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Interview with Oliver Wolleh – Berghof Foundation – History Dialogue on Georgian-Abkhazian conflict

Oliver leads the Berghof Foundation Europe Unit and works on various projects in the Caucasus, a region Berghof has been engaged in since 1997. He is both conceptually and practically involved in designing and facilitating dialogue processes in the region. His trainings strive particularly to empower internal facilitators.

His research interests include methods of facilitation, mediation and inter-group meetings, strategies for trust-building, power-sharing models, project monitoring and evaluation and civilian conflict management. For eleven years Oliver was a lecturer of Intercultural Conflict Management at the Alice Salomon University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. He also held teaching positions at the Institute for European Studies at Tbilisi State University, Georgia, the Kofi Annan Center in Ghana (in the Development Diplomacy Programme) and the International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Kenya.

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  • Could you give a general overview of the organization of the Berghof Foundation and its various projects? What sets its work apart from other organizations in the peacebuilding field? Can you present its objectives, concrete actions, areas of intervention and funding? 

The Berhof Foundation was founded 50 years ago, and our mandate today is to create space for conflict transformation. We are involved in many conflicts in the world: in Africa, in Europe, in Latin America, where we work for the approach of conflict transformation. This is more than just facilitation or mediation, and there can be also activities that reach out into the civil society sectors. I am the director for the Europe section. And in this frame, I’m working now for more than 20 years on the Georgian Abkhaz conflict. 

  • Regarding the action of the Berghof Foundation in the Caucasus, how did you come to realize the need for work on the memory of conflicts? 

That is indeed an interesting question. On the one hand, I can say I was confronted with these episodes, with memories and the people experiences from the very beginning when I came to Abkhazia 20 years ago, and everybody was telling me about his or her personal experiences. The same happened with IDPs, on the Georgian side. I later realized that this was a very important process of learning for me as a scholar. And yet still, it took some time until I thought about transforming all these memories in a concept of conflict transformation and using it in the confidence building. I realized only many years later how important it is to deal and talk about the past. Because I learned that as long as there is no understanding about the violence, why it happened, how it happened, and most of all, the question of “will it happen again?”, no other peacebuilding efforts, confidence building measures will succeed in creating trust. Confidence building projects often want to build a common house, something that creates togetherness. But it remains uncertain whether this new house will be burned down shortly after it was built. Nobody wants to engage in building such a house. And that’s the moment where for myself I felt that we must come to this very difficult issues. The violence of the past. 

  • And how does the memory affect concretely the audience you work with, for example, in the everyday life of these people? 

I think you can clearly see this here. This is an issue on both sides, on the Abkhaz side, particularly because the war was fought in Abkhazia and for IDPs on the Georgian side. Over the years, of course, a new generation grew up on the Georgian side, and that has no memories about this war. And they are not equally emotionally affected by it, like the generations in Abkhazia. And that is, of course, a new element that didn’t exist 20 years ago. 

  • What are the sticking points that still prevent reconciliation between Georgians and the people of the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia? 

I think we are really having a very interesting confidence building dynamic. And from my perspective, I would say there are not so many sticking points anymore. There are no sticking points if you take the topics that really matter to the people and that are on their souls. Dealing with the past is a topic basically all of us are interested in. 

The older generation have an interest in intrinsic personal interest to speak to younger generations in Abkhazia and in Georgia. Both, older Abkhaz and older Georgians like to speak to their youth and to the youth of the other side. And in this respect, I think we have many tools and interesting dynamics where we can do meaningful confidence building. And the sticking points you indicated, of course, also might exist, but they actually maybe also exist because people are taking topics that lead to the future of living together. They are connected to cooperation. They are connected to togetherness. Which is actually a very nice idea. And the idea of commonness and togetherness is often part of conflict transformation approaches. However, a large part of the Abkhaz society is not ready to think about the future. They are not ready to think about this togetherness. In this respect, I think our approach will become a door opener for many other peacebuilding initiatives that have good ideas and good intentions, but that are now really difficult to implement under the current conditions. We must clarify the question how people relate to the past. Will violence repeat? Or did people draw some lessons and it will not repeat? 

