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South Caucasus Peace Initiative

Citizen Diplomacy Bridges Divides in the South Caucasus


During the 18th century, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and Persia vied for control over the strategically important Caucasus, the mountainous region where their zones of influence overlapped. Eventually Russia conquered Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. They became part of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the secession from Azerbaijan of the ethnically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh provoked a bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia that ended only with a ceasefire in 1994. At the same time Abkhazia and South Ossetia began fighting for independence from Georgia. After the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, the two provinces declared their independence under the protection of Russia.

UPF's South Caucasus Peace Initiative addresses three types of regional challenges:

  • interreligious, reflected in relations between Muslim Azerbaijan and neighboring Christian Armenia
  • ideological, reflected in the Georgia/Russia struggle which is, in a way, about different concepts of democracy
  • humanitarian, reflected in the widespread social problems created by years of conflict

The South Caucasus Peace Initiative began in a dramatic and unexpected fashion shortly after the bloody Georgia-Russia war over South Ossetia in August 2008, which has not officially ended. A medical doctor and President of the International Super-marathon Association, Dr. Eduard Yakovlev passionately believed in the power of sports to bring people together across political and ethnic divides. As a Russian Ambassador for Peace, he organized a “Peace Run” in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, on December 7, 2008, as a citizen initiative between Russians and Georgians.

As he set out on that “Peace Run” together with about 150 sportsmen and students, little did he know that he would be giving his final breaths that day in the effort to bring together neighboring nations. Not feeling very well that morning, he decided to run only one mile with the runners. However, after running two blocks, he collapsed with a heart attack and soon passed away. The event was part of UPF’s South Caucasus Peace Initiative, a citizen diplomacy initiative between the people of neighboring countries. It was organized by UPF-Georgia and local sponsors: the Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs of Abkhazia; PSP Pharmacy; and Georgian Glass and Mineral Water Co.

As a Russian who came for peace to Georgia–he was wearing a T-shirt with both the Russian and Georgian flags–his death became the center of media attention. Georgian officials said that if his family agreed to have him buried in Georgia, he would be interred with honor in the Pantheon of Georgian Heroes.

However, his relatives naturally asked that his body be returned to Russia, and Georgian local authorities supported the process of repatriating his body to Moscow through Armenia, since there was no direct communication between Georgia and Russia.

Since 2008, UPF’s South Caucasus Peace Initiative seeks to address these tensions through building grassroots relationships, such as exchanges among students, and informal face-to-face discussions between high-level officials. As in all territorial conflicts, people feel deep pain and resentment. Still, they say they long to normalize relations because they once were part of a common nation and still share to some degree a common culture and language.

Through people-to-people diplomacy, the South Caucasus Peace Initiative builds understanding among the diverse groups in the region. It also promotes collaboration among governmental and non-governmental (including faith-based) organizations and the private sector. The situation in the South Caucasus, especially after the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, still threatens international security and causes suffering.

Georgians feel pain over the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russia. Russian Ambassadors for Peace encounter strong emotions when meeting Georgian officials and have to choose their words with wisdom. Just a few months after the August 2008 war, Russian Ambassadors for Peace went to Georgia for informal meetings. Also present were representatives of neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia, who cannot meet in each others’ nations. In May 2010, Oleg Mironov, former Human Rights Ombudsman of Russia, traveled to Georgia to meet with Georgian Ambassadors for Peace and held informal meetings with the Ombudsman of Georgia, the Vice Minister of Integration, and the Representative for South Ossetia in Georgia.

A number of high-level leadership conferences have taken place. People-to-people initiatives include educational programs for school children, friendly football matches among youth from various communities, charitable assistance to internally displaced people, and service projects bringing together people from the nations of the Caucasus, Russia, and beyond. To build personal connections and good will between Russians and Georgians, UPF-Urals initiated the project "Urals - Georgia: We'll Be Friends."

For more information about developments in UPF-Eurasia's South Caucasus Peace Initiative, click here.

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