Women in War - Women in Peace Conference: Meeting women from the Caucasus

by Ellen Elster

The Caucasus is a region in the former Soviet Union, in between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Some of the countries have proclaimed their independence, some not. After the dissolution of the USSR, conflict in this area has been repressed, but tensions have flared and the most cruel conflicts have occurred. In this situation, women are arising, crossing the lines and working to find peaceful means and reconciliation between people. Seven women from different parts of Caucasus met at the Kornhaug Norwegian Peace Center earlier this year. In this article five of them tell their experiences.

The USSR’s dissolution in the beginning of the 1990s gave people hope for something new. But this hope was quickly killed in a daily life greyer than ever. Many people are struggling to find their place in a society full of conflicts and where the economy is not functioning.

The seminar at Kornhaug gave us a picture of unsolved conflicts which have existed since for a century. They presented a model of mechanism of wars, how enemy images are built, how the conflict is kept warm and how a third party keeps the wheels of destruction going. In the Caucasus the third party is Russia. They also presented a model of peacebuilding where the importance of the causes of war was stressed, as if these are not addressed, the conflict will flare up again sooner or later.

No peace in the Caucasus

“There is no peace as long as the seeds of conflicts exist.” Natella Akabas is commenting on the situation in Abkhazia, which was in war with Georgia from 1992-93, resulting in a huge refugee problem. Natella is a former parliamentarian now working at the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes. While there are only about 100,000 people in Abkhazia, Abkhazians represent 17% of the population in the neighboring state of Georgia.

“Through history our people has been in danger of eradication several times through deportations,” she says, continuing that today the hate is enormous and Abkhazians are committing cruel acts of revenge towards individual Georgians. Because of the unsafe situation people won’t return to their homes.

Veronica Metonidze, a young law student from Georgia who counsels refugees and migrants about their rights, says that no parties will win as long as there are so many unresolved problems. She says that the conflict is at the moment frozen: That is not good because we don’t know in what way the conflict may develop, and it hurts both parties as long as nothing is solved.”

“There are Russian leaders who wanted Chechnya crushed once and for all,” says Zoia Grannes, now living in Norway, from the Northern part of the Caucasus. She is a member of the Norwegian section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). “The war might break out again at any time. There are still provocations at the borders, and it is all about oil. In the region several ethnic groups are living. To split them is a the best way the Russians can keep in power. Today information direct from Chechnya is boycotted and fully controlled by Russia.”

A model of war

Arzu Abdullieva is from Azerbaijan and works with the Helsinki Citizen Assembly. In 1992 she was awarded the Palme Peace Prize, together with Annait Bajandur, who represented Women for Peace and the Helsinki Citizen Assembly in Armenia during the war between the two countries, over Nagorno Karabakh. Arzu gives us a model so we can understand what is happening.

“Propaganda of enemy images is created through the mass media. That happened during the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, Georgia against Abkhazia, in Russia against the people in the Caucasus, etc.. People on both sides are stirred up, first in regions away from the larger centres where people are isolated from information and international contacts. Rumors about encroachments are spread about the enemy nation. The war hysteria is increasing and will reach in the end the big cities. Psychologists and sociologists put color to the picture. Horror stories and accusations about each other are presented. Then the process can become self-sustaining. We experienced violent pogroms in Armenia and hate between people which gave a start to the conflict.”

“A third party is often interested in promoting the conflict. In the Caucasus the third party is Russia. The presence of weapons will make the war break out. But it also needed to make the war go on. If there’s a chance of one side winning, the third party will take care that the balance will be maintained and provide weapons so the whole thing can continue. This is the picture we have observed in our region,” says Arai.

Annait tells that the people’s warmth and engagement was weakened during perestroika. A mentality of violence appeared. “We thought maybe that the evil would decline, but the opposite was happening. The conflict in Nagorno Karabakh was initiated by the Red Army and Russian society did very little to stop the conflict,” she said.

