placed civil society leaders and medium-level political forces. Also, the European expansion brings the idea much closer to the region.

The project leaders clearly recognized the danger of repeating a failed initiative. They, however, approached the problem differently than it has been approached before, and put forward the following two sets of questions:

A. 1. While common South Caucasus may not be realistically possible in the near future, still, could it be at least conceivable and imagineable? 2. If yes, how could it look like? 3. If no, what is the alternative? 4. Are further integration with Europe and Europeanisation possible, if attempted separately by each state, one by one, without developing a common approach[4]? 5. If yes, how? If no, again, what is the alternative?

Since the answer to question A.1. was Yes, the second set of questions was the following:

B. 1. What should be done, or what could have been done, to make the prospect of common regional future closer? 2. Which institutional and individual actors would have to be nurtured and prepared? 3. What kind of relations would have to evolve between these actors? 4. After these actors have discussed the issues and built relations, what could be next steps?

There were many questions. Some questions were answered more clearly than others, some were left unanswered. The resulting book presents the discussions.

In order to understand the place of this project among the variety of today’s similar projects, it is important to mention that the project was part-visionary and part-action, part-academic and part-diplomatic. It was about integration—with Europe and among themselves. It was about democracy as the main instrument in that direction. While the conflicts were not explicitly discussed, it was about democracy and integration as ways towards conflict resolution.

2. Background to the Project

The idea of this project dates back to several years ago. The project started to take shape from December 2004, when at a conference of the Caucasus Forum[5] on the issues of the language of peace and conflict the protagonists of the project from Armenia and Azerbaijan met for the first time. In the first months of 2005 extensive consultations took place, project leaders using opportunities of other events to meet and discuss the shape of the project[6].

Since the SCR project was conceived as a project about values and ideas, the issue of their dissemination, awareness raising, or ‘Public Relations’ for this initiative, have been at the forefront of its leaders’ attention[7]. Given political realities and financial capacities, it was decided that the best way to raise awareness about it would be the publication and dissemination of a book with its proceedings.

2.1. Political Context

The project took place in June 2005-March 2006. During this time, many significant political events took place, such as Parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and Constitutional Referendum in Armenia in Fall 2005, and very active developments in Georgia. At the time of the project conclusion (March 2006), project leaders witnessed further diplomatic and political discord impacting relations between Georgia and Russia; some opportunities for Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian dialogue; quite a tense situation in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia (the region with a significant Armenian minority); and series of rallies and demonstrations because of several internal political developments, the last one being the killing of prisoners during a prison rebellion.

There were no major changes in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dynamic: the latest meeting of the presidents went unsuccessful, and both sides made rhetorical statements that they hoped for a future process, however, they were also ready to war.

Russian politics in South Caucasus did not change. The Georgian demand to remove Russian peacekeepers from the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict zone, and the accompanying actions against the Russian peacekeepers, made Russia to increase its pressure on Georgia, refusing to issue visas for several days. The latest event is the Russian decision to prohibit Georgian and Moldovan wine import. In both cases, the decision is politically motivated. In the case of Moldova it is determined by the joint Moldovan-Ukrainian decision to close down the porous border between Ukraine and the breakaway region of Transdnistria. Russia calls this action ‘blockade’ of Transdnistria and sends humanitarian convoys there.

Concerns are expressed that in its struggle for dominance in the region, Russia may engage Armenia and/or Armenians of Samtskhe-Javakheti region, to increase tension over Georgia, and achieve a significant deterioration in the relations of two nations.

Parliamentary elections in Ukraine and Presidential elections in Belarus demonstrated the continuing struggle of democratic and pro-European forces against the forces of the past. This struggle becomes complicated because of Russia’s involvement, which seems to be based on an assumption that any democratic development in the CIS states is simultaneously a move away from the alliance with Russia. This in turn may be partly the result of less than careful cases of US and EU encouragement of drastic change in these societies.

Russian politics demonstrated further moves towards autarky, or at least towards creating more barriers vis-à-vis the Western involvement, in the banking sector, businesses, as well as in civil society and NGO sector. The latest actions against ‘Western or British funded’ NGOs were transferred to South Caucasus, and raids on NGOs and accusations that funding from the West, particularly Britain, is tantamount to espionage or at least to subversive activities, were heard also in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Increasing political tension inside Russia, impacting on its policies in the ‘Near Abroad’, may be mainly caused by internal political reasons. However, undoubtedly it is also motivated by international developments, such as the evolving crisis between US and its allies and Iran.

