Georgia’s ''Caucasian Role'' and Russia – 1918-1921 and the Current Situation

From the ancient times, the Caucasus with its crucial geopolitical and strategic economic positions has been attracting the attention of the big Powers of the world. It was crossed by the Silk Road and many other ancient trade routes. During different periods of time, the region had different relations with the big Powers and empires like Greece, Persia, the Roman Empire, the Arab Caliphate, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire and others. At the same time, the Caucasian nations had their own national interests, which determined their approach to each other and to the big Powers focused on the region. It’s worth mentioning, that Georgia has always held a leading position in forming a policy in the whole Caucasus region.

         The forms of international relations have been changing throughout the centuries. Hence, the national interests of the Caucasian nations have remained almost the same. Taking into account this fact and realizing that the mistakes of the first quarter of the 20th century are still actual, it will be extremely useful to analyze the lessons of the recent historical past and consider the drawn conclusions during the ongoing processes of international relations.

          From this point of view, it is very important to analyze the history of the first Republics of the Caucasus (1918-1921). As in most cases, the fate of small nations is closely related to their relations with the big Powers. From the beginning of the 19th century till the collapse of Tsarist Russia (1917) the Caucasus was occupied by the Russian Empire, which was one of the most merciless empires of the world. In 1917 the Caucasian nations gained independence. In 1918 the Caucasus region consisted of four countries: Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and The Republic of Mountaineers of the North Caucasus. Despite having different aspirations, they had a common northern enemy, which would never accept the independence of the Caucasus region and its integration in the European civilization.

         As soon as the Caucasian countries declared independence, Soviet Russia made an attempt to occupy Abkhazia - the region of Georgia. In the summer of 1918 the dispatched units of “Red Cossacks” encouraged local separatists to declare the independence of the so-called “Soviet Republic of Abkhazia”. The Georgian government had to respond decisively and General Mazniashvili was sent to the battle-field. At that period of time, the Civil War raged throughout Russia and it was not able to dispatch enough troops to Abkhazia. Therefore, the Georgians seized an opportunity to liberate Abkhazia from them. Afterwards, the Bolshevik regime in the North Caucasus was changed by the regime of “White Generals”. Hence, their policy towards the Caucasus region remained unchangeable. In the first half of 1919 “the Whites” attempted to do the same in Abkhazia, but fortunately at that period of time British troops were deployed on Georgia’s territory and they mediated a peaceful conflict resolution [Документы….. 1919:91-107; Mazniashvili, 1990:60-114]. The similar “piece of history” was replicated several times on the territory of the so-called South Ossetia during 1918-1920. On the one hand, Georgian troops were adequately tough and on the other hand, Soviet Russia was fighting against Poland, “White Generals” and others. Therefore, it was not able to dispatch enough troops to Georgia.

       Before breaking in Georgia, Russia had to resolve the problem of the North Caucasus, which was closer to the Russian territories and served as a buffer zone for the South parts of the region. Georgian and Azeri politicians fully realized that the independence of the strong North Caucasus would provide a defensive shield for the three republics of the South Caucasus.  They strongly supported “The Republic of Mountaineers”. Noah Zhordania - the leader of the Republic of Georgia - wrote in his memoirs: “…We paid special attention to the Republic of Mountaineers. There was not even a single case when we rejected their request to help. In February (1919—B.K.) they asked us for military armament, the government made a decision to give them everything they needed from the military arsenal. We had not assisted anybody so much. We ourselves lacked a lot. We were collecting rounds from one village to another and were paying 2 rubles for each. Hence, at the same time, we were assisting Mountaineers so diligently. What for?  Obviously, it was necessary for the security of our northern borders.  A strong and an independent mountain was the castle erected against Moscow. We were interested in its existence “up to our ears” and this interest determined our attitude to it” [Zhordania, 1990: 110-111]These timeless words never lose their importance. On the one hand, they underline the significant role of the North Caucasus. On the other hand, they present Georgia as a regional leader, which helps a neighboring country in maintaining its independence.

