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Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus: The EU’s Role
Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus: The EU’s Role
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There
Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There
Report 173 / Europe & Central Asia

Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus: The EU’s Role

Instability in the South Caucasus is a threat to European Union (EU) security. Geographic proximity, energy resources, pipelines and the challenges of international crime and trafficking make stability in the region a clear EU interest. Yet, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts have the potential to ignite into full-fledged wars in Europe’s neighbourhood.

Executive Summary

Instability in the South Caucasus is a threat to European Union (EU) security. Geographic proximity, energy resources, pipelines and the challenges of international crime and trafficking make stability in the region a clear EU interest. Yet, the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts have the potential to ignite into full-fledged wars in Europe’s neighbourhood. To guarantee its own security, the EU should become more engaged in efforts to resolve the three disputes. It can do so by strengthening the conflict resolution dimension of the instruments it applies. As the EU is unlikely to offer membership to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan even in the medium term, it must identify innovative means to impose conditionality on its aid and demonstrate influence. This is a challenge that Brussels has only begun to address.

Since 2003 the EU has become more of a security actor in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. It has appointed a Special Representative for the South Caucasus, launched a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) mission, and employed the Commission’s Rapid Reaction Mechanism to support post “Rose Revolution” democratisation processes. It has included Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and started Action Plan negotiations due to end mid-2006. The Commission has allocated some €32 million for economic development confidence building programs in Georgia, and it has cooperated closely with the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Nevertheless, the EU can do more to help resolve conflict in the region, in particular through the Action Plans currently being negotiated with each country. For the EU, these are a chance to enhance and reposition itself in the South Caucasus if they can be tied to conflict resolution and include specific democratisation, governance and human rights benchmarks. For the region they may be an opportunity to map out the reform process concretely. But there is a long way to go. The EU’s relations are not strong with either Azerbaijan or, to a lesser extent, Armenia. It does not participate directly in negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia. In and around Nagorno-Karabakh, it has done little for conflict resolution. It has rarely raised the South Caucasus conflicts in its high-level discussions with partners and has employed few sanctions or incentives to advance peace.

To become more effective, the EU must increase its political visibility. Compared with Russia, the U.S., the UN and the OSCE, its financial and political engagement in the region has been minimal. However, as it gives more aid through new and old instruments, its ability to provide incentives and apply conditionality should grow. Compared with other actors, the EU can offer added value, with its image as an “honest broker” free from traditional US/Russia rivalries; access to a range of soft and hard-power tools; and the lure of greater integration into Europe.

The arrival of a new Special Representative (EUSR) is an opportune moment for the EU to strengthen its political presence. The EUSR should try to become an observer in the three conflict negotiation forums. In South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the Commission has already allocated significant funding, efficient and well-targeted assistance can give weight and credibility to the EU’s diplomatic and political efforts.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, rather then wait for an agreement on the principles of resolution mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group, the EU should begin contingency planning to assist peace implementation now. Sending military and civilian assessment missions to the region could give new impetus to a negotiation process which seems to be dangerously running out of steam. Whether or not a peace agreement is eventually signed, the EU should be prepared to implement confidence building programs or – in a worst case – to consider a range of options in case of an outbreak of fighting. Otherwise, having remained out of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent occupied districts for over a decade, either war or peace will find it struggling to catch up in its own neighbourhood.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 20 March 2006

Olesya Vartanyan in front of the Russian peacekeepers' barracks in Tskhinvali during Russia-Georgia war in South Ossetia. Prior to joining Crisis Group as a Frank Giustra Fellow Olesya worked as a journalists. August 2008 Temo Bardzimashvili

Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There

Six months into research fellowships made possible by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, we catch up with the three young experts now working with our Europe, Africa and Middle East teams. Olesya Vartanyan is specialising on her native South Caucasus.

As a Georgian journalist who published dispatches in the New York Times, Radio Liberty and elsewhere during turbulent times in the South Caucasus, Giustra Fellow Olesya Vartanyan was struck by the way that at International Crisis Group, she couldn’t immediately write about topics that she was researching.

“It felt very different. I was a journalist for ten years doing a lot of daily reporting, often on conflict regions. But now I have to look at these problems not just to describe them, but how to find a way out of them”, Olesya said. “Before, I did not have the time and resources to do very in depth and detailed research. Now I can spend days and weeks on certain issues, and draw on the expertise of my colleagues here in the region and in Brussels. I see things more deeply”.

There have been compensations for her byline drought. Her monthly assessments of conflict risk in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have become an indispensable contribution of CrisisWatch, the organisation’s monthly tracker of more than 70 potential and actual conflicts around the world. She has also done field research in conflict zones, interviewed officials in regional capitals, analysed events for reporters, and fielded a plethora of meetings with diplomats, analysts and politicians seeking to know more about her new work.

