Win/Lose

Win/lose from gnovis on Vimeo.

Abstract

The project consists of an essay about Caucasian Conflicts and a narrative film, that is
a metaphorical reflection of one of the overarching reasons for the conflicts elaborated
in the essay. The essay provides a historical overview, development and perspectives
for conflict resolutions for Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which
were in armed conflict from 1988 to 1994, and armed conflicts between Georgia and its
breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from 1991 to 1993. The narrative
film “Win/Lose” metaphorically shows how ethnic and territorial conflicts start, develop,
transform into no-war-no-peace situations and may achieve positive peace. The film
represents one of the types of experimental media that the paper advocates creating. The
project as whole argues that peace in war-divided societies of the Caucasus is achievable
through provocative contributions of new media to a better understanding of the needs,
grievances, hopes, and fears of each side of the conflict.

THE SEVEN RULES OF NATIONALISM:

  • 1. If an area was ours for 500 years and yours for 50 years, it should belong to us—you are merely occupiers.
  • 2. If an area was yours for 500 years and ours for 50 years, it should belong to us—borders must not be changed.
  • 3. If an area belonged to us 500 years ago but never since then, it should belong to us—it is the Cradle of our Nation.
  • 4. If a majority of our people live there, it must belong to us —they must enjoy the right of self-determination.
  • 5. If a minority of our people live there, it must belong to us —they must be protected against your oppression.
  • 6. All the above rules apply to us but not to you.
  • 7. Our dream of greatness is Historical Necessity, yours is Fascism.

—Unknown (Kaufman, 2001)

Roots Of The Conflicts

The most striking peculiarity of my native Georgia, and the Caucasus region as a whole, is its multi-ethnic character. Perhaps this very variety of cultures, languages, and traditions is the main cause of endless wars and conflicts in the Caucasus. However, that very feature that plagued the region could be its ultimate cure.

This multi-ethnic region, with its numerous ethnic conflicts, was unified as a single political entity twice.[2] However, Caucasian ethnic groups rarely refer to these periods when they were represented by a single political entity, and mainly use history as their weapon for winning the zero-sum debate about who is guilty in the past and current unresolved conflicts.

Under the USSR the question of nationality was one of the taboo themes, and ethnic differences were not allowed into open discussions, (interview with Kerim Ankos, chairman of the Kurds association in Georgia, June 16, 2006). “Convergence of all classes and social strata, juridical and practical equality of all nations, and their fraternal collaboration” (Supreme Council of USSR, 1977) was the major axiom of the regime, which excluded any possibility for ethnic conflicts. New political and administrative lines were drawn and everyone had to respect those lines.

The Soviet leadership redrew the borders on political maps and changed the statuses of ethnic groups. To the north of the then Soviet Social Republic (SSR) of Georgia, the south Ossetian Autonomous Oblast (AO), the northwest Abkhazian Soviet Social Republic, and the Ajarian Autonomous Soviet Social Republic in the west of Georgia, were created in the early 20th century. SSR Azerbaijan acquired Nakhichevan ASSR, an exclave in Armenia, and the Armenian majority populated the Nagorno-Karabakh AO. If asked, Georgian historians will declare that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have belonged to Georgia since ancient times, and that the Soviet Union tore away those territories from their monolithic territory; however, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians claim that the USSR attached them to Georgia without consulting them, as they were not aligned with Georgia at that time, and already had aspirations toward a certain level of independence. Similarly, dialectic discourses are present in the current Armenian-Azeri debate about Nagorno-Karabakh. Caucasian ethnic groups’ peaceful coexistence during the Soviet Union was not the result of mutual understanding between them, but of the Kremlin’s compulsion.

Since the medieval period, the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been populated with both Armenian and Turkic nations, with changes in its demographics time after time (Cornell, 1999). However, ordinary people of the current conflicting nations got along well, and their cultures and their traditions became rather intertwined. But from 1918–1920, there were a series of short wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was only ended by the intervention of the Soviet Army.

Similar to Nagorno-Karabakh’s case, some blame Soviet politics for seeding current conflicts in Georgia (Wright, 1996) by creating autonomous entities. However, I argue that the Soviets’ cannot be blamed for creating the roots of the conflicts, because origins of the rivalry were already present in pre-Soviet times; not addressing pre-existing conflictive issues only contributed to the future wars between Georgians and Abkhazians, and between Georgians and South Ossetians.

The South Ossetian ethnic group is believed to be descendants of the Alans, a Sarmatian tribe related to Iranians that have lived in the northern part of Georgian since the Middle Ages (Lang, 1966). In the mid-19th century, the Roki Tunnel was built on South Ossetian inhabited territory between Georgia and Russia, which allowed South Ossetians to first develop a pro-Russian orientation, creating strong ties with the North Ossetians that resided inside Russia (De Waal, 2010). During 1918-1920, South Ossetians staged three uprisings, announced their detachment from Menshevik Georgia, and stated their desire to join Bolshevik Russia. However, with the creation of the Soviet Union, they were attached to Georgian territory and remained calm during the Soviet era.

