The conviction of the Shared Societies Project has been, since its very inception, that the convergence of diverse cultures should be enriching and beneficial to peoples and societies. The South Caucasus region, which is located on the border of Eastern Europe and Southern Asia and includes the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, exemplifies this meeting of various cultures. What it has not exemplified is the peaceful coexistence and inclusion of different ways of life.
During Soviet times the union states incorporated various ethnic minorities and their borders separated some communities from the rest of their identity group. There has not been much effort to build Shared Societies were all could feel they belong and are valued, and since Soviet times there have been attempts by force to realign those borders. Violent conflict between the nations has plagued the region throughout the past three decades A brief war broke out between Georgia and Russia in 2008. War broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and continued until 1994. This prolonged violence caused millions of displaced persons from both nations and the deaths of more than 300,000. As recently as 2012, hundreds of thousands of those who had fled their homes have still been unable to return.
The violence and displacement has had negative consequences, especially in terms of the propagation of a shared society. The displaced persons are often systematically ignored, if not abused in their new communities. As such, they are unable to become productive members of the society and oftentimes live in poverty. People from both sides often possess huge misperceptions about the other. These misperceptions, coupled with lack of opportunity, trickle down to younger generations and threaten to perpetuate the vicious cycle of intolerance which so easily leads to violence.
“For my students, Azerbaijanis are like something from the moon,” said teacher Mr Iskandaryan in an interview with the BBC. “The same goes for young people in Azerbaijan.”
There seems to be a similar lack of understanding of other cultures, whether innocuous or manipulated, throughout the region. Nonetheless, there are efforts to bring an end to this cycle by promoting inclusiveness among young people.
Many of these efforts lie in education, and more specifically, an education that promotes inclusiveness. Through realizing such an education, young people are exposed to diversity, are able to move beyond stereotypes, and are taught skills that will help them to succeed.
It was with these benefits in mind that the Common Kids initiative was created. According to the Open Society Foundations, “Common Kids is designed to improve the situation of vulnerable children and young people aged between seven and 16 years old, as well as their families, in Georgia and Armenia.”
The capstone of the initiative is a summer camp, mainly aimed at those who are from minority populations and have faced prejudice, including Roma and Meshketians . These children come from minority groups against whom society is quite prejudiced. In addition to typical summer camp activities like sports and art, the kids learned about dealing with discrimination and diversity. By the end of the 12 day long program, the students recognized not only their own capabilities, but the capabilities of others.
“At the end of the summer school each of us realized how much potential we have and how we have never thought about how to use it correctly,” one of the participants said.
The Club de Madrid is also fostering inclusiveness in the South Caucasus region. At the beginning of May, it hosted the South Caucasus Forum in Ganja-Baku, Azerbaijan. The forum specifically focused on promoting women’s empowerment and building Shared Societies in Azerbaijan. Also, the Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Nalbandian, visited in June the Club de Madrid headquarters to talk about his country’s challenges in the region. And Clem McCartney –policy and content coordinator of the Shared Societies project- visited Georgia and met with the State Minister for Reintegration, who is responsible for dealing with the conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and more generally Georgian policy on national minorities.
Photo: Katherine Lapham/Open Society Foundations