6 Apr 2022
Rethinking Peacebuilding in the South Caucasus in Relation to the War in Ukraine
“Thinking about a longer term transnational peace movement becomes important… sooner or later we will come out of this war, and what is next?”
The war in Ukraine opens a new page in the history of conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union and beyond. Against this backdrop, the peacebuilding approaches of the past three decades look increasingly inadequate. On March 30, the editors of Caucasus Edition, Philip Gamaghelyan, Sevil Huseynova, and Vadim Romashov, discussed how the Caucasus Edition team is re-conceptualizing and re-strategizing their work towards peace.
One of the most important questions addressed in the discussion was how the war in Ukraine impacts the South Caucasus.
While stating that the impact is certainly multidimensional, including economic and political impacts, Philip Gamaghelyan placed the main focus of the discussion on the impact of the war in Ukraine on the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict in general and the Karabakh conflict in particular.
Gamaghelyan touched upon the shift in understanding what conflicts are, recalling the 1990’s and the triumph of “liberal democracy”: “It was understood that… the international wars are somewhat of an issue of the past”, said Gamaghelyan, emphasizing that along with this sentiment the concept of “new wars” emerged, which were considered to be intra-state and focused on state-minority relations. Even wars with international dimensions, such as the war in Karabakh, were, from the perspective of international law, seen as wars within internationally recognized countries.
However, as Gamaghelyan mentioned, the wars in Iraq and later Ukraine brought us back to the concept of “old” wars, where the smaller, post-colonial states can become a “legitimate target” of great power politics, proxy wars, and direct invasion. This puts a tremendous responsibility on Armenia and Azerbaijan to solve their conflict, as their rivalry can set them up to be easy targets and turn the South Caucasus to a “proxy-war” area.
Sevil Huseynova recalled the events of 2014-2015 when the annexation of Crimea and military action in Eastern Ukraine dramatically reduced interest in the South Caucasus conflicts.
“At that time international experts and staff from various international foundations and organizations made no secret that the scale of the confrontations, the size of the territory where the conflict is developing and the size of the population mattered. In fact this was a moment when we were told that our frozen conflicts could wait, and “the size of our disaster was nothing compared to what was happening in Ukraine” said Huseynova, adding that dividing conflicts into “more important” and “less important” is a mistake.
Vadim Romashov discussed the change in the paradigm of the Nagorno Karabakh Conflict, as the increased presence of international actors with imperialist ambitions in the region is clearly seen within the developments of the war on the ground and also in the negotiation process, stating that the big actors completely changed the rules of the games that were present before the Second Karabakh war.
A question arose regarding how peace building in the context of South Caucasus can be re-conceptualized.
Gamaghelyan talked about many scenarios for destabilization in the South Caucasus region, in which Russia either conquers Ukraine and marches on to other regions, or, Russia weakens and creates an opening for other powers to come in. He restated the original point that it is in the best interest of the states in the region to commit to an agreement, at the very least one which commits to not escalating their conflicts in this situation.
Gamaghelyan also made a case for the formation of transnational peace movements that will lay the ground for the post-war period: “We had major wars in the past, where the aftermath was even more disastrous and we had wars in the past where the aftermath was somewhat of a peace, WWII is a good example of that.” He added that there is already major work to be done during the war for planning and putting a vision and strategy forward.
Agreeing that we did not learn enough lessons from the post-WWII Europe, Huseynova recalled that there are only a few well-known public intellectuals advocating for peace in the South Caucasus: “We need more bright people, bright names, people who have access to the public field, to a large audience… we need to create the conditions for such names to emerge, we need to seriously work on access to the public field, create new radio, TV, support bloggers, musicians, artists, anyone who can help to involve as many people as possible in the peace movement.” She added that a peace movement as such, however, does not exist, and it should yet be created.
“We saw in Azerbaijan, in Armenia, and now in Russia, massive support to the war… our schools don’t teach what peace is, how to achieve and maintain it, what our schools teach is militaristic patriotism, the idea of peace needs popular representation and educational programs”, said Huseynova.
