Daily Journal, August 25, 2008
By Greg Katz , Daily Journal Staff Writer
(This article appears on page 1 of the Daily Journal.)
LOS ANGELES - Dozens of mediators received an urgent e-mail on Aug. 12 with the unusual subject line: "Appeal to the Pepperdine University and to the people of the United States!"
Giorgi Chaladze's message began: "I am sending this appeal from Georgia, a small republic in the Caucasus."
In a long, frustrated but hopeful letter, with capitalization skewed and exclamation marks scattered, Chaladze, a 22-year-old Georgian and a graduate of Pepperdine's Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, summoned mediators from the school to his homeland to help.
"At this moment we need full-scale mediation," Chaladze wrote in the message, the same day French President Nicolas Sarkozy began arranging a cease-fire agreement between Georgia and Russia, which are at odds over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"This mediation is nothing like what [the Straus Institute's managing director Peter] Robinson taught us, but it's little harder as parties are politically motivated," he wrote. "I ask your help in any way you can.
"Every single offer counts. If you are willing to arrive in Georgia and support us physically, you are welcome to do so. If you can offer your help in political mediation, please do not hesitate to do so, if you want to help people of Georgia with humanitarian aid, please proceed."
Though he summed up the conflict as "Russia fighting freedom and democracy," Chaladze said those interested in helping do not need to support Georgia, as long as they support peaceful conflict resolution.
"If you protest using military force for resolution of conflict, please make sure your voice is heard," he wrote.
The message, which was widely circulated through mediators' online networks, came as little surprise to many who received it.
"As soon as I heard about the conflict, I was scared for him," said Michelle Obradovic, a mediator who was a classmate of Chaladze's at Pepperdine and received the message.
The Georgian government had given Chaladze a scholarship to study at Pepperdine with the aim of learning ways to resolve conflicts in Abkhazia. In a class, before recent fighting began, Chaladze had made a presentation on the regional conflicts and the possible roles for mediators there, Obradovic said.
"All of us were just sort of stunned at what was going on and the stakes," Obradovic said of Chaladze's presentation. "What he was concerned about [was that], if there weren't peaceful influences and people urging peaceful solutions, exactly what has happened, was going to happen."
Chaladze, who earned his master's degree from Pepperdine earlier this year, had returned to Georgia this summer with plans to begin teaching dispute resolution at Tbilisi State University.
But in a phone interview, he said that for now he has rolled up his sleeves as a volunteer, helping "internally displaced persons" in Rustavi, Georgia's third largest city, and answering hotlines set up for Georgians who need help.
At 3 a.m., after working overtime dealing with refugees from the conflict, Chaladze was eager to talk about how the country needs mediators skilled not only with political but also with interpersonal conflict.
"Mediators on the very low level, the very basic level of regular people, are needed now," Chaladze said.
He said that biased media coverage has created perceptions of ethnic conflict in the region that aren't reflective of the way people there feel about each other.
If mediators can persuade people of the various ethnicities and faiths to talk to each other, he said, it could help defuse the tensions he sees in refugees.
"We've been through escalation. We're now at stalemate," he said, using the terms for conflict familiar to mediators. "We need now to go to de-escalation and resolution. De-escalation is a question of political resolution, but the real resolution has to be done on a very low, individual level."
Chaladze recounted stories Georgian refugees have told him. A 17-year-old girl he encountered said she "hated every single Ossetian, every single Russian, every single person who did wrong to Georgian" because one of her phone calls to a relative had been intercepted by someone on the other side of the conflict.
But another refugee he encountered, a 67-year-old man who had been injured in the midst of the conflict, said there was "no problem" between the ethnic groups in the region, Chaladze said.
The ethnic groups in the region could benefit from mediators' ability to help illustrate the nature of the conflict, he emphasized.
"They need to know that, on personal level, there is no issue, and I need to make sure that ethnic Georgians, Russians and Ossetians and Abkhazians do not hate each other because of ethnicity, because of their faith and whatever they believe in," Chaladze said.
"I take responsibility for what I can do - if I know the ways to solve the problems, and I don't use my skills, that means my part of the blame is there," he added. "I need to make sure I do what I can and everyone else needs to make sure they do what they can."
Chaladze said he has been impressed with the response from his Pepperdine classmates, who have offered assistance ranging from prayer to hands-on help, and was heartened by an e-mail reply from Robinson.
In his reply, Robinson called Chaladze's message "gut wrenching."
"I ask you to let us know how we can help, not only now in the midst of the crisis, but also in the reconstruction stage," Robinson wrote.
"On a personal note, this has caused me to reflect more on the limits of mediation," he added. "If you have an abusive bully in the conflict, then there must be some lever about their own personal benefit to motivate them toward a resolution."
In a brief e-mail to the Daily Journal, Robinson shared his thoughts on future mediation in the conflict zone.
"I think our opportunity will be in the rebuilding stage," he wrote. "Mediation between diverse communities will help building relationships and future opportunities for commerce. I hope Giorgi will be very involved in the post-war rebuilding efforts and will invite our support."
Chaladze said he hopes to visit the United States soon to further illustrate the reach of the conflict.
Ground-level mediation help from outside civilians is not unknown in international conflict.
A. Marco Turk, director of California State University, Dominguez Hills' negotiation, conflict resolution and peace building department, has mediated longstanding conflicts between Greeks and Turks on the island of Cyprus. He said he would consider going to Georgia to help start discussions at the "grassroots level."
"Mediators from here could be like facilitators, getting these people involved in dialogue so they could be telling their stories to each other," Turk said. "I've seen that work just magic when people are able to do that."
Turk said that such dialogues are important because, whatever solutions are negotiated by political leaders, it is "people on the ground" who will eventually live by or reject those solutions.
"There are, I'm sure, a lot of mediators here who would be interested in going [to Georgia] and doing something. You just have to find the people who have the motivation and the willingness to give up what they're doing here," he said.
Another group that has mediated conflicts around the world is Mediators Beyond Borders, founded in 2007 by Santa Monica-based mediator Kenneth Cloke. The organization recently taught mediation skills to former child soldiers living in Ghana.
The group has no current plans to travel to Georgia, according to Anna Spain, a board member of the organization and adjunct professor of international dispute resolution at the UCLA School of Law.
"Before you can get to prescribing what type of mediation would be appropriate, there needs to be an assessment of different tracks of the conflict," on both the political and individual levels, Spain said.
She said the organization has not conducted such an assessment. She added that, in general, the organization must verify that conditions on the ground are safe before traveling.
The U.S. State Department has issued a continuing travel warning that recommends Americans not travel to Georgia and urges those already there to leave.
Published: Monday, August 25, 2008