The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is dramatically violating international law and disregarding human rights. And its negative impact on the entire post-Soviet region is great. Especially on those countries that suffer from unresolved territorial conflicts and have experienced wars in which Russia played an important role. In the South Caucasus, for example, Georgia with its conflict over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Or Armenia and its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the interview the leaders of two civil society partner organisations, Julia Kharashvili, Chair of IDP-Women Association Consent from Tbilisi (Georgia), and Vardan Hambardzumyan, General Secretary of YMCA Europe from Yerevan (Armenia), describe how fears of a renewed escalation of the conflicts and a Russian invasion, as well as anti-Russian sentiments, are on the rise. And they call on Europe and the West not to underestimate the potentially escalating effects of sanctions and Russia's exclusion from international structures.
Question: What are the implications of the war in Ukraine for your countries Georgia and Armenia? And what are the reactions by the government and by the people?
Julia Kharashvili (JK): The war has a devastating effect in Ukraine and I am in full solidarity with the people that suffer there. In Georgia it has very negative implications as it reminds the people on the situation in August 2008, when the Russian army entered Georgian territory and claimed the recognition of the two breakaway regions Abchazia and South Ossetia as independent republics. Big parts of the Georgian population started directly after the invasion started on 24. February demonstrating with huge sympathy to Ukrainians and massive actions of support. Many airplanes brought humanitarian assistance that was collected by people, a lot of money was sent and charitable actions conducted.
For Ukrainians who appeared in Georgia since 01. February, all support is provided by the Georgian Government – accommodation, food, services free of charge. At the same time, the Government declared that they will not support sanctions against Russia announced by the West, stating that „they are not effective“ and also could harm the country, which already has two occupied territories. A big part of the popultion did not appreciate this, especially the language and how it was announced.
The big flow of Russians coming now to Georgia rise fears in society based on previous experiences that it can stimulate new Russian agression towards Georgia with the aim“ to protect Russian citizens rights“ . Such fears and increased barbaric actions of the Russian army in Ukraine led to a rise of hate speeches and radical attitudes in social media and parts of the society. The Government announced that they will not allow discrimination and even appealed to judiciary to take measures to „prevent physical clashes and ethnic discrimination of Russians“. However, some private companies and banks introduced discriminative actions, such as not allowing Russians and Belarussians to open bank accounts, demanding to sign certains statements, etc.
Many Russians who belong to the opposition, are journalists or Human Rights Defenders that are against Putin’s war, are no longer safe in Russia and seek now refuge in the South Caucasus as they cannot move to Europe. To inform the Georgian public, we together with other colleagues from NGOs are translating protester’s statements into Georgian language and spread them with the hope that it will influence the anti-russian sentiments. And we have terrible prices increases for fuel and food. Not only for products from Russia, but also for example for sugar coming from Brazil.
The war in Ukraine increased debates in society and also within the political elite and government. Currently the tensions are high after the Georgian President’s pro-European statement and the plea for Georgia to join the sanctions of the West towards Russia, which the Georgian Prime Minister and Parliament rejected. However, from my perspective the government needed to be careful and it is understandable to act in a moderate way to not increase tensions with Russia. And they need to communicate this in a proper way and declare their pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian position in order to not be misunderstood by their own people as well as by the Ukrainian society which is now fighing for survival and by their Western partners.
Vardan Hambardzumyan (VH): As stated already in 2020 during the Karabakh war I can repeat it here again: It is the autocrats that want to kick-out the democrats from their seats. Armenian people were the big victims from the war, completely abandoned and let down both by Russia and the West. Since then within our society the antisentiment against Russia is silent, but deep-grounded. On the war in Ukraine, Armenia is trying to stay neutral, as it is depending on Russia through the military and economic alliances. And the people remember quite well, that the Ukrainian President Selenskyj had congratulated Aserbaijan’s President Aliev to have captured back Karabakh.
People from Ukraine arriving in Armenia are mostly members of the Armenian diaspora in Ukraine and the Armenian government treat them as refugees, so that they are provided with shelters, food, etc. Also Russians, deprived from their daily work at home, now seek refuge in Armenia. Many are young people - IT-specialists. I often see them on the streets in Yerevan, in search of a new beginning of their life. Airfares from Russia to Armenia, office and home rentals have gone up, but the influx continues.
Q: What does it mean for the still unresoved conflicts in your region?
JK: Fear in the country is increasing, that the solidarity with Ukraine would bring back the war also to the own country. Russian military bases are close at the border of South Ossetia and Abchasia and the situation between Tbilisi and Moscow is still very tight. People living in Abchasia and South Ossetia worry on their end as well, as they hear statements from some Georgians like: „We use the opportunity now and take back the occupied territories“. After the 2008 war, the Georgian high level politicians not only once made promises to solve the conflicts only by non-military means. There was also a Parliamentary decision on only peaceful ways of solving the conflicts. But it needs now a clear committment of high level officials to ensure the own society and population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and keep this kind of danger calm and under control.
VH: It is very difficult to predict, what Putin’s plans are. But de facto as of today, Karabakh is still taken as hostage. Today, the gas supply to the region was completely cut. It is unclear, how people can live there further. A small region that is fully under control of Aserbaijan and Russia with its troops as Peacekeeping forces to guarantee security in the Lachin corridor, the only passage to reach the region Karabakh from Armenia. And meanwhile the Russian troops shall also act as Peacekeepers along the border between Armenia and Aserbaijan. It is also not clear, how Aserbaijan‘s President Aliev will act in future. The situation is very dangerous and insecure for the people living in Karabakh.
