This paper critiques the (neo-)liberal approaches to peace and proposes communitarian peace as an alternative. The paper problematizes how the recent shift of international peacebuilding to the local and the grassroots has in reality turned into an obsession with civil society understood strictly in terms of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), ultimately reproducing hierarchies and depriving communities of their voice and agency. Following this critique, the paper presents an alternative approach – a shift from building peace to supporting peace, where peace and conflict are understood not as linear opposites but as concomitant processes. By ethnographic interpretations of three cases of multicultural coexistence in the South Caucasus region, namely the Armenian-Azerbaijani coexistence in the Marneuli district, Muslims of Azerbaijani and Iranian origins with Georgian Christians in the village of Gombori, and Georgians of the Gal/i region with Abkhazians, the paper exemplifies the communitarian approach in practice. These cases demonstrate that peace happens as a process of negotiations and a search for situated consensuses on the differences and hierarchies among community members. Finally, the paper advocates for the inclusion of non-linear and interdisciplinary methods of dealing with conflicts. In order to catch up with the evolving area of critical peace and conflict research, peace-supporting activities also should incorporate ideas and perspectives from other fields such as anthropology, ethnography, political geography, psychology, etc., and that might introduce fresh insights on how to support peace.


Beyond its rims, the South Caucasus is often viewed as a zone of conflicts rather than peace. Various international organizations and particular Western[2] governments have initiated peacebuilding enterprises in this region. Their active involvement is usually welcomed by local NGOs that reassure international donors to continue their investments in regional peace initiatives. However, the remaining high tensions between various social, political, ethnic, and religious groups in the South Caucasus may indicate that these initiatives have not proved to be enough effective. At the same time, the international peacebuilding interveners continue to overlook the existing local peace practices that can inform about peace (already effective albeit concomitant to conflict) better than the ‘blueprints’ of peace projects brought from outside.

The fundamental ontological limitation of the self-styled peacebuilding initiatives is that they are aimed at achieving a peace in a global community with a consent among political elites on (neo-liberal) norms. At best, they employ the concept of positive peace in striving to reach peace as a just state of social relations. A more promising approach, however, would be to support the process of peace: rather than a utopian endpoint of social processes, peace should be viewed instead as a practice of merely escaping from the dystopian culmination of such processes, the total collapse of social relations. Peace as practice implies constant efforts to avoid conflict in everyday life, though this also means accepting that conflict will always remain present. Having this in mind, the main question for peace activists should be how international organizations, governments, businesses, and NGOs can support rather than build peace in local communities. Their peace initiatives must be de-colonized and move from teaching the ‘objects’ of intervention what peace is towards learning from the ‘subjects’ how peace is already practiced and what, in their local understanding, can enhance the peace process. At the same time, peace must not be romanticized as an ideal manifestation of social relations, but rather viewed as a process closely linked to the political (i.e. power) relations between people, communities, economic subjects, state actors, global agencies, and other players.

Peace, as any process involving making socio-political decisions, is something that is continuously negotiated by the subjects and hence represents an endless search for compromises about the organization of power relationships. Being in line with post-foundational epistemology, this paper questions the liberal rationalism that maintains the belief in a consensus which would banish antagonism forever.[3] Such understanding, thus, contests the universalist views on peace and suggests that peace is very much contextualized and therefore multiple. The proposed communitarian view on peace acknowledges the existence of multiple states of peace in different contexts and environments across cultural and societal identity-based strata including genders, sexualities, ethnicities, religions, beliefs, etc., but it denies the belief in an ideal absolute peace that transcends all various forms of social stratification. This paper consequently urges peace-concerned organizations and activists focused on the South Caucasus to study local varieties of peace that are experienced in everyday life and locates this approach within the context of ethnic and religious divides of local communities.

The paper demonstrates that liberal peace remains to be an imperative approach in the contemporary peacebuilding activities. Therefore, the paper analyzes the discourse of texts published on the websites of the two noticeable peacebuilding organizations operating in the South Caucasus – International Alert (IA) and Conciliation Resources (CR) – that have been present in the region longer than many other peace-concerned international NGOs (INGOs). At the same time, we acknowledge that such practices should not be reduced to only these two organizations. It must also be admitted that the critique of liberal peace, which has been gradually spreading from late 1990s, has had a certain impact on the language and practices of such organizations. The political and ideological dimension of their activities has become more effectively concealed from ‘untrained eyes’ and has been adjusted to meet the criticisms. Our observations of their ideological stance on peacebuilding should not indicate that we urge the organizations to cease their activities but reflect critically on the disciplinary essence of the version of peace they have adopted and search for new methods of peace activities. Moreover, we acknowledge that ‘liberal peace’ is a discursive reference for us, and the ideology behind the analyzed texts can be more multifaceted. On the ground, there is also a possibility that the practical results of these organizations’ projects differ from the discourses in the analyzed texts. However, testing this discrepancy (or continuity) requires additional research based on direct communication with local NGOs that are being patronized by their international ‘partners’ and with local people involved in their joint projects. The scope of this paper allows us to problematize only the conceptual phase and the design of the interventions.

We believe that the ‘civilizatory’ responses to conflict have not proved to be sufficient in bringing a long-desired sustainable peace as they unavoidably search for the ‘uncivil other’, the one who still has not realized the virtue of the proposed liberal model. However, the paper does not intend to contest the role of the respect for human rights and accountable government in preventing violence but to criticize the didactic methods of the present peacebuilding practices in the region. The communitarian understanding of peace challenges the hierarchies of the peacebuilding sector of liberal policies and opens up new prospects beyond these peacebuilding practices that perhaps better embody the long-discussed concepts of decentralization, local ownership, and ‘celebration of diversity’. For this end, the paper analyses several cases of inter-group contacts in the South Caucasus, including Armenian-Azerbaijani co-living in the rural settings of southern Georgia, inter-religious relations in Georgia’s village of Gombori, and interaction of Georgians of the Gal/i region with Abkhazians.

Peacebuilding from Ground Up? The Exclusiveness of Civil Society, Experts, and Journalists

The Shift to Localism and the Obsession with Civil Society

Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing belief among liberal peace promoters that the actions of local elites hinder the implementation of the Western-drafted peace project (Chandler 2017). As the elites of the targeted societies could not be completely tamed by external actors with sticks and carrots, the importance of the nurtured from abroad civil society[4] increased. International institutions try to support and engage with civil society organizations out of disappointment with local elites (Richmond and Mitchell 2011, 265). The civil society, herein, has been perceived as an essential source for the Western organizations and governments to exert pressure on ‘illiberal’ elites to comply with the offered template for peace. In a technocratic approach of exporting Western-style institutions and norms of ‘good governance’, the civil society building has been promoted as an organic element of developing democracy. At the same time, the agenda-setting power of international organizations and Western states has been tasked to eradicate or limit blocking elites to free the local agency of civil society, a believed real provider of the people’s interests in supporting international peacebuilding aspirations for institutional reforms and large social transformations (Chandler 2017).

However, already by the late 2000s and early 2010s these approaches aimed at constraining local elites were criticized by peace researchers for a hubristic belief in a genius of external actors’ liberal policies and methods.[5] The criticism further developed in line with post-colonial theories to argue that the local societal processes are ignored in this approach while its main purpose is to enable loyal elites to govern and establish Western-resembling institutions and structures of power. There have emerged various conceptualizations of the ways for making local voices be heard in peace processes. This turn to local is connected with the conflict transformation discourse ascended in 1990s and largely associated with John Paul Lederach who advanced a much less disciplining approach in conflict resolution theory based on “the principle of indigenous empowerment”. He offered a non-linear long-term approach to transform the system behind conflict based on the capacities of the people and resources located in the conflict setting itself (Lederach 1995, 212). By this, Lederach paved the way for the shift from the elitelevel to local-level peace processes (Chandler 2017, 150-52). This ‘search for local’ revived the debates on legitimacy, sovereignty, ethics of intervention, but also introduced new thoughts to study peacebuilding beyond the liberal peacebuilding projects. As currently “local has its moment” among theorists and practitioners (Hughes, Öjendal and Schierenbeck 2015, 817), peace researchers and peace practitioners have turned towards conceptualizing, promoting, and implementing the ideas of local ownership and participation, and the international peacebuilding organizations have had to accommodate the corresponding discourses in their vocabulary.

Following the trend, International Alert also employed the discourse of local ownership of peace. The organization’s 2014 Annual Report starts: “Peace cannot be imposed from the top or imported from outside. It is built from the ground up. And peace begins with all of us” (2015, 1). This phrasing, however, should not mean that the patronizing approach of the international peacebuilding organization has faded away. Numerous texts describing IA’s activities in the South Caucasus still use a modernist corporate vocabulary of ‘human resources development’ such as “strengthen the ability”, “develop their skills”, “offering them opportunities to fulfill their potential”, “build their experience”, “training seminar/module”, “capacity enhancement/building”, “provide opportunities for ‘learning through doing'”, “equip participants with tools”, “training for trainers”, etc. At the same time, IA promotes contradictory ideas among young people regarding the role of elites in conflict transformation. For instance, in 2013 IA started working with South Ossetian students to develop an understanding among them “that it is not just officials who can find the solutions to social and even political problems in society; it is also in the hands of people” (Building Peace from the Ground Up 2013). However, this aim somehow contradicts IA’s hope for the same project that by working with young people it prepares “the future elites of these divided societies to find compromise solutions and understand the importance of dialogue in conflict”, expecting that “these future leaders can bring about positive change” (Building Peace from the Ground Up 2013).

