Confronting legacies of forced displacement in the South Caucasus
The unraveling of relatively multi-ethnic societies was a key feature of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and especially the devolution of power in the South Caucasus.
Something approaching two million people throughout the South Caucasus lost their homes as a result of ethnic mobilisation, confrontation and conflict through the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Twenty years later this mass forced movement of people is still a defining feature of the region’s politics and conflicts, and indeed in some contexts a phenomenon that has repeated itself, for example in the expulsion of much of South Ossetia’s remaining ethnically Georgian population in August 2008.
A key issue for people in the region
In both the Nagorny Karabakh and Georgian–Abkhaz peace processes, the future of displaced communities is a key issue and a major sticking point. There are huge challenges to negotiate a solution which takes into account both sides of the story:
- On one side, the hopes of whole communities of displaced people dreaming of home;
- On the other, the fears of people who are still too traumatised by the conflict to even thinking about their former neighbours moving back.
Along with a televised debate by our local partner network Synergy, recent publications from Conciliation Resources have been bringing new thinking to bear on issues of displacement in the South Caucasus. Staff from our Caucasus programme recently presented their findings at London's SOAS university.
A key challenge among all of this to ensure that those affected are able to make their voices heard:
When it comes to their own future, IDPs want to be part of the decision-making process.
Paata Zakareishvili, Synergy network
Modern European history offers two very different approaches to resolving the problem of mass displacement.
In earlier eras population exchange was seen as a legitimate way to resolve conflict, for example in the mass exchange that took place between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s.
Yet by the mid-1990s, mass displacement in Bosnia was seen as an unacceptable solution to conflict in that country. Although far from perfect and uniquely conditioned by the specificities of the Bosnian case, a process of return and/or compensatory justice for displaced people has been implemented in Bosnia, holding out the possibility of reversing enforced ethnic segregation.
Addressing the human impact
The South Caucasus appears stuck between these approaches, where there is no international acceptance or will to ratify mass displacement or population exchanges, and yet there is also insufficient will and capacity to make a returns process feasible. It is unacceptable to legitimise mass population movements, and yet no one has proved able to agree on a Bosnian-type solution.
Meantime, while technically classed as 'internally displaced' (IDP) a whole new generation are growing up feeling like refugees within their own country.
You can’t imagine what life is like as an IDP. You are in your ‘own’ society and are surrounded by your ‘own’ people, but other’s perceptions of you are very bad.
These are complicated issues and there is a strong tendency in discussions of displacement to get lost in statistics and counter-statistics, and to forget the human cost of displacement. Films from our Dialogue Through Film project seek to redress this balance.
What's clear is that until these issues can be sorted out, the lives of many people in the South Caucasus remain on hold.
Interested in finding out more about these issues?
- Watch this Studio Re discussion programme
- Digest our policy briefs on Individual rights, societal choices
- Look at what IDPs themselves think about conflict, return and justice
- Read about Lali Grigolava's resilience in the face of displacement
- Watch Taking joint action: The experience of Georgia's displaced
- View some of the Dialogue Through Film stories:
My niece from the Caucasus and Citizenship: Refugee