Q: How do you perceive the reactions from the European countries and the International Community?
VH: The disappointment and mistrust within the Armenian society towards the international community prevail, as during the Karabakh war in 2020, when thousands of people were killed and Aserbaijan with the help of Turkey used military forces and aggression to reach their goals the international community did not react. Now the reactions of the international community are strong and follow, from the Armenian perspective, double standards. And the reactions are leading into the wrong direction. A global confrontation seems to be possible and would be a catastrophe. Priority should be given to stop the war! It is very dangerous to push Putin into a corner, with the nuclear weapons at his side.
JK: Sanctions do not help immediately to stop the war, although they limit the budget for war. At the same time again they beat the ordinary citizen’s. And consequently support the legend of Putin, that „the West“ is the enemy of the Russian people. And indeed, it is very dangerous to push Putin further into a corner. Western leaders still seem not to fully understand how high the risk for further escalation is. In a recent interview with M. Chodorkowsky (a Russian exiled business man, former oligarch who calls for hard sanctions - add. by the author) to „Nastoyachee Vremia“ channel (prohibited in Russia now) he put it right, describing Putin as being obsessed of his idea to reestablish the former Soviet Union at all costs. This obsession makes Putin ready to continue the war regardless of all losses. That requires from the West to find new serious arguments and ways as it is clear that Putin will try to "safe the face“ by any cost, also for his own country.
It is important to keep some mechanisms of influence – in the first moment we all applauded, when Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe. But at a second glance we see, that it means loosing some opportunities for talk and preventing further escalations. And this exclusion from this important European Human Rights institution will make the defense of the last remaining Human Rights movement in Russia impossible.
We all are very inspired by the heroizm of Ukrainians, soldiers and ordinary people, protecting their country and population from agression and killings. But thousands of people lost already and will loose their lives, while the war continues. The bombardement will destroy the whole country and we know from our own experience from the recent wars in Georgia, how long it will take to rebuild all this, not to talk about recovery of the victims of this war, mentally, physically and socio-economically. It is necessary to find the convincing arguments and find the opportunities to negotiate a stable peace on conditions which will safe independent Ukraine. Messages would be needed to convince both parties for real dialogue. The escalation spiral is already going further up – we heard yesterday a Russian Duma representative thinking aloud about lifting sanctions to North Korea and ally with them. It is high time to find a way out of this spiral and deescalate the situation.
Q: What should Europe and the International community take into consideration for deescalation and engagement for peace?
VH: As I said before, it is impossible to predict what Putin‘s plans are. What needs to be done is a ceasefire now. And starting to really talk. Of course, what I also saw in the Karabakh war was that the attitude towards peace appeals is very negative. This is quite understandable. But it is urgent to set up talks and search for propositions that can be acceptable for both sides. And a big information campaign alongside is necessary, to make the propositions understandable for all. Stimulate peace not war.
And for the international engagement and structures more systematic and regular evaluation of its engagements is necessary, also in the OSCE and NATO. Many of the warning signals and mistakes of the past could have been analysed and maybe this escalation could have been prevented, if projects as well as political decisions and engagement in the security and economic sector would have been evaluated regularly. Especially more specifically regarding its impacts on peace and conflict.
JK: Yes, it is urgent to talk further. It is obvious that European high level leaders like President Macron and Chancellor Scholz continouously try to continue the bilateral dialogue with Putin, which should not be interrupted. But I believe that a stronger joint position should be elaborated by all Western leaders, and proposals put on the table with a deescalating message. Currently, Russian and ukrainian delegations are talking without mediators - maybe experienced European mediators could propose some new ways and solutions which could be considered by parties for discussion. Multilateral efforts to mediate and to stop Putin’s war through non-military means, be it through OSCE, European Union, UN-bodies or any other feasible structure, should be prioritised.
It is important already now to start thinking about the moment when the war and killing ends – immediately needs come up as the rebuilding of Ukraine, the rehabilitation of people and the search for peace and security. Many are asking us where the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on „Women, Peace and Security“ is and what it can do during the war? And my answer always is: It should continuously and actively be used, as it helps to prepare the peace, which is so urgently needed.
Both partner organizations are actively involved in solidarity work with and for the people in Ukraine and refugees in their countries:
The YMCA Europe has been assigned by its member YMCAs (incl. Ukraine) and the Global YMCA Movement with a coordinating role for all solidarity work for the Ukraine. The YMCA can use the capacities built through its ‚Roots for Peace Project‘ in humanitarian crisis response work as well as in continuous efforts in peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
The IDP-Women Association Consent (IDP-WA) is Co-Founder of the Regional Women’s Platform for Peace Dialogue with members from the whole post-soviet region. The platform supports actually women organizations in Ukraine through humanitarian aid that is provided for example for a station in Charkiv. And in Mariupol Women Organizations that continue to work under constant attacks by the russian forces. For them and others the IDP-WA started to also organize psychological online sessions. Within Georgia the IDP-WA helps in coordinating and organizing support for Ukrainian refugees and engagement with the Ukrainian diaspora groups.