Milena Oganesyan: Cultural Identity, Security, and Conflicts in the South Caucasus. A Reflection

Ethnic and state borders in the Caucasus region often do not coincide, and cause ethno-religious tensions in this culturally diverse area of the world (Coene 2010, O’Loughlin et al. 2007). After the demise of the Soviet Union, three major ethno-territorial conflicts have occurred in the South Caucasus, a region comprising the states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. These conflicts continue to affect the peaceful development of this region. The following personal reflection addresses the importance of including a cultural dimension towards stability and peace in the framework of understanding regional development and cooperation in the South Caucasus region. Specifically, I will focus on the relationship between identity, culture, and conflict by examining the concept of human security as it prevails in the realm of international development and peace and conflict studies. Secondly, I will discuss the relationship between conflict and cultural identity as is often expressed through cultural heritage and cultural objects.

In 1994, following the end of the Cold War, the United Nations Development Program presented a report that centered on the idea of human security. The 1994 Human Security report called for a paradigm shift in conceptualizing the notion of security. The report emphasized the need to move from a state-centered approach towards a people-centered understanding of security. In this regard, human security can be defined as “the protection of individuals from risks to their physical or psychological safety, dignity and well-being” (Tadjbakhsh & Chenoy 2007:3). Thus, human security focuses on people rather than states. In turn, people’s insecurities can trigger conflicts and challenge state security. In this paper, human security will be viewed as one of the components of the state’s national security, and potentially as a framework for regional security.

Human security is linked to basic human needs. In order to survive, grow, and develop, individuals must fulfill basic human needs (Burton 1990; Maslow 1943, 1987). These basic needs include access to shelter, water, and food. Importantly, basic needs also involve personal safety; security, including cultural security; self-esteem; belonging and love; freedom; and participation; among other things (Marker 2003). Human security is closely related to the notion of identity. In general, identity is about answering the questions: “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” As Maalouf (2001) argues in his book, people have a basic need to belong to a group, a tribe, a family, or a nation. Individuals have multiple identities that are tied to a territory, a religious group, etc. The need to construct an identity (Heine et al. 1999) is regarded as a requirement. Identities provide basic psychological needs and help people adjust to changing contexts and foster belonging (Ryan & Deci 2005).

The recognition of one’s identity and cultural values as legitimate are also considered to be an important human need (Burton 1990). Often, culture appears to be rather “subtle and pervasive” in everyday life (Hall 1966) and is taken for granted. Yet, bounded by shared traditions, behaviors, belonging, beliefs, and artifacts, among other elements; culture influences the ways in which human beings experience and construct meanings about the world (Samovar et al. 2009). In order to understand the relationship between cultural identity and conflict, it is important to define the notion of culture. There are various definitions of what constitutes culture. For the purposes of this article, culture will be approached as a set of “patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts.” In this regard, culture is based on “traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, as conditional elements of future action” (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952:181). Thus, important aspects of culture include (1) physical artifacts expressed through patterns of behavior, art, etc., (2) values, and (3) basic assumptions of the human group (Schein 1984).

A number of factors affect the construction of cultural identities and the perceptions of these constructs by others. As the first diagram below shows, family values, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, religion, cultural heritage, territory, language, all in one way or another shape individuals’ cultural identities and influence the ways in which people understand, experience, and interpret the world.


Cultural identities are expressed through cultural heritage (Smith 2006). In other words, “heritage provides meaning to human existence by conveying the ideas of timeless values and unbroken lineages that underpin identity” (Graham et al. 2000:41). Since the security of (cultural) identity is regarded to be a basic human need (Marker 2003), any threat to personal identity, including its physical expressions through material objects or cultural symbols, can be perceived as a threat to one’s dignity or survival. Such circumstances tend to cause new, or intensify existing conflicts (Maalouf 2001; Maiese 2003). Negative information about a sociocultural group tends to further increase threat perception and trigger defense mechanisms to protect personal identities (de Hoog 2013). In this regard, for example, the removal of crosses from a shared Muslim-Christian cemetery in the Georgian village of Tsintskaro caused a conflict between the village’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants in 2012. A year later, the dismantling of an illegally constructed minaret from a mosque in the village of Chela, Georgia, resulted in a clash between Christians and Muslims (EMC 2013). These cases show that cultural symbols are linked to the perceptions and expressions of identities and, if mistreated, can cause violence. Georgia is not an exception; these kinds of cases are widespread throughout the multicultural South Caucasus and beyond.

One possible way to deal with conflicts related to cultural identities and their expressions is to design and implement culturally informed policies in schools, higher education institutions, offices, state and private organizations. While designed as a bullying prevention model in schools, Coffin’s (2007) model for attaining cultural security is noteworthy. According to Coffin (2007), in order to address cultural security and potentially avoid conflicts within organizations, it is important to take into account issues surrounding cultural awareness and cultural safety first. As the figure below indicates, cultural awareness is at the base of the pyramid and underlines the idea that there are different cultures. Cultural safety, which forms the middle section of the pyramid, is about creating and supporting a safe environment in which people can openly share and discuss cultural differences, including issues related to identity and conflicts. Finally, the essence of cultural security, at the top of the pyramid, involves actual practices, skills, and policies that are woven into the relevant social services provided by different state institutions (Coffin 2007; SJR 2011), or possibly regional organizations.

cultural security model

In conclusion, building peace and stability in the conflict-torn region such as the South Caucasus is not an easy task. In multicultural countries, in particular, human insecurities can jeopardize state security and cause instability. Any threat to identity or its expressions can lead to violence (Maalouf 2001). Acceptance of and respect for one’s culture and identity plays an important role in maintaining human security within a community, a state, or a region. As someone once said, various cultural values can be shared in diverse societies. Cultural heritage can not only be valuable for one local community but also have value to the state and the wider region. Such an approach can certainly lay a deeper foundation for greater understanding, mutual respect, and peace among different human groups and nations.



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