Olesya is one of three Giustra Fellows who joined International Crisis Group six months ago and now support all aspects of Crisis Group’s mission to prevent deadly conflict, with a focus on how conflict causes crises of refugees and migration. The program, made possible by a $1 million gift by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, aims to give first-hand experience to young experts in the countries where Crisis Group works and to build capacity through training and mentorship of Crisis Group’s method of research and analysis.

Fitting Peace Processes to Reality

Many of Olesya’s conversations lead to her primary area of interest: improving the lot of more than one million of the 16 million people of the South Caucasus who are either refugees or internally displaced. Many of the wars that drove them from their homes took place one decade or more ago, but that doesn’t make the problem any simpler or safer.

“There is the same trend in all three conflicts in the South Caucasus: populations in Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh all feel abandoned”, Olesya said. “State processes to resolve the conflicts have taken on a life of their own. Officials spend weeks and months in their offices discussing a certain piece of legislation. But even if it gets adopted it often doesn’t work, because it’s not connected to the reality on the ground”.

This remoteness creates two problems. One is that even a small change made in a regional capital can have a big impact on people living in limbo or isolation as a result of conflict, either in terms of travel documents, roads, or access to health. Another is a great gap in understanding of basic issues.

“When I meet diplomats from outside the region, or even officials here, I sometimes have the feeling I’m talking about a different planet”, Olesya said. “Many do not have access to these places, they haven’t had time to focus on out-of-the-way conflicts, or competing political narratives prevent them from looking into them”.

The number of displaced people may be a fraction of that in a country like Syria, for instance, but Olesya is convinced there are many lessons to be learned.

Studying [IDPs] can show how unresolved old conflicts can transform into new ones, and trigger new waves of refugees.

“People worried about displacement and conflict must be wondering why I’m working on the South Caucasus, because it’s true there are no new refugees here”, she said. “But there are still so many IDPs – maybe 15 per cent of the Georgian population. Studying them can show how unresolved old conflicts can transform into new ones, and trigger new waves of refugees”.

From Description to Prescription

Olesya has another legacy issue to deal with: Crisis Group was most active in the South Caucasus in the 2000s, and debates continue about recommendations made for peace processes then. In most cases, though, she says she finds respect for the organisation because of its professional field work, and a perception that its analysis was unbiased.

Luckily, she can count on people remembering her past journalistic work as well. As she works on her first Crisis Group report, the long, field-researched analytical papers that are the organisation’s signature publication, her wide network of contacts is proving invaluable.

I can feel that we are making a change, creating a new beginning for the organisation in the region.

“It’s good to restart our relations. I exchange views nearly daily with our Europe and Central Asia Program Director, and I joined her in a regional capital to underline that Crisis Group is back. I can feel that we are making a change, creating a new beginning for the organisation in the region”, she said. “One thing has definitely changed since I was a journalist. Before, I would call people and they would set the narrative. Now people call me and I try to provide advice”.

It’s not all easy to explain to South Caucasus communities highly suspicious of outsiders bearing pens and notebooks. Ordinary people she interviews find it hard to understand her work. There are no bylines on Crisis Group reports, and not everything she writes down will be published. But there’s a deeper challenge as well.

“As a journalist, I would go and find human stories, check facts and get confirmation (or not) from officials, and write it in such a way that every man and woman could understand. At Crisis Group, it’s more analytical”, she said. “You have to take into account how to turn something into a recommendation. I can’t just talk about the problems, but also how to put ideas into real action. I may not be making peace, but I have to show how to make peace”.

Another novelty is that where once she would go out to find people for a quick interview, now people seek her out for discussions of an hour or more. And she sees the incremental effect of meeting key players again and again.

“Officials from the host governments are getting interested in what I have to say. I have a space, not to make dramatic changes, but to change details, or plant seeds to make them question themselves”, she said. “It’s a really interesting process and I am really enjoying it. Just because people aren’t being killed in the South Caucasus, doesn’t mean that the problem is being solved”.

Olesya Vartanyan is a native of the Republic of Georgia, and speaks fluent Russian and English as well as advanced Georgian and intermediate Armenian. An award-winning journalist, her reporting on the 2008 Georgia-Russia war was featured on the front page of The New York Times and in 2013 she received Georgia’s EU Monitoring Mission’s Special Prize for Peace Journalism for a report on the relatives of conflict victims. In 2014, Olesya received the UK’s Chevening Scholarship to do her MA in International Conflict Studies with the War Studies Department of King’s College, London.