Veronica thinks that Arzu’s model fits the situation in Georgia very well, as the political leadership there has had a policy of divide and rule. The third party played an active role, also in presenting one-sided information. An important part was a policy of isolation to cut contact between people on both sides of the borders. “We could not correct the psychological manipulation of the enemy images which were presented. The mass media inflamed the hysteria, also in the cities. As the conflict grew, smaller ethnic groups were chased out of Abkhazia,” she said.

Russia as the third party

There are historical reasons why Russia is playing this part, and why the country has an interest in seeing people in this region fighting against each other. “The Caucasians are Russia’s scapegoat,” writes Alf Grannes, professor in Russian at the University in Bergen (Aftenposten 10. December 1996). He said that organized crime in Russia today has become tinged with ethnic overtures, and that the Chechen mafia has assumed a mythical dimension, which justifies Russia’s war in Chechnya. Statistically, many other groups commit more crimes than the Chechens.

Since the Russian tsar’s conquests in the last century the Caucasians have been stigmatized as “wild warriors”. The regime wanted to widen its territory, while the people in the Caucasus refused to submit. Their opposition against the tsar was perhaps the most effective at the time. Since then the stereotype has been confirmed among the Russian population and has frequently been used by Russian leaders. Historians and authors have written about a people who are warriors, dark-eyed beauties with exotic traditions and magnificent nature. In addition they are Muslims, and not Christians like the rest of Russia, an element which reinforces this picture of a “wild” Other.

This stereotyped picture of the Caucasus has continued into our century and was strengthened during Stalin period with accusations of treason. The Caucasus peoples were forcibly deported until during ethnic and physical cleansings in 1943-44. The USSR regime propaganda created a Caucasian enemy image inherited from the time of the tsar. In the absence of a civil society with free speech, combined with massive propaganda, the Russian people were indoctrinated to think in terms of stereotypes.

A model of peace

Arzu also presented a model of peace as a reversed process of the model of war. “Access to media is vital to be able to give counter information. Various arrangements and travel give an opportunity to open up dialogue between people. They must understand that war is not a good way of solving conflicts. It is important to counteract the picture they have of each other. For example, we invited Armenians to stay with us, and we did it in way that it became visible.”

During the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, she worked actively together with Annait from Armenia. They crossed each others’ borders to find a common language. Annait adds: “It was important that Arzu and I worked together, and that our work became visible in a time where people in Armenia and Azerbaijan didn’t dare to say that they had friends on the other side of the border. We travelled to each other’s capitals and held public meetings. This was only possible because of the external support we got, mainly from Helsinki Citizens Assembly, the Society of Friends (Quakers), Amnesty International and from Sweden. We had many practical tasks to do, such as exchanging prisoners of war. We tried to open the eyes of people about how it was to be the other. We used the mass media to show the positive work the other side was doing.”

“As nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) we must try to create an institution as a mean of creating peaceful solutions, and make people aware that they are giving their sons away for dirty interests,” says Arzu. “Now we don’t armed violence, but we have a lot of work to do to prevent such violence from happening again. We must reveal the official interests behind the conflict and try to stop extreme nationalist tendencies,” she says. She is concerned about that as long as no one gets to the root of the conflicts, peace is vulnerable. “If we don’t know what gets the clock to tick, good intentions won’t help.”

“We must analyze who are the parties and what are the forces behind the conflicts. There may be other motives and parties which are not visible. Often there is no balance between the various forces. We must know if there are a real conflict or if it has been created artificially. Do the parties have different goals and motives or is there something in common? When the root of the conflict is visible, we must find a strategy for how to act in order to stop the conflict.”

“Analyzing the conflict’s roots may help us to find a solution. When negotiating we must know if the parties have competing interests or common goals. Competing interests are often connected with a winner and a loser. We must find out if there are different views on violence. A positive view means that conflicts can stop, and that there is a sincere wish to find a solution regarding the conflicts’ roots. A negative view means that the war may stop, but it is only simmering and the root causes are not looked at. Many negotiators use the last method,” Arzu says.

