Hovhannes Stepanyan: Perspectives for Creating Volunteering Opportunities among the Countries of the Caucasus

Introduction The nations living in the Caucasus region have a number of similarities and common values, which are reflected in their everyday lifestyle, cuisine, gestures, musical rhythms, family, culture, ornaments, national costumes and many other aspects of traditions (1), which are most probably inherited from the historical past, when those nations were unified under various umbrellas of dominant supranational powers, as well as having stronger social and economic bilateral ties with each other (2). These similarities and common values still exist to a certain degree, but already bear the stamp of the national identity of each Caucasian nation. However, in spite of diversities in orientations that impose a severe shadow on these commonalities and create solid ground for emphasizing the differences, the aforementioned similarities and common values may still have the capacity for playing a positive role in terms of promoting peace, stability and cooperation in the Caucasus region. The focus of this article is neither the unsuccessful past attempts at creating a union of Caucasus countries, nor on the fatalities that took place in the past (3), but the focus will be concentrated on the perspectives for regional cooperation that can happen jointly among all nations of the Caucasus by prioritizing the spirit of positivism and reliable partnership. As such, one of the identified areas where regional cooperation can happen is Volunteerism (4), especially with the involvement of sophisticated youth representing the various nations of the region – those who possess the strength and interest for promoting regional cooperation in the Caucasus and consider themselves free from political constraints. Volunteering as a Means of Cultural Understanding and Confidence Building The power of Volunteerism has been identified in many instances (5) and most of the developed and leading countries of the world relate to volunteering as an important “soft power tool” (6), which aims to promote international cultural exchange, social dialogue and mutual understanding, thus creating newer opportunities for joint achievements. International organizations and supranational unions also identify the important role of volunteering and allocate sufficient funds and resources for creating permanent volunteering opportunities for their affiliates (7). Furthermore, in those countries where the positive role of volunteering is recognised, active policies are undertaken for promoting volunteerism starting from early academic levels, such as institutionalizing volunteering activities in public educational entities (8), combining the concept of volunteering with internships by promoting “service learning” (9), seeing volunteerism from the perspectives of “VolunTourism” (10), etc. These activities refer to volunteerism as a means of uniting people with different backgrounds for social good, having sustainable tangible achievements through joint activities, promoting tolerance and mutual understanding, assisting in team-building and friendship, understanding and respecting different cultures and lifestyles, supporting skills-transfer and local capacity building, having a multiplying effect by raising recognition and pride, etc. (11) The aforesaid emphasizes that volunteering itself has a strong capacity for strengthening cultural understanding among various nations, which can be duly replicated and effectively used for the purposes of creating perspectives for regional cooperation among the Caucasus countries. For the purposes of analysis of this article, when concentrating on the neighbouring countries within the Caucasus region, we see a region where there are several contradicting issues, such as closed borders, territorial disputes and non-harmonized viewpoints about the past and the future, thus imposing an overall negative impact on visions for regional development (12). Consequently, these issues impose numerous risks, uncertainties and dangerous conflicts, most of which, unfortunately, can have fatal outcomes, as they have done previously. In addition to these realities, as well as taking into account the vast number of ethnic minorities that live in the Caucasus region (13), the situation is being further complicated by aspects of cultural safety and security, especially when it refers to native nations with small populations that can be referred to as endangered zones, in terms of preserving their existence and identity (14). These small nations appropriately need “shields” from the harsh cultural flows that are being imposed from other countries and ethnicities with greater populations in the Caucasus region (15). cultural security modelIn view of the