In this context, the European expansion and the European project, are the most significant positive event. Particularly encouraging are the New Neighborhood policies and the recent EU decisions to engage in South Caucasus more strategically, addressing conflict transformation needs (decisions that some experts characterize as a possibility for a new ‘Marshall plan’ for South Caucasus). No wonder that the European project played crucial role in determining the SCR project’s ideology.

Nevertheless, the European project is interpreted with caution in some significant circles, in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Caution is expressed on the issue whether or not Europe plays with ‘good heart’ in South Caucasus or is led by competitive political considerations, e.g., its ‘Marshall plan’ is preparing grounds for US to deepen its conflict with Iran, and for Russia to be further ‘removed’ from South Caucasus. People who express this worry make a further conclusion that this may result in destructive Russian activities in South Caucasus; and that if the situation in and around Iran destabilizes, this will necessarily have a destructive impact on the fragile South Caucasus.

This was such a significant worry for the project participants that some people suggested to have Iran as a separate session, or even to devote an entire meeting to Iran. The aim would be to discuss the position of South Caucasus civil society vis-à-vis the evolving conflict with Iran. However, the importance of the topic made it impossible to have it within the framework of the SCR project, and it was left for the follow-up.

2.2. Regional Projects in South Caucasus

Regional projects, particularly trilateral ones, are nothing new in South Caucasus. Despite the conflicts, from early days of secession of hostilities a multitude of projects engaging Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians took place. Several foundations, such as Eurasia and Open Society, having offices in all 3 states, have special regional programmes. Others have regional projects, such as the Boell Foundation, the Ebert Foundation etc. EC and other external donors encourage regional projects and regional cooperation.

Many of these projects involve a component on conflict resolution. Some were focused on that, since engaging Armenians and Azerbaijanis meant addressing the fact that they were in conflict. There were also many bilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani projects, addressing the issues of the conflict. Some regional projects, however, avoided this issue or did not find a correct methodology to address it fruitfully. Many donors shy away from the conflict issues. According to some of the participants, they either lack specific conflict transformation expertise, or they have been too impressed (‘scared’ according to the words of one participant) by the depth and seriousness of the conflict issues and by the intransigence of nationalist stances of the sides.

Depending on the changing priorities of the donors, sometimes there is a renewed belief that trilateral projects can lead to positive impact; other times they become out of fashion, because donors are tired or feel disillusioned, and are looking for other formats to help the region and its societies.

The regional projects which include conflict spots and populations who directly suffered from the conflict, however, are much rarer. Issues of IDPs and refugees are addressed more, since UNHCR, IOM and other organizations have a mandate for that. However, issues of those who continue on living in the conflict zones, or non-recognised states, are much less frequently and systematically addressed by the international community. Engagement of these people and regions is being blocked by the governments of the states to which they nominally belong, even if the governments do not have actual power in these regions. Governments of South Caucasus blocked the international donor community from entering these regions believing that aid would eventually strengthen their bid for separation and independence. Only limited amount of humanitarian aid has been allowed for several years to arrive to these regions via bilateral or intergovernmental donorship. A strategic approach has been lacking.

In recent years, this situation has started to change. First, several peace-related and conflict transformation projects evolved which engaged populations of the conflict zones. These projects, however, did not address significantly the needs in the breakaway areas. Since the conflicts remained unresolved, a massive developmental intervention was still politically impossible. Then gradually EC, European countries and US, started to change their policies. The example of EC is telling: among the recommendations on its policies in South Caucasus there have been messages to engage the conflict zones rather than to further isolate them. In conjunction with encouraging democracy in the recognized states, this should impact on the fragile tendencies of democratic developments and rule of law which one can notice in some of the break away areas. This in turn, stabilizing the situation, will help to create preconditions for a turn towards peace.

2.3. NGOs and Civil Society

Project participants adhere to an advanced view that civil society is all-inclusive and encompasses medium-level professionals, intelligentsia and business people, i.e. is not at all limited to NGOs. They, however, consider NGOs and the media institutionalized expressions of civil society.

Today NGO work in the South Caucasus, as well as elsewhere in the CIS, is being criticized from several angles. The fiercest criticism can be summarized as follows: It is just another business, an opportunity to make money and survive, under the guise of addressing important societal issues. Issues addressed by NGO projects do not bring about any significant change. Projects do not have any impact visible to the citizenry. This is just a well-functioning machine for ‘milking the fat western cow’. Projects bring in ‘western agendas’ and are therefore dangerous. They divert the attention of the society from worthwhile issues to the issues which are foreign, insignificant, irrelevant or not understandable. Grants are given to NGOs which are in opposition to the incumbent government or directly to the opposition, therefore projects become tools for Western donors to engage in internal politics of sovereign states. Donors are often corrupt and busy with distributing grants to their cronies.