Conciliation Resources has also spoken the language of local participation and attempted to frame accordingly its practices by accentuating the importance of local perspectives. In 2010-2012, CR jointly with Saferworld conducted the project “The People’s Peacemaking Perspectives”, funded by the European Commission, using such catchphrases as “Making the opinions of ordinary people count”, “Strengthening local capacity and informing international policy” and “Amplifying people’s voices now and in the future” (People’s Peacemaking Perspectives n.d.). However, the actual project’s aim sounded rather prosaic: “to provide opportunities for civil society to influence the European Union’s [EU] conflict prevention and peacebuilding initiatives through published analysis and advocacy activities in Brussels and the countries covered by the project” (People’s Peacemaking Perspectives n.d.). The summary of this work reveals that it was designed “to put forward concrete suggestions for EU policy and engagement on conflict and peacebuilding in the region” and argues that the EU “is better placed than ever to have consolidated and strategic engagement in the region” (People’s Peacemaking Perspectives n.d.). The example of this project indicates a narrow understanding of participatory processes and, particularly, demonstrates how the local participation discourse can be (ab)used by international organizations in order to advocate external governance engagement in the region rather than practically empower the peacemaking of ‘ordinary’ people.

The civil society was portrayed in this project as speaking the voice of local people. However, the emphasis on this important node of the liberal discourse is also often substituted by the reference to “local” and “most directly affected by conflict” people:

“In a region dominated by geopolitics, we emphasise the role that local people can play in transforming their societies and (re-)building relations. Without taking a position on the final outcome of either conflict, we help those most directly affected to have a voice in resolving them and in shaping their own futures” (Caucasus n.d.).

This statement, even though still denoting a patronizing approach typical for liberal peacebuilding, is apparently an answer to the critique of the liberal policy discourse for its overemphasis on the role of an abstract ‘civil society’ as a counterweight to the ‘illiberal state’ and the ‘uncivil other’. However, since the text does not define who these local people are, there is a possibility that they are meant to be the same exclusive ‘civil society’ but only framed as ‘local people’. The calls for active local participation, local ownership, and increasing local capacity create an impression of acknowledgment of local, yet this local is within the ‘Western understanding’ and does not correspond to the authentic local contexts.

The main uneasiness with the view on civil society as a provider of the interests of ‘ordinary’ people is about the independence and self-sufficiency of this societal stratum. The question herein is to which extent the civil society actually represents the local communities they claim to speak for. The NGOs in the South Caucasus are usually in constant need of material resources that are essential for their operation and being. Thus, they are enthusiastic about receiving material support offered from outside by grant-making/distributing organizations, but the dependence on external funding places local NGOs in a predatory environment of market competition and brings along ethical issues. Richmond, in this regard, notes that the neoliberal models applied to aid dispersal in conflict zones create “a market situation where NGOs have to compete for funds and must respect the conditionalities imposed upon them by donors intent on constructing the liberal peace” (Richmond 2010, 28). Roger Mac Ginty adds that with the material resources at their disposal “international liberal peace agents” are able to “create a civil society political economy that incentivises certain activities and discourages others” which results in “a disciplining of social activism and an extension of conformity” (Mac Ginty 2011, 63). Overall, the job market created by donor and aid organizations to implement peace projects invigorated civil society organizations to adapt actively to the needs of their funders (Işleyen 2015).

As described above, the civil society in the South Caucasus is often viewed by donors as weak or underdeveloped that needs strengthening of its capacities. Therefore, international organizations have launched a number of civil society capacity-building programs including funding and mentorship that engage local NGOs in liberal peace building. Mac Guinty points out that “this civil society engineering by governments from the global north” has been commonly criticized as “these actors promote a version of civil society that chimes with their preferred notion of civil society”, while “indigenous expressions of civil society may be overlooked, or acknowledged but ignored, as being ‘non-liberal'” (Mac Ginty 2011, 16).

Despite stated adherence of many civil society actors to tolerance and diversity, in practice they often view the rest of the society in a condescending or patronizing manner, and by applying analogous civilizing and disciplining approaches of their patrons from international NGOs and donors, they strive to seed liberal ‘progressive’ ideas into the public. The understatement of a wider population’s ratio may also be a way to sell civil society services to their donors and contribute to the belief about civil society to be a conductor of liberal values to local people and a telamon supporting externally enacted structures of liberal peace. Local NGOs delegate themselves to speak of the voice of ‘ordinary’ people and to identify local ‘real’ needs but, in practice, they have gained an ability to silence indigenous voices from the ground. This allows the civil society to dictate the agenda of local needs, formulate (ease) their own tasks, and fit their activity into the external prescription of peacebuilding. For the same reasons, though at the level of relations between grant-distributors and donor governments, this approach is beneficial also for international NGOs. Additionally, the international NGOs make use of the represented ‘ordinary’ peoples’ voices of the civil society to meet donor requirements of localism by demonstrating that their activities have led to growing numbers of organizations and people that aspire for liberal values. In the end, this intact pretentiousness creates a situation when, as Jevgenia Viktorova Milne put it, “local needs are assumed rather than seriously researched, and local mechanisms of representation supplanted (for example, by habitual ‘civil society’ frameworks) rather than nurtured” (Viktorova Milne 2010, 75). Moreover, the declared recognition, endorsement, and/or empowerment of local in peacebuilding activities ultimately change the responsibility dimension of the process, removing this huge burden from the shoulders of external or international actors, and holding accountable the local for the outcomes (ineffectiveness and failures) of liberal peacebuilding activities (Chandler 2017, 343).

The enlarging understanding among local people of such activities often disconnected from their own perceptions of primary social needs damages the trust towards civil society representatives and international NGOs that now often appear to be viewed as corrupt (Mac Ginty 2011, 63). Moreover, some civil society representatives have polished their skills to attract funds from international donors and become ‘professional’ consultants for their colleagues in getting their initiatives funded and doing corresponding paper work. Some young activists despite having the opportunity to work in NGOs on hired positions and focus on concrete forms of social work prefer to regularly go through foreign-sponsored trainings, occasionally take part in some civil society initiatives, and get rewards for such activity. These and many other similar instances have contributed to growing popular views on civil society activism as an opportunist enterprise that brings no effective outcomes for local communities. The overemphasis on the NGO sector in peacebuilding and in other spheres of engagement with ‘ordinary’ people eventually constructs a local elite that enjoys the benevolent attitude of international organizations. This group of people has a better access to material resources from international donors than ‘ordinary’ people do; they are in a better position to influence decision- and policy-making in their communities and countries; they have better chances to pursue a political career, and renowned international organizations and Western governments usually back their positions and protect them from the oppressive actions of the state. The exclusiveness of this group of individuals and organizations undermines the very concept of civil society as non-elite people caring about their communities and, furthermore, (re)produces hierarchies and power relations inside local communities.

Instrumentalization of 'Ordinary' People Through Work with Local Experts and Journalists

As the work with local NGOs helps to create a simulacrum of local participation, bringing experts and journalists, and a limited number of civil society activists from societies in conflict to discussions and joint research contributes to maintaining a simulacrum of dialogue across conflict divides, represented as an important indicator of success of peacebuilding initiatives. Both International Alert and Conciliation Resources facilitate dialogues between Armenian and Azerbaijani and between Georgian and Abkhazian experts. These efforts are aimed at “stimulating critical thinking and debate in society” (Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict n.d.), and “building trust, identifying areas of common interest and creating an environment more conducive to peace” (Dialogue Improves Prospects for Peace in the South Caucasus 2017). The idea behind these initiatives is that the knowledge gained from such collaboration between regional experts facilitated by international experts should be shared with a wider audience. For example, in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, IA provides “opportunities for expert analysts and civil society leaders from across the conflict divide to research how other societies have addressed conflict-related issues”, and that “[t]hey then share these insights and ideas with their local communities, to encourage wider debate” around the conflict context (European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorny Karabakh n.d.). IA and CR have similar approaches for expert selection in order to set a strong resonance within the targeted societies. CR invites participants to meetings on “the basis of their expertise and their ability to influence others in their society” (The Karabakh Contact Group n.d.). For IA, the experts must be “prominent public figures who play a role in shaping public debate in their respective societies” (The North Caucasus Factor in the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict Context 2012). Thus, the dialogue between experts from societies ‘at odds’ serves as a channel for a discursive intervention into narratives assumingly prevalent on the ground. As in the case of civil society, the exclusiveness of the selected expert pool does not provide for the agency of local people in peacebuilding projects, though this approach is not as disciplining as the institutionalist peacebuilding dominant in 1990s that disregarded the local expertise and relied on the solutions imposed by external experts (Chandler 2017, 12). Nevertheless, in the present approaches, ‘ordinary’ people again appear to be an object of peacebuilding rather than its subject. Moreover, due to the inertia of these organizations to work with already ‘tested’ persons, there exists a typical situation when the same experts participate in various peacebuilding dialogues and projects across the region.

