The Research Project: an Overview

Description of the project and planned activities   

The project will be implemented by a team of researchers under the leadership of Senior Lecturer Carmen Scheide at the University of Bern/Switzerland between 2018 and 2022 in cooperation with an international team of specialists from the respective thematic and geographic areas. It is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). The planned activities and research outputs include: a doctoral thesis, academic and research-policy workshops in Georgia, Russia, Ukraine (2018-21), an academic conference in Switzerland (2022), peer-reviewed publications, and a database of civil society initiatives on conflict and history in the case study areas (Georgia, North Caucasus, and Ukraine). The project will review relevant literature across several academic disciplines, namely conflict resolution and peacebuilding, civil society, transitional justice, memory and history politics, and collect primary data using the methods of structured and semi-structured interviews and accessing civil society documents and materials that are publicly available and in public or private archives. 


Since the late 1980s several violent conflicts of different intensity, dynamics and duration have shattered the fringes of the former Soviet Union. Some of them have become “frozen” conflicts, and some are still in a violent stage. Various dimensions of the conflicts – diplomatic, military, geopolitical and societal – have been studied across several disciplines. The present research project focuses on three conflict cases – Georgia, the North Caucasus and Ukraine. Its goals are to:

  • Explore the ways in which historical legacies, historical representations and memories have been connected to the present conflicts and peacebuilding efforts 
  • Investigate the role of civil society in relation to historical legacies, historical representations and memories in the conflicts and peacebuilding efforts

The project aims to add to the existing research in the following respects:

The project starts with the premises that in order to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict context it is necessary to focus on values, beliefs and attitudes reflected in historical legacies, historical representations and memories that are mobilized in conflicts and peacebuilding arrangements. Historical representations and memories define the nature of polities, i.e. their imagining about the social contract, about legitimacy of the state and authorities, in and out groups (who is included and excluded from the national community), historical enemies and ways to deal with historical hatreds. Memories of the past injustices and conflicts can motivate and fuel ongoing conflicts (Cairns 2003; Stone 2010). In this relation, the project aims to study how historical representations and memories have been recast, reconstructed and mobilized before, during and after the conflicts in Georgia, the North Caucasus and Ukraine, and how they have shaped the contours of building socio-political stability, the social contract and good community relations and justice-seeking efforts. Thus, conceptually the project aims to combine scholarly research in the fields of memory and history studies and peacebuilding which would allow to better understand the conflict context and the approaches to create socio-political stability. 

The project geographically focuses on the post-Soviet conflicts characterised by the rebirth of nationalism since the early 1990s, the revival of identities and (pre-Soviet) political entities and the redefinition of national communities becoming a source of internal and external conflicts. Here, the project intends to critically look into the ways of dealing with the communist past, transitional justice (Stan und Nedelsky 2015; Pettai und Pettai 2015)and implications for peacebuilding, intra and inter-society reconciliation and rebuilding of good relationships. 

Finally, the project enquires into the role of civil society in peacebuilding and conflict transformation processes in the post-Soviet space. The collapse of the communist bloc and of the Soviet Union reinvigorated scholarly interest in civil society (Taylor 1991; Rau 1991; Seligman 1992; Cohen and Arato 1992; Howard 2003, 2011). There have been ongoing debates about the definition of civil society, its roles and contexts (Edwards 2011). One of the widely used definitions quoted in the Oxford Handbook on Civil Societywas proposed in 1998 by Michael Walzer: “civil society is the sphere of uncoerced human association between the individual and the state, in which people undertake collective action for normative and substantive purposes, relatively independent of government and the market” (quoted in Edwards 2011, 4). 

According to Galtung (1975), peacebuilding in a societal, not only a military sense, is needed to build comprehensive or “positive peace”. In the international practice of conflict management, the focus on civil society as an actor in peacebuilding represents a seminal change in peacebuilding approaches initiated by the 1992 “UN Agenda for Peace” expanding the concept of peacebuilding primarily focused on mediation and hard security. The new approach, also referred to as “liberal peace”, underlined the development of democratic institutions, free market reforms, justice and the rule of law, and a stronger role of civil society in peacebuilding (Paffenholz und Spurk 2006). As of the 1990s, there was also a stronger focus on (legally) dealing with past atrocities and mass violations of human rights, attempting to create justice as a base for peace and security (Kritz 1995; UN Security Council 2004). More recently, historical investigation and notably truth commissions also became part of this endeavour of transitional justice (Bakiner 2016; Stan und Nedelsky 2013; Horne und Stan 2018).Finally, the project will build on a growing body of research about the role of history and historians in mediation of interpretative differences between groups and reconciliation (Barkan 2005, 2009). 

There is a growing scholarly research on the role of civil society in peacebuilding (Paffenholz 2010; Fischer 2006; Pearce2011; Verkoren and van Leeuwen 2013). Mostly, thisliterature looks at the functions that civil society plays as a peacebuilding actor. However, civil society is not only an actor in peacebuilding, it is constitutive of society and its norms and social practices itself. The project thus aims to critically investigate the nature of civil society in the post-Soviet conflict contexts and ideas, practices and initiatives advanced by civil society in relation to the imagining of in and out groups, peacebuilding and justice-seeking. Civil society can reproduce and reinforce existing historical, ethnic, and religious divisions, and promote historical narratives and memories that legitimise violence and intolerance in the name of national liberation or any other cause that enable cycles of violence. Furthermore, donors tend to understand civil society in a narrow way, and divisions between localand donor-funded civil society groups can aggravate conflicts in society (Carothers and Ottaway 2000;Verkoren and van Leeuwen 2013; Ottaway 2017). 

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