There is only one step from this picture to declaring NGOs ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘spies’, declarations which have been voiced in different times in all of the societies concerned, and which, it seems, are on the rise today again.

In all fairness, some of the criticism may be justified. It may partly be determined by the fact that NGOs declare that they work for values rather than for other incentives, such as financial gain, but do not raise up to the challenge. Many donors fund projects based on their internal criteria without accompanying PR campaigns. Their decision-making logic stays outside the public scrutiny. From outside, it may seem that they, indeed, pursue their own agendas rather than try to address popular concerns.

This criticism is being offset by the donors channeling most of the money via the governments, which being not fully democratic, often use this as a means to curtail civil society development, thereby killing the purpose.

The situation is complicated by the fact that many projects aim at ‘software’ rather than ‘hardware’, i.e. changing social attitudes, training in skills etc. For this type of projects, there indeed are no reliable systems to measure their impact. Only applying systemic sets of criteria which take into account several intangibles, and sound argumentation and reasoning behind any project, help to determine its significance.

For instance, one component of success of the SCR project is the quality of the resulting book. Which criteria should be used to decide whether this book is in any way of a higher or lower quality than many other books which resulted from thousands of other projects?  Independently of the quality of the contributions, it should be noted in its defense that all the authors have contributed for free. Perhaps volunteer participation in visionary projects is indeed one of the important criteria of their value.

2.4. Looking for Frameworks and Selecting the Format

In this context, the SCR project leaders had to make decisions about its shape. The project engaged people who have worked inside their societies as well as internationally and regionally for several years. They knew that they should achieve an agreement over the framework of the project such that all sides would feel comfortable with it. Moreover, this being their first engagement with each other in such a project, and the project being a pilot stage of a future strategy, they had to proceed cautiously in order to build the foundations of trust vis-à-vis each other. Fully realizing that they were leaving the three very significant stakeholders, the Karabakhis, the South Ossetians and the Abkhaz outside the scope of the project, they decided to go for the trilateral format.

This decision was significantly determined by the need to fit several factors into the project format. In the Caucasus, there is no place where representatives from all the regions can safely meet. Azerbaijanis would have a difficulty meeting in Armenia, and vice versa. The Abkhaz would refuse to come to Tbilisi. Georgians would not be happy to go to Russia and it was not clear if they would receive visas for that. In recent times, Turkey has become a more or less acceptable and possible place for meetings. However, the project budget and the workload of the participants did not allow them to go for the option of relatively longer visits to Turkey. The project was designed so that to use the weekends, the opportunities to meet fast and easy, without much logistical challenge. Thus it was going to be impossible, within the project budget and timeframe, to have all six major conflict sides of the South Caucasus represented. When it was decided that Tbilisi was the main place of meetings, a decision was made to work, at this pilot stage, without inviting the representatives of conflict areas, because to have, say, Karabakhis and not to have the Abkhaz would seriously affect the logic of the project.

For a pilot stage project, this is totally acceptable and understandable. For the follow up, however, two issues have to be taken into account. If the project partners are serious in their decisiveness to continue on discussions about common region, they have to engage the conflict areas. They recognize this very clearly. However, engaging conflict areas in a regional format requires larger project budgets and fresh ideas on how to resolve the logistical challenge of choosing the meeting place.

The selection of Tbilisi as a meeting place suited all three sides. This, nevertheless, had another implication which could have been predicted: since Tbilisi is the place where the Georgian participants live, some of them had to continue on being engaged with their day-to-day activities in addition to taking part in the SCR project discussions. The result was that there was a circulation, coming and going of Georgian participants during the meetings. This affected the dynamic of the event both positively and negatively. Some  people, who would be left outside the project if it would take place elsewhere, had a chance to take part in at least one session of it, such as the Boell Foundation representative Walter Kaufman. But also, the flow of the Georgian participants created process difficulties for the permanent participants and chairs.

Choosing a framework for a regional initiative is difficult in the Caucasus. A bilateral framework of the Azerbaijanis and Armenians immediately raises the issue of the 3rd side—the Karabakhi Armenians, and as a reply—the issue of the 4th side—the Karabakhi Azerbaijanis. The trilateral format raises the accusation from the conflict zones that they again are being left out. This plays in the hands of hard-core nationalists as well as those who express doubts in the impact of such projects along the lines of criticism identified above. The Caucasus Forum format—engaging people from both North and South Caucasus—once upon a time was the least politically sensitive one, since it emphasized the regional rather than political identity. However, the way Russia behaved in Chechnya, the developments in recent years in North Caucasus, and curtailing of freedoms and civil society in Russia brought about such a heightened sense of insecurity that made this format all but impossible. Bilateral Georgian-Abkhaz or Georgian-South Ossetian formats, welcomed by Georgians, are still accepted with difficulty by the Abkhaz and South Ossetians. They leave out at least one extremely significant player—Russia, and therefore have to be complemented by other formats, such as Georgian-Abkhaz-Russian, or Georgian-South Ossetian-North Ossetian-Russian. This last format, however, is interpreted by the Georgian side as ‘3 against 1’ and, despite being the format accepted by OSCE, is discredited in the eyes of the Georgians.

