by Elena Marda
In a wonderful building ideally situated next to the Parc de Cinquantenaire, the European Geopolitical Forum and TUSIAD hosted an event on ‘Networked Regionalism as Conflict Management in Politically Divided Areas: the Balkans and South Caucasus’. The relaxed environment – and the Chatham rules applied – allowed the participants to express their views outside of their professional affiliations and with an open mind to diverse ideas.
While the international community has fixed its eyes on the ‘hot conflicts’ of Syria and Mali, this event focused on a rather under-discussed subject. Could a regional framework become the driver for conflict amelioration in the Balkans and South Caucasus? How can we build these regions? What instruments and tools are needed?
In countries where states’ weakness is persisting and where the high levels of centralisation are disempowering local governance, economic incentives have the power to take these regions out of the existing deadlock. And unsurprisingly, in politically divided areas, it’s the politics that drive the economy. As the debate was unfolding, the issue was narrowed down to one question: ‘to region or not to region’? Essentially, should we pursue more regional cooperation with the hope that this will lead to enhanced coordination, mutual understanding and, eventually, to resolution or even reconciliation? The views of the participants were divided.
Could a ‘Regional Networked Peace Paradigm’ be the solution?
For the optimists, regionalisation has the ability to function as a long term peace factor by cross-cutting networks between professional communities. As both a top-down and bottom-up approach, transnational and heteroporal, it manages to leave space for trilateral agreements between parties and it can expand the agenda of issues to be discussed. In the spirit of being proactive, a political deal is not a pre-requisite for cross-conflict engagements. Small steps are critical and the time has come to articulate a common vision which will stimulate grassroots peace creativity and reduce talks over territorial integrity and self-determination.
For the pessimists, regionalism is by no means the panacea for the conflicts in the Balkans and South Caucasus; in fact, their economies have very small export dynamic and few goods to offer. Efforts towards enhanced regionalism may be perceived as a way to consolidate status quo at the expense of one or the other engaged party and the risk of pull of global capitals and trade flows is always present. Most importantly, regionalism is often battled from within; political resistance from the member states of the area blocks any plans for expansion. In a region where arms, munitions and occupation are still a reality, trade is becoming only a secondary concern. In addition, as it was stressed, regions are constructed based on security, political and economic interests; absent a clear economic vision, it is almost impossible to proceed to a plausible integration of neighbouring markets.
Regrettably, the South Caucasus region does not have its own institutional champion that could become the prototype and the catalyst – as it is the case of the EU in the Balkans. Lacking home-grown initiatives, there is limited space for the emergence of a mechanism that could boost transnational cooperation. Russia and Turkey are mostly politically driven and inorganic; Georgia is under the constant aggression of Russia; the EU has a poor presence in conflict management responses in the region. In this rather gloomy picture, the Eastern Partnership can prove to be advantageous, only if decoupled from the global geopolitical agendas. To this regard, in the Balkans, the Regional Cooperation Council is instrumental in keeping the countries on track with the EU accession being the ‘gift’ for their efforts towards reconciliation.
But even if the paradigm is not sufficient, does that mean that it loses its value? Definitely not, especially in absence of a functioning alternative. The discussion demonstrated that both the Balkans and the South Caucasus need more international attention. Perhaps focus should be given to the fact that in both areas, regionalism is seen as an elite-driven process with only low implementation.
You can find more details on the event here