This paper is one of the results of a long-term engagement by International Alert in the South Caucasus, more specifically as a facilitator of dialogue between Georgian and Abkhaz civil society leaders. It presents the findings of a joint research initiative that resulted from a process in which two teams of researchers commissioned each other to study the question of security guarantees in their own societies. As such, this paper is an attempt to present a new analytical framework for dialogue to stimulate communication across the conflict divide.
Alert’s work in the context of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict dates back to the 1990s, starting with tried and tested confidence-building methodologies, laying the foundations for peacebuilding. Alert’s partners themselves played an active and creative role in conceptualising ways in which dialogue might be established. Since the very beginning, meetings between the two sides have played an important role in bringing together different social groups united by gender, age or professional interest. Examples of these include meetings between journalists, youth, women activists, historians, combatants, government representatives and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). From such status-based groups, dialogue has evolved to focus around thematic issues, relevant for the two societies. The main purpose of these meetings has been to establish lines of contact between the sides that are independent of the facilitators, and to build confidence between the participants in the meetings and between the societies.
Using analytical work as an approach to conflict transformation and engaging active sectors of society in substantive dialogue, Alert had to understand and take into consideration a number of challenges. The process of beginning a civil dialogue is itself complex and full of contradictions and unexpected moments. When such processes are coloured by the political context, it can result in direct or indirect resistance to such public processes from different stakeholders in the conflict. Alert’s work at times posed many distinct risks for the participants and for the process itself. For example, peacebuilding projects came under intense scrutiny from the authorities, especially when official contacts and negotiations between the sides were frozen. Such scrutiny and indirect pressure could not but impact on the organisation and implementation of bilateral meetings between civil society experts.
Within this process, Alert has facilitated a multitude of bilateral and multilateral meetings, bringing together experts from other conflict regions in the Caucasus as well as conflict specialists from the international community on a range of post-conflict issues. Such meetings have been and continue to be very important. They have had their own outcomes, influencing the participants’ perceptions of the conflict, and through the participants, influencing a certain strata of society. Whether such projects have had an impact on a broader societal level remains unknown, as such impacts are difficult to measure. The practical discipline of peacebuilding offers few indicators or methods for measuring impact in a constantly changing political context – or at least such methods are not widely put into practice. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the main shortcomings of peacebuilding initiatives, since it is difficult to talk confidently about the results of such projects without a means of evaluation.
Through meetings, roundtables and discussions, opportunities were created for mutual understanding and the acknowledgement and debate of diverse positions. This understanding of the differences in approach and interpretations of the conflict, and of the primary relevance of security for both societies, were the two key motivations for Alert and its partners to take an academic, or an epistolary approach, to their dialogue. A third and possibly no less important motivation for such analysis was the relevance of disseminating as widely as possible the findings of such research amongst those stakeholders and groups that are able to influence political decision-making.
The long-term nature of Alert’s engagement has facilitated the emergence of two core groups of activists from within civil society and academic circles, who over time have accumulated their own social capital and levels of internal trust. This has helped both the dialogue process between the two societies as well as the advancement and implementation of peace initiatives. Trust between the groups has been built to such an extent that it allows and encourages open discussion of the most sensitive issues relating to the conflict. However, with the understanding that open discussions between participants not burdened by political and public affiliation to exclusive groups will not, for a number of reasons, resonate further than a narrow audience, Alert undertook the publication of the present papers on topical themes as a way of continuing academic and public dialogue. This approach of discussing current issues through research commissioned by each other is innovative. It would be beneficial for both societies if the findings were disseminated through public discussions, which themselves could serve as a means of lobbying the authorities on the issues in question.
Understanding the novelty and extreme sensitivity of this method, both the Abkhaz and Georgian groups found themselves again at the start of a process: at the stage when the sides are just getting to know each another and when an atmosphere conducive to open discussion is only just being established. This is because they felt the presence of a potentially new audience for their discussions. The research would be widely circulated, and in anticipation of possible reactions to the papers from a new audience, the groups have to some extent retreated to their positions and a greater sense of belonging to a particular side. By promoting public discussion on this research, Alert is hoping to address two issues hindering the long-term resolution of the conflict: the limited vision within both Georgian and Abkhaz society of the key conflict issues; and inadequate communication between the sides on sensitive key issues.