Bilateral ‘neighborhood’ formats, such as Georgian-Armenian or Georgian-Azerbaijani, are not very frequent either. Projects in these formats do not seriously engage with the difficult issues at stake in the relations between the neighbors, strained for a variety of reasons  (particularly because of the significant Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities in Georgia). While this format was included in the first version of the project, it was decided to leave it out after thorough discussions. The partners recognized that the Armenian-Georgian and Azerbaijani-Georgian relations have significant agendas which it will not be possible to address within the limited scope of this project. These agendas are different from the agenda of the trilateral relations. Therefore it was decided to concentrate on the trilateral, to make the impact of the project stronger.

Thus the trilateral format emerged. Some of the partners had to engage in explaining to their contacts from conflict zones, with whom they work via the Caucasus Forum and other regional and international networks, why did they have to choose a format which leaves many interested sides out.

By the end of the project, however, decisiveness grows among the Azerbaijani and Armenian partners about the need to engage, in the future, people from the conflict zones. Moreover, at least during one event a partner from South Ossetia was partly present; a displaced person from Karabakh took part in one meeting; and the Kabarakhi Armenians were extensively briefed and consulted at the inception phase of the project, during the Creative Game. According to one of the project leaders, in the future both the issue of Karabakh, as well as the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, will be resolved in a peaceful way via the development of a common region, therefore engaging them is unavoidable.

The project leaders, particularly the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, emphasise another point which is not fashionable today: that conflicts are interdependent; that they have similarities; and that they can only be resolved in a regional framework rather than one by one.

A more frequently heard approach to the conflicts is different. Many conflict protagonists and experts suggest that each conflict is unique and should be resolved independently of any precedents and of the developments in the neighboring conflict. Why is there such a difference between this approach and the ideology of the SCR project, cannot be summarized in a few words. What is obvious, however, is that the former tends to develop along the lines of realpolitik thinking and the latter, is more transformative[8].

The impact of realpolitik approach affecting chances for conflict transformation is significant. One example is considerations behind a possible framework for a dialogue initiative which would evolve Georgians and those with whom they are in conflict: the Abkhaz and South Ossetians. The idea to have such a trilateral format sounds promising. However, some people think that the Abkhaz or South Ossetians would refuse such a format, because this may be construed as if they are being brought back into the rigid structure of one state inside Georgia. Others, on the other hand, think that this format is difficult for the Georgians, because the Abkhaz and South Ossetians might build an alliance against Georgians. One way to transcend this kind of calculations is to promote a common South Caucasus regional approach to the meeting formats. This, however, may also be construed as internationalising or, rather, ‘regionalising’ the ‘internal’ issues of sovereign Georgia. There are so many dead-ends in applying the realpolitik thinking to the Caucasus conflicts, that almost every case of a successful consensual selection of format and framework for meetings can be interpreted as an example of a small victory of transformative thinking.

3. The process

3.1. Management and Administration

Meetings were chaired on the basis of rotation principle rather than facilitated. All of them took place in Georgia, which is a neutral ground for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to meet. Management of the process, work inside societies in-between of the events, etc. was done by 3 managers in full agreement based on prior distribution of duties. There were differences between the type of work conducted by the sides. Some by their own opinion did less than they could and were less active than they should have been. However, since the last meeting was a significant success, it reinvigorated the participants, and the project ended on a high note with full commitment of the sides to follow-up and continued engagement with each other and with the issues that the project raised.

3.2. Motivation and Commitment

The illustration of the high spirits with which the project ended is the opinion of one of its leaders. At the beginning he was very engaged with the idea of the project. Later on, meeting cold reception by some political leaders in his society, he felt that he himself and his side were less engaged and less interested. At the third meeting, however, he declared that now he sees that this approach, i.e. common regional future, is the only way which has a future; that he understands that this is a priority which takes precedence over the internal issues, even though his society is far away yet from this understanding; and that he himself is ready to be continually engaged with the project, its follow up, and partners.