above, it would be useful to refer to Coffin’s “Cultural Security Model” (16), which can be reasonably adapted for the Caucasus region. This model introduces the simplified three levels that can serve as a sustainable grounding for initial collaboration (17). At the bottom of the pyramid is ‘Cultural awareness’, which is seen as the first step and the key towards further confidence building and mutual trust. If we analyse today’s Caucasus nations, they are often not deeply aware about each others’ cultures and isolate themselves from each other constantly (18). Furthermore, many of the attempts at bringing all Caucasus countries together have largely resulted in misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the facts (19), which, again, is the result of a lack of mutual cultural awareness. Therefore, when considering the power of Volunteerism through the lens of creating opportunities aimed at raising cultural awareness among the people of the Caucasus region, a considerable positive impact can be achieved as a result. Prospective Fields for Implementing Regional Volunteering Initiatives in the Caucasus Region In case of good will and eagerness for mutually raising cultural awareness among the wider layers of societies of the Caucasus region, it is possible to identify a number of fields where successful volunteering initiatives can be undertaken and jointly implemented by citizens of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, as well as Russia and Iran, if we have a wider glance at the region (20), especially by prioritizing the participation of youth representatives, who ‘possess the capacity for constructing a new regional paradigm of cross-border understanding’ (21). Such areas can be identified by various academic methods, among them through surveys and targeted research, but for the purposes of this article the priority will be given to those fields that were somehow directly or indirectly mentioned during formal and informal discussions and sessions that took place during the project titled “Regional Cooperation for Peace and Stability” organized by Caucasian House (22). Firstly, it should be noted that Georgia presently can serve as the most expedient platform where such actual volunteering initiatives can emanate, as Caucasian nationals can freely enter Georgia and participate in volunteering events. Furthermore, Georgia is unique in its diversity, as it has defined regions inhabited by ethnic minorities (23), for example, Akhalkalaki (over 95% ethnic Armenians), Akhaltsikhe (having both Armenian, Azeri and Georgian communities), Kutaisi (over 90% ethnic Azeri, some 5% ethnic Armenian’s), as well as the capital Tbilisi itself, which is a good example where various ethnic communities live together in harmony and have the opportunity for practising and developing their cultures and religions by maintaining their ethnic identity. These communities can be considered as solid bridges for a successful start! Secondly, Turkey may also become a reasonable platform for carrying out regional Volunteering initiatives, taking into account that Turkey possesses many cultural artefacts belonging to the cultural heritage of its neighbouring countries (24), hence Volunteering activities can also incorporate these monuments. Although in terms of travelling, Turkey might appear an easy place to travel for most Caucasians, it should be mentioned that, among other things, the unilaterally closed land borders from Turkey to Armenia and the absence of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia could hinder the participation of Armenian nationals (25). In reference to volunteering initiatives that could be proposed in Armenia or in Azerbaijan, representatives from these countries presently will have no opportunities for visiting each others’ countries until the peaceful and democratic resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. But in case of willingness the Armenians and Azeris can participate in joint volunteering initiatives organised elsewhere in the Caucasus region through group volunteering. Now, attention will be drawn to the fields where such regional volunteering initiatives can be established by bringing together the nationals of the countries from the Caucasus region. Any major event, inclusive of large scale cultural festivals, regional sports events and tournaments for peace, tourism, educational events, etc., can serve as a good starting point, as these have the capacity of uniting people by creating happy and tolerant environments (26). Another aspect can be volunteering in the field of agriculture, as the countries of the Caucasus are very well known for their vineyards that produce world quality wines and cognacs (27). Furthermore, having very unique and beautiful landscapes, the Caucasus