The international peacebuilding organizations operationalize their work with regional journalists in a similar way. IA is, perhaps, the most active international peacebuilding organization to work towards establishing pro-peace media in the South Caucasus. Journalists, civil society activists, teachers, academics, cultural figures, and business people are the core local people with whom IA works “to promote shared identities, social change and economic cooperation across the region” (South Caucasus n.d.) and “to establish the relationships and structures necessary for peace to take root” (Regional Dialogue n.d.). This work is a part of the discursive peacebuilding intervention targeted at ‘ordinary’ people. For example, IA describes one of its tasks as a member of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorny Karabakh in the following way:

“We also provide training to journalists and editors to increase their capacity to provide more balanced and nuanced coverage of conflict-related issues. This also enables them to build peer relationships across the conflict divide. The journalists we worked with are now sharing their experiences with local communities via TV, radio, print and online media. Through their eyes, ordinary people are able to see how victims of other conflicts have found the personal courage to rebuild trust and live beside former enemies in peace” (European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorny Karabakh n.d.).

IA must be credited for launching an outstanding project in the region that attempted to hear local people. The project called “Unheard Voices” “gives journalists from leading media outlets in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh the opportunity to share articles and video reports about the lives of those affected by the conflict on a joint platform” (Unheard Voices 2014). The platform in practice represents a network of the journalists who post their articles in Russian on a joint Facebook page and in Armenian and Azerbaijani through mainstream online media agencies. The idea is to give a voice to “ordinary people suffering from the direct results of the ongoing conflict” and show “the human side of the conflict – in the journalists’ own societies as well as on the other side of the divide” (Unheard Voices 2014). “By exposing the public to the human cost of the conflict” the project “hopes to encourage support for greater tolerance and a peaceful resolution to the conflict” (Unheard Voices 2014). In addition, by publishing the journalists’ reports focusing “on the everyday lives of communities living near the frontline”, it aims “to provoke greater public discussion on all sides of the conflict and encourage audience members to share their own experiences and identify common challenges” (Unheard Voices 2014).

Individual stories of local people filled by personal feelings about presence and past – existing concerns about security and socio-economic situations, sadness at the absence of trust between once-friendly neighbors, and nostalgia about the days before the war when Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side – certainly produce an alternative narrative on the conflict. Indeed, the local voices are now broadcasting, but the question is to whom. The description on the project’s Facebook page gives an answer about the target audience: “The purpose is to ensure their [of ordinary people whose everyday lives are affected by the ongoing conflict] voices are heard both at home in their own societies and on the other side of the conflict divide” (Our Story 2018). Thus, it remains vague whether this project is actually supposed to empower local people to promote their own version of peace. Apparently, these voices are not meant to be heard outside of the region and so to be taken into account when the ‘blueprint’ for peace is externally drafted. In addition, it is important to stress that the project “Unheard Voices” is part of IA’s ongoing work to strengthen conflict-reporting skills through training and mentorship and improve links among journalists across the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict divide (Unheard Voices 2014, Unheard Voices: Media Professionals as Actors for Peace in the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict Context n.d.). To put it simply, it aims to improve “under-developed” journalism standards in the region. Hence, in the end, it is media professionals, another exclusive group that is supposed to become “actors for peace in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict context” (Unheard Voices: Media Professionals as Actors for Peace in the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict Context n.d.) and not those ‘ordinary’ people, whose life stories are shared, as they in practice turn to be the instruments for this objective. Individual stories of local people filled by personal feelings about presence and past – existing concerns about security and socio-economic situations, sadness at the absence of trust between once-friendly neighbors, and nostalgia about the days before the war when Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side – certainly produce an alternative narrative on the conflict. Indeed, the local voices are now broadcasting, but the question is to whom. The description on the project’s Facebook page gives an answer about the target audience: “The purpose is to ensure their [of ordinary people whose everyday lives are affected by the ongoing conflict] voices are heard both at home in their own societies and on the other side of the conflict divide” (Our Story 2018). Thus, it remains vague whether this project is actually supposed to empower local people to promote their own version of peace. Apparently, these voices are not meant to be heard outside of the region and so to be taken into account when the ‘blueprint’ for peace is externally drafted. In addition, it is important to stress that the project “Unheard Voices” is part of IA’s ongoing work to strengthen conflict-reporting skills through training and mentorship and improve links among journalists across the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict divide (Unheard Voices 2014, Unheard Voices: Media Professionals as Actors for Peace in the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict Context n.d.). To put it simply, it aims to improve “under-developed” journalism standards in the region. Hence, in the end, it is media professionals, another exclusive group that is supposed to become “actors for peace in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict context” (Unheard Voices: Media Professionals as Actors for Peace in the Nagorny Karabakh Conflict Context n.d.) and not those ‘ordinary’ people, whose life stories are shared, as they in practice turn to be the instruments for this objective.

The discussed international peacebuilding organizations in the South Caucasus have certainly played their role in promoting peace in the region, though their own version of it. The promoted peace has been re-framed in different forms in order to meet the mounting criticism of liberal peace. Hence, there have been attempts to incorporate the concept of local participation in their practices, but the ontological foundations of liberal peace have considerably limited the space for this effort. The practices remain essentially didactic, and support to peace and conflict transformation is carried out primarily in the form of a discursive intervention with the aim to challenge belligerent narratives and hope to induce social transformations but without addressing the materiality of local peace. The ultimate power to decide about peace is still delegated to regional and, primarily, external elites and official policymakers. The remaining problem is that people who advocate for hearing the voices of local or their empowerment or simply try to understand why it is important to study these issues are not local (BojicicDzelilovic and Martin 2018). Since someone else is still speaking on behalf of local people, and their agency has been taken away, the misrepresentation of local has become a common practice of peacebuilding interventions.

From Building to Supporting Peace

The Hybridity of Local

The turn to local in peace research and in peacebuilding has taken different shapes. Peacebuilding has lacked anthropological sensitivity of ‘the post-liberal peace’ research that emphasizes the ideas of localism. Peacebuilding practices at least in the South Caucasus context have reduced these ideas merely to capacity-building of local civil society and media professionals and to creating discussion platforms for regional experts, whereas everyday peace practices were not studied but at best recorded and mediatized for the purpose of ‘peace propaganda’ to challenge belligerent narratives. For many years civil society but not grassroots were promoted, and selectivity in the representation of local did not result in the emergence of genuine peacebuilding practices.

The main ontological limitation of present peacebuilding is its conviction in the existence of ‘universal’ liberal constituents of peace that range from democracy, good governance, respect for human rights to the presence of vibrant civil society. This view, however, does not allow for understanding how local communities conceptualize and practice peace in their everydayness. Anthropological literature could be particularly helpful in addressing this question as it provides many insights from communal everyday life on the notion and praxis of peace. The emerging research field focusing on everyday peace could also inform peacebuilding activities of international organizations that peace is contextual and takes its form through the mundane practices and narratives of a community in its full diversity. From this perspective, peace is not singular but plural, and hence there exist legitimate alternatives for liberal peace. At the same time, there is no single peace with a universally accepted formula that can be easily transposed identically to different contexts (Richmond and Mitchell 2011, 1). If a ‘peacebuilding’ initiative succeeded in one context, it should not be automatically assumed to be applicable to any other conflict context.

The acceptance of the existence of peaces with their unique locally produced attributes and concurrently internalized ‘universal’ versions of peace brought some scholars to argue for the possibility of the concomitance of local and external (liberal) practices in hybridized forms (Mac Ginty 2011, Richmond 2009, Richmond 2010, Richmond 2015). Hybrid peace scholars suggest not declaring the international intervention as a scapegoat of the failures of peacebuilding activities around the world, yet they refuse to see it as the only available option. Hybrid peace is formulated as an attempt to give a space for local responses to the internationally sponsored peace (Mac Ginty 2010).

The hybrid peace theory enables researchers to attain a deep attachment to both local and international aspects of peacebuilding practices, not excluding one from the other in its declared attempt to provide for genuine emancipation of local from external hegemony. The theory particularly challenges the ethic of international intervention and calls into question the universality and hegemony of such practices. Richmond and Mitchell opine that almost in every international intervention hybridization has become a main tendency instead of liberalization (Richmond and Mitchell 2011). However, beneficial (positive) forms of hybridization have not occurred in most cases because of the lack of knowledge about the everyday. Drawing from this observation of the hybrid peace concept, one could argue that if international actors were aware of everyday practices and had a broader knowledge about local, the success of peacebuilding projects would be guaranteed. Thus, the hybrid peace approach maintains that the intervention is not the problem per se, but the process of implementation is.

From a postcolonial perspective, Richmond and Mitchell argue that liberal peacebuilding projects are implemented in a manner, where peacebuilding interventions are imposed upon ‘ordinary’ people without taking into account customs, cultural and social norms, or in general their everyday power dynamics (Richmond and Mitchell 2011, 14). Therefore, the hybrid peace concept advocates for an interdisciplinary approach and sees the benefits of drawing on knowledge from critical anthropology and critical sociology in order to grasp better multiple alternations and interrelationships of peacebuilding projects. Bringing the everyday into the center of attention is not to erode or undermine state sovereignty, in other words not anarchical, but to underscore the state’s lost contact with local (Richmond and Mitchell 2011, 16). The hybrid peace concept moved beyond the discussions whether engaging with local is necessary or adequate and is interested in how these interactions occur and what consequences they have (Richmond and Mitchell 2011). Mac Ginty suggests hybrid peace is to highlight and study the interaction between bottom-up and top-down, local and international peace (Mac Ginty 2010).