3.3. Process-related issues

3.3.1. Integration

The word ‘integration’, barely reflected in the original project proposal, became its key word and vehicle of success. Project participants did not always analytically separate the several layers of integration that the project leaders had in mind. According to the project leaders, integration refers first to the global processes, such as globalization; secondly, it refers to the integration with Europe; and thirdly, to integration of three South Caucasus states among themselves. Which one takes precedence and which one follows, as well as which one should be promoted, has been often left open to interpretation. The project leaders emphasize that the important thing for them, at this pilot stage, was to ensure that civil society in all three states agree that integration is possible and needed.

They also mention that the analysis is only starting, and what are the strengths and the weaknesses of the 3 layers of integration; to which extent integration should proceed and with which pace; which components of integration are more governable and which ones are not; which ones should be encouraged and which ones avoided; is open and left for further discussions.

3.3.2. The ‘Genre’ of the SCR Project

Concerns were raised about the ‘genre’ of the project. One of the leaders summarized these concerns by saying: “For an academic project, we did not have sufficient expertise; however, we were discussing expert issues, such as is it possible to have a regional human rights organization, or what are the economic issues of a common region? Suppose an expert presents a paper on economic cooperation. We start discussing it even though there is no other economist among us. The worst thing was that we did not even know, if it was a good or a bad thing that we were not experts in every area’. Another project leader replied: ‘The important thing for us was to put the issue forward. As citizens, we have a right to discuss any issues’. It was mentioned many times that there have been projects whose results were not fully taken into account. For instance, the South Caucasus Economy and Conflict (SCEC), an expert network studying the issues of economy and conflict with facilitation of International Alert, has been set up with the help of the Caucasus Forum in 2003. They published a book on this issue which was left outside the scope of attention of the project participants. While this may have happened because of lack of developed PR strategies, the SCR project engaged participants from the SCEC, particularly those from Azerbaijan, to ensure that there is mutual enrichment. Moreover, it was mentioned that, as different from this project, the Economy and Conflict project is based on realpolitik vision. It divides the region into six positions, six ‘slices’, without trying to bring them to a common denominator, as reflected in its publication. Whereas the SCR project, at least partly, has moved away from that paradigm.

Just as in the case of the concept of integration, the mixed ‘genre’ of the project played both a positive as well as negative role. On the positive side, the fact that the SCR project combined intellectual exercise, relationship-building and visioning encouraged people to think out of box; on the negative side, some people felt confused as to the final aims of the project. One of the project leaders emphasized that this was an ‘elite’ project which required heavy intellectual involvement. This in turn raised the issue of transferability of the project results to larger audiences. It was decided therefore to determine a set of messages which concisely encapsulate the ideas of the project for the follow up ‘PR’ stage.

3.3.3. Public Relations

Project leaders from Azerbaijan and Armenia expressed deep concern about the state of freedom of the media in their societies. They mentioned that the usual PR of regional politics on the TV—the main medium with largest audience in their societies—is ‘demagogical’: it forms rigid stereotypes of the audience and it ‘deafens’ the audience, making them incapable of thinking independently. The quality of such PR is so low that critically minded people turn away from it.

Georgian partners mentioned that it would not be difficult to go on TV, however, the project was still insufficiently ‘newsworthy’ in Georgia today because of the concentration on the existing internal issues as well as Georgian/Russian relations.

All partners mentioned that they did not have much worry, if they would go on TV, for a nationalist backlash against the project. The Azerbaijani partner mentioned that such backlash happens when it is masterminded from above and it is usually targeted against particular organizations and individuals, i.e., it happens because of internal relational and political issues rather than because of the peaceful nature and slogans of the projects.

Another reason why the sides decided to refrain from TV at this stage was the fact that they wanted to have something prepared rather than merely declare what the project is about.

Another reason was that there was an interdependence: if one side would go on TV and the other would not, this might have negative rather than positive impact on the project PR overall.

However, now, when the pilot stage is over and the book will be published, they are ready to go for mass media PR, for instance, via such radio channels as BBC. The Armenian side may go for a TV broadcast. All the sides are ready for mainstream media press conferences and publications, which they want to start with the major launching event for the book: the conference on ‘citizens of South Caucasus’, scheduled for June 2006. This conference is a project of Helsinki Citizens Assembly Azerbaijan office, the main partners in the project under review; its ideology is very similar to the regional project, and the conference will be a right place to launch the book.

The Azerbaijani partners have also published several pieces about the project in local media during its implementation period. Pieces have been published both in the mainstream media as well as in Azerbaijan magazine, published by the main partner, and have generated positive feedback and curiosity. On the background of demagogical interpretation of peace initiatives, the examples of which are plenty in the regional media, this publication makes a deep impression with its impeccable ethical correctness.

