Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly: Young people tackling frozen conflicts in the Transcaucasis region

Helsinki Citizens' Assembly
Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of a new era for the European continent. But it has proven more difficult than expected to overcome the divisions which emerged during the Cold War. One of the groups that has been working for the democratic integration of Europe is the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. In 1997, it decided to hold a summer course in the Transcaucasis, a troubled region that includes the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 10, 1997


The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of a new era for the European continent. But it has proven more difficult than expected to overcome the divisions which emerged during the Cold War. One of the groups that has been working for the democratic integration of Europe is the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. The name is a reference to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 which was designed to reduce tension between East and West. The respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms was one of the key elements of the Final Act. The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, or HCA, has its roots in the dialogue between independent social movements in eastern and western Europe during the 1980’s. Peace activists like Britain’s Mary Kaldor and Mient-Jan Faber in The Netherlands started establishing contacts with dissident movements in the East, like Charter 77 in the then Czecholoslovakia and the Soliditary movement in Poland. Their aim was to do what politicians at the time seemed incapable of achieving: breaking down the divisions in Europe by bringing about a “détente from below”.

In 1990, these contacts led to the establishment of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly which brings together individuals and civic groups across the continent to combat ethnic conflicts and wars, like the one in the former Yugoslavia. As part of these efforts, the HCA organizes summer schools for what’s known as “intercultural dialogue and understanding”. Every summer a few dozen young students and youth activists from different sides of a conflict – like the one in the Balkans – get together to try and establish some type of dialogue. Eric Beauchemin attended this year’s summer school and prepared the following report.

The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly held its first summer school in Serbia four years ago. The summer schools have since been held in a number of different countries in the Balkans. Last year, the school’s venue was in Crete, and this year in Croatia. The HCA decided this year to hold a parallel summer course in a different conflict zone: the Transcauscasus, a region which includes the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conference was organized by Martin van Harten, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly program coordinator in the Transcaucasus, who’s based in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

The topic of this summer school is frozen conflicts. That means the tendency of the international community to freeze the kind of conflicts that they cannot solve. This region is known for its unsolved conflicts: Nagorno-Karabach, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and a bit to the north also Ingushetia, Chechnya. And especially in the Transcaucasas, the conflicts over Nagorno Karabach, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they are almost completely frozen, which means that they are going on already for eight years, and that already nobody still knows how to find a solution. At the other hand, there are more or less stable ceasefires, and it seems that the main aim of the international community and the main consensus between the governments is to keep the situation stable.

The summer school was held at the summer residence of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, in Telavi, a city in eastern Georgia. There were about 40 young people in all, coming from the Balkans and western Europe, as well as from the Transcaucasian region itself: from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabach, a predominantly Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. War broke out in Nagorno-Karabach in 1989. 20-thousand people were killed, and 1million Azeris were forced to flee their homes.

One aspect of these frozen conflicts is that there are new iron curtains. We compare these small local conflicts. To some extent, you can compare it to the Cold War, the big Cold War in Europe, when there was no real communication on society level between East and West. Now we see a complete, almost a complete blockade of communication between, for instance, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also to some extent between Armenia and Georgia. There are official contacts, of course, but there are also no society contacts and also no intellectual contacts. The iron curtains are almost complete around Nagorno-Karabach and Abkhazia. Those regions are sealed off from the world, which means also that the people living there are completely isolated and which also means that the refugees and the displaced persons coming from those areas, they are in centres and camps without any hope of return on any predictable term. So, in this school, there are young people from all the sites of these frozen conflicts but also residents and people from the refugee communities. In the atmosphere of the school, they can communicate. They can exchange experiences, but still more important, they can learn to analyse these local conflicts in more general terms. They can compare with the Balkans with other conflict zones in the world, and they can learn to combine their own role as civic groups and especially as cultural youth activists.

The 5-day summer school included a number of different activities, for example a lecture by a professor of human geography at the University of Tbilisi about the historical roots of the conflicts in the Caucasus, as well as a talk by the leader of Georgia’s Socialist Party about the role of non-governmental organisations in conflict resolution and his party’s efforts to establish an assembly of Caucasian peoples to encourage cooperation and communication within the region. But the summer school’s main aim is to get the participants – in particular those from different sides of a conflict – to exchange points of view and work through the issues which oppose them. One of the most effective ways of doing that, says Mient Jan Faber, the General Director of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, is through role-reversal and games.

First they had to do a game. That’s to say the Armenian people had to take the position of the Azeris and the Azeri students the position of the Armenians. So they did it very well, but they took the most extreme positions. And so there was no bridge between them. So this afternoon, we did it on a different way, and there it came out that both the Armenians and the Azeri students expressed them all in favour of keeping the conflict frozen. So no new war was basically what they were saying. And then hoping in that frozen situation, a process of détente, of negotiations, of coming together, of meeting each other could really improve the situation and change the mentality and the minds of people so that in due time a kind of solution would come out. Well the problem, of course, is is this really going to happen in this way? And would they like the solution, and what kind of solution? And as soon as you start to talk about a solution, they differ completely. So what I’ve tried to do is to make them clear that if you only talk in these terms – so keep the ceasefire, which is important – and try to introduce a process of détente, then you might also stabilise the situation but not change it, and kind of make it a beautiful détente but at the same time there are almost a million refugees, who are still in their camps without any future. So the situation is not stable from that point of view. So you have to do more than only this kind of détente and this kind of dialogue between the two sides. So there’s a learning process going on.