 

“Confidence building projects often want to build a common house, something that creates togetherness. But it remains uncertain whether this new house will be burned down shortly after it was built. Nobody wants to engage in building such a house”.

 

  • How do you work concretely to renew the dialogue between these populations? What means do you implement? Who do you lean on to open and animate these spaces for dialogue? 

We try to create a structure for dialogue by looking at these biographical and personal memories of people who experienced the conflicts. And I say “conflicts” because a conflict also developed in the 1980th. There were also incidences and violence in that time. Then the war of 1992 and 1993 came. So we want to have a full spectrum of memories about the escalation of the situation on both sides: Abkhaz side and Georgian side. And we take these memories as little episodes, which we are then transcribing and listening to as audio files in discussion groups. And the process starts mono communal. That means in the beginning Abkhaz listen to Abkhaz episodes, Georgians discuss Georgian episodes. To create a good space for such discussions, it is important to have local facilitators who become skillful. 

We build up teams on the Georgian side and on the Abkhaz side who can facilitate such discussions. That means while in the beginning, meetings were often facilitated by me or by colleagues from Berlin, meetings are today 100% facilitated by local people. I think we are proud that we have such strong and large teams on the ground. It took us many years to develop these teams, but I think it’s important to create trustful discussions in each society and to be respected as an organization and to gain legitimacy. Another element is that our facilitator teams are mixed, mixed in age and mixed in gender. And that means we are not just having young Georgians and young Abkhazians. We are having really some people over 50, 60 and 70 who are involved in this work. It is what we call an intergenerational approach. The teams are intergenerational and the discussion groups are intergenerational. And this is for us also important, again, to have a broader social acceptance, to reach out to the whole society and not just to some kind of youth groups or only women groups. These approaches of focusing only on one group are, of course legitimate and can be very interesting, but to break the ice on such an important topic, you must work in a broad inclusive way. The third element, which is important is transparency. You may know that many organizations work with Chatham House rules and we are not doing this and our activities are quite transparent and all the teams have Facebook sites. We are publishing articles; we are publishing videos from our participants and team members. This generates a high level of transparency. And again, this creates security for everyone and creates acceptance for our dialogue. And I think to link to your sticking points: of course, there are initiatives who have difficulties, but you should see that they are actually not very transparent. Very often they do not have a website or Facebook account or they work with Chatham House rules.

  • What are the principles that govern the organization of these speaking spaces? What are the boundaries of what is or is not acceptable in the discourse of speakers during these exchanges? And how do you effectively regulate that speech? 

This is a very interesting question and the answer is very complex. There are boundaries. You are totally right. Let me give you an example. We are striving for a process that wants to contribute to trust building and peace. And we believe that it is important to create in Abkhaz society and in Georgian society and together a space where people speak openly and honestly. And for this to happen we have some rules. There are, of course, the normal rules of good discussions which are ensured by the facilitators. Moreover, there are values too that are important. For instance, we are not promoting the idea of use of force. Our discussion episodes from the interviews are not promoting war. But another thing is that we have to make sure that the people in the discussion rooms be respectful to the audio files. You see, a person is sharing his or her personal memories. Maybe the participant agrees, maybe he or she disagree. Maybe they like, maybe they do not like the interview. But whatever they think or feel, participants in our groups must be respectful. Respectful to the other people who are discussing. If they are not respectful, then the facilitators will talk to them. And then usually the person’s either changes and accept the rules of the discussion or they are staying away because they see that here, they cannot go on with the way they want to talk. It is an important element and it is like ensuring a respectful, decent discussion. If you cannot ensure that, the discussion group will be not a safe space to speak self critically about important topics. 

  • Do the exchanges you lead reflect versions of events that are out of step with the often very schematic and of “victimization” official political versions? Or are these still very often embodied in the discourse of the participants? 

I can clearly say it is the goal of the process to create a space of discussion which is not shared by the normal and dominant arguments on each side. It is exactly what we mean by saying creating space for new ideas, for new thoughts, for self-critical thoughts. And if you look at the official, and dominant discussions, each side is blaming always the other side. And each side always claims not to have done something wrong. This is not a realistic description of what happened. And in our discussions, we are becoming very realistic. The people who give us the interviews are realistic and nuanced and the people discuss it in exactly this way. And I know this is, of course, difficult to explain if you do not see it, but this is the core of our process. And if it would be only a reproduction of, let’s say, propaganda, it would be very boring for everybody because the normal standard discourse everyone can read in the internet. 

