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Picking up the pieces

Anna Matveeva | October 10, 2011

Two wars in 20 years between South Ossetia and Georgia have created a society in a state of flux with a flow of internally displaced people and returnees in the region. Dina Alborova, director of the Agency for Social, Economic and Cultural Development, talks about the difficult job of bridging the gap between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians. She works with international non-governmental organizations in the region and explains how they have contributed to peace building there, and what they can do better. 

Dina Alborova graduated in history from Belarusian State University, where she specialized in politics. She began teaching political science at South Ossetian State University in 1993 and was a research fellow at the North Ossetian Research Centre. In 1996, Dina was appointed project manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council, and in 1998 she became manager of a sustainability programme in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone for the International Rescue Committee. Dina has been director of the Agency for Social, Economic and Cultural Development since 1999, and teaches politics and conflict studies at South Ossetian State University. She has collaborated with numerous international partners, including the UN Refugee Agency, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, International Alert, Article 19, CARE International, Pax Christi Netherlands, Berghof Conflict Research, Consolation Resources and Geneva Call.

How did you get involved in peace work?

I have been working in the field of conflict resolution for the last 17 years. My own life as an individual and my peace-building work are so interconnected that it has become a major part of my identity. I got engaged in the peace process in South Ossetia at the start of my career as a young lecturer in political science. Then my work at the Norwegian Refugee Council plunged me straight into the plight of internally displaced persons, mostly ethnic Georgians who had fled South Ossetia during the 1991 war and whose return we sought to facilitate.

A legacy of violence and distrust made it extremely difficult for these people to re-integrate. This was an issue I felt I had to confront. I learned new negotiation and conflict resolution skills, making me more prepared to reach out to the other side. In 1999, I founded the Agency for Social, Economic and Cultural Development, a non-governmental organization in Tskhinvali engaged in peace building and social development. My colleagues and I continue to operate despite discouraging conditions following the 2008 war.

Are there knowledge gaps that challenge your work on the ground?

Society paid a huge price for the wars and their aftermath and there is no real, in-depth data on social problems. We know that security was foremost in people's minds initially, but now they have other concerns as well. Recipients of our agency’s assistance – vulnerable groups, returnees and internally displaced persons among them – articulate a whole host of human needs, such as social problems, unemployment and low local salaries compared to outside contractors. All these issues remain vastly under-researched.

The area along the de facto border between Georgian and Ossetian territory is difficult. It is essential to monitor and analyse the dynamics of change there. Initially, the area was thought to be insecure, so people started leaving and took their children with them. Schools began to close down.

Now the opposite is happening. Security has improved, so people are returning. They have little choice but to work in agriculture again though. Many have already lost their skills and attachment to the land, so it is difficult for them to get back into their previous routine. To make matters worse, there is no agricultural credit to speak of, and poor road infrastructure makes it difficult to access markets.

The EU Monitoring Mission closely monitors the situation on the Georgian side. However, the mission does not have access to the Ossetian side. Even if they were to go there, the distrust runs so deep that I doubt local communities would be willing to tell them anything of substance. It would take a more impartial and less politically engaged body to undertake such sensitive field research.

We have our own findings about the intricacies of reconciliation, which would be interesting to compare with situations elsewhere. For instance, we believed people from mixed marriages would be a good peace-building resource for our activities. The opposite was true: under pressure from both sides, this group proved extremely cautious. The same goes for mixed Georgian-Ossetian villages, where mutual fear was greater than in areas composed of single ethnic groups.

What can the 2008 war experience teach us about peace building?  

The war bitterly disappointed many South Ossetians involved in the peace process. Nevertheless, relations with our Georgian partners withstood the militarist hysteria, and people behaved decently across the conflict divide. In this sense, yes, I think it was worth pursuing peace at the time. Perhaps the war was inevitable, as there were major interests at stake, fuelled by geopolitical rivalry. Local civil society did not have the power to resolve the situation, but it still has to pick up the pieces from the fall-out.

Much research went into analysing the conflict itself, but relatively little was dedicated to the analysis of civil society's efforts to resolve it, nor how these efforts have changed overtime. Looking back now, I can identify three stages. In the period from the 1991 war to the Rose Revolution in 2003, which brought Saakashvili to power, we had many joint Georgian-Ossetian projects and several peace initiatives were underway. Interaction between communities was gradually getting back to normal. Observers noted the existence of a vast black wholesale goods market, in which traders from both sides cooperated profitably. However, in my view, this created an illusion of resolution. In reality, there was a peace-making ‘business' at work, and not a genuine resolution of the conflict.