3.3.4. Cooperation

The project required cooperation along several lines: between the three main partners (3 managers/3 ‘visionaries’); in binary frameworks—between each couple of the partnerships; between partners and event participants; between partners and the larger NGO and civil society groups.

It was mentioned several times that cooperation between main partners has been successful. Perhaps a particular success has been cooperation between Armenian and Azerbaijani partners. Azerbaijani and Georgian partners mentioned several times that they have been satisfied with the way the Armenian partner has arranged the project implementation: taking all administrative and financial responsibility upon her shoulders, while sharing the strategic responsibility and the right to make financial decisions with all three sides, based on the available budget approved by the donor. This has been a project with a budget totally transparent for all three partners. Otherwise it would be very difficult to implement it successfully in the situation of low trust which exists in the region. The transparency of the budget and the way partners have made decisions on allocations and reallocations is exemplary and worth to be copied by other organizations in similar setting.

There have been some issues around cooperation between main partners and their peers—other NGO leaders. This is a methodological issue worth being analysed. The issue of engaging peers in such projects is a long-known problem in South Caucasus. This is important for several reasons, but particularly in order to increase the impact of a project; and to avoid repeating what others have already accomplished.

Instead of insisting on significant PR linked to every project, critics usually challenge new projects for repetition. It would be a good practice to determine that the responsibility of each project leader is to make project results known as widely as possible, rather than to require unreasonable amounts of desk research from each following project. Projects which do not have accompanying PR strategy may easily be blamed for pursuing aims other than overtly declared ones.

There are, however, technical and relational difficulties in trying to engage every stakeholder group. Technical difficulties refer to the fact that it is impossible to engage all the relevant actors-NGOs which have experience in this or that type of projects: there are too many. Choices have to be made, which are often dependent on relational issues. Relational difficulties are quite significant: as in any other activity, NGOs are sometimes in fierce competition and tend to undercut each other; their leaders and employees, as well as other civil society representatives and experts, have often a negative history of cooperation. This on the background of wider criticism, discussed in the section 2.3., significantly lowers the impact of their work.

This issue had some impact on the project scope: in all of the sides, considerations have been made on ‘whom to engage’ based on the issue of personal relations as well as on more objective criteria. Probably this is unavoidable. However, project leaders understand the limitations of this and are looking for creative ways to overcome this for the future projects. The ideas include internal memoranda of understanding inside societies among different groups; with increasing trust, giving the right to a representative of one side to recommend people from another side; etc. Projects managed by external actors, such as international organizations, do not face this issue so straightforwardly. These projects may face another danger: a danger of disempowering local partners by making choices of inclusion/exclusion on their behalf.

4. Results

The project had several results, which can be grouped into 3 major categories: relational results, content results and future strategy results. Relational results refer to the fact that important relations have been built; important experiences of working together accumulated; and trust has increased both between the project leaders as well as, to a certain extent, its participants.

Another important relational result is the fact that starting from negotiating perspective, participants have put themselves, to different degrees, in the position of experts on the region and its citizens, rather than ‘defenders of their side’s interest’. If this trend continues on, the link between ethnicity, citizenship and obligations may change so that ethnicity will become relevant mainly in the sphere of culture, and obligations will transcend state borders to include the ‘others’’ societies, thereby indeed resulting in making citizens of the Caucasus region.

4.1. Content results

A major content result is the book. It gives a detailed understanding on what the project was about. However, there is also a content result which can be defined as ‘the summary message of the project’. It is presented below.

4.1.1. The Message [9]

The project demonstrated that building a common region is an idea taken seriously and with interest by a variety of stakeholders. If supported, this idea can perhaps outweigh mistrust and the issue of unresolved conflicts.

It demonstrated that it is possible to work without ‘betraying’ one’s own identity with open heart, and find new and promising consensual outlets transcending the conflict dead-end, rather than avoiding the conflict issues and thereby lowering the impact of the project.

Apparently its main difference from many similar projects is that while seemingly based on negotiations of the sides, deep at its ‘heart’ it was a transformative rather than a realpolitik project, and it was courageous enough to overtly suggest a picture which is usually not being put forward.

The usual pictures of the future region do not go beyond suggesting value laden key words, such as democracy, human rights, development, and rule of law, which may become stereotypes as any other concepts, if devoid of practical content, or be undervalued if abused.