The proponents of this perspective believe that the “local-liberal hybrid peace” is able to serve as a solution to the dilemma of the liberal peacebuilding due to its sensitivity to local sociocultural norms and values and, in general, the contextual aspects of peace. Other scholars, such as Nadarajah and Rampton, accept hybrid peace only as a problem-solving tool (Nadarajah and Rampton 2015). Although hybrid peace aims to emancipate local, it shares some key features with liberal peace (Nadarajah and Rampton 2015). Nadarajah and Rampton argue that hybridity still serves liberal ideology and it is trapped within the dilemma of liberal peace because despite seeing liberal peace as oppressive it makes an impression that it is the only source of emancipation (Nadarajah and Rampton 2015). The hybrid peace approach disregards the social and economic patterns of the liberal peace package, mainly neo-liberalism and capitalism that cannot be separated from everyday practices. Chandler also notes that despite the non-linearity of this perspective and its critical view on top-down peacebuilding, the idea of a ‘hybrid’ form of peace stays problematic because it still attempts to find a way for (less) liberal institutional frameworks to be developed in ‘non-liberal’ societies (Chandler 2017, 145-50; 171-72). Indeed, even though Richmond has made a great effort to conceptualize an emancipatory version of peace, to which he refers as “the postliberal peace”, this approach – regardless of its empathy to local communities – remains driven by local-international and liberal-illiberal binary views. That is why this approach to peacebuilding has actually contributed to a further maintenance of the hubristic belief in the genius of liberal ideology. The latter continues to appear in the essentialist “critical perspectives” on peace and conflict, which are trapped in dualistic thinking along ‘the liberal-illiberal peace dichotomy’.[6] Despite the effectiveness of the hybrid peace approach as a tool to analyze complicated relations of the local-international opposition, it is still trying to accommodate liberal peacebuilding, and local in this context is presented largely as responsive and reactive to international, not really self-sufficient to produce its own version of peace.

Perhaps, the idea of “local-liberal hybrid peace” can be better considered within the postmodern concept of glocalization emerged in the field of cultural studies and sociology in the early 1990s, according to which seemingly opposing universalizing and particularizing tendencies are simultaneous, complementary and interpenetrative, even though they can and do collide in concrete situations (Robertson 1995). It is also important to bear in mind that the notion of local itself has become a highly contested and debatable issue. Hughes et al. refer to local as “problematic” because it is relational and flexible (Hughes, Öjendal and Schierenbeck 2015). Drawing from Arjun Appadurai’s conception of culture as a series of cross-border ‘flows’, they challenge the concept of local by describing local “as not being local at all, but transnational and global” due to multiple relations inherited in cultural globalism (Hughes, Öjendal and Schierenbeck 2015). Local is never truly local, because it is always in contact with “other” locals. Local is not an isolated phenomenon but one in a constant interaction with the outside environment. These constant social interactions form and reform local identities and thus local peace processes. The ‘post-liberal’ perspective, in its turn, tends to reason that peace is possible only if the local (particular) hybridizes with the liberal (universal) values. In our judgement, the local is per se hybridized with the universal; the homegrown peace is intrinsically hybridized within the local cosmology in which ‘liberal values’ together with or separately from any other universalist ideas of the past and present – starting from communist ideology and ending by religious dogmas – can and do constitute the foundations of local peace.

A De-Romanticized View on Peace

Peace should be viewed not as a field of eternal harmony but of both accord and contest. Political geographers (Ross 2011, Darling 2014, Williams 2015) have made an exceptional contribution to understanding peace as something more than simply ‘a good thing’ through highlighting power relations accompanying the everydayness of peace. Philippa Williams notes, “to understand peace is to also expose the conflicts and injustices” (Williams 2015, 11). In her view, “peace is not contingent on purely peaceful interactions and the successful resolution of tensions, but may also be constituted through suspension of tensions and/or the articulation of relations that are less than peaceful” (Williams 2015, 13). Thus, peace does not necessarily involve “the potential for transformation” but “[t]o the contrary, the reproduction of peace may depend on maintaining uneven balances of power characteristic of the status quo” (Williams 2015, 13). The observation of antagonistic relationships as a part of peace is a significant contribution to de-romanticizing of peace and further advances the non-linear post-structuralist perspectives in peace and conflict research.[7]

The research focusing on the everydayness of peace has been enriched also by the process metaphysics: peace is not anymore understood as a state of Being but as a process of Becoming. Lederach described peace “not merely as a stage in time or a condition” but “a dynamic social construct” (Lederach 1997). Political geographers, particularly, have contributed to the development of the view on peace as a process rather than a steady state (Koopman 2011, Koopman 2017). For example, Williams notes, “peace is a process that is always being worked out through interactions within society and the state” (Williams 2015, 32). She suggests, “peace demands ongoing labor and work rather than standing as an endpoint or as something which can be concluded” (Williams 2015, 6). In anthropology as well, it is common to refer to mundane peace as everyday practice and not as static end point. Such an understanding is important because it further highlights the contingency of peace in both its spatial and temporal dimensions.

Yet, we do not suggest that the idea of peace as a state or end-result is irrelevant for analysis. Although the meanings around peace are not fixed across time and space, at ideational level of thinking, peace as an end result remains a goal in itself that guides the shaping of ‘peacebuilding’ policies as well as communal everyday practices of peace. Thus, peace in its everyday manifestation, being ideationally reproduced within individual and communal narratives, is both an idealistic state of social relations and a practice driven by the idea-enabled strategies to maintain the imagined (and never completely articulated) peace. The locally formulated concept of peace is routinized through certain everyday rituals to which the majority of the community adhere regardless of its possible incomplete compliance with the way this concept is represented in the ‘shared’ communal narrative, while the minority that disagrees with it has to obey with the rules of conduct for pragmatic reasons of conflict avoidance. Importantly, these practices of peace can and do inscribe patterns of marginality along the suppositional divide between ‘peaceful’ and ‘vicious’ members of the community. However, while the liberal international peacebuilding approaches are aimed at imposing the idea of peace as a ‘recipe of the perfect state’, at the communal level, the idea of peace is particularly flexible and negotiable. In everydayness of local peace, differences and connections are continuously assembled and negotiated (Williams 2015). The efforts of a community’s members aim to maintain, through everyday implicit and explicit negotiations, an imagined balance of power relations, inequalities, differences, prejudices and stereotypes but this balance remains fragile (or at least unstable) and requires constant re-negotiations.

The everyday practice of peace is about the everyday practice of co-living in diverse communities, in which individuals and groups jointly restrain conflict potential that may result in the collapse of their relationships. The drivers for preventing the critical polarization of communal relationships include, among many other factors, fear and anticipation of violence, traumas of the past, shared experience, collective memory, pragmatic considerations of survival, economic reasons, and personal affections. A ‘de-romanticized’ view on local peace would argue that the everyday practice of peace entails a perpetual containment of endless conflict. Even during violent escalations of antagonistic relations, this practice may continue by inertia – there are numerous instances of hiding or helping neighbors of the ‘other’ ethnic origin when ethnic cleansing was perpetrated against them – and this is the final hope of community members and a reason why the rituals of peace are sustained during the ‘non-violent’ time. Koopman in this regard notes, “peace also happens inside war, not only in peace zone enclaves, but in everyday peace building by all sorts of actors” (Koopman 2017). The de-romanticized view on local peace likewise maintains that the entire inclusivity of social and cultural dissimilarities is non-achievable, though the practice of peace, as a universalist common aspiration of humankind, strives to this end. Such a view provides for a further drift away from the idea of peace as a universal norm to the understanding of peace as context-dependent and altering process.

The presented perspective on co-living in diverse communities differs from what we may call ‘propaganda of peace’, journalistic and academic accounts of “peaceful co-existence” informed by the understanding that peace exists despite conflict. The belief in peaceful co-existence despite conflict is by no means a simplistic linear approach, in which peace is the antonym to conflict, merely ‘not-war’, a muchcriticized negative definition of peace. To the contrary, this viewpoint disrupts the linear perspective on peace and conflict. It suggests that peace occurs not as the end to conflict but separately from conflict and so, implies the existence of two ‘parallel realities’; peace can be built within a particular context while conflict stays in another ‘reality’. However, the linear clear-cut border between ‘the realities’ – a utopian metanarrative to which peace belongs and a dystopian metanarrative to which conflict makes a part – remains.

