Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There
Not Just Talking About Peace, but Finding a Way There
Isolation of Post-Soviet Conflict Regions Narrows the Road to Peace
Isolation of Post-Soviet Conflict Regions Narrows the Road to Peace
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
Impact Note / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

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.

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