           Moreover, simultaneously with the above mentioned events, the Paris Peace Conference was held to summarize the outcomes of World War I and to determine Russia’s future after the collapse of the Tsarist Regime. Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Mountaineers founded a joint commission in Paris. It addressed joint statements and declarations to the peace conference. On 23 June 1919 three neighboring states appealed to the conference not to recognize Russian rights on the North Caucasus [Топчибашев, 1998:58].[1]

In the summer of 1919 the North Caucasus was invaded by the “white general” Anton Denikin and Russia approached the borders of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Georgia and Azerbaijan were forced to sign a military-defensive treaty on 16 June 1919. According to this treaty they had to give a joint response to the military aggression from the third party. At the same time, the parties agreed to solve territorial disputes through arbitration. The notification about this treaty was sent to the chairman of the peace conference – the President of France George Clemenceau. The letter stated, that the treaty would not come into force if Denikin restrained from attacking the Transcaucasia. After the intervention of the British, Russian aggression was stopped at that stage.

It seems that “Whites” and “Reds” had similar (hostile) attitudes to the idea of the  independence of the Caucasus. The Caucasian people had to fight against them on the battle field as well as on the diplomatic front. “Reds” and “Whites” intended to restore the former boundaries of Tsarist Russia and the Caucasus was the crucial point for them. The military aggressions aimed at the occupation of the region and the prevention Caucasian delegations from “reaching” international recognition and membership of the “European Family”.

For the Western countries the problems of Georgia and Azerbaijan were attached to the so-called “Russian Issue” (at the peace conference and during 1918-1921) as a single attachment, because on the international level these two countries always acted in accordance to the mutual agreement [Avalishvili, 1925]. Georgia and Azerbaijan were located at the southern border of Russia and it had the similar imperial intentions towards both of them. Baku-Batumi oil pipeline seemed to be very attractive for the western countries. After losing Baku, Batumi harbor and oil-refining factory would lose their importance and vice versa, after losing Batumi, the oil of Baku would become unreachable for the West. Besides, it was the age of “The League of Nations” and the “broadening” of borders to the East seemed profitable to the West.

       The biggest obstacle for these prospective projects was the Russian threat directed towards the Caucasian nations. Therefore, Georgians’, Azerbaijanis’ and mountaineers’ agreed actions seemed very progressive. However, the biggest challenge for these countries was Armenia, which was out of the common Caucasian political orbit and carried out an independent foreign policy for satisfying its ambitions. Armenia never got used to status quo in territorial disputes. This tiny nation had territorial claims to all neighbors (Azerbaijan, Georgia and especially, Turkey) [Армянский… 1919: 3-30][2].

Even US congressman Walter Marion Chandler, working in the USA as an official lobbyist of the independence of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Baltic countries [US Embassy…; Chandler, 1920], reported that he had a very small chance of success, because he was permanently opposed by the Armenian lobbyists [Топчибашев,  1998: 55-56].

The Armenian stance was ruining joint Caucasian platform and served as a trap for all nations. Later, during the exile Armenian President expressed his regret for the immature policy, which led the region to the Soviet occupation [Качазнун, 1927: 16-20].

            It was clear, that sooner or later Russian military aggression would be committed and small states of the Caucasus would not be able to resist it without external assistance. Therefore, these countries aspired to the West aiming at the membership of the western civilization. During Paris Peace Conference they tried to get diplomatic and military protection from the big Powers of the Entente. Hence, the crucial point was the membership of “the League of Nations”, which guaranteed the security and territorial integrity of the member states (specified in its statute).

           The summit of the League was scheduled for November 1920. Therefore, Georgia and Azerbaijan applied for the membership. This was the last chance
for their survival, but in April 1920 Russia occupied Azerbaijan. The same happened with Armenia in the beginning of November 1920. The western countries had to face the fact, that Russia controlled the whole Caucasus region. The exceptional country was Georgia, which was surrounded by the Russian military forces. At the end of 1920 Georgia remained alone and lost its geopolitical and geoeconomic importance.

Georgia was morally encouraged. Its independence was recognized by most countries of the world. Georgia had democratically elected government and parliament. Its constitution was one of the “progressive” constitutions of the world. Hence, nobody dared to stop military aggression of the North.

At the session of the League of Nations the voting on Georgia’s membership showed the following results: 10 countries voted for Georgia, 10 - against it and 4 - refrained from voting. Georgia needed 16 votes, but the results showed the failure. Therefore, Russia met no difficulties during the “red occupation” of Georgia and the whole Caucasus region in February 1921.