This paper deconstructs the view on peace and conflict, according to which the meta-narratives of utopia and dystopia are divided and argues that they are interconnected. The mental border between the two should be viewed as blurred and floating. Hence, the hybridity between various versions of peace occurs. It may appear that from the perspective of one version of peace another version looks ‘less peaceful’ and vice versa. Thus, the latter version may seem to occupy the discursive field that from the former’s perspective belongs to the dystopian metanarrative. This can be an underlying reason of the collision between ‘indigenous’ understandings of a peaceful society and ‘liberal’ norms of peace. However, although these visions often do not fit into each other’s hegemonic utopian narratives and peace-related discourses, the discursive fields still can and do intersect at one or another node. Various discourses of peace also compete at the local-local level between different community members and groups. Therefore, the comprehension of the contextuality of everyday peace practices and a fluctuating mental border between peace and conflict discourses, utopia and dystopia metanarratives, is important for creating ways to support peace by enlarging the room for these two metanarratives to intersect.

The enlargement of this room happens in practice through day-to-day negotiations between the members of culturally mixed communities that construct collective narratives shaping the ‘rules’ of their interaction, aimed at preventing the potential polarization of the communal relations. Such everyday negotiations help a community member to accept a perceived antagonist by recognizing the “other’s” differences and similarities and estimating possible consequences in case of the escalation of a potential conflict. Though this paper does not intend to discuss agonistic peace[8], it does acknowledge that the mutual recognition of differences and potential of conflict may be conducive for sustaining connections across cultural and/or ethnic boundaries. The recognition is a result of routine daily encounters between the community members that occur in shared and private places.

The existence of particular public places that bring people together to communicate across their differences matter more than the external indoctrination of local people in the importance of tolerance by international organizations. After all, a culture of inclusion is not something created in the offices of international organizations and has been practiced in various forms all over the world. Sites of everyday cultural exchange such as workplaces, schools and other educational venues, centers for exercising hobbies, sport facilities, shops, squares, and other public spaces all create their own “microcultures of place” characterized by “achievements of prosaic negotiation and transgression in dealing with racism and ethnic diversity” (Amin 2002). Multicultural communities that have experienced violent conflicts often lack material resources to restore or maintain their habitual spaces of interaction and construct new ones. We believe that the resources of international NGOs and their donors could be more effectively expended if invested in the restoration and construction of such sites for everyday (re-)negotiation and practicing of local peace(s) than in the creation of abstract ‘platforms for expert discussions’ and other discursive interventions repeatedly introducing universalist and elitist ideas of peace.

The spatial dimension of the reproduction of peace through narrative and practice is of particular importance for our conceptualization of the communitarian peace aimed to challenge further the ignorance of the crucial role of local communities in the conceptualization of peace. Although the contextuality, and thus plurality, of peace is shaped by both time and space, peace also serves as a context in which space is taking its shape across time (Koopman 2011, Koopman 2017, Williams 2015). This interconnection makes every peace and space to be unique and rules out the singularity of peace promoted by universalist approaches. As long as a community exists through its shared social practices, traditions and mutual recognition of differences and similarities, peace also takes its place. Therefore, the peace-concerned organizations should go beyond peace building approaches; any attempt to build peace eventually requires building also a new community based on the exclusive universalist idea of justice detached from the contextuality of a concrete place, time, and communal tradition.[9] Peace building inherently equates itself with interventions to ‘civilize’ the lives of local people. Alternatively, peaceconcerned organizations must transform their peace building to peace supporting approaches. Communities should be supported in maintaining their effective versions of peace through enlarging space(s) for everyday peace practices. Importantly, this peace support should be voluntarily accepted by local people and should not be reduced to consultancy (teaching) by external experts but provided in form of material resources for the restoration and creation of ‘infrastructure’ of local peace in a way defined by community members themselves. A peace supporting approach also means that external experts learn how peace is differentially (re)produced, materialized, and interpreted through space and time. This knowledge about grounded contextual definitions of peace acquired from various locations would widen the horizons of the international peace expertise and make it sensitive to local people’s needs and aspirations.

Everyday Peace and Conflict: Communal Coexistence in the South Caucasus

Everyday practices of people or communities that are torn between conflict and peace commonly differ from the external assumptions about them. Even the ‘altruistic’ aspirations of international organizations to meet the need of local cannot be capable of addressing the realities on the ground. The exportation of liberal values gained a new form that can be described as interventions via local, though local forms of collective unities have remained largely disregarded. As long as unique ‘indigenous’ forms of civil unity differ from civil society that the World Bank, the United Nations, the EU, and other institutions acknowledge, promote, and support, the ‘non-liberal others’ are presented by the international as a barrier to the peace process.

Since the formation of unities and forms of governance in communities are consequences of long historic and spatial factors, the recognition of local society by the outsiders as self-sufficient is crucial to study local dynamics. Thinking of local society beyond the standard or Western understanding leaves a broad space for indigenous practices of communal activity. For example, peace negotiations between Azerbaijani and Armenian communities living in Kyzyl-Shafag and Kerkenj respectively, which resulted in a village exchange across the conflict divide, demonstrate a strong example for the potential of local communities to come up with effective solutions during escalating conflict. The profound analysis of the story demonstrates different dynamics of decision making and problem solving that exist within local communities (Huseynova, Hakobyan and Rumyantsev 2012). The village exchange that happened without outside intervention or coercion reveals the internal processes of collective decision making led by a state farm (commonly referred to with the term “kolkhoz” in Russian) director from Kyzyl-Shafag and inherent patterns of both Soviet communalism and Caucasus patriarchy. The organization of self-defense, the search for a new place to live, reaching a verbal agreement on respect for graveyards on both sides made local people mediators, implementers, and beneficiaries of the whole peace process.

Our paper complements such rare research accounts of local peace in the South Caucasus by ethnographic interpretations of three cases of multicultural coexistence in the region: Armenians with Azerbaijanis in the Marneuli district, Muslims of Azerbaijani and Iranian origins with Georgian Christians in the village of Gombori, and Georgians of the Gal/i region with Abkhazians. We stress that our employment of the term ‘coexistence’ conveys both peace and (latent) conflict. ‘Coexistence’ can also refer to ‘toleration’ of some differences between the groups, though it should not signify a conflict-free space as it implies a constant attempt to avoid clashes (Barkan and Barkey 2015). Applying tools of interpretive anthropology, the section below analyzes local imaginations and practices of everyday peace/s.

Armenian-Azerbaijani Rural Communities in Georgia


The Marneuli district of Georgia is an outstanding region for those who have been engaged in peace research in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the after-war period, there exist, perhaps, no other such area where Armenians and Azerbaijanis have managed to preserve their mixed rural communities following all the turbulence of the last three decades in the wider surrounding of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relationships. The conflict that is profoundly ingrained in these communities, however, well coexists with local peace that also has its deep roots in time and space. Particularly, two Armenian-Azerbaijani villages – Tsopi and Khojorni – have attracted attention of some media activists, albeit seemingly not of academics (the only encountered ethnographic account of communal life in Tsopi is written by Huseynova (Huseynova 2009)). Both villages are located near the Georgian-Armenian border, around 80-85 km from Tbilisi. The General Population Census of 2014 has shown that approximately 600 people live in each of these villages. Khojorni is a predominantly Armenian-populated village (76 percent), and the Azerbaijani inhabitants (73 percent) outnumber the other residents of Tsopi. In both villages, there are also a few Greeks (or, to be precise, mostly descendants of Armenian-Greek mixed families) and a very small number of Russians. The inhabitants of the two villages have close friendship and family relationships among each other, though the everyday peace in each community has acquired its own particularities.

The everyday peace of these communities is sustained largely due to the joint construction of collective narratives that enable the communities’ members to shape their practices of interaction in order to prevent a possible polarization of the communal relationships. Nevertheless, the narratives are often penetrated by nationalistic conflict-fueling discourses. The ethnographic immersion in the communal lives also reveals implicit power relations related to the proportion of populations in every village as well as strong prejudices and fears of the communities’ members towards each other. Expectedly, assumptions and beliefs about the causes of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani relationships coincide more often within the same ethnic group. History and its material heritage represent a noticeable issue of contestation among the local people that one way or another is related to the wider context of the “Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict”.[11] In the villages, there are ruins of several historical buildings (the oldest are dated most likely to the 5th century) such as churches and fortresses. The local Armenians usually refer to these constructions as Christian, made by Armenians (their primary version), Georgians, or Greeks. However, Azerbaijanis are convinced that the Caucasus Albanians, whom they consider as the ancestors of Azerbaijanis, and not necessarily Christians, had erected these buildings. The contested views on this issue often lead to confronting conclusions such as “the Armenian state is artificially created by the Russian Empire to divide the Muslims in the region” or “the Azerbaijani nation has no historical grounds to exist”. Eventually, the question of belonging of NagornoKarabakh and even territories beyond this area is often raised.

However, the community members have found exits out of these deadlocked debates thanks to their largely agreed upon values and the immediate experience of the shared past. The unifying values are formulated in various ways such as “God is one but only has different names” or “the most important is that we’re all humans”. The locals also accentuate specific characteristics of their villages that construct their communal identities upon which the everyday peace rests. Through the articulation of these local identities, the villagers differentiate their communities from the societies in Armenia and/or Azerbaijan. Common unifying discourses related to the local relationships are formulated as the following: “We’re here like brothers and sisters” or “We don’t care who’s of what nation, who has what religion”. The locals deny in their narrations the presence of conflict in their communities, and some villagers try to assure that they make no difference between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Discursive practices of everyday interaction sometimes even include calling the community “one nation”. Another story of the shared narrative is that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has not happened because of “ordinary people” or “peasants”, who are actually presented as the foremost victims of such developments, but it has been the result of political games of the countries’ elites and global actors. The local people often tell that they are not interested in the conflict because there is no such issue in their communities; Nagorno-Karabakh is “far way”; and it is just “a piece of land”; and thus, they should not be preoccupied with the issue.

