Constructing Reality: scholarship and policy

Constructing Reality: scholarship and policy on post-independence Caucasus

Hratch Tchilingirian | 12 November 2013

'When foreigners visit the Caucasus, at first they understand this place a little better, and then they start to feel that they no longer understand anything at all'.(1)

This observation of an Abkhaz social worker captures the general frustration of "outsiders" with the Caucasus.  I would add that the "frustration" is not only or necessarily on the empirical level, but about the changing shades of the "picture" formulated about the region by outsiders.

Obviously, this is not a simple questions in a region where, at least in the last two centuries, empires were defeated, territories expanded and changed, entire populations moved from one place to another, new "nations" created — and where a host of political "experiments" were conducted. 

I would like to offer two observations that I believe are important to our discussions about the relationship between scholarship and policy formulations. But, before doing that, as a way of background, I would say that the existing literature on the Caucasus in the last two decades or so could be arranged into three broad categories:

a) Scholarly books:  primary texts and historical sources, Soviet-era publications by local and regional scholars, Western studies of the region (mainly what was known as "sovietology"), and post-Soviet era studies with a large focus on nationalism and 'the problem of nationalities' in Soviet and post-Soviet space;

b) Journalistic publications: newspaper and magazine articles, descriptive and analytical reports, news material;

c) Transition, Development & 'Conflict resolution' literature:  papers and proposals generated by NGOs, academics, think tanks and international organisations.

Indeed, many volumes are available today about the various aspects of the former Soviet republics in general and the Caucasus in particular.  However, there is a vast thematic and historical gap in the literature produced in the West.  Most of it provides a superficial historical background and very little sociological, ethnographic, cultural, or historical analysis of the respective countries or territories in the region. 

For instance, what nowadays is referred to as "frozen conflicts" in the Caucasus, actually froze in 1921 when all the three republics and the wider region were conquered by the Red Army and sovietised; they were "defrosted" -- to use the same analogy -- during the Perestroika era and "refroze" again in the late 1990s.  

The point I wish to underline here is not the validity or usefulness of the term, but the fact that even as the societies and actors in the region do not view these conflicts as "frozen", we as observers, as outsiders, have formulated or branded these conflicts as "frozen" and use it as a discursive given with our engagement with the region. In fact, for us the "freezing point" is the mid 1990s rather than earlier times.

A more nuanced aspect of this branding is also "tactical" in the sense that in recent years, the use of such "neural" terms as "frozen" to refer to conflicts in the region seems to have relieved outsiders from making difficult definitional choices. 

And this brings me to my first observation: 

The analytical distinction between primary and secondary constructions of reality is important.  Primary construction is comprised of basic data; secondary construction is an account — a re-presentation — of the data.  As E. Barker explains: 'Although looking for nothing but the truth in the sense that we are committed to accuracy and eliminating falsehoods from both our own and others' constructions, scholars or experts select what will go into our constructions, excluding some aspects that others include, and including further aspects that others exclude'.   

This process of selection — of inclusion and exclusion — has presented perceptual and discursive problems to the analysis (and to some extent conflict resolution) in the Caucasus.   There are knowledge gaps between the outsiders' understanding of reality and the locals' understanding of reality.  Indeed, for the societies in question, the secondary construction of reality by 'outsiders' has had an effect on the self-perception of the members of the societies that the outsiders describe or re-present. 

The gap in the scholarly literature is especially in the study of how societies -- whether the majority, minorities or particular groups among the population define and construct their reality and how the worldview of the affected actors is shaped by that reality. 

My second observation is that, arguably, scholarship about the region has been to some extent "driven" by the policy formulators and their particular interests.

This is not to imply that scholarship has been less objective or valuable, but it has created, for example, a false "periodization" of the Caucasus.  For the policy community what is important is the present, the right now, the current configuration in the region.  Not what happened 70 or 100 years ago.   As such, even scholars and experts who have studied, for instance, the conflicts in the Caucasus, and have made suggestions for resolution take the starting 'historical moment' of 1991 for granted and build various scenarios and solutions based on the accepted assumptions and adopted policies of the "international community".

There are still objective historical and legal factors that matter for societies in the Caucasus, which have been largely ignored or conveniently put aside as irrelevant to the current search for political engagement with the region, as well as the settlement of the existing conflicts. 

The transitions and conflicts -- both within society over political power and economic prosperity and without with former autonomous entities -- did not start in 1991.  Soviet colonialisation in the 1920s did not bring relief or solutions to existing territorial, economic, political and cultural disputes, but contained them through various state measures ranging from granting limited autonomy to forced population shifts. Thus, when an opportunity rose in the period of perestroika in the mid-1980s, as Ted Gurr puts it, 'disadvantaged groups responded quickly to cues suggesting that they [were] justified in acting on old grievances'. 

In the policy-driven literature, the long decades of the Soviet regime, which are significant to the understanding of societal grievances in the Caucasus, are either not discussed at all or are skeletal.   Indeed, a number of books on conflict resolution published in recent years hardly discuss the Soviet period.

The need to simplify history -- even very recent history -- for policy makers has also led to an element of superficiality to suggested solutions or recommendations to existing regional and societal problems in the region. In fact, the memory of the last 20 years has become too short.  A case in point is the expedient, if not congratulatory, stance of statesmen and policy makers regarding the persistently unfair elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

One wonders if any lessons have been learned from other regions in the world, least of which from the Middle East.  The very obvious lesson that 30-40 years of expediency and convenience would create a large scale social-political earthquake, which will then take billions of pounds of taxpayer money to deal with.

While policy makers are bound to make choices based on their own state or organisational interests, scholarship and in depth-research need to continue to provide a voice for societies they speak about and the necessary depth for analysis and discernment of issues.

(A shorter version of this essay was presented at Chatham House on 12 November 2013.)

Hratch Tchilingirian
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