Women cross the lines

Women have played an active and important role during and after the wars in the Caucasus. Zoia says that this is not their traditional role. “In general women have low status in Russian society. Mentally and culturally this is a common aspect for women in Eastern Europe. Women care for the family, not for society. Engagement outside the family has often been met with suspicion, but also the economy and the lifestyle with long queues for food has forced women to stay home. In extreme situations, as in war and during earth quakes, women show new roles. They take part with great engagement and activities. Our land and culture could not survive without these initiatives.”

Zoia sees now a tendency of women going back to the kitchen. But she also sees a tendency in NGOs to split. It seems that the war keeps them together; when the conflict is over, the contradictions and splits appear. Therefore continuing meetings across the borders are of extreme importance.

Veronica underlines this and adds that in today’s situation it is impossible to arrange meetings like the Komhaug one in the region. She looks forward to the day when such a meeting will be possible in the Caucasus itself. She thinks however that the women’s role is more complicated. During the war between Georgia and Abkhazia there were groups of women who did not play a very glorious role. They took part in the war hysteria, helping to inflame the situation. But she also adds that most women were war victims. They were killed and raped because they symbolized “the enemy”.

She says in the past women in her society could ensure peace and bring an end to a duel between men by throwing a scarf between them. Building on this tradition, some Georgian women launched a campaign called “White Scarf,” but the military officials stopped them before it was started.

Attitudes in the West

There are good reasons to ask what politicians in the Western world want to know about the situation in the Caucasus. Georgia is a good example. The West wanted to establish good relations with Russia. Schevardnadze, minister of international affairs during the Gorbachev government, contributed to the relationship between East and West, and was highly respected for this.

When he started his period as president of Georgia, he declared he was the president of Georgia for Georgians. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) built their report on the situation from Schevardnadze’s report, and did not make their own investigation into the conflict. The picture presented to the Western world was therefore distorted.

Peacekeeping forces were authorized to overlook the peace process and the return of refugees. This happened during the Gulf war, which involved many countries but not Russia. Instead Russia contributed to the peace process between Georgia and Abkhazia. This process ended when the Russians invaded Chechnya in 1994. Schevardnadze saw the possibility to take charge of the situation, and openly supported the Russian invasion.

The Chechens supported the Abkhazians in their struggle against Georgia. This was now used against Abkhazia, and a full blockade was introduced under the pretext that the Abkhazians would send weapons to Chechnya. The blockade lasted four years and created enormous damage for the economy and culture, said Natella.

Annait adds that the war in Chechnya was a shame for Russia. “We cannot understand that the West supported Russian aggression. They talk a lot about the new democratic society. But with their support they contributed to the conflict, saying it was an ‘internal affair’. The eradication of a people should never be considered an internal affair, and international conventions must reflect this.

What now?

There are many challenges in the Caucasus. Poverty, unemployment and crime are big parts of daily life. Chechnya’s many kidnappings are part of an increase in crime as a result of the war. Societies need to be rebuilt, economically, physically and democratically. Societies are perhaps even more vulnerable now than during the war.

Annait says that this is the third year without war and that this is a very vulnerable phase. They are dependent on support from the outside to prevent a reverse of the situation. People especially need help to find ways of reconciliation and solutions to the underlying conflicts and to find ways of building a democratic society.

Natella says that reconciliation is on the agenda, but people don’t know how to start. During the seminar she talked with Veronica about finding such ways. “We must use international experiences as for example, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Both Natella and Arzu underline the important roles of NGOs in this process. Arzu sees that even if authorities fear and try to ignore NGOs, NGOs receive a lot respect from people and from groups in the West. In this way they function as a link between the grassroots and the authorities. Natella thinks that negotiations normally only involve political leaders, who often ignore NGO experiences and knowledge, especially when it has to do with reconciliation among people. Veronica adds that the role of women should be taken into account, as women are ready to take part.

Ellen Elster is a member of the WRI Women’s Working Group, Sverdrupsgt. 21, 0559 Oslo, Norway. Tel. + 47 22 87 08 75; fax + 47 22 24 95 79.