The most articulated communal value in the local narratives is “respect” that guides people’s everyday practices in relation towards each other. The value of respect, as locally explained, implies not saying anything that can insult a representative of another ethnic group, particularly heightened care for him and especially for her and protection of him/her from possible offensive actions of someone else. Respect, care, and protection of each other underpin neighborly relations between individuals associated with the two ethnic groups. These modalities are deeply rooted in the collective memory, and the elderly particularly underline how they were practiced in the past. Thus, a shared experience is a source to maintain the modalities that eventually have become communal traditions transferred from one generation to another.

Overall, people positively describe the time prior to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and generally the Soviet period when it comes to the organization of communal life. The older generation stresses that the unity of their villages was stronger and associates this with much more intensive everyday contacts across ethnic and cultural boundaries. People spent more time together at both work and leisure. The collective labor is particularly stressed as a unifying factor for the local communities. The majority of the Khojorni residents were involved in developing collective farming, working at the kolkhoz, while the majority of the Tsopi population worked at a large marble and limestone quarry that has been active since the 1950s and became the forming enterprise that even brought a status of an urban-type settlement to Tsopi during the Soviet time. The large industry attracted to Tsopi many workers from all over the Soviet Union, and hence Tsopi residents often refer to their village of that time as “the center of the world”. Many Tsopi residents also worked in nearby kolkhozes. The work conjointly conducted by different ethnic groups has been complemented by spending together also off-work time. In the villages, there were functioning cultural centers (commonly referred to with the term “dom kultury” in Russian),  public bathhouses (commonly referred to as “banya” in Russian), several stores, a park, and sport fields. The developed transport infrastructure also facilitated the communication between people. The villages had their own kindergartens attended by kids of every ethnic and cultural background. All these places of routine encounters of local people have been wrecked following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Schools are the only public spaces that continue to play a vital role in community building and the maintenance of communal peace. The school is the most mentioned place among the local people of any age when the origins of the communal peace are discussed. The Armenians and Azerbaijanis underline that their friendly communal relations stem from their very childhood spent together on the streets and in the school of their villages. The schools are divided into  Armenian and Azerbaijani sectors, but some classes are conducted jointly. A decade ago, the Russian sector in the Tsopi school, which had been popular among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, was closed. Currently, both schools are in dire conditions, especially, the school in Tsopi. Built in the 1930s, it has been partly destroyed, and there are no obvious prospects that it will be soon reconstructed. The amount of school students has dropped dramatically since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as there has been a big migration outflow from these villages.

The local people practice certain communal rituals that support the everyday peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Living side by side they regularly invite each other for family and religious feasts or at least share food from the table. It has been observed that Armenians often participate in the preparation and celebration of Azerbaijani weddings.[12] As locals say, the participation in funerals of a person they knew well is virtually an obligation for them regardless of the deceased’s ethnicity, and it does not require any special invitation from his/her family. If a certain activity of one group potentially hurts the feelings of the other, it is normally kept at low profile. For instance, the Armenians of Khojorni regularly commemorate the Armenian Genocide on April 24, but the activities are organized in a way that would minimize visibility for the Azerbaijani neighbors. The Armenian school teachers organize a public activity only for Armenian schoolchildren. When classes are over, Armenian teachers and pupils gather in a schoolyard and walk together to a small stone cross, erected on the margins of the village, where they lay flowers, light candles, give speeches, and sing songs. The route to this place bypasses the areas where Azerbaijanis live. The Armenian adults visit the place individually. As several Armenian teachers told, the local Armenians keep the commemoration as a silent event because they try to be sensitive to the feelings of their Azerbaijani neighbors and colleagues. As said by the locals, there is also an instruction from the educational authorities of Georgia that such commemorative public events should not be organized on the territory of intercultural schools. Some public holidays, such as the Victory Day on May 9, are celebrated by Armenians and Azerbaijanis together.

The joint construction and maintenance of the communal narrative about the shared space (past and present) with a continuous reference to the collective memory helps the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Tsopi and Khojorni to alleviate or embrace cultural differences, suppress or deal with inter-group tensions, and sustain or transform the balance in power relations through a simultaneous recognition and denial of differences. The presence of differences underscores the imperative to build and sustain the negotiated compromises and connections between the groups that hold the diverse population of a village together as a community. Nationalistic discourses are suppressed or put aside during the intergroup encounters to prevent a possible polarization of the relationships, while connections are reinforced through these encounters. The situated consensus and/or compromise is produced through the joint construction of the communal narrative and its discursive practices. Discursive practices of everyday interaction include, for example, the aforementioned references to each other as “brothers”, “sisters”, or “one nation”. Such expressions of ‘peace talks’ as “the culture of our village” and “brotherhood” denote the attempts to create or sustain both inclusive intra-communal connectedness and exclusive communal identity. In the end, the narrative that includes all these elements shapes a common strategy of interaction and mundane practices of peace. The guiding value of this interaction strategy, narrated by the research participants themselves, is “respect”, and it is nurtured in and through the collective memory of the community.

Muslims of Azerbaijani and Iranian Origin Coexisting with Georgian Christians in the Village of Gombori


The village of Gombori, which is located in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia, around 55 km away from Tbilisi, is a remarkable place for ethnic and religious diversity. At present, three major groups – Lahijs[14], Azerbaijanis, and Georgian ecomigrants, who came from the high-mountainous settlements of the Pshavi and Khevsureti regions – have been jointly residing in Gombori for more than 50 years. Apart from these numerically dominant groups, there are a few Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian, and Ossetian families.[15]

In the 19th century, the Russian Empire had founded a military base in Gombori (Hundadze 2017), which greatly influenced the village life and architecture until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 20th century, some Lahij and Azerbaijani men moved from Azerbaijan to Georgia in search of better economic conditions (Sordia 2016). They started living in the huts of the forest surrounding the village. They produced charcoal and sold it to earn money. Gradually, the families of these men from Azerbaijan re-joined on this territory. In 1956, due to a great flood, all the simple houses in the forests were destroyed, so the Lahijs and Azerbaijanis moved into the village of Gombori for permanent living (Sordia 2016). In 1960, Georgian eco-migrants from the Pshavi and Khevsureti regions joined the settlement (Hundadze 2017). In 1964, the number of Georgians exceeded the number of Lahijs and Azerbaijanis (Hundadze 2017). Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the life of the village was largely organized around the activities of the military base.[16]

The Lahijs and Azerbaijanis adhere to Shia Islam, while almost all Georgians and the other groups confess Orthodox Christianity. The majority of Georgians also firmly maintain the old mountainous cults, and a few Georgians represent Jehovah’s Witnesses, which make the village life even more religiously diverse. At first glance, the environment of coexistence in Gombori seems peaceful, but it also may appear to be strained. Local peace in Gombori turns unique and could be expressed in various patterns. Young Lahijs, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and representatives of other nationalities attend the one and only school in the village, so classes there are intercultural. More than a hundred students attend the school that employs around 20 teachers (Edu.aris.ge 2016). The school is the only public place in the whole settlement that gathers young people. On the main road of the village, there are a few permanently serving small shops, an irregularly operating ambulatory, and the representation office of the local government. In addition, there is a kindergarten, which unites around 30 kids and 7 employees. A number of small marketplaces on the main road, where people of all ethnic backgrounds sell dairy, agricultural products, mushrooms and other things, are very important and represent the most active places in which people meet each other and spend a lot of time together discussing their daily experiences.

There are no geographical districts in Gombori that are solely populated by one group. However, the holy places and cemeteries of the followers of the two major religions are rigidly separated. The Georgians attend the Russian Orthodox Christian church on the small central hill of the village. Since most of the Georgians of the village firmly maintain strict mountainous traditions, they keep their shrines and sacred places faraway in the nearby forest, protected and isolated. The Muslims have re-organized one of their houses into a mosque and celebrate religious holidays there. Apart from this, everyday communication between the Christian and Muslim families is frequent and intensive as they exchange food and sell products together at the marketplaces.

During the Soviet period, in Gombori there was a military base staffed with Russian-speaking personnel. The abandonment of the base has left several, now deserted, multi-storey buildings, uncommon for a village setting. People often recall the military base that played an essential role in the village life during the Soviet times. By that time, many Lahij, Azerbajani, and Georgian men had a permanent military service job at the base. Women were busy with different technical or administrative duties there and worked in the hospital that served the military base. In addition, the village had a developed Soviet collective farming (Hundadze 2017). The fairly good economic situation of the locals attracted more Lahijs whose population increased to more than 400 people by 1989 (Hundadze 2017). There was also a bigger number of pupils attending the school. At the same time, the religious life was suppressed during the Soviet period. For example, the 19th-century Christian church was converted into a cinema (Hundadze 2017). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the military personnel left the village and the base, and the collective farming and hospital collapsed. The religious life of all groups gradually gained more importance, and the religious practices intensified.

