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South Caucasus: Paths to Conflict Resolution

30 April 1999

By Jonathan Cohen

In 1989, the last census in the Soviet Union was published. Statistics revealed the extent to which the three republics of the South Caucasus were a mosaic of ethnic groups. Ten years on economic, political and social changes have removed the stability necessary for the compilation of the detailed data required for a census. Political boundaries have changed as new states have come into being, and these boundaries have been brought into question by a succession of violent conflicts. In Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflicts (depicted as ‘successionist’) which escalated a decade ago, have yet to be resolved. These were a result of elites and societies grappling with past grievances, changing power constellations and access to resources in the context of a disintegrating empire, and were very much political conflicts over power.

The Soviet legacy

A legacy of the Soviet system is the enshrinement of the majoritarian principle, giving great freedom to majorities but characterizing minorities as suspect, if not subversive. This was further complicated by the ‘ethnicization’ of political life – nationality was elevated above almost all other principles, and some nationalities (sometimes minorities, sometimes not) were given preferential status. The term ‘minority’ has often been seen as derogatory in the region: eroding the status and entitlements of nations, therefore many ethnic groups have studiously avoided being categorized in this way, preferring to see themselves as nations. As a result, they have expectations of entitlements that are rarely fulfilled.

With the ebbing of the nationalistic fanaticism of the early 1990s, state- and nation-building have been occurring in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The needs of nation-building (particularly in Azerbaijan and Georgia where the diversity of ethnic and identity groups has been a major cause of the current fractured statehood) have complicated the coherence of state-building and often given rise to prejudicial policies against minorities. Outlines of democracies have been created, with presidents, parliaments, constitutional courts and multi-partyism, but have yet to be consolidated and the rule of law entrenched.


The region is only partially coming to terms with the notion that democracy in multi-ethnic societies means participation in decision-making by diverse groups, airing different views, and potentially greater levels of conflict. Ways in which difference (ethnic or otherwise) is handled in societies undergoing transition has a significant impact on whether democratic processes can be consolidated or subsumed under authoritarianism.

This applies to the territories of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia and in the recognized states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Despite de facto political sovereignty of the territories there has been no de jure recognition from the international community.

Economic and social trends provide mixed messages for the prospects of democratic entrenchment, including respect for human and minority rights, throughout the region. Economic indicators show a development crisis with increasing inequality, high unemployment and poverty. The long-term viability of the economies of the conflict-ridden zones remains questionable and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) sanctions against Abkhazia at the end of 1994 have been particularly damaging. Isolation in economic as well as political terms can reduce the propensity not only to compromise but to have any form of contact with the antagonists.

Civil society has been one of the most active arenas of development in the new states. Although ill-defined, much emphasis has been placed on its development by Western donors, perceiving the promotion of civic notions as being an antidote to ethnic nationalism and a glue to bind together democratization. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have proliferated, but it is necessary to remain cautious about the strength of civil society vis-à-vis the states and political elites: while NGOs fill some of the gaps in social provision and contribute to inter- as well as intra-community dialogue, they are dependent on international funds and are not yet rooted in their societies. Civil society voices are also emerging in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia, although they are more fragile.

The development of civil society and its influence on political life is part of a need to bridge the gap between politics and social constituencies, and to broaden discussion within societies confronted by unresolved conflicts.

The socio-economic ramifications of the conflicts will affect Caucasian societies for years to come, even if political accords can be reached. Over 1.5 million people have been displaced as a result of the conflicts, out of a population of c. 16 million. Often they have been minorities, displaced by the creation of ethnically more homogeneous territories. A cycle of isolation and marginalization scars the lives of whole generations, not just those displaced, but those living in areas where social infrastructures have been unable to cope. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, are being excluded from society.

The challenges ahead

A sustainable peace requires economic development, social justice and democratization. If and when peace treaties are signed, with concomitant reconfigurations of political structures and relationships, the extent to which populations will be receptive to likely compromises will be questionable. There have been few signs of the promotion of reconciliation within societies, let alone with regard to the so-called enemies. Each region has changed since the inception of the conflicts, yet in none is democracy sufficiently entrenched to allow the creativity of leadership that might overcome the ongoing political impasse.