I’m Azeri and we’ve got a conflict with the Armenians. I expect to get more friends from Armenia to make a good dialogue with them. EB: You were supposed to talk – the Azeris and the Armenians – to try to resolve the conflict. Did that happen today? Yeah, it happened today where we’ve got a programme: 12 issues, 12 points which should be done in order to solve the conflict, to get the reconciliation. The programme we have made out, it was proposed to be sent to the Minsk group of OSCE. EB: What do you think about bringing together people from all over the Transcaucausus to go ahead and discuss problems? Do you think this is a way to solve what politicians don’t seem to be able to solve? I think that the main point is that we shouldn’t keep this on this level. We should move it further and further to get us to the governmental level and let the governmental officials to use our ideas ‘cause we can’t make the things the governmental officials can. EB: So how do you plan to do that when you get back to your country? I’ll contact by email or by fax with the ?? and some other representatives who take part in this conference. I hope that the contacts will be kept on. EB: So, you’ll be talking to your friends and also your family about what’s been going on at this conference? Sure. Sure, no problem.

I’m from The Netherlands but I live in Bosnia, and I work there. So for me it was a good opportunity for me to see what young people are doing in this conflict region, where they have specific strategies to get to know each other better, to start a dialogue, to start activities together. And I want to take that back with me to Bosnia to see what we can do with that. EB: Do you think that some of the things you learn here will be useful in Bosnia? I hope so. I’m not sure, maybe the other way around. Maybe people from Bosnia here or people from Yugoslavia can tell their experiences to people from the Transcaucausus. EB: Do you find that these types of conferences are useful in general? It is useful. It’s definitely useful for people  to come together, and you see them from Bosnia or in Yugoslavia a lot that people are changing their attitudes a little bit.

After the morning and afternoon classes, there were a variety of activities for the participants like tours of the neighboring vineyards and wineries. In the evenings, musicians provide entertainment during dinner, and then the students retire to dance, drink and talk. According to Mient Jan Faber, it’s during these after-school activities that young people from different sides of a conflict zone are able to work out their disputes, and become friends.

Last year, we had a big clash between the Greek students and the Turkish students on the one hand, and the Greek students and the students from Macedonia on the other hand at the beginning of the school. At the end, they were big friends and they said we understand each other’s position much better now. We really know that we can something do together. You saw it happening during the school. It was basically the socialising and coming very, very close to one another, not being afraid to express your emotions, and what many of the students did but the atmosphere is so good that really something can happen. So that’s what we also hope. You see now that the Karabach students are sitting together all the time, and because this is the first day of the school. So they sit together and watching the whole thing. The Azeri students are more open, speak better English and so have a certain kind of advantage, and they use that advantage by expressing themselves very clearly, and the Armenian students are closer to the Karabach students for sure. So this process is now going to start. You saw already after the game which we did with them where the Azeri students had to replace themselves in the position of the Armenians and vice versa, the two people who had in the end presented the proposals that came out, were asked to sit down together and to formulate a compromise, and they are already becoming friends. So they’re working on it. They have found something, they told me a minute ago. So we’ll start to discuss about that, and I think well that’s the way it works.

Once the students go back home, some join the local chapter of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly and become involved in trying to help solve the conflicts in their country. But how big a role can these young people play in resolving long-standing disputes, such as the ones in Nagorno-Karabach, Abkhazia or the Balkans?

Well, their role is quite limited, I think. Of course, it depends on what they are going to do afterwards. If they could become part of organisations, maybe of political parties or whatever, they will become the ruling elite of their countries anyway, if they stay here. So in  a sense, they will have to play their role. But what they at least already can do now is to use this experience of the school and to try to influence the way of thinking of their friends at the university and where they live, of their families. That is, in itself, very important because that’s one of the things which we saw happen in the Balkans. That people go to their universities and write a paper on their experience at the school, discuss it with their classes at university, ask their professors to introduce the same type of topics, to give it a place in the university curriculum, and that’s the way it goes. So the way of thinking among their friends, among that part of society, university students can really be influenced, if they want.

The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly hopes that these young people in the Caucasus and the Balkans will succeed where their parents and politicians have failed. After all, says Martin van Harten of the HCA, this is how civic activists were able to do build bridges between eastern and western Europe during the Cold War in the 1980’s.

At the official level, everything was frozen or even deteriorating. Then the peace activists in the West and the human rights activists in the East started to meet and also to come to common analyses about the Cold War. They started to create something like a détente from below. So our hope is also that the young people now can in their local situations start some détente and some more unpredictable processes.

Martin van Harten, the program coordinator of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in the Transcaucasus, ending that report by Eric Beauchemin. Join us again next week for another edition of Wide Angle.