The Abkhazian case was similar to the South Ossetian case in terms of its attachment to Georgia and the resistance it created from both Georgian and Abkhazian sides. In contrast to South Ossetia, even before the Soviet Union, Russian interests in Abkhazian natural resources and especially tourism potential have been high and were accompanied with Abkhazia’s striving for autonomy (De Wall, 2010).

In the nineth to the sixth centuries BC, the territory of modern Abkhazia was part of the ancient Georgian kingdom of Colchis (“Kolkha”). Since then, Abkhazia has been colonized by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Ottoman Empire (Suny, 1994). In the beginning of the 19th century, the Abkhazians faced total invasion from the Ottomans, so they wrote to the czar requesting the joining of Abkhazia to Russia for protection against the Turks. On July 8, 1810, the Russian army freed Sukhumi from Turkish control (Cade, 2009). In spite of this initial appeal for Russian protection, since czarist times up to the Soviet period, various deportations of ethnic Abkhazians were organized by Russian decision-makers. As a result, by the mid 20th century, Abkhazians became an ethnic minority in their own Abkhazia, among Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Greeks and Jews.

Separation

I don’t remember the sound of fight and artillery. I remember the smell of blood, burn, and decomposition in my native village… Even now after so many years I still sense it when I drive near by…

—Ljyana T. Mother of four from South Ossetia

In the late 1980s, very few could notice, and even fewer people if any could talk about the nationalism that polluted space, blurred vision, and pulled the peoples of the Caucasus into three secession conflicts that killed several thousands of people, and wounded, expelled and internally displaced many more. Unfortunately, the selective memory, the distorted and partial perceptions, and the blindness of the late 1980s and early 1990s still persist and continue to thrive today. Scholars still tend to ascribe the tensions in the Caucasus to preliminary fixed subject positions (Feldman, 1991) and not the ideologies of space that disconnect political intent from political consequence (Feldmam, 1991, p. 20).

For instance, some scholars believe that Glasnost (openness) unleashed nationalism that had been contained during the Soviet decades (Balance, 1997); others blame an ideological vacuum that was filled by nationalism (Ciobanu, 2009); some point to economic, social and political injustices that the current breakaway territories were exposed to (Herzig, 1999; Kaufman, 2001). However, I argue this kind of thinking leaves out essential dynamics that created harsh intolerance and inter-ethnic strife in the South Caucasus; regarding Northern Ireland, scholars such as Hewitt (1981) and O’Hearn (1983) omit “important factors in the escalation of intercommunal violence between 1969 and 1979,” (Feldman, 1991, p. 21).

Not that the aforementioned factors are irrelevant; I do not deny that Armenians outside and inside Nagorno-Karabakh feared that the number of Azeris was rising, that there was a perception of a deprivation of cultural rights and starvation of resources, and that anxieties around potential erasure of Armenian national identity were high. And I do not demphasize the role of Glasnost that allowed Armenians and Azerbaijanis to raise their voices more loudly against each other in the form of mass protest actions. But, all these are smaller pieces of a bigger picture, an ideology of space. All these different factors are floating independently, occasionally interacting with each other in space, rendering a much more complex collection of influences. Parallels could be drawn with what Feldman (1991) calls “indigenous cultural practice,” wherein “Protests meant to agitate for civil rights, civil space, and an ethnically neutral jural subject were received as assertions of ethnicity by both their supporters and opponents.” (p. 22) These processes in Armenia and Azerbaijan were similar to Georgia, where a national movement lead by the dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the son of a popular Georgian novelist, was reaching its peak like a snowball. Movement started on the top of the hill and became an uncontrollable avalanche that would destroy everything in its way. During the Georgian Abkhazian war from 1991-1993, Abkhazians allied with Russians and North Caucasians and banished Georgians from Abkhazia. Similarly, Armenians banished Azerbaijanians from Nagorno-Karabakh and expanded their control over the part of the Azerbaijanian territories near the border during the Armenian-Azerbaijanian war in 1988-1994.
In the Caucasian conflicts, “built-in mechanisms of conflict” (Azar, 1990, cited in Ramsbotham et al, 2005, p. 87) included dehumanizing propaganda that took place on both sides, and tended to attribute the worst motivations and actions to the opposing side. Each side exploited history in ways that favored and justified their own actions.

I agree with Feldman (1991) that subject positions are “contracted and construed by violent performances,” “chronic violence transforms material and experiential contexts” (p. 20). This context of friendly neighbors’ was transformed into that of belligerent enemies’ after the wars in the Caucasus.
Perhaps because of the sharpness and intensity of their war-experiences, peoples’ feelings became blunt in post-war everyday life, which was perceived as being much duller than their previous war existences. So, they live in their past, locked in their own perceptions of the conflicts that formed during the times of violence and further fixed by one-sided, dark-lensed media coverage on every side of the conflict that showed a distorted picture of reality. The results of such locked perceptions for development thinking could be easily traced to the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia.

