Impressions from a journey through the South Caucasus

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Comment by Andreas Speck

When WRI planned a visit to the South Caucasus, to develop co-operation with local groups on antimilitarism and conscientious objection, it was clear that this wouldn't be an easy task. However, it proved even more difficult than expected.

I arrived in Tbilisi in Georgia on 26 July, on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow. Georgia, which suffered a civil war in the early 1990s, still has two unresolved conflicts - Abkhazia and South Ossetia. While there is no war at present, neither is there peace. Russian peacekeeping forces form the majority of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) which keeps the protagonists apart. However, Georgia accuses the Russian Forces of supporting both Abkhaz independence and South Ossetian separatism.

With Russia bordering Georgia in the north (and involved in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), the government under Shevardnadze, most of the so-called opposition parties, and the majority of the population, look to NATO for support. Georgia hopes for NATO membership - and very few groups, even among human rights NGOs, oppose this. So very few groups oppose US policy - such as the war on Iraq. The US in turn is building a huge new embassy on the outskirts of Tbilisi - clearly they have their own interests in the region.

Pacifism is not very popular in Georgia - WRI Georgia was the only group that protested against the war on Iraq, and which promotes pacifism and anti-militarism. Although Georgia has a law on conscientious objection, it is not implemented. However, last year 300 people applied for CO status. But the usual way to avoid military service is through bribes - either for a medical exemption, or for postponement of service.

While Georgians feel threatened by Russia, Abkhazians and South Ossetians feel threatened by Georgia. Abkhazia maintains its own military forces, and a tough conscription regime. To speak out against militarism in Abkhazia is almost unthinkable, and over the years several Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned for their conscientious objection.


From Georgia I went to Yerevan in Armenia and it wasn't easy to find groups even willing to meet us - a first indication that pacifism is even less popular than in Georgia. Armenia is also the only country in the region with COs in prison - 24 Jehovah's Witnesses serving sentences of between one-and-a-half and three years, a further seven are awaiting trial, four of whom are in prison.

The situation in Armenia is linked to the conflict around Nagorno Karabakh - which during Soviet times was an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan, but after a war in the early 1990s became an unrecognised independent republic, supported only by Armenia, and with Karabakh and Armenian forces occupying some 20% of Azerbaijan territory.

Again, corruption is the main way to avoid military service in Armenia, mainly because of poor conditions in the Armenian military. The Soldiers' Mothers' Committee is very concerned about the poor conditions but, unlike their Russian counterparts, they don't aim to get people out of the military. Instead they see the conditions as a hindrance for a stronger Armenian military, and therefore as unpatriotic.

I was not able to visit Karabakh. There, the situation must be even worse, with a permanent state of military alert. Criticising militarism seems to be almost impossible, and the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh also maintains a tough conscription system.


The situation is mirrored in Azerbaijan, where talk about peace is regarded as giving up the 20% of territory occupied by Armenia. There are a million refugees and internally displaced people (in a country of eight million), mostly from the regions around Karabakh occupied by Armenian forces, which were previously populated by Azerbaijanis. These areas are now completely depopulated, as Armenians didn't move in to settle there.

Again, willingness to serve in the military is not necessarily high, in spite of nationalism, militarism, and high anti-Armenian sentiments. But, as elsewhere, the main way out of military service is through bribing officials. There are currently no conscientious objectors in prison in Azerbaijan, but more than 2,000 draft evaders and deserters are serving prison sentences.

Azerbaijan - as with Georgia - aligns itself with the West, and with Turkey, in response to Armenia's defence alliance with Russia. Azerbaijan's huge oil and gas reserves must make it a very interesting country for the West. The World Bank-financed Baku-Ceyhan (Turkey) oil pipeline is aimed at securing the flow of oil to the West, and bypassing Russia.


When I met Eldar Zeynalov from the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan in Baku, he asked me bluntly “why are war resisters not interested in the conflicts in the former Soviet Union?”. I had little response. One reason is a lack of knowledge - most people know that there are conflicts in the South Caucasus (and other parts of the former Soviet Union), but little more. Another reason is that because there is almost no peace movement in any of these countries the international peace movement lacks potential partners in the region who could act as a point of reference. War Resisters' International hopes to stay in touch with the groups we met, and to work with those interested in strengthening efforts for peace in the region. This has to go well beyond just conscientious objection, and has to look much deeper at the roots of militarism and nationalism in the South Caucasus. Not an easy task - but who thought peace would be an easy thing to achieve?