Grassroots peacebuilding in conflict-affected areas of Georgia is a crucial but often overlooked part of the peace processes between Georgia and its two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinval/i Region. Local issues are often crowded out by international politics, and the relations between local, national and international dynamics are not well understood.
It is in everyone’s interest that local peacebuilding – that is, the work of domestic civil society organisations trying to contribute to peace in their region – is done right: as Šalkutė and Chanadiri recently argued on Eastbook.eu, what happens in Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, crosses “local borders and may have a direct effect on … European security and welfare.”
In this article I discuss local peacebuilding efforts in the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia/Tskhinval/i Region, drawing on research I have conducted during a European Voluntary Service (EVS) project with a local peacebuilding NGO in Gori, Georgia.
The conflict, which dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991-1992 war following South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, reignited in 2008 and the conflict was raised from a national and regional issue to an international crisis when Russia intervened on the side of South Ossetia and recognised their independence. Since 2008, the Russians and South Ossetians have constructed a fence along the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) between South Ossetia and Georgia, sometimes cutting through villages and dividing communities.
More recent developments give peacebuilding efforts even greater importance. The Treaty of Alliance and Integration signed between Russia and South Ossetia this March was described by the Georgian government as an ‘annexation’. These developments resulted in “very difficult” talks at the most recent Geneva negotiations (which have been held since 2008 and focus on international security arrangements and humanitarian issues). Locally, detentions are an ongoing reality for Georgians living in conflict-affected areas and the effects of ‘borderisation’ continue to have painful consequences, as seen in the border closures this Easter that prevented people visiting the graves of their relatives in accordance with Georgian tradition.
Why local peacebuilding in Georgia matters
Local peacebuilding efforts by Georgian NGOs are simultaneously nested inside an unresolved conflict within Georgia and tense inter-state relations between Georgia and Russia, which are both situated within the geopolitics of the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. With Georgia’s ambitions for EU and NATO membership, these dynamics filter up to the whole Euro-Atlantic region. However, local peacebuilding and role of civil society are often overlooked, and struggle to get noticed when attention is on national and international problems. Georgia – and the South Caucasus– is strategically important for Europe as an East-West corridor connecting the Caspian and Black seas, especially for Europe’s energy security. But this focus should not come at the expense of the issues that most profoundly affect people on the ground in conflict-affected communities.
Local peacebuilding can contribute to stability and development on a small scale but the effects can felt at the national and regional level. Local peacebuilding can also help overcome the tendency of national governments and outsiders to view conflict-affected areas as homogeneous, failing to see local differences. NGOs who work closest to the people in these areas recognise that different historical experiences, different demographics and different needs mean that problems and solutions must be addressed at the village level as well as through national and international policies.
This is why supporting local peacebuilding NGOs, such as Kartlosi, where I currently work on an EVS project, is so important. Kartlosi’s mission is to support sustainable development of communities in Shida Kartli (a region on the border with South Ossetia/Tskhinval/i Region) and to contribute to the peace process (“Kartl” means “Georgian” and “Osi” means “Ossetian”). Kartlosi works in the villages on the Georgian-controlled side of the ABL to identify and document the problems these communities face and take their concerns to the local government. My project aims to improve understanding of the situation in conflict-affected communities and how civil society can support peacebuilding, and I have written about the role of youth participation and the media for the peace process, and how international volunteers can – and cannot – contribute to grassroots peacebuilding.
I am also conducting research in villages in the conflict zone, asking residents how they have been affected by the conflict. Security issues created by the ABL feature frequently in their testimonies, such as the risk of detention on the South Ossetian/Tskhinval/i Region side of the fence in places where the location of the ABL is unclear. Access to water is another major problem – the source of their water supply often lies on the other side of the ABL and has been cut off since 2008, leaving them unable to irrigate their land. For communities that rely on agriculture, this has had serious consequences for their livelihoods. There is also a pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty about the risk of further conflict, but rarely any animosity or hostility to their Ossetian neighbours. People frequently express their desire for reconciliation and good relations.
Moving towards peace
Progress towards peace in Georgia needs both top-down and bottom-up approaches. The connections between local and international dynamics have to be better understood. This will help stop local conflagrations escalating to bigger crises, help create a stable situation on the ground to make high-level talks easier, and ensure that any success in international negotiations is also felt in the villages in the conflict zone.
Moreover, projects such as EVS are an important mechanism for supporting local peacebuilding and civil society development, which in time may contribute to improving international security. In the long term, it could lead to better EU policy as a new generation of policymakers gain direct experience of Eastern Partnership countries. EVS volunteers should be part of ongoing exchanges between European citizens in EU countries and beyond, and between organisations working towards peace, stronger communities and socially engaged citizens.
We should not be naïve about what such grassroots, civil society activism can do: the work of local NGOs is necessary but not sufficient for peace. Decisions made in Tbilisi, Tskhinvali and Moscow will probably be decisive in determining Georgia’s future, but the prospects of a sustainable and just peace depend on the effective work of civil society organisations working towards that end.
Note on place names: Given the politically contested and sensitive nature of how the breakaway regions are refered to, and to reflect the political neutrality of the author and of Kartlosi, this article to refers to South Ossetia/Tskhinval/i Region – the terms used by the de facto South Ossetian authorities and the Georgian government – following the international best practice used in the Geneva talks.
Nicholas Barker is currently working on a European Voluntary Service project with Kartlosi, a peacebuilding NGO in Gori, Georgia. He is also a freelance researcher, political analyst and writer, and a Contributing Analyst at Wikistrat, the crowdsourced geostrategic consultancy. He has postgraduate degrees in political science from the University of London and Central European University. In October he will begin a DPhil In International Relations at Nuffield College, Oxford, focusing on the termination and aftermath of civil wars.