This is often done because people do not dare to imagine all the consequences of building a society where indeed these values would be realized. The thinking in the region is fragmented, because in order to imagine bright future, people have to forget about the conflicts. If people remember the conflicts, they feel that unless they are resolved, no bright future is possible. If, however, they try to resolve the conflicts in order to proceed to the bright future, they end up in the realpolitik paradigm, because without full fledged democracy and rule of law ‘selfish’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘survival’ thinking wins over. Such is the peculiar version of the security paradox in the region, which precludes any advance in either conflict transformation or development.

There is another approach which declares that building inner democracy takes precedence over conflict transformation attempts. When democracy is rooted, and if it evolves across the conflict divide, sides will find common language and resolve their differences. However, the fragmented and disheveled polities of the region cannot aim at any long-term serious regime building since the existence of unresolved conflicts is a constant source of instability, on one hand, and an opportunity for conflicts to be used in the political game, on the other.

The most sophisticated approach declares a ‘step by step’ strategy: one step towards democracy—one step towards conflict transformation. Or, in another version of the same approach, doing both simultaneously. This, however, unless the sequence of actions is interdependent, equals to having no strategy, because whether small steps towards democratization and conflict transformation will mutually reinforce rather than extinguish the effects of each other, is not known. Moreover, the pace of these small steps is much slower than the destructive tendencies which deepen because of unresolved social issues.

The protagonists of the SCR project went further than that: they imagined how a future prosperous South Caucasus would look like, and then tried to see how this future prosperous region would address the conflict transformation needs.

Its main message, as expressed in concurrence by Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, is the following: The best solution out of conflicts is to build a region with common security system and common economic space via using the vehicle of European integration. This in conjunction with increasing levels of trust will make the borders and therefore the conflict irrelevant.

If one tries to imagine, to which state will Nagorny Karabakh belong then, one has to think along the following lines: Who will the people living in that territory vote for?

The regional powers can agree that voting rights to any of the governments, including the regional structures (if any), belong to every citizen of the region, and every regional citizen has a right to vote for local and higher level governments if he/she happens to be in a certain location at an election period. The inhabitants of Karabakh, just as Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, including Abkhaz and South Ossetians will freely vote in any of the regional elections.

Transferring a part of sovereignty above the state level, conflicts will become resolved. What will be the governance and administrative structure of the regions with disputed status then may be decided via region-wide democratic processes.

The issue of return of refugees, in that setting, will become an economic and developmental issue[10]. The issue of migrations will be similar. The issue of cultural security will be enshrined in the regional constitution. If there is an open common region with open borders, economy will flourish and there will be enough resource to develop cultures.

This may sound a fairy tale. So be it. The important point is—according to many SCR project participants, it does not seem to be an alternative to this, because the usual realpolitik alternatives end up in no-win game. This is a vision built in a region and in the times where and when there are no many well-argued visions of the future available.

There is a significant risk in this approach. One could see two types of risks:

A. The risk to move away from national sovereignty at the time when nation-building is not yet fully accomplished, thereby creating preconditions for future ethnonationalist upheavals.

B. The risk to be seen by one’s peers as ‘betraying the national cause’.

The risks of A type should be addressed by working groups on particular issues, e.g. by the group on nationalism. The risks of B type are about personal self-determination in the governing ideologies and discourses available in the societies. This group of risks seemed much lower to the SCR project participants.

The underlying assumption in this approach is that without resolving conflicts, no democracy, development and rule of law are possible. A corollary then is that developmental programs which avoid the conflict or which assume that the unresolved conflicts will not have a negative impact on them fail, work for conflict escalation or entrenchement, or are unsustainable. Therefore there is no need in them unless conflicts are resolved. This view can be well argued. However, there can be two conclusions which follow.

The first conclusion could be that one should only support conflict transformation and peace projects, or rather, that peace-building should be mainstreamed in all developmental work of South Caucasus. The second conclusion, the one that the SCR project participants come to, is that one should support, in addition, the region-building initiatives, because without common region conflict transformation projects will not succeed.

5. Follow-up/Next steps

Partners are planning to finish the editing of the book and to publish it, its launch coinciding with the South Caucasus Citizens’ conference in Georgia in June 2006. The book will be disseminated to generate more discussion. Then it is hoped that working groups on the issues of economy, political systems, human rights, law etc. will be set up. However, it is not clear, without a well-built strategy and financial support, how will these working groups work and what will the responsibility of the project leaders and ‘visionaries’ be.