Futile Peace Processes And

Future Perspectives For The Caucasian Conflicts

Through the mediation of international organizations, and a significant decrease in armor, soldiers, militants, civilian death tolls, and forced displacements, by the mid-90s, the South Caucasian conflicts had frozen and given way to peace processes. Each peace process varied by the mediators, parties, dynamics and commitment, but most of the time had one characteristic in common, i.e., firmness in defending their own position no matter the circumstance. Thus, these peace processes did not enhance the parties’ capacity to listen to each other, nor understand what were the claims of the other side; doing so was believed to be equal to agreeing with and legitimating the opposition’s assertions. As opposed to a real conversation, each side was engaged in what Leonard Hawes (2010) calls “Witnessing, rather than merely waiting and then rushing into a narrative with a speaking turn, [which] is a particularly challenging discipline in multicultural, multilingual long-term conversations, negotiations, mediations, and dialogues” (Hawes, 2010, p. 277). The existence of such a chasm in communications between the sides protracted over the years and created feelings of negotiations’ futility and thereby contributed to the formation of belligerent intentions as the only justified ways of conflict resolution. What eventually resulted in August 2008 was war in Georgia.“Factors that shape and distort perception, such as stereotyping, selective perception, projection, and perceptual defense” (Richmond, 2006, p. 62) were caused by the need of both Georgian and South Ossetian sides to fill in the gap created by isolation. Each party tried to do it the way that would justify their position, not taking into consideration implications like further polarization between them.

A similar process of protracted misperception was also occurring among Georgians, Abkhazians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanians. De Waal (2003) makes the link between the protracted misperception of war-divided communities in Armenia, Azerbiajan, and their governments. He referrers to “a kind of slow suicide pact” (De Waal, 2003, p. 3), wherein the leaders from both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continue to be held hostages of public reaction, and cannot move the conflict toward reconciliation.

However, if only those war-divided societies could take off their dark lenses, break free of prejudicial perceptions and recall the times of positive interaction with each other, political settlement of those conflicts would not seem such a remote possibility as it proves to be now. Unfortunately, instead of South Caucasians reflecting on their self-righteous policies and belligerent attitudes, as well as seeking partners within this small region and not outside of it, a more fractured type of thinking has started to emerge. Unfortunately, no one seems to fully realize what Leonard Hawes (2010) formulates so eloquently: “A response to inequity and infringement designed for a singular set of circumstances promises to be better fitted to immanent political, economic, cultural, religious, and aesthetic conditions than does a response consisting in the discursive invocation of and reliance on abstracted categories of transcendent set of universal principles” (2010, p. 263). Even though, Hawes (2010) is writing about human rights, the ideas of transcendence and immanence could be well applied to Caucasian conflicts, because human actors are present in each of them, and those humans have a certain potential for reaching rewarding results for themselves and not toward the interests of bureaucratic organizations or powerful states solely.

I strongly believe that the role of media in inciting and maintaining the conflicts has been immense; therefore, I argue that it is the media and especially civic journalism that should step in and help the sides achieve immanent approaches to solving the conflicts. My nine years of work in the conflict and post-conflict Caucasus as a journalist and media manager has proven to me that communication does not involve transmitting information about one’s intentionality; rather, it “entails bearing oneself in such a way that one is open to hearing the other’s otherness” (Peters, 1999, p.16). Likewise, I was able to appreciate the “otherness” of my neighbors, the South Ossetians and Abkhazians, and they mine. Along with that, I could see more vividly that, most of the people with whom I worked were gatekept by mainstream media that some would even call “war journalism” (Webel et. al, 2007, p. 258), as it mostly exercises in framing, without implying that journalists are unwittingly turning the public into war supporters.

In such situations, the need for alternative, more authentic depictions of reality, as is promised by new media, is considerable (Witt, 2009; Alan et al. 2009). Human stories of ordinary citizens in the Caucasus provide alternative, more authentic depictions of reality, which would be strengthened if new media were to be utilized (Witt, 2009; Alan et al. 2009).

This paper argues that the roots of the current ethnic and territorial antagonisms in the Caucasus are not in ancient hatreds, but can be traced back to more contemporary localized factors, such as post-Soviet nationalism, ideological fractioning, and extra-regional reliance on foreign powers. In spite of these existing obstacles, positive peace is still possible through the breaking of established stereotypes via new media that will contribute to a better understanding of the needs, grievances, hopes, and fears of each side, and the consequently foster the realization of the value of ethnic and cultural diversity resulting in greater regional cooperation.

References

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[1] The film logline: A fight between two friendly children results in a banishment of one outside the fence of the playground, but eventually catches both children in the despair of loneliness and an extreme need for reconciliation. The film is a metaphorical reflection of conflicts between countries and their breakaway territories, so called “separatists” (offending term for the breakaways themselves).
[2] Caucasus was unified as a single political entity during the Russian Civil War (Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic) from 9 April 1918 to 26 May 1918, and under Soviet rule (Transcaucasian SFSR) from 12 March 1922 to 5 December 1936.