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Local Initiatives Build Conflict Resolution Skills In Caucasus

(Washington, DC--April 5, 2002) Citizen activists from the Caucasus believe that their local efforts to solve problems can promote integration across the region and help lead to the resolution of regional conflicts.

This was the message of four women activists who head non-governmental organizations in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, who discussed their experiences in building a network of democratic reformers at an RFE/RL briefing today. These community leaders are among 200 participants in a training program organized by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) and funded by a grant provided by the U.S. Department of State's cultural and educational exchange program.

Anahit Bayandour, co-chair of the Armenian National Committee-Helsinki Citizens' Assembly said that three problems "keep the countries [of the Caucasus] in tension" and prevent normal development: internal migration of displaced persons, the conflicts involving the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and secessionist movements in Georgia, and the lack of economic and political development that has resulted from these conflicts. Bayandour said that a "backdrop of pseudo-nationalism in Armenia" prevents the signing of a peace treaty, and allows the ruling elite to use violence and corruption to promote its interests. Although it is "hard to live in this situation", Bayandour said, "our activities promote peace and integration" which "gives people hope."

Solmaz Mehdiyeva, director of the Guba-Khachmaz Resource Center for Human Rights in Azerbaijan, agreed that the "persistent conflicts" of the region were preventing the development of social, economic and political systems in Azerbaijan. Mehdiyeva stressed that these issues also exist in the broader region and that the "South Caucasus cannot be separated from the North Caucasus--each affects the other." Mehdiyeva, who lives in northern Azerbaijan and is well acquainted with the lack of democratic reforms in the neighboring Republic of Daghestan--a part of the Russian Federation--said, "we have to solve all the problems of the Caucasus together, and the world community needs to unite to force Russia to change its policy towards the region."

Liana Beria, program director for the Soglasi Women's Association of Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia, hopes that the regional network of citizen activists of which her group is a part will "recreate trust between nations." Beria was concerned that internally displaced persons in all of the countries of the Caucasus might be "turned into weapons" by forces in the region that want to prevent peace and development. Her organization, with others in the developing network, is hosting "town hall meetings" that include NGOs, local government officials, concerned citizens and others to solve specific problems at the local level.

Maia Katamadze, director of the Women's Charity Fund "Favorite" in Georgia, said that the "town hall meetings" are "something absolutely new" and "very effective" in turning local communities away from conflict and towards problem solving. Her own group works with displaced persons and focuses on women and youth. With the support of IDEE's regional network, Katamadze's group is helping 30 unemployed youth receive employment training in the city of Batumi -- something she considers "an example of the success of this network."