countries have yet unrealised potential for developing eco-tourism (28). The aforementioned form of tourism can jointly be developed by the volunteers, who can also promote en-route bed-and-breakfast accommodations and organic food tours throughout the countries of the region, thus also developing social entrepreneurship (29) and supporting the sustainable development of the region. As a result, with the active involvement of the volunteers, regional maps of “green” touristic routes can be created and promoted. These activities in turn will open up wider opportunities for involving volunteers from the region who are interested in promoting green transport and are experts of sustainable development and wish to share their knowledge with the public in general for the overall progression of the region, as sustainable development and “going green” cannot be effective alone and need at least regional sympathy and cooperation (30) – thus creating “Regional Green Volunteers”. Additionally, tourist routes combining the historic sight-seeing places of the region can serve as a potential field for nurturing regional volunteering initiatives, such as a recent project called the “Black Sea Silk Road Corridor” (31) which aims to alleviate rural isolation and develop eco-friendly tourism in the region. Moreover, Caucasus-oriented educational and research institutions, such as academies, universities and think-tanks, can serve as beneficiaries and stakeholders of the proposed regional volunteering initiatives by linking interested entities and people in the region. Additionally, there are many young people from the Caucasus who have completed academic degrees abroad in the world’s leading universities and upon their return they are expected to act for positive changes in their countries. (32) These alumni, most probably, would have broadly seen the power of volunteerism during their overseas studies and upon their return they would form alumni associations in their respective countries – those associations can also be viewed as reliable support mechanisms for promoting regional volunteering initiatives by recommending potential volunteering venues and nominating volunteers. And finally, Peace Education (33) still doesn’t have deep roots in the Caucasus region and the participants of the proposed regional volunteering initiatives can be the promoters of peace values by transferring their skills generally. Moreover, peace building and related activities can be part of the training to be provided to potential volunteers in preparation for their participation in regional volunteering initiatives, as a part of non-formal education and peer-to-peer education. Conclusion All the above mentioned can be realistic if people shape regional identity and a commonwealth, by thinking on how they can contribute to regional development, instead of seeing each other as adversaries. And this can be achieved through volunteering activities, by eliminating all separating frontiers which are set both mentally and physically. Thus, regional volunteering initiatives can serve as a good starting tool for paying due attention to still surviving common values and similarities of Caucasian nations, by having the power of bringing positivism and paving the way for closer mutually beneficial cooperation among Caucasian nations. Among the major challenges and uncertainties of these proposed regional volunteering initiatives should be mentioned the organizational structures, assurances of safety and security of the volunteers, sustainability of funding, a supportive and constructive attitude by the governments and the civil societies of the countries involved, media coverage and public perceptions, as well as the favouritism and criticism to be faced both by international and local communities, etc., but these can be duly addressed in case of multilateral close collaboration and joint research, where the spirit of constructivism and collaboration should prevail. In conclusion, one can mention that the first steps for implementing significant positive changes are usually the most difficult, but that first big radical step can reduce the fear, in order to make further constructive headway! —————————————————————————————————— (1) See official website of Cultural Caucasus [URL:http://www.culturalcaucasus.org/] and official website of UNECSO [URL:http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/dialogue/routes-of-dialogue/caucasus-project/ ] (2) See extract about Caucasus History from Armenian House electronic library [URL:http://armenianhouse.org/villari/caucasus/caucasus-history.html] (3) Kahve, T.S. (2007-2014) “The Armenian Genocide: A brief bibliography of English books covering four linked phases”, London, UK [URL:http://www.ararat-heritage.org.uk/PDF/ArmenianGenocideBibliography.pdf] (4) See