Conference: Cross-Border Cooperation as an instrument for Peace Building and Reconciliation (Tbilisi) October 11th-12th 2010

Regional cooperation as an instrument for peace building and reconciliation
– best practices and lessons from Europe

On October 10th a group of Georgian and international policy shapers and researchers went on a field trip in Western Georgia to investigate best practices of cross-regional cooperation between Georgia and Abkhazia. As an impressive example of regional cooperation, the group visited the 271 meter high Enguri Dam in Jvari, near the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL). People from both sides of the conflict not only operate and maintain together one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world, but also share the generated electricity output. Even during and after the war in August 2008, the cooperation continued. The Enguri Dam and the connected hydroelectric power station are prime examples of how regional cooperation can solve common problems in ways that are beneficial for both sides even under the most difficult political circumstances. The Enguri HPP is vitally important for Georgia's energy supply since it accounts for approximately 35-40% of Georgia's total electricity production.

On another level, Radio Atinati demonstrates how communication exchanges between Georgian and Abkhazian societies can be achieved in a very practical way. The radio station located in Zugdidi also broadcasts to Abkhazian side and offers the local audience the possibility to participate shows that are partly in the Russian language. This is a good opportunity for people from both regions to get in touch with each other and exchange information on issues of mutual concern. In total, Radio Atinati can reach around 1.6 million potential listeners and it has been involved in conflict regulatory projects. Atinati's radio broadcasts and other activities have increased understanding between the divided communities and deepened knowledge about each other across the ABL, which is one step forward in confidence building efforts.

At the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) field office in Zugdidi, the group acquired a detailed overview of the current security situation at the Administrative Boundary Line. The field office monitors the situation on the ground and reports on any incidents. The EUMM presence has improved the security situation at the ABL. The EU monitors have observed transfers between Georgia and Abkhazia, which are largely due to still existing economic ties and grassroots trade, and which are good examples of regional cooperation and people to people contacts on local level.

During this field trip, the group observed and identified different forms of regional cooperation between Georgia and Abkhazia. Opportunities and possibilities for regional cooperation include economic activities on different scales, ranging from major energy project to the grassroots wood trade; information exchanges; people to people contacts through media channels and personal visits as well as cooperation facilitated by the international organizations.

Regional cooperation at the Administrative Boundary Line and field trip findings were discussed in an international conference in Tbilisi.

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Joint Georgian-Abkhazian Energy project: Enguri Dam Finnish Ambassador Petri Salo at Radio Atinati in Zugdidi EUMM Field Office Zugdidi

On the following two days the conference on cross regional cooperation – which was organized by the Heinrich-Boell Foundation and the Aleksanteri Institute (University of Helsinki) and funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland – discussed the findings of the field trip in an exceptionally proficient plenum, which included speakers and participants from the Georgian government, the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), the Ambassadors of Finland, Estonia and Switzerland, local and international NGO's, as well as Georgian and international university scholars and experts. The main goal of the conference was to evaluate problems and risks (as well as identify opportunities and possibilities) for regional cooperation to become an instrument for peace building and reconciliation in Georgia's conflicts. A question of particular interest was what lessons could be learned from experiences of regional cooperation between Finland, Scandinavian and Baltic countries and Russia. As one of the initiators of the Northern Dimension initiative of the European Union, Finland has developed considerable expertise in regional cooperation and therefore positive elements of the Finnish experiences were actively discussed at the conference. In a recently published policy guideline towards the region, Finland has pledged to increase its commitments and deepen its relations with the South Caucasian countries, to redouble its efforts to prevent conflicts, and to promote conflict resolution both by way of international cooperation and regional cooperation. The conference was sponsored by Finland's development assistance as a part of the Wider Europe Initiative framework programme.

The political framework for regional cooperation: State Strategy on Occupied Territories, EUMM and Geneva talks

The war in August 2008, and the subsequent Russian recognition of Abkhazia's independence, changed the conditions for regional cooperation between Georgia and Abkhazia. State Minister for Reintegration Temuri Yakobashvili presented the State Strategy on Occupied Territories and the Action Plan for Engagement as the Georgian response to these new realities. This Georgian government strategy attempts to improve regional cooperation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia through increased humanitarian, social and economic cooperation. The aim of the strategy is to engage both Abkhazian and South Ossetian societies. Time will tell how this strategy will be implemented and if it will lead to any practical achievements on the ground.

After the signing of the six-point ceasefire agreement there has been increased level of international involvement in the reconciliation process. While the EUMM is observing and improving the security situation on the ground in Georgia, the Geneva talks provide the main political forum for negotiations. The UN co-chair of the Geneva discussions Antti Turunen emphasized that reconciliation can only develop through dialogue. The Geneva talks are the only common forum where conflict-related issues can be discussed between all parties involved. Issues such as the terms and conditions for crossing of the ABL are also on the agenda of the Geneva talks. The greater amount of crossings over the ABL contributes to more contacts between divided communities and to higher degree of trust between conflicting parties in the long run. The State Strategy on the Occupied Territories and the Geneva talks are the two main political frameworks for regional cooperation and reconciliation between Georgia and Abkhazia.

The Prospects for regional cooperation in Georgia: Lessons to be learned from Europe

As a successful example of regional cooperation Tarja Cronberg (former Finnish Minister of Labour) presented the Euregio Karelia Neighbourhood programme. Within this programme, the Finnish and Russian border regions cooperate in order to promote economic and social development (as well as good neighborly relations) across the common frontier. The programme aims at more flexible border crossing procedures and enhancing cross-regional dialogue, cultural exchange and economic activity. In the Euregio Karelia Neighbourhood programme the joint decisions are made by the participating Finnish and Russian regions, whereas the states have been granted only an observer status. One of the lessons to be learned from this Finnish example is that cooperation on a regional level between the local authorities on practical questions of transportation, communication, economy and culture has great potential to develop the frontier regions in mutually beneficial ways that could eventually increase confidence between the neighboring societies. As Shorena Lortkipanidze from the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation pointed out, people to people contacts between the communities on both sides of the conflicting lines are the most important tools for building trust and confidence. Since confidence building is such a necessary precondition for any conflict settlement in the future, the Heinrich-Boell Foundation and the Aleksanteri Institute are investigating the possibilities of organizing a follow-up excursion in which selected stakeholders of the Georgian boundary regions to visit Finland and learn more about the Euregio Karelia Neighbourhood programme and see for themselves how this successful model of regional cooperation operates in practice.

Text : Sebastian Relitz and Mikko Palonkorpi
Photos: Iris Kempe, Giorgi Shubitidze and Mikko Palonkorpi

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Temuri Yakobashvili (State Minister for Reintegration) and Iris Kempe (Director, HBF-South Caucasus) Dmitry Danilov, Head of the European Security Department, The Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences Badri Kochoradze, Associate Professor, Tbilisi State University and Ghia Nodia, Chairman, The Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development

Conference agenda (pdf)