Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh are so-called “frozen conflicts” of the Eastern Partnership, a grouping which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. These conflicts represent a serious challenge to the security, stability, and prosperity of the Eastern Partnership countries. The last 20 years have proven that their resolution cannot be achieved by using military force. On the contrary, their future settlement needs a complex approach that would involve not only political negotiation, but also civil society dialogues, confidence and partnership building and reconciliation. That approach has become the official policy of Moldovan authorities with regard to the Transnistrian conflict. Yet, it has gained modest ground in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, where the main political actors are in a deadlock.
In 2009 the idea for an Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum—a forum which promotes contacts among civil society organizations of the Eastern Partnership and facilitates dialogue with public authorities—was launched. At its first meeting that same year more than 200 civil society organizations from the Partner countries and European Union Member States attended. We believe the Civil Society Forum can break the ice of “frozen conflicts” by taking the lead in promoting non-political dialogues and other routes to settlement.
Can the Civil Society Forum rise to this challenge? Does it have the will and courage to face this challenge? Does it have the necessary expertise to make a substantial contribution on this issue? Or, is it just a platform of endless talk, with less action and dwindling solidarity? We believe the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum can face this challenge. It has human and institutional capacities, rich collective experience, enough expertise and contact with an extensive network of civil society organizations. Yet, the Forum needs solidarity, will, and a proactive approach to exploit its best assets.
Moldova provides positive examples in this respect that deserve to be shared with and explored by partners in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. From 2006 to 2011, the Moldovan Foreign Policy Association implemented the “Transnistrian Dialogues” project. The main objective of this project was to establish bridges of communication between Moldova and its Transnistrian separatist region. This included civil society as well as journalists, professors, students, young politicians, bankers, businessmen, and local authorities. This meant we were able to maintain a constant dialogue between Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and Tiraspol, the administrative center of the Transnistrian Separatist region, at a time when official political negotiations were suspended. This was crucial in keeping communications open between all relevant parties.
“Transnistrian Dialogues” helped people from both sides of the Dniester River—the river that separates Transnistria from Moldova—to build confidence through learning how to listen and communicate normally, by keeping emotions aside, overcoming stereotypes, and suppressing animosities. Moreover, the project generated concrete ideas for joint practical cooperation between Chisinau and Tiraspol. These have been endorsed by the Moldovan constitutional authorities and Transnistrian separatist administration with the assistance of the European Union.
In October 2012, Foreign Policy Association organized an international conference in Chisinau, which aimed to explore and share the good practices developed by civil society in Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in promoting dialogue and confidence building in the areas of “frozen conflicts” of the Eastern Partnership. Following the conference, participants proposed a set of recommendations designed to bolster dialogue and partnerships with civil society organizations from “frozen conflicts” areas. These include:
- Setting up a communications platform to share experiences and facilitate dialogue among the non-governmental organizations involved in facilitating cooperation with the Civil Society partners from Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
- Launching projects designed to promote joint research and thematic study visits involving partners from Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
- Organizing thematic Summer Schools with Civil Society experts, journalists, professors, and students from concerned regions and round-tables, seminars, conferences, and presentations on non-political topics like: regional development, renewable energy, and education.
- Launching joint humanitarian projects.
- Publishing tourist guides, research papers on issues of common interests, joint articles in international newsletters on regional issues.
- Launching Economic Forums with the participation of business communities from the areas of “frozen conflicts.”
These proposals could make a lasting difference in those places still enduring “frozen conflicts.” For that to happen we need the involvement, commitment, openness and solidarity of the civil society organizations. The first step towards attaining this would be to start a comprehensive debate on the role of civil society in facilitating the resolution of the “frozen conflicts.” In our view, the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum is the most relevant regional platform to initiate this discussion, one that could generate new ideas, projects, and partnerships meant to thaw the “frozen conflicts.”