JASON Conference 2022 Reports: Part 2

Seminar 2: Gone and Forgotten? Frozen Conflicts in the Caucasus

By: Laura Gusan

Photo credits: Gina ten Hoppe

The second seminar of the JASON Conference focused on the political context in Georgia after the Cold War, emphasising the protracted conflicts surrounding the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In particular, the first speaker, Dr Françoise Companjen, a cultural anthropologist whose main region of interest is the South Caucasus, briefly introduced the history of Georgia. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Georgia declared independence in 1918, becoming the Democratic Republic of Georgia. However, this taste of autonomy was short-lived, as Soviet Russia invaded and annexed Georgia as a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1922. 

Being a part of the Soviet Union, Georgia adopted the Soviet administrative division of its territory, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia being granted the legal status of Autonomous Oblasts. As Dr Companjen emphasised, this meant that Abkhazia and South Ossetia could not legally secede from the Georgia SSR under Soviet law. However, this changed once the Republic of Georgia was declared in 1990, and in 1991 South Ossetia held its first presidential election. Soon violence erupted and around 250,000 Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia, while 23,000 Georgians had to flee their homes in South Ossetia. Despite the Georgian government asking former Russian president Yeltsin for help to manage the domestic instability, the latter acknowledged the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

Dr Françoise Companjen

As Dr Companjen explained, this was a highly complex situation in which two nationalisms were attempting to prevail on one another, with each country using or misusing history as they saw fit. As an illustration, the Russians saw their involvement in the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a peacekeeping force. In other words, the Russian narrative depicted the intervention as a continuation of its historical role as a ‘helper’ and ‘educator’ of the Georgian State, while also admitting their interest in maintaining regional stability in Transcaucasia. However, in the eyes of the Georgians, the Russian troops further eroded Georgian sovereignty by aiding and funding the separatist forces of the two breakaway regions. 

The tensions emerging after the fall of the Soviet Union are still present today, making these protracted conflicts extremely difficult to manage and potentially solve. This is exactly the issue tackled by the second speaker, Dr Natalia Mirimanova. A Georgian scholar and practitioner in the field of peacebuilding, conflict mediation and resolution, Dr Mirimanova offered a valuable perspective on the so-called frozen conflicts of the Caucasus

A person sitting in a chair holding a microphone

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Dr Natalia Mirimanova

Her opening statement attempted to ask the crucial question: How does one solve old conflicts? Such a bold endeavour, she explained, has to always start by addressing conflicts as a system according to three interrelated elements: (i) Behaviour (or what the parties do), (ii) Issue(s) (or the reasons for war), and (iii) Attitudes (or how parties view themselves, the other, and the conflict itself). To this, Dr Mirimanova added a structurally similar scheme, connecting conflict management, conflict resolution, and conflict transformation as the processes that every practitioner in the field should focus on. 

In the cause of Georgia, the conflicts that are ongoing today are primarily centred around diverging nationalist claims, but they are currently managed. As Dr Mirimanova explained, this means that while a resolution has not been reached yet, the levels of violence have considerably decreased. In her talk, she also tackled the ethnic aspect of these conflicts, claiming that they have been managed by force under Soviet rule, which is why they erupted so intensely in the 1990s. Furthermore, she continued, the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was a watershed event, marking an entrenchment of the demands of each side of the conflicts. 

Finally Dr Companjen and Dr Mirimanova converged in claiming that today, the ethnic motif of these conflicts is not as prominent as at their beginning. This point was later echoed by David Solomonia, the current Georgian Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Netherlands. His intervention at the end of this insightful session offered the audience a glimpse into the position of the Georgian government regarding these conflicts. Moreover, Mr Solomonia drew a similarity between them and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He accentuated their relevance in the current geopolitical environment given the aspirations of the Georgian state to join the EU and NATO, and thus to further break away from Russian influence. 

Thus, are the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia gone and forgotten? As many among the audience at the JASON Conference would tell, most certainly not. 

Seminar 3: From Atoms to (In)Action with Marjolijn van Deelen and Susi Snyder

By: Tanja Maier

How realistic is the likelihood of global nuclear proliferation? What can we do to encourage nuclear disarmament? What are relevant developments for the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime? These and other questions pertaining to current questions of nuclear proliferation were discussed by Ambassador Marjolijn van Deelen, EU Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation at the European External Action Service (EEAS), and Susi Snyder, Financial Sector Coordinator for International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). 

In line with the other panels of this year’s JASON conference, the dialogue between the EEAS and ICAN was inevitably underpinned by the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Overt nuclear threats issued by the Kremlin have garnered wide media attention for the topic of nuclear proliferation and deem the efforts of both sides all the more important. 

ICAN and the EEAS entering into a constructive dialogue is not a novelty, given ICAN’s involvement in rallying support for their EU parliamentary pledge back in 2019, but its impact has to be noted nonetheless. While ICAN is a dynamic antinuclear grassroots movement with 570 non-governmental organisations in 105 countries and intense youth engagement, the EEAS sometimes takes on the role of the benevolent grandmother, who – albeit committed to the overlying goal of eventual nuclear disarmament – still has to represent the interests of recognised nuclear-weapon states. 

Marjolijn van Deelen

Accordingly, van Deelen noted that the EEAS engagement with the topic takes a more institutional approach: The EU institution led by High Representative Josep Borrell focuses on negotiating and implementing international treaties, all the while providing support – mostly financial – for convention secretariats. To uphold the nuclear taboo, the EU aims to delegitimise nuclear threats via a strict sanction regime, supports a stronger new START Treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation, and acts as mediator in the promotion of a potential US-China arms control cooperation. Van Deelen also pointed out that Russia has openly accused the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of biased assessments, which called for the EU’s proactive condemnation to ensure the implementation of treaties remains technical, rather than politicised.

Susi Snyder

The approach ICAN takes goes beyond the mostly mediating and institution-maintaining role of the EU. ICAN campaigners have raised awareness about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons since its inception, bringing the human security aspect to the forefront of nuclear discussions and promoting the Nuclear Ban Treaty (TPNW), which the EU countries agree to disagree on. The campaign’s efforts were awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, which, as Snyder commented, was not understood as a “call for retirement”, but rather as a prompt to “do better!”. The threat of nuclear weapons affects everyone, as Snyder emphasised, deeming an open and frequently used channel of communication between countries, NGOs, and transnational institutions an invaluable resource for change. 

Yet sometimes, change can already have an effect on the smaller scale, as the appreciative and welcoming tone between the two sides – even though they might be at odds occasionally – has shown. Despite their differences, both van Deelen and Snyder left the audience eager to participate in the discussions about the future of nuclear proliferation. As van Deelen put it, “Be a voice, but not a voice of fear!”

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