Challenges will have to be addressed and preconceptions confronted if the South Caucasus is to escape the cycle of violent conflict. There must be a recognition that conflict resolution is complicated by differing perceptions of political principles – above all territorial integrity and self-determination. The international community’s predilection for territorial integrity presents the prospect that the parties that effectively won the wars (particularly Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh) will lose the peace. Whether it is possible to reconceptualize and reinvigorate perceptions of political relationships in such a way that parties can be convinced that they have not lost what they fought for or that security priorities are not compromised, is questionable.

Federal-type solutions to the conflicts have been proposed. Such proposals do not address the psychological inheritance of the wars: generations are coming of age without having known Georgian or Azeri rule and therefore have little inclination to effect compromises that could reintroduce such political relationships. Indeed the knowledge of what this rule might constitute is sparse and characterized by perceptions of undemocratic practices (particularly acute regarding Azerbaijan) and a continuation of ethnically prejudicial approaches.

Guarantees need to be consolidated in regard to human and minority rights: indeed a comprehensive rights framework could give parties the confidence to move towards settlements. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have committed themselves to international human rights instruments. Such steps in theory tie the newly emerging states of the Caucasus into a closer web of relations with the international community. However, since only recognized states can sign up to human rights instruments, this leaves Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia beyond the jurisdiction of such instruments, regardless of their desire, or otherwise, to adhere to them. This threatens to further marginalize their populations. To date, international standards throughout the region have been observed as much in their breach as their application.

If progress towards peace is to be attained notions of multi-ethnic and culturally diverse societies need to be reinvigorated, although it is hard to envisage this ideal being realized in Nagorno-Karabakh or parts of Abkhazia (particularly the Ochamchira region), where a comfortable political cohabitation of Armen-ians and Azeris or Abkhazians and Georgians in the near future is unlikely. Nevertheless, promoting a policy of inclusiveness as opposed to ethnic exclusivity (with attendant discrimination) will be an important means to foster long-term stability and security and convince minorities of the credibility of guarantees. The dilemma is that states in the region are not being consolidated from an inclusive perspective that could enable minorities to feel that their own cultural identity will not be jeopardized, while at the same time promoting the notion of citizenship and national identity as something distinct from the ethnic identity of the titular nation.

The fact that many communities have limited, if any, contact with one another poses difficult questions about prospects for reconciliation. Politicians have not been inclined to promote reconciliation: whether this is a question of conviction or because they are attempting to balance competing internal constituencies is unclear. This will have an impact on the way in which societies are able to accept settlements if and when they are negotiated. Justice can best come within a coherent legal framework. Attention to justice also promotes the question as to whether the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, and there were plenty in the Caucasian wars of the 1990s, will be held to account. If so who will foot the bill and will justice not threaten the possibility of peaceful resolutions given that many people who remain important to the resolutions could easily be implicated?

The prospect of oil production and transportation from the Caspian Basin (particularly Azerbaijan) and its transportation through Georgia is one factor that will lubricate change: inevitably it will bring more benefits to some than to others. The economic development that comes in its wake could mesh together a regional interdependence that makes conflict resolution worthwhile for enough actors. But oil and the attendant wealth could also bring as much conflict as harmony.

Politicians and societies need to engage more thoroughly with a series of challenges: democratization, as a real incentive for the cohabitation of majorities and minorities; economic cooperation, as an area of dialogue and development; and a reconceptualization of fundamental political relationships. This will require time – one of the factors that has most undermined progress in the past six years has been the expectation (whether believed or simply used as political rhetoric) that problems can be resolved quickly. Painful realities will have to be faced but it might give political leaders and peace activists the space to address the issues underlying the conflicts and thus look to the challenges of the future more creatively.

Jonathan Cohen is a Programme Associate at the London-based NGO Conciliation Resources.

This article was first published in the 53rd edition of our ‘Outsider’ newsletter on 1 May 1999.