In this project, the Georgian group of researchers examined questions related to the agreement on non-resumption of hostilities and presented a number of papers on related themes, as well as a summarised version of the researchers’ conclusions and recommendations.
The Abkhaz group researched questions relating to the agreement on the non-use of force and its importance for the resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, specifically examining international experience of guarantees for such agreements; the main phases of work done by the respective sides on such a document; and factors that influenced Georgian-Abkhaz relations.
The researchers exchanged research methodologies, and interim and final drafts, either using Alert as an intermediary or directly, and they had the opportunity to discuss their initial findings at a bilateral meeting.
These shortened versions of the papers are intended for a reader who is interested in the views of both sides of the conflict. The full versions of the papers will be published locally.
This form of dialogue and exchange of analytical research was proposed and agreed at a bilateral meeting of Alert’s partners working on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in May 2008. This meeting, held just before the August war, identified that in order to advance peace initiatives, it is necessary to conduct in-depth analysis of past political events surrounding the conflict and find alternative ways to reach a solution. All participants understood that the sides perceive, evaluate and interpret past events from different perspectives, which were strongly contested by each side during the discussions. It is possible that in contesting each other’s interpretations, the sides were promoting their own positions, or alternatively it could simply be an indicator of the diversity and accessibility of information sources on each side.
By reflecting on earlier phases of the dialogue process, the main participants conceptualised a different level of dialogue, based on practical and academic research and conclusions arrived at through group work by specialists in a particular field. Alert’s contribution to this process was to provide the opportunity for dialogue, to facilitate and create a safe and neutral platform for confidence-building with the aim of advancing peace initiatives.
The very process of writing these papers was in itself a bilateral dialogue. The sides commissioned each other to research in their own communities the issue of an agreement on the non-resumption of hostilities, shared their findings, and decided to disseminate their findings within their societies and to an external audience. The project was planned in May 2008; data was collected over the summer and resumed again after the events of August, while the actual writing was done only after the August war. Clearly the intensity of events during this period influenced the work a great deal, as the sides came face-to-face with new realities and new challenges – something that is reflected in their papers.
It is important to note that the sides consider the importance of such an agreement both as a political treaty and as a mechanism through which political and public dialogue between opposing sides and within different levels of society can be constructed. The papers are unambiguous in their conclusion that each stage of the agreement that they have been studying is of equal importance for both sides: the political negotiations on the preconditions for signing; the practical work on and signing of the agreement; and the utility of the agreement as a resource for politicians on a range of bilateral issues.
The human security framework within which this project is conceived is unequivocally accepted by both sides as the basis for dialogue. Examining the interests of both sides from a broad human security perspective opens up opportunities to discuss the more problematic socio-political themes related to security guarantees. It was important to the sides to research the same issue and present the views of experts who enjoy trust both within their own domestic environment and on other levels. The fact that the researchers have a high level of social capital means that the information presented is received as reliable and neutral.
However, the papers do show a varied use of terminology, as well as a different interpretation of facts. For example, the different sides use the term “refugee” and “IDP” when making reference to the same group of people. These diverging views are based on the political positions of the sides and are published here in the form agreed upon by the sides themselves.
The value of these papers lies in a number of factors. In part, these papers help Alert to make its own conclusions, informing discussions on strategy towards the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict on a number of levels. Furthermore, the papers contain a wealth of statistical information and analysis of events relating to the entire negotiation process and all engaged sides.
This published, shortened version of the Georgian and Abkhaz papers underlines the urgency of the question of security guarantees for the two sides. The papers analyse the dynamics of the negotiation process, the role of external factors, opportunities lost, lessons learned, and possible outlooks for the future. These themes were chosen for their relevance. The changed situation after the five-day war in August 2008 contributed its own corrective influence to the status of the problem under discussion. Nevertheless, the unsigned agreement continues to be subject to discussion, research and recommendations.