  • The Abkhazian and South Ossetian populations are commonly perceived as “pro-Russian” and “anti-Georgian”. Do the spaces for dialogue you provide challenge this dichotomy or does it largely confirm it? 

In a general way, I would say our discussions challenge almost everything that is just dichotomic. Because dichotomy means black or white. Our discussions, if I would give it now an image is totally grey. Certainly, we are having elements of black and white dichotomies in our discussions too, but we have so much more “grey”. 

  • What are the concrete difficulties that you face in the context of your missions, whether political or socio-cultural? There may be particularly entrenched social taboos in the region….Furthermore, the Abkhaz government has recently cancelled projects by the NGO Action against Hunger..Do you face these kinds of issues with the Abkhaz authorities or with the Georgian authorities? 

It is very difficult for me now to comment on what governments are doing or what other NGOs are doing. But to speak about the dynamic of the Berghof process, we continue our work without any negative interference, neither from the Abkhaz side nor from the Georgian side. I actually indicated already when I spoke about the sticking points or the non-sticking points of structures of what you do. Of course, I do not exclude that with a political development, maybe things will change. However, at the moment we can say that our work even becomes bigger and is increasing and that the Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue elements which we are having, is being actually intensified. People are realizing how important our discussions are. And members from all sections of society are involved. 

  • And maybe a point is, also that on this particular project of Action against Hunger, the youth were going to Moldova, to Austria, or to Romania whereas you are working locally…? 

Right. Exactly. It’s part of the structures. This year we have done 750 workshops in Georgia. And we’ve done 200 workshops in Abkhazia. Our work is based on two parallel dialogue systems, both in Abkhazia and Georgia. And it’s not small. It’s very big. And last year we’ve done 1700 workshops in Georgia and 740 in Abkhazia. These are over 20,000 participants. And all these workshops took place at home. No travel. We have done also 135 Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue meetings last year but in Zoom. And this year we have done about 80 Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue meetings. At the moment we are doing 20 Georgian-Abkhaz workshops a month, which is one workshop on every working day. We are the largest Georgian-Abkhaz dialog system. 

This approach we are talking about started in the year 2015. Everything social-political aspect we were discussed here in this interview already existed in the year 2013. All the conditions, all the challenges, all the difficulties, all the problems existed and were already very clearly visible in the year 2013. 

 

“In a general way, I would say our discussions challenge almost everything that is just dichotomic. Because dichotomy means black or white. Our discussions, if I would give it now an image is totally grey”.

 

 

“We are publishing articles; we are publishing videos from our participants and team members. This generates a high level of transparency. And again, this creates security for everyone and creates acceptance for our dialogue”.

 

  • You have been working in the Caucasus for several years. How do you concretely assess the impact of your action? 

First of all, we are doing currently an external evaluation of our projects. However, all these years and every month, we are monitoring our actions. As I said, we have a number of indicators that allow us to see how the work is changing. An important indicator is the impact on the media: do we create products that go to media? And that is not only social media but also classical media formats like TV or radio. In Abkhazia, we are having, for instance, a TV show, the “Biographical Salon”. On Georgian side, we do not have a TV show, but we are working towards having one. And it would be, of course, a great step if we would have also a TV program on the Georgian side about our topics, about the discussion of violence of the past. So this is an indicator for our process and I’m hoping to have such a TV program this year. 

  • Do you think that the resumption of the dialogue that you initiate continues outside the framework posed by your actions: are links woven between the participants outside the exchange times that you organize? 

We are also doing some meetings where the teams physically meet. But there were three years of pandemic. During the pandemic, we didn’t meet. And now it’s changing. So, yes, of course, we will have this, too. But the meetings, the physical meetings are less than 1%. We’re having two physical meetings a year and we have 2300 online meetings. 

