During the second weekend of November, the 16th Workshop of the Partnership for Peace’s (PfP) Consortium Study Group, Regional Stability in the South Caucasus (RSSC), took place at the former Chateau Rothschild, in spectacular mountain scenery near Reichenau, a summer resort south of Vienna built for the rich and famous of the Hapsburg Empire.
Organised by the Austrian National Defence Academy, the Directorate General for Security Policy of the Austria Ministry of Defence and Sports, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) and the University of Göttingen, the Between Fact and Fakery: Information and Instability in the South Caucasus and Beyond workshop focused on propaganda campaigns between warring states in the region.
The PfP South Caucasus Study Group goes back to 2001 but was interrupted from 2005 to 2012, due to polical strife. Since then, two annual workshops have been conducted, one in Reichenau and one in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus, uniting analysts from the South Caucasus as well as international scholars who work on the equally diverse and charged region. It is no easy task: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have been bogged down by numerous territorial and separatist conflicts since they gained independence in 1991.
The regional participants represented highly profiled and interesting backgrounds: national security council members, presidential and prime ministerial advisors, defence academy and other scholars, and former and active diplomats. Chatham rules applied, photos could be taken, but no media were present and the recording of of the delegates’ statements was strictly forbidden.
Austria’s neutrality – the country is a member of the EU, not of NATO – is viewed as an additional asset to enhance the trust and confidence building that is key for any further rapprochement between the three South Caucasus states, and their neighbours.
RSSC veteran Frederic Labarre of the PfP Consortium Secretariat pointed out that during some of the earlier workshops, representatives of the three countries still used to engage in fierce blame and shouting games. “The fact that we are experiencing, at this 2017 workshop, a flawless and civil debate in spite of all the disputed arguments is a clear indicator that we move in the right direction,” commented Labarre.
This 16th workshop centred on the role of fake news as part of an information war waged by the various sides, involving social as well as mass media. There was agreement on tentative steps within the three countries to counter the misuse of media and the Internet, such as through building cross-border investigation teams of journalists to verify news and allow for a higher quality of reporting. The first results will be presented at the coming RSSC workshops in 2018.