The situation has gradually worsened since the new leadership consolidated its power in Tbilisi in 2004. There has been a rise in hostile incidents and road closures. Relations between ethnic communities inside South Ossetia also started to deteriorate. This new situation demanded our attention, so we shifted our focus to bridging the increasing gulf between different groups in South Ossetia. What we now have is the third, post-war stage, in which society is still severely traumatized.

What kind of problems are you working on now?

We feel that we need to concentrate on the younger generation. It grew up in a divided society and has no experience living or studying together. Inter-ethnic relations may well be withering away among these young people, who are increasingly out of touch with their contemporaries on the other side of the divide.

One obstacle is the language barrier. Our youth is Ossetian and Russian-speaking, while Georgian youngsters mostly speak Georgian and English. Right now we are undertaking a project to promote youth interaction together with Pax Christi Netherlands, Berghof Conflict Research, the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, and World without Violence in Sukhumi. We organize study tours and seminars, which enable young people to learn from experience about other conflicts and overcome their own stereotypes.

Has ‘gender and conflict’ played a role in your peace-building initiatives?

That’s very interesting, and I think about it a lot. In South Ossetia and elsewhere in the region, peace-building and civil society projects generally attract women, whereas politics is almost always in the hands of men. I wonder why, whether this is a conscious choice made by women, or whether their political participation is impeded by invisible barriers.

Too often, ‘gender and conflict’ implies women-related problems. However, women have proven to be quite resilient under the circumstances. They seem to draw energy from their survival instinct and sense of family. Many men, meanwhile, have experienced psychological traumas and feel lost. Health records and life expectancy data confirm this. Researchers in the Caucasus region have conducted studies on women’s issues, but they have neglected to focus on how conflict affects men.

Are there taboo subjects which are too ‘political’ for researchers to touch?

Absolutely. Local society is very keen to find out why international organizations whose task it is to prevent violent conflict did not intervene to prevent the 2008 war. There were plenty of early warning signals that the situation was spiralling out of control. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe had a presence in South Ossetia and in Tbilisi, as did the United Nations and other agencies. The European Union had appointed a Special Representative for the South Caucasus in 2006. However, this international infrastructure proved ineffective. When I am asked by my constituents, who know that I work with international partners, why they failed to protect them, I don’t know what to say.

The presence of the international community in South Ossetia has been hugely positive. It enabled us to establish a local civil society and gave us access to global solidarity networks. But they overlooked the danger of a new war in the period from 2004 to 2008. I think an honest and rigorous analysis of the roles played by international organizations in the run-up to the 2008 war would significantly clear the air. It would also demonstrate what we as practitioners can realistically expect from such mechanisms. Perhaps we can conclude that multilateral bodies are too constrained to be effective when real power is at stake. Perhaps it all depends on the key personalities involved. But these questions need to be asked, even if they ruffle feathers.

Ossetia divided
Ossetians became a divided people in the Caucasus region in the 1920s at the beginning of the Soviet era, when North Ossetia became an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation and South Ossetia became an autonomous region in the republic of Georgia.

Nationalist claims by both Georgia and South Ossetia in 1990 led to a declaration of sovereignty within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by the Ossetians. Georgia retaliated by abolishing their autonomous status. Hostilities ensued in late 1990 with an attempt by the Georgian paramilitary to bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi jurisdiction.

Hostilities intensified in 1991, culminating in a full-scale war as armies from both sides mobilized and the population armed itself. The Ossetians gained the upper hand in 1992, when they expelled many Georgians and proclaimed sovereignty. Relations gradually improved under Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgian head of state from 1992 to 2003, and some of the population returned. Nonetheless, the South Ossetians resisted formal re-integration into Georgia.

Mikheil Saakashvili's rise to power in Georgia in 2003 brought mounting insecurity, with bomb explosions, sniper fire and small army incursions being regular occurrences. The population lived in constant fear of war between 2004-2008, which eventually broke out in August 2008 when Georgian troops shelled South Ossetia, capturing the capital Tskhinvali and neighbouring villages, after which they were pushed back by the Russian army.

Russian troops penetrated even further into Georgia, a response the international community found ‘disproportional.’ The conflict caused 162 civilian casualties in South Ossetia and led to the exodus of some Georgians to Georgia proper and the migration of Ossetians to Russia.

Photo credit main picture: Denis Sinyakov / Reuters