SPENCER: When we talked last, about three years ago, you were working mostly in Chechnya.
ANDRE KAMENSHIKOV: More recently my group, Nonviolence International in the CIS, has been working with many local groups in the North Caucasus area, developing local peacebuilding projects. The Russian branch of the Soros Foundation started a program called “Hot Spots” that funds projects of local peacebuilding groups. They have funded us in the past and one of the Hot Spots objectives is to help civil society develop in areas of conflict in the Russian part of the North Caucasus, not the countries of the Transcaucasus. In southern Russia you have various republics including Chechnya that are part of the Russian Federation.
Actually, a lot of humanitarian activity goes on in Chechnya. Between US$50 and $70 million were spent annually by the international community over the last three years in the North Caucasus. Most of it was spent for humanitarian aid (food, shelter, medical care, and so on) for people in Chechnya or refugees from Chechnya in neighboring regions. While lots of good programs have been established, not much has been done in terms of peacebuilding projects. But the focus of our group was to try to develop the capacities to actually manage and prevent conflicts. And we are now working on that angle in all the North Caucasus areas, including Chechnya.
In 1999, just before the second Chechen War broke out, various civic organizations like ours really made a difference in conflict prevention. My area – the Russian Republic of Dagestan that was neighboring Chechnya – had a group of Chechens living there, and that area was attacked by other groups that came from Chechnya and stirred up the situation. As a result there was strong anti-Chechen feeling locally and a real risk that all this anger might spill over onto local Chechen folks who had nothing to do with the invasion but who were blamed for it. It’s one of the few cases where we can show that civic efforts in conflict management actually made a difference.
In the last two years, with the support of the Hot Spots program, we have tried to organize concentrated NGO action where there is a high potential for conflict between various ethnic groups. We try to unite various activities of different organizations to focus on the same problem.
SPENCER: These organizations were already doing things before you came along?
KAMENSHIKOV: Yes and no. They all existed but others were not directly involved in anything related to conflict management and we got them interested in doing that. For example, there is a multi-ethnic area that probably hardly any Canadian has heard of, also in the North Caucasus, called the Karchai-Cherkess Republic. Just a few years ago there were serious tensions between the varous ethnic groups in the region. Practically no international organization had been paying attention to that. There was no humanitarian activity because luckily no conflict had yet erupted, but it was worth working on conflict prevention. We started networking with various groups and got some peacebuilding projects going. For example, we got representatives of youth ethnic movements, which are often used during a crisis as a reserve by various politicians when they need to bring out a crowd. We got these people to publish a newsletter together about the day-to-day activities of their organizations.
SPENCER: What ethnic groups did they represent?
KAMENSHIKOV: There were eight or nine groups. The main ones were the Karchai and the Cherkess. It’s one of those areas where you don’t have any clear majority. The whole thing revolved around the election for the president of the republic. The various clans and group had their own candidate. Today the situation is much more stable than it used to be. But when the next elections are held, tensions will grow again. Probably they won’t get as bad as last time, but nevertheless we are trying to build up some civil organizations and activities to counteract any conflict that arises. In the past that the odds of conflict were as high as 50:50.
SPENCER: How much time do you spend there yourself?
KAMENSHIKOV: We have a small organization; there are six people working and we all travel a lot. We divided the regions among ourselves. I work mostly in Dagestan. And, besides all this interesting work in the North Caucasus, Nonviolence International is heavily involved in putting together a network of organizations throughout the CIS region. It’s the “NGO Working Group on Conflict Management and Prevention.”
This is an interesting process. Since 1996 there has been the Geneva Conference on Displaced Persons and Refugees, an international forum to coordinate the efforts of countries and international organizations, such as UNHCR and OSCE, to deal with the problems of human displacement. It has led to the creation of a number of thematic working groups of non-governmental organizations. Five or six working groups were created. Instead of being formed by the top, our network was formed from the bottom up. It now consists of over 100 organizations, divided into three sub-networks, focusing respectively on the Caucasus, the Central Asia, and the western CIS countries – Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. This huge network is now beginning to develop large network projects and strategies. Our 100 member organizations are in all the CIS states and all the conflict regions – areas that include self-proclaimed territories and so forth.
A year and a half ago, during an annual meeting of this network, it was decided that the Central Asian region should be a priority. That was before September 11. Obviously nobody expected anything like that, but they realized that the situation was unfolding in a dangerous way, and it still is. September 11 changed the picture, but didn’t make it better. There are worrying signals coming from there. We have a pretty good understanding of what is going on in these regions. It is a very different picture from when we were mainly focused on Chechnya or people in the Caucasus.
The network is managed by a coordinating council of NGOs themselves, which specifically decided to try to work with organizations in Canada. I would like to revive contacts in Canada.
SPENCER: I hope this conversations stimulates just that. People can contact Peace Magazine to get in touch with you. All good wishes!