For those of us working toward peace in the South Caucasus, recent events in Georgia have brought a renewed sense of possibility. Political upheaval, large populations of displaced people, and stunted economic growth have characterised the decades since violent conflicts broke out following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Peace processes in the Caucasus have swung between dialogue and deadlock, with periods of heightened tension or war, and the ever-present risk of renewed violence.
While peacebuilders have persevered with their efforts at building understanding across conflict divides and creating conditions for conflict transformation, many people have been cautious in their assessments of what is possible. If the newly elected government proves able to translate positive noises into action, those viewpoints may need to be revisited.
An orderly transfer of power
A little over a week ago the last ballot was cast in parliamentary elections that will go down in history as Georgia’s first peaceful transition of power. Contrary to expectations, and in an act of statesmanship, Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat. In doing so, he threw down the gauntlet to Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream Coalition, composed of parties with disparate views and no experience of working together in power. There are clearly many challenges ahead.
Nominees for the new cabinet – still to be presented to parliament by the President for confirmation – include a number of figures familiar in peacebuilding circles. The new State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, is one of Conciliation Resources’ longest standing interlocutors in the region – he’s been closely involved in our work from its beginnings 15 years ago until election campaigning began in July. Irakli Alasania, now Minister for Defence and Vice Prime Minister, also took part in dialogue initiatives we facilitated and, in his capacity as the Georgian President’s Special Representative 2005–08 had managed to establish constructive working relationships with Abkhaz interlocutors. Both of them, and others like the new Culture Minister Guram Odisharia – a Georgian writer displaced from Abkhazia in the early 1990s – bring considerable experience and understanding of the issues at stake in resolving the Georgian–Abkhaz and Georgian–South Ossetian conflicts.
Challenges ahead, but new prospects for conflict transformation
So, what does all of this mean for peacebuilding prospects in the region? The presence of people in positions of influence who have already invested so much time in laying the foundations for peace could signal a new departure. Following the South Ossetia war in August 2008 the potential for constructive change had been minimal, and the work of organisations such as ours had been meeting with suspicion and resistance in Georgian government circles. A focus on the Georgian–Russian dimension of the conflict had come to dominate their attention, to the point where working – as we and our partners do – at the level of Georgian–Abkhaz relations was considered at best irrelevant, and at worst contrary to Georgian interests.
The acknowledgement already made by the new government of the importance of working on relations with the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, in parallel with normalising relations with Russia, indicates a change in approach. But the legacy of the past two decades, and the fundamental differences that lie at the heart of the conflicts will persist, leaving those expecting dramatic or rapid change necessarily disappointed. And with Ivanishvili in the role of Prime Minister, Saakashvili remaining as President until presidential elections next year, and neither having a constitutional majority in the parliament, no doubt much effort will be expended over the coming months in finding ways to work together.
After the economy and unemployment, making progress on the conflicts ranks among the new government’s priorities. It has a unique opportunity to push for change – it is not seen as responsible for the war in 2008, and some nominees for posts in government have already established their credibility as individuals through past experience of peace work.
Dialogue and patience form good foundations for peace
To what extent they can find ways to communicate clearly and deliver consistent messages across the new government in regard to the conflicts remains to be seen. As does the question of whether a change in discourse can be matched by a change in action. To achieve this will require consistent gestures and signals of a symbolic nature – such moves could provide the leaderships and populations on the other sides of the conflict divides with a sense that, over time, a different relationship is possible to replace the hostility and lack of trust that has persisted for 20 years.
A resolution of the conflicts will mean taking risks, accepting compromise, and finding the patience to build a step-by-step strategy based on an understanding of the needs and interests of the parties. If the new government can manage expectations, and establish channels for communication and genuine dialogue across the divides, this will be a good place to start