The break-up of the Soviet Union led to a series of armed conflicts in the South Caucasus, as different nationalities used the opportunity to press for independence. The fighting was mostly brought to a close by the early 1990s, but the conflicts remain unresolved. There has been little progress towards settling the armed conflicts over Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh since then. But civil society has been creative in keeping dialogue alive.
Alert has worked to foster links between businesspeople in the South Caucasus for over a decade. Our work started as a dialogue initiative – a dialogue that has evolved over the years. Dialogue remains one of the cornerstones of our work in the region.
The South Caucasus is a complex region. About half the size of France, it has several protracted conflicts and closed boundaries. One of them is the Armenian-Turkish border which has remained closed due to the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh since 1993. Yet it is not unusual to hear people say, “We have more things in common than not!” It is a region of contrasts and commonalities. Among these commonalities is a growing interest among the business community in reviving regional economic cooperation.
The conflicts over Abkhazia, Nagorny Karabakh and South Ossetia remain a major obstacle for economic development and certainly for cooperation across the region. But people who participated in our early dialogue meetings saw that business and economic interests could be a way of bringing people together.
From those early discussions, we embarked on a collective journey. In 2005, together with colleagues from the region, we set up the Caucasus Business and Development Network with the aim of engaging business communities from across the region in peacebuilding. To start with, Alert was very much in the driver’s seat. Over time, as the dialogue process continued, the participants’ mutual confidence grew. Little by little they began to take on more of the initiatives themselves, playing an ever-increasing leadership role with Alert playing a supporting role.
Our colleagues saw their role very much in pioneering new models for economic cooperation, as politics did not seem likely to offer such avenues in the foreseeable future. The guiding vision, developed jointly during dialogue meetings, was to promote an environment where people could cooperate and trade free of fear.
Businesspeople would soon have tired of dialogue alone. So our dialogue work started shifting from theory to practice. This brought in businesspeople such as tea producers, wine-makers and beekeepers from across the region. Practical initiatives included tea-marketing festivals, joint production initiatives, training workshops for beekeepers and informational meetings for tourism operators. In some cases, they developed commonly produced Caucasus food brands, such as Caucasus Honey, a brand created in 2011. These new models for regional cooperation signaled a new way of seeing things – shifting from attitudes of confrontation to seeing the value of working together.
In 2011, Alert’s support has helped the Caucasus Business and Development Network become an independent source of information in the region, constantly gaining credibility and involving bigger and more businesses. Dialogue remains a cornerstone of CBDN’s work to this day. In December 2011, CBDN partners across the region co-organised a Gyumri-Kars Business Forum. This brought together 25 Armenian and Turkish companies from the border regions representing various sectors including cheese-making, beekeeping, wine-making and meat production, along with people from the hospitality and tourism sectors. On the one hand, this was a successful business event, linking companies with potential clients and collaborators. It was one of many events in a long history of engagement across the region using economic cooperation as a peacebuilding strategy resulting in a number of exciting and innovative business ideas. On the other hand, and maybe more importantly, the event told a tale of the progress we have made on the shared journey with our partners during the past few years. After the event, one participant captured the spirit of the event with the words: “Business is a common interest, it brings people together. Not only can we cooperate but we must cooperate... this is the future.”
For further information, contact Oskari Pentikainen at opentikainen@international-
Photo: Jonathan Banks/ International Alert