5.1. Recommendations

To the project leaders:

  • To have another strategic planning session, immediately after the book publication, to develop the logical framework for next steps in a project format
  • During the South Caucasus citizens conference planned by Helsinki Citizens Assembly for June 2006, to set up working groups on legal issues; politics; economy; law; and nationalism and regionalism. In order to prepare grounds for this, to start early selection of experts for this conference
  • To include among the working groups one which would analyse the existing rich data on regional initiatives and determine which work has already been done and should not be repeated, or, if unusable, why is that work wasted. This could be a small project based on ‘lessons learned’ methodology
  • To make it a point of priority to engage with South Caucasus Parliamentary Assembly, despite the difficulties, and to cooperate with them, as well as to constructively criticize if they lag behind
  • Within the follow up to the project, to pay special attention to the issue of nationalism and nation-building, either by an emphasis on the working group on nationalism and regionalism, or in addition, scheduling a conference on ‘Nationalism, Nation-Building and Integration in South Caucasus’
  • To engage regional and international policy-makers via targeted advocacy and PR to take the recommendations of the project seriously
  • To train young leaders in regional values and approaches
  • To embark on a well thought-through PR strategy with citizenry on the issue of building a common region
  • To use the skepticism, concerns and critique of some project participants and outsiders to develop safeguards against the negative aspects of integration

To the international community:

  • To support the follow up to this project, provided that it has the same qualities as this pilot stage in terms of sound management and relationships, and that it takes into account the deficiencies and concerns identified by partners and reflected in this review
  • To support particularly working groups on legal issues, politics, economy, law and nationalism and regionalism
  • To organize a conference or a project on common South Caucasus region, correctly selecting participants who will feel sufficiently safe to express their ideas[11]
  • To engage the SCR project leaders and participants in other relevant projects
  • To support dissemination and discussion of the project results, and of the book, in a proactive manner
  • To conduct a conference on the issue of South Caucasus and Iran
  • To provide relevant international expertise, based on the need, on how could the institutional and legal experience of EU be applied in South Caucasus, based on the idea of a common region rather than solely on the New Neighborhood Action Plans, which are bilateral
  • To train local and international specialists in a variety of skills needed to facilitate the common region approach
  • To support the advocates of common region via suggesting the governments to be seriously attentive to this idea
  • To train local public administrators in regional rather than national administration styles
  • To exercise caution and sensitivity in their funding decisions, taking into account such values as independence, vision, self-reliance, fairness and courage while selecting partners and projects
  • To expand the paradigm of determining criteria for supporting projects, to include there, in addition to perceived and expressed needs, also visionary approaches. Need-based approach may result in a shortsighted vision. Numerous daily needs may cover the need in strategic thinking of and for the region.


[1] The word region is used in this paper only referring to the South Caucasus area which includes Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan including the conflict zones.

[2] The author expresses his sincere thanks to the project leaders and participants whom he interviewed during two visits to the region in February and March 2006. Views in this review belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the project leaders, or participants. While the author tried to fairly reflect the views expressed to him during the interviews, any errors and mistaken interpretations are solely his own responsibility.

[3] See a fuller list of these initiatives in ‘Caucasus Forum is five years old’, In Traditions of conflict transformation in the Caucasus and the methods used by civil society, 2004.

[4] There exists a strong view among some policy-makers and partners, particularly in Georgia, that they can ‘make it to Europe’ separately.

[5] Caucasus Forum is a network of NGOs from South and North Caucasus for peace, democracy and regional development, set up in 1998.

[6] Conciliation Resources has helped with the preparatory stage within its Consortium Initiative project; International Alert has also helped in the first part of 2005 within its Georgian-Abkhaz project.

[7] The project leaders from the Armenian side are Mijnaberd Cultural-Educational NGO and Caucasus Forum office; from the Azerbaijani side Helsinki Citizens Assembly Azerbaijan National Committee and AREAT (Research Center for Contemporary Social Processes), and from the Georgian side—Foundation for Development of Human Resources and Center for Development and Cooperation.

[8] On the three paradigms (realpolitik, ehtnonatinalist and  transformative, influenced by the European idea) of approaching the conflicts and regional issues in the Caucasus, see Catherine Barnes, Confidence-building between the Georgian and Abkhaz societies with the participation of Caucasus NGO Forum, an independent review, in: Aspects of Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. 10. A time of change. Irvine, 2005. The ethnonatinalist paradigm within the SCR project did not seem to be different from realpolitik one: both were competitive paradigms, whereas the transformative paradigm was cooperative.

[9] This interpretation of the project message is the full responsibility of the author of the review.

[10] It is assumed that significant trust will exist between the sides at that stage, and that the enemy image propaganda will be non-existent.

[11] The usual deficiency of such conferences is that they promote, overtly or covertly, the realpolitik paradigm, where people feel more secure adopting a nationalist and intransigent stance so that their participation is interpreted as ‘patriotic’.

12:14 October 09, 2014