15 Nov 2010
No Exit in the South Caucasus
The title of this piece, which was also a title of a talk presented at a conference at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy almost a year ago, is derived from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play “No exit” where Sartre describes three characters locked in a room with each other for eternity. In the play, the term “hell is others (l’enfer, c’est les autres)” captures the essence of the play as well as the talk delivered at Fletcher. Similar to the play, the three countries of the South Caucasus are, for better or worse, locked in a geographical region and each views the other—to some extent—as hell.
Several months ago while attending a day-long symposium on the future prospects of peace in the South Caucasus, a realization occurred that among policy analysts and policy makers in the West (as well as for those from the region), there is a complete lack of understanding of what the region is all about, or what are the possible solutions to solve the problems in the region. Before continuing, a clarification needs to be made about the above statement. “Lack of understanding” does not, in any way, refer to the knowledge about the region or its problems; rather it is the surreal and sometimes oblivious expectations as to how to resolve those problems.
That being said, this piece does not try to offer any solutions to the conflicts and tensions, nor does it attempt to assume that the author knows more about the region than others. It is rather a simple attempt to point out to some issues related to how living with “others will not be hell.”
The first issue to tackle is to realize that the region has become captive to a repetitive political rhetoric on a constant feedback loop. In other words politicians—be those from the region or from outside—seem to be one of the major problems in looking for possible de-escalation of tensions. More often than not, in policy gatherings or during political meetings, the words and statements coming out of are nothing new and have been so, for at least a decade now. Then we are faced with a question as to how could a diverse region with complex nuances and conflicting historiographies have political solutions of their problems by excluding politicians. The short answer is that there is “no exit”. Governments and their officials keep shouting at the top of their lungs about what they believe are their inalienable right over territory and history and have complete disinterest in changing the status quo, even if that might mean improvement of the lot of their citizens. So perhaps one way of approaching this issue—if there is a sincere interest in creating a less “conflictual” region—is to depoliticize it and “hijack” the process from politicians.
A second point related to the pervious one is the complete and utter disinterest in promoting citizen’s rights in each country. This issue stem from the need to make sure that citizens in each of the three courtiers have some of their basic rights preserved as well as receive a voice in the overall political processes that involve their respective countries. Usually a term that describes these is “democracy” which, unfortunately in recent decades or so, has been abused and appropriated by politicians who seem to have no understanding of the essence of that word nor do they have any respect for their citizens. What aggravates this situation more is the lack of commitment and interest by governments and analysts outside of the region, mostly in the West, to encourage democratic processes and rather be satisfied by just using that term as a mantra without the serenity that usually is associated with mantras.
The advocacy of democracy is not just an academic endeavor, nor should there be a illusion that if by some miracle the three counties in the Caucasus transform into thriving democracies there would be an overnight resolutions of the conflicts. However just like mentioned above, citizen’s of the region are held captive to political, nationalist and self serving rhetoric which is transmitted to the public in a “1984”esque style, overshadowing any attempt for developing critical thinking at a mass level.
Yet a third point, which also happens to be the bleakest one is the issue of generational change. The possibility of future prospects of co-existence in the region become next to impossible as new generations of Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians come of age without actually knowing the people with whom they are supposed to share the space. The logic behind this statement is that up until almost a decade ago, a generation of Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians could remember times where not only could they live together but actually lived together as neighbors, friends and colleagues. That generation is on the decline and the newer one taking its place is completely at unease to be associated with their respective “demonized” counterparts. While this is a bit of an overgeneralization and there are individual links and cooperation between Armenians and Azeris, or Georgians and Abkhazians, these interactions rarely transcend academic and/or think-tank settings and more often than not most participants’ views of each other—even if they are not manifested openly—are based on the stereotypes and perceptions that persist in their respective countries.
In conclusion, while this piece might come across as critical and pessimistic, which it is, about the future of the region, its aim is not so much as to depress the reader. It is rather to point out that most of the energy and resources used to examine the possibilities of solutions for the conflicts and tensions in the Caucasus, rarely go beyond rhetoric and not only maintain the stereotypes and the existing order of things, but also strengthen it.