Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Building Democratic Culture In The Caucasus From The Ground Up

Unresolved conflict in the Southern Caucasus and the return to war in the North is a problem for all. But democratisation must be a fundamental part of the solution.
What is happening in Chechnya today is the legacy of problems unsolved. The Caucasus' most current war, it is nevertheless only one of a range of deep-seated crises of conflict and democratisation that have festered throughout the decade. The reopening of this wound only serves to underline the extent to which the entire region remains unsettled.

A decade ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union and central control brought about conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and a civil, war in Georgia, as people fought for both resources and power. Subsequently, in the southern Caucasus at least, the region has achieved a degree of stability. Here, though many hundreds of thousands of displaced people remain, the destruction and refugee flows of war at least appear to have passed.

But as demonstrated with Chechnya, the fundamental problems remain unresolved. The interlinked nature of the crises, the fragility of many of the state institutions, and the general instability within the region, ensures that a flare-up in one area intensifies concerns throughout.

Moscow argues that the current conflict is about terrorism and fundamentalism. But even if dangerous dogmas and lawlessness are at play, they are a result of broader failures, and not the underlying cause itself.

The general failure is an overarching crisis of policy. Within the Caucasus itself, from the West, and most of all from Moscow, chaotic policies have been led by a combination of ambition, fear, shortsighted strategic and economic interests and outright distraction. The problems in the Caucasus have not been resolved because there has been neither the policy nor the will to do so.

Where international organisations have been deployed, they have had important mediating and moderating effects. But no one could argue that they have enjoyed the international support of similar missions elsewhere. The scale of Western support for the peace process and reconstruction efforts in the Caucasus, in particular post-1996 Chechnya, pales into insignificance when compared to that in the Balkans.

The most immediate failure, of course, is Russia's. Vengeful from its earlier Chechen defeat, and resentful over Kosovo, it now finds itself playing the role of both a Milosevic-style repressor and NATO bomber. And it goes beyond the borders of Chechnya. Moscow has stepped up political and economic pressure in the south Caucasus to try to ensure that no one meddles in its affair to the north.

Russia is neither confident, politically mature, nor economically stable enough to negotiate regional disputes. The chaotic process of political and economic transition has left it in an extremely fragile state, and the death throes of the Yeltsin era are looking increasingly ugly.

Indeed, when Moscow egregiously violates human rights and other international commitments over the north Caucasus, it sets a poor precedent for democracy elsewhere in the country. Yet such are the stakes that the West--having failed to demand Russia's adherence to democratic principles as part its support for the transitional process--will not now consider any serious sanctions over the Caucasus imbroglio.

Western calls for Russia to engage in dialogue now are important but should have come far, far sooner. Likewise, the international media too - as with East Timor - might have easily picked up on the story sooner. After all, it had never actually gone away.

That points to the most intractable and most important failure, democracy. This is not just a matter of strategy, although Moscow's marginalisation of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has unsurprisingly forced him into an accommodation with the hard-line factions.

In both the north and south Caucasus, democracy remains highly fragile. Some leaders are openly authoritarian. Others curtail human rights in their efforts to keep power and hold their countries together.

Strong ethnic or communal ties also inhibit open politics, as does patronage in tightly held economic systems. More broadly, the Soviet era has left fundamental misunderstandings about the relationship between the state and individual and their respective responsibilities.

In short, democratic culture in the Caucasus and in Russia has to be built from the ground up. The conflicts have invariably set this process back. But democratisation itself must be a fundamental part of the solution.

As part of that process, IWPR is pleased to launch a new reporting and analysis service on the Caucasus. Building on its long-standing support for independent media in the Balkans and the Caucasus, IWPR will highlight the work both of established and emerging journalists, analysts and commentators in the region.

With generous support from the UK National Lotteries Charity Board, the project will produce regular reports on the central issues of democracy, human rights and society. Articles will be available both via e-mail and on the World Wide Web, with a Russian-language version forthcoming.

The articles will provide unique insight into the events and concerns in the region, aid media coverage especially within the regional press, and assist those working to support democratisation and conflict resolution. But along with the pieces themselves, the editorial process is also important.

In exercising independent voices and offering a substantial international platform for regional journalists and others, IWPR hopes to contribute to the strengthening of this crucial pillar of an open and peaceful society.

Anthony Borden is the director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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