Report on the URIS & CEES Online Workshop, 20 November 2020

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« How to React to Crisis, Secessionism and War – Protest, Peace Activism, or Emigration? South Caucasus & Ukraine in a Comparative Perspective »

On 20 November 2020, the research initiatives « Ukrainian Research in Switzerland » (URIS) and the « Center for Eastern European Studies » (CEES) presented their digital workshop. Those invited included young visiting scholars from Ukraine and the South Caucasus who had been researching at the Universities of Bern, Zurich, St Gallen, Geneva and Basel in the 2020 autumn semester. The workshop addressed the (frozen) conflicts between Abkhazia and Georgia and between Ukraine and Russia. These conflicts are confronting the people in the region with difficult political and social choices: Should they join the secessionist movements, support peaceful solutions through cultural and social engagement, or escape the conflicts through emigration?

The guests were invited to describe the situation in eastern Ukraine and the South Caucasus in a comparative sociological, ethnological and historical perspective. The workshop consisted of three moderated panel discussions of 75 minutes each. The participants were asked to relate their current research to the overarching theme of the event.

In the first panel « Beyond the Politics of History and Memory », moderated by Benjamin Schenk (Basel), national historiography and individual memory in Soviet Ukraine were explored in the context of the current politics of the past. A close look at artists and historians who have helped to shape the narratives of this politics of remembrance produced unexpected insights into overlapping ideas and concepts concerning, and assumptions about, historical conflicts. In her doctoral thesis, Nataliya Borys (University of Geneva) examines academic networks between Polish and Soviet Ukrainian historians in the 1960s and 1980s. She comes to the conclusion that historical scholarship in the Soviet Union was subject to both material and ideological constraints. The ability of researchers to travel was limited, meaning that only very few transnational academic networks were able to emerge. This, in Borys’ view, was also why the prism of an ethno-national historiography continued to prevail even in the post-Soviet sphere.

The Slavonic and cultural studies scholar Bohdan Tokarskyi (URIS) also alluded to this with his discussion of the life and work of the Soviet Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl’ Stus (1938-1985). Tokarskyi urged that we expand the boundaries of our « mental maps » regarding the Soviet dissident movement and consider the diversity and the solidarity within the gulag. A national and ethnocentric perspective, he said, also opened up new ways of interpreting a « common solidarity ». The ensuing discussion highlighted the difference between a history based on events and facts and the – distinct – narratives of historiography.

The second panel, « Socioeconomic Aspects of Conflict », moderated by Jeronim Perović (Zurich), looked at the challenges of transnational economic ties in situations of political conflict. Aspects considered included the disruption of transnational infrastructures and international economic relations as a result of international economic sanctions and their social implications. Gvantsa Salukvadze (CEES) focused on the dependence on tourism of the mountainous regions of Georgia in the face of political decisions and sanctions by the Russian Federation limiting the freedom of movement and the distribution of food. The instability of political relations between the Russian Federation and Georgia had, she said, negatively impacted the once stable economic landscape and destabilised the fragile economies of the tourism- and agriculture-based mountainous regions. In the discussion, Salukvadze highlighted the fact that Georgia was seeking to reduce its dependency by diversifying its economic contacts, including with Europe.

In the case of Crimea, Maria Shagina (CEES) believes that an expansion or resumption of economic ties between the peninsula and Europe is unlikely. In her research project she investigates the impact of the Western sanctions on the humanitarian situation in Crimea. The lack of food and medical product supplies, Shagina explained, was resulting in critical shortages. In the following discussion, she underscored the fact that at the moment – unlike in Georgia – the Crimean government could only improve supply by trading with other sanctioned states like Syria. This meant that the humanitarian situation remained extremely tense.

The third panel was titled « How to Deal With Border Conflicts » and focused on individual strategies for dealing with conflicts. Moderated by Ulrich Schmid (St Gallen), the researchers discussed how people in the conflict regions interacted with public authorities and how they can secure access to social services. In her research project on the « line of contact » between the so-called Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the rest of Ukraine, Oleksandra Tarkhanova (St Gallen) concentrates on the negotiations between the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the state actors. Tarkhanova believes that the practices and understanding of citizenship are central here. The aim of her research project is to investigate how the social rights of IDPs and residents of the uncontrolled territories are regulated by law and constructed in political discourses.

Nasta Agrba, meanwhile, looked at the impossibility of participation (CEES) in her research project « The ultimate soft power: EU education as an integration instrument for de facto states through the example of Abkhazia ». Agrba set out the case that a lack of programmes for Abkhazian students at European universities was isolating Abkhazia in the field of education. Young Abkhazians were consequently choosing to study at Russian universities instead. The lack of such EU programmes made it impossible for the students to come into contact with other education systems and sociopolitical practices. Agrba reasoned that opening up EU study programmes could have a positive impact on the social participation and development of Abkhazia’s younger generation.

Tamar Demurishvili‘s (Bern) current research project focuses on religious life in (post-)Soviet Georgia and Russia. Demurishvili examined changes and continuities in the religious sphere. At the centre of her study is the concept of « nostalgia ». Demurishvili analyses the role that nostalgia plays as one aspect of faith in post-Soviet Georgia and in Russia when it comes to the construction of the collective memory. She found that religious institutions use the concept of nostalgia to influence collective memory and group behaviour in the post-Soviet region.

The audience enthusiastically took up the invitation to take part in discussions. There were particularly animated questions and lively debates in the « breakout rooms » set up by the organisers on Zoom, which served as a platform for informal interaction in place of the usual conference breaks. Despite their different research interests and academic backgrounds, the participants engaged in truly in-depth conversations with one another. A platform was thereby created where people could come together respectfully to exchange ideas and have stimulating discussions about the highly emotive subject of the conflicts in eastern Ukraine and the South Caucasus.

Report by URIS & CEES