Individual references to the shared communal history reveal the presence of (latent) conflict: some local Georgians think that the Lahijs and Azerbaijanis should be grateful that they were allowed to live in the village after the flood. These Georgians tell that only because of the natural disaster, the Lahijs and Azerbaijanis were permitted to permanently stay in the village. In general, Georgians consider themselves as a privileged group due to their belief that they live in their own homeland, and therefore other ethnic groups should compromise more and adopt the Georgian culture. The Christian Georgians sometimes refer to the Lahijs and Azerbaijanis in the category of “other” – the one who appears different and the one who needs to be tolerated (Barkan and Barkey 2015). Georgians might use the terms “Tats” and “unbelievers” while speaking about Azerbaijanis and Lahijs, and both terms denote discrimination expressed through the assumed superiority of Christianity in relation to Islam. Through using the above-mentioned references, Christians may regard Azerbaijanis and Lahijs as “faithless” (Kvachadze 2011), thus not an entirely equal part of their community.

However, the prevalent narrative of the inhabitants of Gombori is still that they very much respect each other’s religion, tradition, culture, way of life, and equality. There sometimes occur intermarriages between all these groups. Some Georgians, especially among teachers, say that they welcome everyone’s culture and find this co-living comfortable. Some Lahijs and Azerbaijanis say that they consider Georgia their homeland since they have spent their whole life there, while some of them are also interested in the lives of their ancestors in Azerbaijan. The villagers tell that both religious groups often take part in each other’s main holidays. Through this representation, peace among these major religious and ethnic groups of the village seems effective, though long and deep observation detects disagreements, conflict of interests, and hierarchy between and among the groups. Working on the field reveals that the Azerbaijanis and Lahijs actually do not participate in the main celebrations of Christian Georgians such as Easter, Ascension, and St. Giorgi’s Day, though they may help the Christians to organize the feasts without being invited to the actual ceremonial table, the Supra. The ‘acquirement’ of invitation seems to be an implicit barrier for the Muslims to participate in the Christian holidays. On Novruz, the Azerbaijanis and Lahijs traditionally invite the Georgians to join their celebration. However, even without invitation, the Georgians can freely join Novruz celebrations. Thus, the Georgians’ narratives sometimes differ from their actual actions. The Azerbaijanis and Lahijs appear more open towards the Georgians’ involvement into their religious rituals.

There are also some cases when the Georgians want to strengthen their neighborly and friendly relations with the Azerbaijanis and Lahijs. For instance, some Christian parents choose a Muslim godmother or godfather for their child despite being aware of the strict ban of Christianity against having someone who practices a different religion as a godparent. They provide different motives why they “had to” ask Muslims to be godparents. The following is one of the explanations offered: if a child is sick, a Christian mother and father invoke god to recover him/her, and in turn, they give a promise of letting Muslims baptize the baby. In another case, a Christian childless woman makes a wish, that if she gets pregnant and has a healthy baby, she will give the “unbeliever’s” name to the newborn. These examples show that the Christians sometimes adapt and rethink their traditions and ways of life in order to establish closer relations with their neighbors. Interestingly, the priests also agree to hold baptisms, where Muslims become the Christians’ godparents. As told, the Christians or Muslim godparents may negotiate this issue by paying some contributions to the church. In their turn, the Muslims also believe that through this practice of baptism, their friendship with the Christians can be strengthened. However, allowing a Muslim to be a godparent also demonstrates the power and domination of the Georgian Christian culture and religion in the communal relationships.

The way the Azerbaijanis and Lahijs see themselves in relation to the Georgian neighbors also demonstrates the domination of the Christian culture in the village. The Muslims in Gombori believe that they should be busy with agricultural and stockbreeding work at their households. This belief encourages young Muslims to quit school, marry at an early age, and engage primarily in household activities. They say that those who graduate from school and acquire higher education are mostly the Georgians, while the Azerbaijanis physically help their families starting from childhood. One of the interviewed Azerbaijanis exclaimed, “Still, we are workers!” Another Azerbaijani resident of Gombori told that being Christian might facilitate life in Georgia, bringing as an example that getting a job in this case can be easier. Therefore, he converted into Christianity in his adulthood. This considerable subjugation of the Muslim culture and religion to the Georgian Christian one prevents the escalation of conflict between these major groups of the village. The Azerbaijanis and Lahijs are adjusting themselves to the rituals established by the Georgian Christians. The flexibility of the locally practiced tradition of Islam dominated by Christianity has formed a distinct peace process in Gombori that is based on the dominance of the Georgian Christian culture, which gradually makes Azerbaijanis’ and Lahijs’ Islamic tradition conform. The Georgians represent the dominant ‘tolerating’ ethnic group in Gombori that delineates the way Azerbaijanis and Lahijs live in the community.

Relations Between the Georgians of the Gal/i Region and the Abkhazians


Since the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia, the unresolved conflict has had a severe impact on people living in Abkhazia, but it has not completely disrupted coexistence between ethnic Abkhazians and Georgians. After the end of military actions, most of the ethnic Georgians/Mingrelians[18] returned to their homes in Abkhazia’s Gal/i district, while some people, especially the elderly, had not even left their places during the war. According to statistical data, the population of the Gal/i district ranges from 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants. Ethnic Georgians constitute 99 percent of this population; the others are ethnic Abkhazians, Russians, and Armenians.[19]

After the war, the integration of Gal/i’s Georgians into the Abkhazian society has been difficult and still not fully achieved. Local residents recall that they used to stay all the time in Gal/i, as they were afraid to travel to the other districts of Abkhazia. However, in recent years, the situation has changed, and people have started communicating with each other. According to the local Georgians, the attitudes and relationships between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians nowadays are still not equal, but they also mention that, if compared, the situation of ten years ago was much more complicated and unfair. They say that personal relationships are normal if both sides do not touch upon politics, though the discrimination along ethnic lines makes them feel powerless and unwelcome in their homeland.

The older generation from the Gal/i district recalls that they were living in peace with Abkhazians and could not have imagined that there would be so many problems between the two peoples. A resident of Gal/i, Ia Gogokhia, 59, reminisces of those happy times when she with her colleagues could go to the town of Ochamchire just for a coffee. This was until the early 1990s. After that time, she visited the Black Sea coast and other districts of Abkhazia for the first time only in 2015. Notably, it takes only 20-30 minutes to drive from Gal/i to Ochamchire.

“I remember when I was a child, and we had Abkhazian guests, we did not know how to please them, because they are also known for their great hospitality. During the feast, I was standing and pouring wine into glasses. This was an Abkhazian hosting tradition. Then the feast continued on the following day, too. There was no such differentiation: I am Georgian, and you’re Abkhazian. I do not know what happened to us after all of this”, says Ia.

Even though ethnic Georgians predominantly populate Gal/i, some Abkhazians also live in the district. An Abkhazian teacher of the Abkhazian language from one of the schools in Gal/i, who preferred to stay anonymous, says that despite her ethnicity, the living conditions for her are also hard. She has lived in a Georgian populated village for 34 years, since she is married to an ethnic Georgian. According to the teacher, she feels integrated into the local Georgian society. Her daughter is married to an Abkhazian, and her son has an ethnic Georgian wife.

“I had an Abkhazian passport which was abolished in 2013. With my family members, neighbors, with former and present pupils, we often have crossed the border clandestinely, because of the absence of Abkhazian documents. I even had to swim across the Enguri with them”, tells the Abkhazian teacher from Gal/i.

Ethnic Georgian returnees face a number of problems. One of them is obtaining Abkhazian documents. The local government started issuing residence permits to them, which are explicitly meant for “foreign citizens”. Although Abkhazian passports are not recognized worldwide, the returnees need them to cross the conflict divide. At the same time the Abkhazians and Georgians in Abkhazia have common problems such as rife unemployment, corruption, economic stagnation, and many others. Proper medical care is one of them, as there is reportedly a lack of medical equipment and qualified doctors in Gal/i’s hospital, which, as locals complain, is in a dreadful condition. For these reasons, many Abkhazians from different districts of Abkhazia go for medical care to Georgian hospitals, as the treatment for them is fully funded by the government of Georgia and various international humanitarian organizations. One of the organizations that help Abkhazians to receive free medical care is the association “Peaceful and Business Caucasus”, and its director Alu Gamakharia said in an interview that the number of Abkhazians using services at Georgian hospitals grows year by year.

Although Gal/i is predominantly Georgian-populated, the local law enforcement agencies are staffed with ethnic Abkhazians who are brought to the region from different districts of Abkhazia. Only those Georgians who have strong connections or who identify themselves as Abkhazians hold upper-level public sector positions. Before the 1992-1993 war, as local people evoke, Georgians also worked, for example, in Gal/i’s police station, but now they have had to change their occupation, and Abkhazians took up the higher positions. Locals recall that before 2008, ethnic Georgians also served in the Abkhazian army. Ethnic Georgians, nevertheless, operate schools, kindergartens, banks, and hospitals in Gal/i, as it was before the war. In Gal/i’s bank offices, some ethnic Abkhazians work together with ethnic Georgians. An ethnic Georgian employee of an organization with a mixed staff says that they have a very friendly working environment, and their ethnic diversity does not prevent colleagues from having friendly relationships with each other. However, nowadays, the non-recognition of Georgian diplomas makes the hiring process problematic. Public sector jobs in Abkhazia require a degree from an Abkhazian university, but many ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia study at Georgian universities. However, the situation is changing. In the past, ethnic Georgian parents prevented their children from going to study at a university in Sukhum/i; today this practice is declining. With the exception of some isolated cases, the ethnic Georgian students say that they manage to live and study together with their ethnic Abkhazian fellows. The Georgians of Gal/i also go for work, mainly on construction sites, in Sukhum/i.

Ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians also actively engage in trade in the Gal/i district. Ethnic Georgians sell their goods such as beef, hazelnuts, or tangerines to Abkhazians. In summer time, the market in the town of Gal/i is especially active, since more people from Gal/i’s villages come to sell their agricultural products in town. At the same time, the market has formed a certain hierarchical relationship between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians, as the vendors are Georgians, and the owners of their counters are Abkhazians. Nevertheless, the locals also say that ethnic Georgians and Abkhazians who have established trade relations often organize small celebrations together. In addition, Gal/i’s Georgians conduct an everyday communication with Abkhazians on the road. It is often said that car drivers bribe traffic patrollers, but according to locals, the problem vanishes if the driver appears to be acquainted with some of the patrollers, and they have been to a celebration together. Another road story was told by a Georgian from Gal/i, Shota, 65, who in order to arrive from the Engur/i Bridge to his house in the village of Saberio often thumbs a lift. He recalls that once, when he was hitchhiking, his Georgian acquaintance did not stop, whereas an unfamiliar Abkhazian from the Tkuarchel/i district did. He concluded that good and bad persons exist in every nation, and ethnicity should not divide people.

Despite such mundane peculiar practices of local peace, Gal/i’s Georgians do not feel protected by or even from the Abkhazian authorities, and in case of conflict escalation or incidents, they register that their rights are often violated. They are also frustrated, as they feel powerless in the current dynamics of inter-group relations. In turn, there is a lack of trust on behalf of the Abkhazian side towards Gal/i’s Georgians, because most of the numerous ethnic Georgians who have returned to Gal/i maintain close ties with Georgia, and almost all of them are Georgian citizens. The awareness about the pro-Georgian or pro-Georgia positions of the Gal/i’s Georgians makes many Abkhazians suspicious towards them.

Conclusion: The Communitarian Perspective on Peace

The above presented ethnographic interpretations of communal lives attest that the local peace is certainly not an ideal process of social relations if one tries to describe it by employing the ‘commonsense’ binary system of competing utopian and dystopian metanarratives. To the contrary, the case studies demonstrate that there is no definite dividing line between peace and conflict in the discourses and practices of these communities, and the compromised co-presence of both is embedded in the everyday life of community members. Thus, peace is never disrupted from conflict, and the relation between the two is not linear so that one could be understood as an antonym to the other. Peace happens as a process of negotiations and a search for situated consensuses on the differences and hierarchies among community members.

The communitarian vision on peace would suggest that the compromises should not be judged through the lenses of external ‘evaluators’ based on their own perceptions of justice. The peace-concerned activists should not present the ‘universal’ norms as prevailing over the lived experience of local people. At the same time, this approach does not argue for keeping the particular-universal dichotomy. The communitarian peace concept implies the existence of various peaces occurring in various contexts but not in isolation from each other as well as from the presumed ‘universal’ values and norms. From this perspective, the universal peace would not mean an ideal state of justice but a network of communal peaces that are interconnected and concurrently self-sufficient as long as community members are able to find situated consensuses that allow recognizing their differences and similarities. The problem-solving aspect of the communitarian peace approach stems from the belief that peace as a process must be reinforced and not imposed as a state through normative power.

The conceptualization of communitarian peace is based on the criticisms towards contemporary peacebuilding activities of international organizations and donors. The existing peace building practices are essentially aimed at building a community according to the externally drafted templates. Thus, the peacebuilding discourses, including the related discourses adjusted to the critics of liberal peace, such as of conflict transformation and local ownership, serve as another smokescreen for promoting and imposing a model of (neo-)liberal society loyal to sponsoring governments and organizations. Yet, the paper admits that the implementation of peacebuilding projects on the ground may differ from the initial plan of intervention as they are implemented by concrete individuals who can be either sincerely devoted to the liberal values and/or can practically amend the project templates to meet actual local needs. The paper does also acknowledge the humanitarian dimension of the work of peacebuilding organizations such as the mediation between disputing parties regarding distribution of aid and financial support.

Since traditional approaches to conflict and peace do not generate sustainable ‘positive’ outcomes, researchers and practitioners should come up with alternative ways to study and support peace activities. In order to catch up with the evolving area of critical peace and conflict research, the peace activities also should incorporate ideas and perspectives from other fields such as anthropology, ethnography, political geography, psychology, etc., and that might introduce fresh insights on how to support peace. In light of these discussions, the paper advocates for the inclusion of non-linear and interdisciplinary methods of dealing with conflicts. Along with the developments in peace research, the peacebuilding practice should also be radically reformed to meet the needs and expectations of locals while designing and implementing projects. One of the suggestions could be to address the materiality of peace, and so reinforce the peace practices of the communities’ members interacting in concrete places. This approach would imply relocating resources from discursive interventions to (re)constructing the spaces of peace in strict accordance to the local needs openly expressed by community members. While funding and supporting everyday practices of peace, caution should be exercised not to create another hierarchy of participation and organization but to equality, as it is understood by local people. Instead of applying ready-made one-size-fits-all packages of peace, donors and foreign institutions should invest efforts to ethnography-like investigations of the situation on the ground in order to provide a fair redistribution of resources.


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[1] The author, Vadim Romashov, would like to thank Angel Iglesias Ortiz for his valuable comments on the conceptual part of this paper.
[2] With reference to such political constructs as the “West”, the authors of this paper do not seek to reproduce orientalist categories, but only refer to the vocabulary predominantly used to describe some European and North American states.
[3] For a discussion about the limits of the liberal rational consensus, see (Mouffe 1994).
[4] Since in the analyzed texts of the international peacebuilding organizations operating in the South Caucasus, the civil society is primarily associated with registered local NGOs and their activists, we will also maintain this narrow understanding of civil society that disregards other definitions of civil society including the grassroots or networks. In addition, there is the view that civil society is not a Western invention, and there are other traditions of civil society, such as the Vakif tradition in Turkey (and earlier in the Ottoman Empire). For Islamic conceptions of civil society, see (Hashmi 2002).
[5] For an overview of such critics, see (Richmond 2008) and (Chandler 2017).
[6] For an example of such essentialist but pretended to be “critical” perspectives, see (Owen, et al. 2018).
[7] For an overview of the post-structuralist reading of peace, see (Richmond 2008, 134-148).
[8] For these discussions see, for example, (Shinko 2008, Aggestam, Cristiano and Strömbom 2015).
[9] Compare with Sandel’s critics (Sandel 1998) of liberal theories of justice.
[10] The author gathered the ethnographic data used for this section during his fieldwork conducted in the Marneuli district in 2016-2018 for a forthcoming doctoral dissertation.
[11] The authors would prefer not to ethnize the conflict, but from the dominating perspectives among local people, the context of the conflict is wider than the NagornoKarabakh conflict.
[12] During his fieldwork, the author has not observed Armenian weddings in the respective villages.
[13] The author gathered the ethnographic data for this section during her fieldwork conducted in Gombori in February-June of 2016 for a master thesis (Kalatozishvili 2016).
[14] This is the self-given name of the group of people of Iranian origin descending from the village of Lahij, Azerbaijan (Sordia 2016).
[15] According to the General Population Census of 2014, 681 inhabitants live in Gombori. Among them, 304 people are registered as Azerbaijani, though more than half of them are “Lahijs” of Iranian origin, who are not registered in the Census so but as Azerbaijanis. There are 344 Georgians, and the rest of the population are registered with the other mentioned above nationalities (cf. (Sordia 2016)). Polish and Ukrainian people are not registered, though, as observed, they do live in Gombori.
[16] For the history of the Gombori village, see (Hundadze 2017).
[17] The author conducted interviews for this section during her fieldwork in the Gal/i district in August-September of 2018.
[18] The Mingrelians are an ethnic subgroup of Georgians, who speak the Mingrelian language and are mostly bilingual, speaking also Georgian. They mostly live in the Samegrelo region of Georgia, and a considerable number of Mingrelians live in Abkhazia’s Gal/i District and Tbilisi.
[19] The statistical data was received through a telephone conversation with a representative of the Government of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia (based in Tbilisi). The data published by the State Statistics Agency of the de-facto Republic of Abkhazia (based in Sukhum/i) is similar to the provided statistics, though there are separate registers for Georgians and Mingrelians (Управление Государственной Статистики Республики Абхазия [The State Statistics Agency of the Republic of Abkhazia] 2017).

*The featured photo of this article is taken by Lana Kokaya.

**This article was written within the project “Building Sustainable Trans-Border Communities in the South Caucasus”, funded by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) / Funding program zivik with resources provided by the German Federal Foreign Office.