  • In particular, you have opted for spaces for online dialogue, through social networks, etc….Have you been able to notice a renewed support for your work with the pandemic crisis? 

Yes, it’s true. Our process was shifted more into the zoom direction when  the pandemic broke out. And we were surprised to see how well it works. The pandemic helped us to intensify the dialogue. But when the pandemic is over we will shift our process again back into real physical life, both in Georgia and Abkhazia – and together. 

 

“And last year we’ve done 1700 workshops in Georgia and 740 in Abkhazia. These are over 20,000 participants. And all these workshops took place at home. No travel. We have done also 135 Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue meetings last year but in Zoom”.

 

  • Did the recent “44 Day War” in Karabakh cause you to work locally with members of the Azerbaijani and Armenian communities? If so, what differences and what invariants can we observe with the work you do in Georgia-Abkhazia? 

Yes, absolutely. We worked already before the war in Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And we are having a Biographical Salon in Karabakh. We are having also a Biographical Salon in Yerevan, and this summer we will open the Biographical Salon in Baku. The Biographical Salon is an element where a lot of our discussions are taking place, and it’s complementing the Biographical Salon in Sokhoumi, the Biographical Salon in Kutaisi and in Tbilissi. It shows you that we are having here an approach that covers the whole South Caucasus. 

  • What differences and what invariants can we observe with the work you do in Georgia- Abkhazia? 

There are many common points on many levels. Because people must get used to this method of discussions. They are not so familiar with it in the beginning. Many people are used to black and white discussions if I may use this metaphor. And we are creating the space for more openness, for more details. For more self-reflection. And groups have to learn how to get into this sphere of self-reflection. Discussion usually do not start like that. 

Facilitators are important to give focus to the group and explore the details of the listened interview.  In the beginning people want to do the discussion of the interview episodes in 5 minutes and then they like to talk about themselves, their own experiences. And then the next speaker comes and says “yes, but my experiences are this”. Then the discussion must shift again to the interview and focus on what are the details of the interview. And in this respect, the dynamics are in all the societies, very, very similar. 

  • Did the war in Ukraine have a noticeable impact on your activities, especially in the context of the flow of the times of discussion and in the speech of the participants, or in another way? Does the Berghof Foundation also work in Ukraine? 

Such big political developments as the war in Ukraine have impact on our discussions. We do not only discuss the episode of the interview, we start with the episode, but the discussion takes two or three hours. At some point the group also goes to political issues in the region and in this respect, Ukraine or Karabakh war become part of our discussions. But the groups have learned to discuss respectfully inside and between. And in this respect, they can discuss everything in the same way as you and I can discuss everything. And I think this is a big achievement. It means that the Ukraine war is not a bomb that is destroying our discussions or our process. It is not. 

  • Do the Abkhaz compare the situation with the Donbas population, for example? 

Yes, of course, everybody and not only the Abkhaz, also the Georgians are comparing and relating to the situation in Ukraine. And me as a German, I am also relating to it. Everybody relates to it. And this is part of the discussion. How do you see it? How do we see it and what do you know? What do I know? And it is really very, very complex. Therefore, I really cannot go into the details of this now. 

  •  Does the Berghof Foundation also work in Ukraine? 

No. 

  • If you had any recommendations for public policy in the management of these traumas for the attention of Georgian and Abkhazians leaders, what would they be? Or if not, what do you think could make the work you do locally a little bit easier? 

Our work and the approach we discussed here in this interview is not easy to implement. I described to you how big it is, how well the discussions are, but it does not mean that it’s easy. The problems, the challenges we are having are not simply political. There are personal and emotional, psychological, social. And therefore, it’s very difficult for me to say what exactly should happen to make the situation easy or easier. And since we are not under political pressure, there is also good news. There is enough freedom on both sides to do our work. And of course, it would be maybe sometimes nice if also politicians from Abkhaz or Georgian side would relate more to our work and encourage people to engage. On the other hand, it’s our job to attract people and to show them why this work is important and giving them the choice to join or not to join. Therefore, I do not have any explicit demands to politicians at that stage. 

  • Your work may form a new generation more open to dialogue, it may lead to a paradigm shift…. 

Yes, maybe. It might come when the time is right. 

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