 The current challenges are almost identical for the Caucasian nations. The imperial ambitions of the northern neighbor remain unchangeable. Moreover, there are some misunderstandings between the countries of the region. Therefore, the events of the history are repeated.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia inspired the conflicts in the region. At first, Russia armed oppositional units and carried out a forced “change of government” by replacing an undesirable president of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Afterwards, Russia began the inspiration of territorial conflicts. Its methodology and style was similar to the aggressions of 1918-1921. Russia encouraged the so-called “national movement” of South Ossetia, which actually aimed at joining the Russian Federation. The latter armed Ossetians, assisted them with military means and occupied the region.

          The same was carried out in Abkhazia during 1992-1993. Hence, “Red Cossacks” were replaced by “Russian Cossacks” sent by the Russian Federation. It seems that nothing has changed during the years. The hundreds of thousands of refugees of different nationalities have been kicked out of their houses in Abkhazia.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of the 90s of the 20th century the Caucasus region was not under international supervision and very few persons in the world were informed about “The Georgian Issue”. Therefore, nobody could stop the violence.  In 1919-1920, the presence of the British troops saved Georgia from the invasion of the Russian military forces. In 1921 the British left the country and Russia seized the opportunity to carry out a full-scale occupation. The same tactic was applied to Abkhazian and South Ossetian wars as well. Accordingly, it follows that, Georgians have to know (for their predictable and unpredictable future), that the close relations with European and international communities is an important shield of the Georgian security. Therefore, the integration in the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions are the major priorities for the security and economic development of Georgia and the whole Caucasus region.

      The aims of the acts of violence of the 90s did not differ from the tasks of 1918-1921. In case of unsuccessful attempts of occupation and restoration of the boundaries of the Soviet Union, Russia would focus on the prevention of the state-building, national development and European integration of the Caucasian countries.

     At the beginning of the 90s of the 20th century Georgia was weakened. It lacked for the international support. Therefore, at that moment Russia achieved its goal. It managed to occupy 20% of Georgia’s territories and forced the country to become the member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (the CIS), which was treated as a modernized form of the USSR.

       Russia was involved in the war against Chechnya. Chechens “demonstrated” a strong opposing force. Therefore, Russians decided to deal with Georgia and used Chechens in the Abkhazian war. This was a case of typical misunderstanding between two traditional allies and neighbors. The first Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia had ideal relations with Chechens. After his dethronement, the intervention of Moscow ceased Georgia’s and Chechnya’s political coordination and Russia easily used the old principle “divide et impera”[3]. This was a crucial mistake made by both sides. It gave Russia an opportunity to achieve its desired goals. The repetition of these actions must be avoided in the future. After fighting on the side of Georgia’s enemy in the Abkhazian war, Chechnya conducted two wars. If Georgia, the heartland of the Caucasus, is defeated, the enemy will easily conquer other parts of the region.

Giorgi Laskhishvili – a politician, a public activist and a minister of education of  independent Georgia - wrote in his memoirs about the conversation with an old Cherkess man, who “shared” with him a political exile in Siberia at the end of the 19th century: “…He answered indifferently and I gave him up. Then he asked about us. When he found out that we were Georgians, he expressed pleasure. Finally, after being silent for a long time, he deeply breathed out and said:

-Our country fell after the setting of the sun of the Caucasus. I thought that he meant Shamil and I asked something about him.

-No, fellow - answered the old man - I did not mean Shamil. The sun of the Caucasus was Georgia. Georgia fell and the whole Caucasus followed it.” [Laskhishvili, 1934:38]

The old Cherkess meant the Treaty of Georgievsk signed in 1783. It facilitated the invasion of Georgia and the whole Caucasus region by Russians. The invasion was followed by the genocide of the North Caucasian nations and the endless bloodshed.

Taking into account these historical lessons and the position of the Georgian politicians, it is not surprising that all Georgian presidents have had good relationships with the North Caucasian peoples. Georgia, as a leader or a central country of the region should always pursue a friendly policy towards them and gather them around the common aim – the freedom of all the Caucasian nations. It’s obvious, that the freedom of Georgia and North Caucasian peoples are closely related to each other.

