In Caucasus, Democracy Can Rise From the Ashes

Anassessment of the former Soviet world seven years after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall finds a region suffering from ethnic violence, urban chaos, failed elections, rampaging separatist militia groups, and philosopher kings gone mad. Competent pluralistic regimes are lacking.

I spent two months last summer working on a civilian peacekeeping project in the Caucasus - an area made up of three small countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. This former Soviet vacationland lies just south of the ash heap of Russian Chechnya - where six Red Cross workers were recently murdered. Throughout the Caucasus, civilian populations have suffered deadly nationalist violence.

These collapsed societies daily offer up a serving of Darwin on the half-shell, rank and raw. The entire population is engaged in a struggle to change. International intervention weighing in on the side of democratic progress is vital. The ability to wreak significant violence is readily available. Yet even in the face of such horror, we should also recognize that the ability to make significant peace is also at hand.

Our public peace process in the Caucasus is based on the belief that the outside recognition of democratic moderates will bolster their voices. We worked with citizen teams in Armenia and Azerbaijan, convened meetings, and helped the participants learn negotiation skills. Our efforts centered around Nagorno Karabakh, a territory populated by Armenians but within the borders of Azerbaijan. The two sides fought a war over the territory in the early '90s. Although violence has subsided during a two-year ceasefire, political polarization and suffering continue.

Back in 1990, most Westerners thought that mere exposure to the world through travel and television would change things for the better in the reforming Eastern bloc. Six years later, exposure has opened some minds and confirmed many prejudices. We in the West need to recognize that it's going to take much more than cable television to get these countries on their feet.

Helping to create a home-grown crop of democrats will take an intensive, long-term effort. It will take more than money. Indeed, it will require an entirely new framework for US engagement in the world - one that recognizes how human interaction has become a touchstone for international activities.

Listen carefully when you hear policymakers talk about "conflict resolution." The most important part of this foreign-policy strategy is the cultivation of human relationships for national violence prevention. Prevention is the operational word. Conflict resolution comes in many guises. It's preventive diplomacy in the State Department and preventive defense in the Pentagon, preventive peacekeeping at the United Nations, and participatory development at the World Bank.

The shift toward preventive strategies reflects changes close to home for many Americans: peer mediation on your child's playground, team management at work, and alternative dispute resolution in the courthouse. Abroad and at home, interaction that democratically empowers individuals is increasingly recognized as a strategy for peace, stability, and, we hope, prosperity.

One blessing of the communications revolution is that interveners can more quickly identify people who are willing to work for reconciliation. After two years of shuttling back and forth and six months in the Caucasus region, the teams convened a joint meeting last September. Four days of intense dialogue produced five action plans: two are designed to help children from war zones, one seeks to reunite academics at regional universities, one intends to improve regional public health, and one lays out a strategy to teach social peace. These are not formal, traditional security items, but they are the only game in town that's moving forward. And they are a start.

In the second half of the 1990s, we are entering perhaps the most critical time for post-communist reconstruction. The societies have evolved beyond the capabilities of semi-reformers. Now native-born democrats have a societal stake. They've observed different norms of behavior and have sophisticated expectations. We from the West can help lay out options, being there while they take the risks.

After spending time in a part of the world struggling to change, I have a simple message for all Americans: We matter so much more to the world than the world matters to us. We must stay involved.

Lorelei Kelly is a research fellow at the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

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