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Caucasus: Conflict Drives The Young And Educated From Region

  • Ben Partridge

London, 23 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A leading expert on the Caucasus says young and educated people have been migrating from the region's conflict areas to look for jobs elsewhere, a trend that is contributing to economic decline in their homelands.

Anna Matveeva, of Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, spoke at a London University seminar last Thursday on the theme "Nationalism and Conflict Resolution in the Caucasus."

The Caucasus has seen a spate of ethnic and other communal violence since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. This has affected Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya and other regions across the entire area.

Matveeva, author of a forthcoming book, Russia's Fragile Borderlands, says, as in other conflict areas around the world, the most active, young and educated people tend to leave.

"Quite a lot of people have already left Abkhazia, people are moving from Nagorno-Karabakh, people are leaving South Ossetia. They go where there are jobs, where there are positive incentives. Mainly they are moving to the large cities of Russia."

The exodus is contributing to economic decline in the conflict areas, many already reduced to subsistence trading, but also to a strengthened radicalism among the people who stay behind.

Matveeva says the conflicts in the Caucasus, with the exception of Chechnya, were characterized by a high degree of intercommunal violence and, everywhere, by "spectacular abuses of human rights." This has encouraged rival ethnic and other groups to seek 'justice', or revenge, rather than reconciliation, putting difficult obstacles in the way of peace efforts, and contributing to a new nationalism.

"The results of these conflicts have been a new kind of nationalism. This was a nationalism based very much on the war experience, and the new mythology created by war. In the conflict zones, you come across stories of war heroes, portraits of whom have been widely publicized. The whole ideology reminds me of the Second World War, of Soviet experience, and Soviet propaganda."

Matveeva says a 'besieged Fortress mentality,' and a sense of isolation and exclusion, have been characteristic of the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and other Caucasus regions.

She described Abkhazia, a breakaway Black Sea region of Georgia which has expelled thousands of ethnic Georgians amid fighting over the past seven years, as one of the most isolated of all regions, partly because of CIS economic sanctions.

"We are looking at regimes which are reminiscent of revolutionary regimes, which are based on a tight group of supporters, firm leadership, very narrow internal debate. To a certain extent, people watch each other. Internal coherence is something which they need to oppose the enemy."

But the social and economic development of the Caucasus region is not happening as many had hoped, something that has the potential to pose future threats to its stability. She said the main threat in future may come from what she called paralysis of government power across the region rather than ethnic grievances. She says one of the main aspirations of many people is the creation of some form of "Pan-Caucasian integration" modeled on the EU. This could provide a framework for resolving border disputes, human rights abuses, and population displacements.

But Matveeva says practical realities stand in the way of such a Pan-Caucasian structure. She says that "the Caucasus as a region is probably more disunited than 10 years ago."