The Russian Federation has been indirectly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which began in 1988 and lasts even nowadays. Although Russia has lost its direct control over the post-soviet political space, it tries to take an indirect control of the Caucasian countries. Through keeping the military balance between conflicting sides and performing the role of the so-called “mediator”, Russia tries to earn the goodwill of both sides. This is the policy of retaining spheres of influence of the 19th century, which seems archaic in the international policy of the 21st century.
       Nowadays, Armenian factor “brakes” Caucasian solidarity (as it happened during 1918-1921). It seems, that almost nothing has changed. Armenia argues with Turkey about the recognition of the genocide of the Armenian people. It is also engaged in the territorial conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Through its policy, Armenia isolates itself from the rest of the region and is deprived of the involvement in the following international projects: the projects concerning gas and oil pipelines running from the Caspian Sea to Europe, the project of the railway connecting China with Europe and others. In addition, Armenia loses opportunities of establishing trade relations with neighbors.[4]

      On the other hand, misunderstandings between the countries of the region and the lack of cooperation is an obstacle for further economic and political development. It delays Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries and enables the northern empire to control the regional policy.

        The implementation of the so-called “Archeological Policy” and the problems of the historical past, which are carried out in the current political relations are harmful for the whole region. In the 21st century everybody should respect the key principles of the territorial integrity of the sovereign states and concentrate on the future development.

      The best precedent of such cooperation has been established by Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. For three centuries the Georgian regions of Adjara and Samtskhe-Javakheti were the parts of the Ottoman Empire. In 1921, under the Treaty of Kars, most territories of the south-west part of Georgia were ceded to Turkey [Middle East Explorer…]. Georgia and Turkey had extremely hostile relationships. During 1918-1921 they conducted two wars. Hence, today both countries accept the status quo in their territorial disputes and respect the internationally recognized boundaries. Georgia and Turkey have established close and friendly relationships. They have jointly established international trade routes, corridors for gas and oil pipelines. Turkey assists Georgia in the creation of the modern armed forces. Moreover, it supports Georgia’s application for NATO membership and recognizes the territorial integrity of the country.

During 1918-1921 the similar territorial disputes over Kakh, Belakan and Zakatar regions were stirred up between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Hence, nowadays these countries have the best relationships with each other. Azerbaijan is the major fuel provider and investor in the economy of Georgia. Both countries have the same aspirations in international policy including the key principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and European integration. Today (like 1918-1921) Georgia and Azerbaijan are regarded as the entire political and economic space by the rest of the world. Without each other these countries lose their geopolitical and geoeconomic significance. The further development of the relationships will enhance the importance of the whole region. These facts prompted the Georgian president to state in Baku in 2009, that Georgia and Azerbaijan have an informal confederation [Saakashvili, 2009].

The Caucasian line of Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan is a good example of resolving historical disagreements between neighboring countries. Among the representatives of this trinity, Georgia holds the key position determined by its crucial geographic location.  Without Georgia’s participation it would be impossible to implement a lot of international projects. Therefore, Russia has carried out several military aggressions against this country. It has occupied Georgia’s regions in order to make the country to change the course of western foreign policy. The change of course will lead to the failure of the above mentioned triangle - Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan. Consequently, Russia will be able to establish its control over the whole region.

          For the same reason, Georgia is strongly supported by other countries of the region and by the western world. The consolidation of the Caucasian nations and their integration into the Euro-Atlantic family is the only way of their survival under the condition of direct military aggression. It’s worth mentioning, that Georgia was the first Caucasian country, which joined the Council of Europe in 1999 [Council…]. Moreover, it occupies a leading position “on the way” to NATO membership.

Concerning a lot of historical facts and experiences, it seems difficult to cooperate with the Russian empire without strong international support and monitoring. Russia violated The Treaty of Georgievsk, which was signed by the Georgian King and the Russian Emperor in 1783. Therefore, in 1801 Georgia was occupied for 117 years. After the collapse of the Tsarist regime, the country gained its freedom and in 1920 it signed an international agreement with Soviet Russia, whereby the latter recognized the independence of Georgia. However, several months later, the empire violated the international treaty and occupied Georgia for 70 years. During the war in Abkhazia two ceasefire agreements were signed by the conflicting sides: The Moscow Agreement (on 3 September 1992) and The Sochi Agreement (on 28 July 1993). According to their terms, the conflicting sides had to withdraw troops and heavy artillery from the region [Abkhazian… 2000:85]. However, after the withdrawal of heavy weapons of the Georgian side, Russians launched an attack, which ended with the fall of Sokhumi. Nowadays, it does not fulfill the conditions of the so-called Six-Point Agreement, which was signed after the August War (2008). Under the terms of the agreement, Russia is obliged to withdraw its troops from the Georgian regions and allow international observers to carry out the monitoring in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite this fact, Russia continues the military occupation of the regions, which are “deprived of” the international monitoring.