definition of volunteerism from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary [URL:http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/voluntarism] (5) See official websites of International Association of Volunteer Effort [URL:http://www.iave.org/content/universal-declaration-volunteering and United National Volunteers [URL:http://www.unv.org/en/news-resources/news/doc/global-volunteering-conference-lets.html] (6) See official website of Soft Power Education [URL:http://softpowereducation.com/Volunteering/tabid/57/Default.aspx] (7) Stepanyan, H., ed. by Kakachia, K. and Sully, M. (2012) “Confidence Building among the Youth of the Black Sea Region through Volunteerism”, Tbilisi, Georgia [URL:http://gip.ge/failebi/Summer_school_Publication_21633.pdf (article on pp. 108-113; ref. Table 1 on p. 110)] (8) Hart, Daniel et al. (2007) “High School Community Service as a Predictor of Adult Voting and Volunteering”, American Educational Research Journal, March 2007, Vol.44, No.1, pp.197-219 [Ref. URL:http://www.jstor.org/stable/30069475] (9) US Peace Corps (2009) “Volunteerism Action Guide: Multiplying the Power of Service”, Washington, D.C., USA [URL:http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/library/CD062_V2_English.pdf] (10) VolunTourism official websie [URL:http://www.voluntourism.org/] (11) See the link in Footnote No. 7 above [article on pp 108-113] (12) SaferWorld official website [URL: http://www.saferworld.org.uk/where/caucasus] (13) See the references in [URL:http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/100262/Caucasian-peoples] and [URL:http://www.geocurrents.info/cartography/mapping-the-ethno-linguistic-mosaic-of-the-caucasus] (14) Kahve, T.S. (2012) “European Cultural Frontiers and Endangered Zones”, London, UK [URL:http://www.ararat-heritage.org.uk/PDF/EndangeredZones.pdf]. (15) Kahve, T.S. (2012), “Shields of Europe: A Past and a Future”, London, UK [URL:http://www.ararat-heritage.org.uk/PDF/ShieldsOfEurope.pdf]. (16) See illustration above Coffin, 2007, “Cultural Security Model” (17) Coffin, Juli (2007) “Rising to the Challenge in Aboriginal Health by Creating Cultural Security”, Aboriginal & Islander Health Worker Hournal, May/June 2007, Vol.31. [URL:http://www.solidkids.net.au/images/uploads/articles/rising-jcoffin.pdf] (18) See related publication from Colorado University [URL:http://www.colorado.edu/ibs/pec/johno/pub/introduction-ol-k-r.pdf] and official website of UNHCR [URL:http://www.unhcr.org/3b54208d3.html] (19) King, Charles (2008), “Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus”, Oxford University Press, USA. (20) See article from A—Monitor from Jan. 2014 [URL:http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/02/iran-russia-relations-new-chapter.html] (21) See the link in Footnote No. 7 above [article on pp. 108-113] (22) See official website of Caucasian House [URL:http://www.caucasianhouse.ge/en/about/news/south-caucasus-1] (23) See official website relating to the diversity in Georgia [URL:http://www.diversity.ge/eng/resources.php?coi=0%7C15%7C13] (24) See various websites about cultural heritage [URL:http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ara-gulers-anatolia-in-us-gallery.aspx?PageID=238&NID=59463&NewsCatID=385 and http://www.ararat-heritage.org.uk/PDF/CartographicPerspectives.pdf] (25) See Geoffrey Robertson QC’s Opinion (2009) London [URL:http://groong.usc.edu/Geoffrey-Robertson-QC-Genocide.pdf] (26) See United Nations official website [URL:http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp//story.asp?NewsID=44377&Cr=civilizations&Cr1] (27) See related online articles [URL:http://news.am/eng/news/139460.html and http://vinecon.ucdavis.edu/publications/cwe1301.pdf] (28) See various references relating to eco-tourism [URL:http://eatsc.ecotourismarmenia.com/for_all/about_project.html ; http://www.uicn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/europe/work/?uNewsID=154 and http://www.greengeorgia.ge/sites/default/files/Ecotourism%20Assessment%20in%20Georgia.pdf] (29) See ASHOKA Innovators for the Public official website [URL:https://www.ashoka.org/social_entrepreneur] (30) See United Nations Volunteers official website [URL:http://www.unv.org/en/news-resources/news/doc/global-volunteering-conference-lets.html] (31) See Black Sea – Silk Road Corridor (BSSRC) project’s official website [URL:http://www.blackseasilkroad.com/] (32) De Wit, Hans (2002) “Internationalization of higher education in the United States of America and Europe: A historical, comparative and conceptual analysis”, Boston College, Massachusetts, USA (33) See United Nations official website [URL:http://www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/peace/frame2.htm]

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