“The situation is escalating”

Nino Lejava at the office of the heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo: ©Paul Toetzke.

Nino Lejava observes how fronts are hardening in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. In this interview, the head of the regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi, explains how foundations and NGOs are involved in the conflict.

Recently, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh again claimed causalities. In addition, the conflicts over secession in Georgia is complicating daily politics. In general, what effects does that have for the situation in South Caucasus?

In terms of security policy, the individual countries, as well as the process of democratization, are strongly affected. For example, in Georgia it is more important to demonize Russia than to deal with domestic issues. That is the case for all three countries in the South Caucasus. The most successful democratization is happening in Georgia, followed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is assessed by European Neighborhood Policy which has established very precise categories to evaluate attempted reform. These are tangible measures of the European Union (EU) to exert influence on domestic policy of these countries.

In my opinion, former republics of the Soviet Union in the South Caucasus had never been as diverse in their strategies as they are today. Only since recently, Azerbaijan is not depending on foreign economic aid or financial aid from the West, it is isolating itself more and more. Formally, it is participating in Eastern Partnership. But politically it has given up on the attempted rapprochement with the EU.

Nonetheless, is it possible to do projects where Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis are participating?

Not in this region, and not right now. But, over the years, different projects have fostered the dialog between those two countries. For example the joint publication “The South Caucasus and Turkey: History Lessons of the 20th Century” came out of this. This was published by our former scholarship holders in 2003. It looks at the perception of the other party in both societies. The regional office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation exists since 2003. Back then, all parties to the conflict agreed to meet. I am not only talking about representatives of the Armenian or Azerbaijani government but also about representative of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These were actors of civil society and not de facto representatives of the secession territories. Back then they were able to enter Georgia and speak in public. At lot has changed, since then. Especially after the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, things got worse. In Nagorno-Karabakh attitudes also hardened. Especially for the last two years, the situation at the front line keeps escalating. Gun battle, border crossings of so called diversion groups and fatalities have increased considerably. No precise figures are available as the situation is not clear and as it is presented differently by these two parties.

According to what criteria does the Heinrich Böll Foundation decide which projects are carried out? Are there arguments against doing projects on Nagorno-Karabakh at the moment?

No, of course there are no arguments against that. It is also a pragmatic approach which depends on our human resources. We are a relatively small political foundation. There are three more foundations from Germany which are also based here (editor’s note: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Naumann Stiftung). From the start, we haven’t been able to establish independent offices in Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is another reason why we prioritize issues in Georgia. It is simply not possible to launch projects on all conflicts to the same extent. Analytically, we are looking at all of the regions. Funding projects in the secessionist territories is an additional financial and administrative challenge. For example, there is no direct finance transfer from Georgia to Abkhazia. In addition, all of the restrictions on admission in the secessionist territories complicate the task to find partners and to carry out projects.

After all, to what extent can foundations and NGOs influence conflict settlement?

We prefer the terms “conflict transformation” or “peaceful conflict transformation”. That indicates that a situation is created in which an existing conflict can be handled from both, political and societal standpoints. It is obvious that a situation like before the conflict can never be reestablished. Both parties have to sacrifice before an acceptable option can be established. We focus on the support of NGOs and of individuals who are brave enough to address certain issues publicly in order to challenge hardened attitudes and discourses.

The positive part about being a foundation lies in its freedoms. As we are no governmental institution and thus not dependent on local governmental institutions, we can play an important role. We act in the field between governmental institutions and local organizations. We are an international NGO with access to Western politics and media. These, we try to influence directly. As an independent political foundation, we have the means to cooperate with the actors of civil society in the secessional territories without having to question their status. Education and knowledge of the situation are extremely important to challenge the hardened attitudes.

Recently, our work has focused more on new formats for dialog between Georgia and Abkhazia. On the one hand, this decision is influenced by the location of our office. On the other hand, before 2008, a conflict settlement between Georgia and its two secessional territories seemed possible. Another reason is, that from the mid 1990s on, relatively stable communication channels had started to develop in civil society. They had outlasted the backlash in 2008. Since the war, the situation has changed dramatically but the dialog, now outside of Georgia, is continued. In this way, we can offer possibilities for international communication to actors of civil society in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. Our website is one possibility. For example, we fund the media project Netgazeti in order to facilitate an independent news coverage on the secessional territories in Georgia and in order to increase the flow of information.

In Russia, especially, the situation worsened dramatically for NGOs. There is widespread mistrust against them. How is the situation in the South Caucasus?

In almost all of the former Soviet republics there is mistrust towards NGOs which are funded by the West. Often, this reflects on the Western foundations. To large parts it happens out of fear from losing one’s own cultural traditions. However, when civil society was supported most, in this case Georgia, progress was most significant. In addition, there is strong support by society which also reflects back on politics. In more authoritarian countries, like Russia and Azerbaijan, it is more difficult to support groups who advocate for a European transformation.

What interest does the Georgian government have in conflict settlement – especially in Nagorno-Karabakh where it considers both parties as partners?

Georgia has always considered itself an avantgarde in the region. The government of Saakashvili loved to be considered the “beacon of democracy” how it was called by George W. Bush. On the other hand, Georgia has to deal with the geopolitical interests of its neighbors. So far, the Georgian approach has been a pragmatic one. It was seeking for a stronger partnership with Azerbaijan. The relationship with Armenia is also quite good, although, sometimes, it is challenged by the cultural-political rivalries of the neighbor countries. This is reinforced by the situation of the Armenian minority in Georgia. On the other hand, the relationship with Georgia is very important and the cooperation is exemplary. The axis between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey was enhanced by a pipeline policy. Armenia had been partly excluded and therefore relied on Russia for security. In my opinion, Georgia should be more aware of the positive impact it could have on the mediation of the conflict. Even though it would not be a formal role, it could impact on Turkey. That way, Georgia could oppose the isolation of Armenia. Through liberalization of border politics, Armenia’s foreign policy would become more complementary and it would get easier to communicate with the outside world. All this would certainly influence the situation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although, it is still a problem that Azerbaijan as well as Turkey require a conflict settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh before they consider an opening of the borders. That makes conflict mediation more difficult. At the moment, there is no attempt by the Georgian government to challenge the position of Turkey and Azerbaijan and to actively foster a dialogue.

What are the opportunities the Heinrich Böll Foundation will have to impact of the conflicts in South Caucasus in the future?

Currently, domestic politics of Armenia as well as of Azerbaijan are hardening up. In Armenia plurality is lacking in politics. The opposition has been deprived of power and in public discussion it has become nearly impossible to introduce new political concepts. Since 2009, we observed that the process towards normalization between Armenia and Turkey started to stagnate. Politics have hardened, especially this year which is the memorial year for Armenian Genocide. Turkey is very sensible with these issues. Nevertheless, a lot has changed in regard to civil society – to some extend also a result of the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Azerbaijan has become more and more authoritarian. Today, the opposition, human rights activists and independent media are denied access to the public. These domestic developments impact on foreign policy. Leading politicians, also from the opposition, feel constrained to refer to enemy stereotypes in foreign policy in order to handle the population’s frustration. In both countries, I follow these developments with grave concern. Especially considering heavy armament during the last years. I really hope that it doesn’t lead to military escalation. None of the states would wish to see this happening.


Elena Anmel, Paul Toetzke and Lina Verschwele conducted the interview and Julia Scheurer translated it into English. This interview was first published on boell.de.