       The above mentioned facts characterize Russia as an unreliable country. Hence, the preconditions of current political reality differ from the situation of 1918-1921:

1. If Congressman Walter Marion Chandler stated in 1919, that the independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan did not “find” support in the USA, it meant that during 1918-1921 America did not recognize the independence of the Caucasian countries. Today it is the major ally and protector of the national interests of the region. Moreover, the Charter on Strategic Partnership, which was signed on 9 January 2009 by Georgia and the USA guarantees the further development of these relationships [US State… 2009].

2. If at the beginning of 1921 the Caucasian countries were left “tete-a-tete” with Russia, nowadays this region is the subject of political and economic interests. The countries of the region are the members of international organizations (the UN, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, etc.). Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are involved in the “Eastern Partnership Program” of the European Union, which provides the development of closer partnership with the EU and therefore, can be regarded as one more step on the way to the EU membership [European… 2009]. An active intervention of the European Union during and after the Georgian-Russian war (August, 2008) showed Europe’s active interest in the Caucasus region.

3. If in 1920 only ten countries voted for Georgia’s membership of the League of Nations, now Georgia has much more supporters on its way to NATO membership. NATO issued Bucharest Declaration, whereby all member states admitted, that Georgia will become its member [NATO… 2008]. On the one hand, NATO membership will guarantee Georgia’s security. On the other hand, other countries of the region will “step” easier on their way to North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other Euro-Atlantic entities. This will lead to the safe and secure Caucasus.

4. In September 2010, General Assembly of the UN adopted a resolution recognizing the Right of Return of Internally Displaced Persons throughout Georgia (including Abkhazia and South Ossetia). This was not only a humanitarian issue, but a referendum for the civilized world - whether it was going to accept the 19th century policy of the Russian Federation. All the members of the European Union and the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization accepted this resolution. Moreover, they united for the support of Georgia. The Russian position was accepted by such odious regimes as Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Basher in the Sudan, Chavez’s regime in Venezuela and others [UN General… 2010].

The whole civilized humanity supports Georgian position, while odious regimes stand by Russia. Currently, Russian politicians do not want to hear the voice of the civilized world, but the “deaf policy” will not last forever. Sooner or later, Russians will have to take into account these considerations.

5. During 1918-1921 Turkey was extremely hostile to Georgia. Today, these countries are major allies and form the Caucasian line of Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan. This line supplies European countries with eastern energy resources and goods. This fact makes the region more attractive and facilitates its development.

6. During 1918-1921 the statehood of Caucasian countries was very weak, because it was in the process of formation. Nowadays, state institutions work properly and the region shows the example of success to the whole world. It’s easy to carry out different business procedures in Georgia. For example: setting up in business, conducting it, registering the property, etc. From this point of view, Georgia occupies the 8th, the 12th and the 2ndpositions according to the rating of the World Bank [Doing … 2010]. This sustainable development of the country is the major obstacle to the imperial ambitions of the northern neighbor.

At the current stage, Russian government uses all possible means for the restoration of boundaries of the Soviet empire or spheres of influence. The Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in 2005, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century [Putin… 2005]. After coming into the power he started “improving” the results of the “catastrophe”. Hence, the history showed many times that the empires cannot maintain their success forever. The Russian Empire collapsed two times during the 20th century. Firstly, after the overthrow of the Tsarist regime (when Finns celebrated their freedom) and secondly, after the collapse of the USSR (when the peoples of Poland, the Baltic countries and the whole Eastern Europe were liberated from the influence of Moscow). Sooner or later, the liberation will be inevitable for the nations of the Caucasus. 

[1] A.M. Topchibashev was the leader of the Azeri delegation at the peace conference

[2] This is the official memorandum presented by the Armenian delegation to the peace conference

[3] Divide and rule (Latin)

[4]  Armenia has tense relations with other countries of the region. Therefore, Georgia remains the only  corridor which supplies Armenia with energy resources and connects it with Russia and other European countries. This fact enhances Georgia’s importance in the region.


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