Romashov recalled that after WWII the threat of the nuclear war led a lot of people to advocate for global peace regardless of their ideological divisions. He believes that the best response to the war in Ukraine, on the side of international actors, could be supporting the rise of global civil society to promote a change in the global political and economic system. This change requires collective learning processes and collective actions to result in the emergence of a global reform that is led by a transnational peace movement. The peace movement, Romashov believes, should be a network of different peace movements across countries and regions, which should not only have the task to promote anti-war discourses but should also be promoting global reform in politics and economics that would reduce para-maximizing and capitalist approaches globally.
Talking about the immediate steps that should be taken in the peace building community, Huseynova mentioned the need to involve young people who took anti-war positions during the Second Nagorno Karabakh war to think together why peace building in South Caucasus has been so ineffective. She also shared that participants from Russia should have been involved a long time ago: “We all always said that Russia is a part of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, as well as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but as a rule, no participants from Russia were invited in the projects”. According to Huseynova, Belarus should also not be forgotten in this context, as it now happens to be a participant in the current war. “This is a case, where at the political level there was support for the war, but at the level of the population there was a hidden protest against the war” she said, adding that this is a very atypical experience for the post-soviet space.
Romashov argued that anti-war movement and a peace movement are not one and the same, saying that what we now see are anti-war movements connected to a concrete war, but when the war stops, there is a possibility that anti-war movements diminish, which means that the peacebuilding organizations should do their best not to let the anti-war discourses fade away but to think about how to transform those to a peace movement.
Gamaghelyan said that recent years highlighted the challenges of “Liberal Peacebuilding” and donor-driven top-down approaches that did not have local buy in: “Once the Second Karabakh war hit, we saw that almost the entire institutionalized peace building field fell apart”, most of those who were involved in peacebuilding NGOs for years disappeared in a day. Seeing this, Gamaghelyan says, it is important to start supporting the genuine pro-peace voices on the ground as opposed to trying to “build” institutionalized peace.
The editors of Caucasus Edition also answered a question from a representative of a donor community in relation to possible donor strategies moving forward.
Gamaghelyan suggested three strategies. First, would be to support the local voices in Armenia and Azerbaijan who spoke up for peace and against war during the war itself. Second, to start thinking outside of short-term and technocratic funding schemes, invest into longer-term programming, and take risks with non-traditional, non-institutional actors, and not to only focus funding on big to bureaucratic NGOs. Yes, Gamaghelyan said, some will not be efficient and will fail, and a few thousand dollars will be lost here and there, but these are risks that donors can afford. Third, support the displaced, both from Ukraine and Russia. Two types of support are needed: immediate humanitarian support; and long-term support to create and sustain anti-war and pro-peace voices, including those of Russia who some day can become our partners in building peace.
Huseynova said that the donors should pay attention to the participants of the projects: “we need to involve and to invite people who were affected directly, who suffered from the conflict directly”.
Romashov added that peace building should be closely linked with humanitarian aid, as Peace Building is not only about NGOs speaking about peace and creating platforms for dialogues, this is also work on the ground with people directly affected by the wars, conflicts, and trauma.
Romashov mentioned peace education as another important aspect. “There is a clear lack in the region, especially in South Caucasus, of peace education”, adding that though there are some trainings and activities done by concrete NGOs there is no peace education included into the curriculum of schools and institutions, which needs to be integrated.
At the end of the discussion and Q&A, Gamaghelyan expressed a reminder, that the people who are more affected by war usually hold stronger “anti-war” positions, stating that this reality has been confirmed from case to case, from country to country, as the people directly affected by war actually see what war is, and do not tend to hold glorified text book images of the war in their minds.
Huseynova reminded the group about the consequences of WWII, saying that after the Second World War many must have sat back and thought that after all the horror and violence it would be impossible to change anything, but for some people it was a reason and motivation to change the world. “And they did, and they succeeded”, added Huseynova.