Menshevism in Power: The foreign and defence policy of the Georgian Democratic Republic

The Georgian Democratic Republic, established on 26 May 1918, was the first democratic socialist state in the world. The Social Democrats who came to power in Georgia, and who went on to win landslide victories in free and fair elections in which opposition parties participated, were orthodox Marxists. They had taken the side of the Mensheviks in the historic split in the Russian Social Democratic Party because of their commitment to democracy and their analysis of the tasks facing the coming revolution in Russia.

They never intended to declare Georgian independence, and because of this they came to power with no particular plan for an independent foreign policy nor national defence. They had always assumed that a democratic revolution would sweep away Romanov rule over the vast Russian empire, and that Georgia could remain part of a democratic Russian federation.

Some of the key leaders of the Georgian Social Democrats found themselves playing leading roles in Petrograd in 1917. Among those were Karlo Chkheidze, who had been a Menshevik member of the State Duma and who served as the president of the Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies in the Russian capital city. It did not cross the minds of men like Chkheidze that they were anything other than Russian revolutionaries.

Not only had the Georgian socialists been unprepared for independence, they were also unprepared for political power. In their view, socialist parties were expected to come to power first in major Western countries like Germany, countries which were “ripe” for socialism, and not in backward, poor societies like Russia. What Russia – and Georgia – needed, in their view, was a bourgeois democratic revolution. They utterly rejected the idea that socialists could seize power in a backward country and by an act of will force it to skip one or more more stages of history.

Even before Georgia declared its independence in May 1918, the Social Democrats who had effectively been ruling the country since the fall of the Romanovs in March 1917 and had to grapple with the issue of defence in general, and Georgia's role in the world war in particular.

At the time, the country was under threat from several quarters. First of all, there was the danger of the Turkish army taking advantage of the collapse of the Russian army's front and sweeping into Georgia. That Russian army had begun to come apart at the seams, with soldiers abandoning the front and beginning to move through Georgia on their way back home.

The well-organised Georgian Social Democrats, who had had some experience with self-defence during the 1904-6 “Gurian republic” when they organised Red Detachments to defend autonomous areas from the Tsarist armies, decided to form a Red Guard and to get their hands on weapons. The Red Guard (later renamed People's Guard) was founded on 5 September 1917. Its leader was the thirty-year-old Vladimir "Valiko" Jugeli. The Guard was ruled by an elected congress, and its general staff was elected to a one-year term. It had an educational and agricultural wing as well as a fighting arm. When Georgia became an independent state the following year, the Guard was placed under the direct control of the Menshevik-dominated parliament rather than the Minister of War, and it was eventually renamed the National Guard.

The Tiflis arsenal, then guarded by Russian soldiers, was an obvious target and on 12 December 1917, Jugeli led his men in a daring raid to capture its weapons. The Russian soldiers were swiftly disarmed. So successful was this raid that it became the stuff of legend. For several years afterwards, it was celebrated as a national holiday in Georgia, second only to Independence Day. But despite this early success, the presence of a large number of armed Russian soldiers continued to represent a security threat to the local authorities for some time to come.

The Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in November 1917 left the Georgian Social Democrats in limbo. They quickly created an alliance with the ruling parties in the neighbouring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan, leading to the formation of a Transcaucasian federation, independent of Russia, in April 1918. But this was not to last, largely due to the differing attitudes of the three countries to Turkey, and it collapsed in late May. The Georgians, now on their own, issued a Declaration of Independence which laid out their views on foreign policy and national defence in a few short words: “In case of international conflicts, Georgia will always remain neutral.”

This sentence was not a vague aspiration referring to some imaginary future conflict. Georgia was born during a world war, facing enemies on all sides. She would come under pressure from the Germans to provide assistance to them in their war effort, and from the Russians as well. Later the British would come into control of the region and also press the Georgian leadership to take sides.

Though many Georgians harboured some sympathy for the Allies in the war, the Social Democrats had planted the flag of neutrality from day one. It would be difficult to fulfil this commitment, and critics of the Georgian Republic, mostly notably Trotsky, later focussed on this issue, claiming that the Georgians were not neutral at all in the Russian Civil War, and that they provided assistance to the Allies and their White Russian clients.

The most immediate threat facing the young republic was Turkey. There was no question of the tiny Georgian army or People's Guard holding off the Turks on their own. The Georgians sought a solution in diplomacy, first through direct negotiations with the Turkish military, and later – when it became clear that they had little leverage in such negotiations – by secret talks with Turkey's major partner, Germany.

By going behind the backs of the Turks and securing German protection, including agreeing to the stationing of German troops on Georgian soil, the Georgian leaders managed to hold off the Turkish threat. Their decision to make a deal with the Germans was loudly condemned by the Bolshevik leaders in Russia, though they too had been forced to make painful concessions to the Germans in the treaty of Brest Litovsk.

Even when the war was ever, the Russians – despite the constant accusations that the Georgians had turned into German puppets – continued to seek deals themselves with Germany, culminating in the Rapallo treaty. For all their attacks on the Georgian Mensheviks, the Russian Bolsheviks continued to build relations with Germany right up until the Nazis came to power.

The decision by the Menshevik leadership to welcome German protection kept Georgia safe for a time, but it turned out that Germany itself was not the rock-solid edifice she appeared to be. Within just a few months of the arrival of German troops in Tiflis, Berlin had lost the war. As the defeated Germans began to withdraw their forces from the region, the victorious British came to take their place. The Germans had come into Georgia invited by the government; the British came without anyone asking them to do so.

And in the interval, during the few weeks between the German military collapse and the arrival of British forces of any size, the Georgian Republic faced a security threat from an unexpected source. Little Armenia, a country which only a few months earlier had joined with Georgia to form the Transcaucasian federation, now took advantage of the Allied victory in the war to launch an invasion of Georgia.

The nationalist ruling party in Armenia, the Dashnaks, were convinced that the defeat of Turkey and its allies meant that a new golden age had arrived for the Armenians. Slaughtered by the Turks in the first European genocide of the twentieth century, many of their historic lands seized by their enemies, they saw an opportunity to expand. They demanded vast swathes of land back from the Turks. And from the Georgians, they wanted to control all the border districts with significant ethnic Armenian populations.

The result was a small scale war that raged on and off during the final weeks of 1918. Initially the Armenians scored some victories, in spite of the continuing presence of Germans assisting the Georgians with their defences. And the Georgian leadership showed itself to be genuinely confused, for weeks denying that the Dashnaks, who like the Georgian Social Democrats were members of the Second International, could be issuing the orders for the invasion.

Eventually the Georgian forces recovered and pushed back, and more important, the Georgian leaders persuaded the British to order all sides to cease fighting. The Armenian forces retreated behind the frontier, British authority was asserted, and Georgia retained its sovereignty. This was not to be the last, or even the most serious, assault on Georgian territory. Far worse was coming.

In the months following the war, the Georgian and Armenian leaders brought their cases to the Second International, which initially tried to act as an honest broker, suggesting that the residents of the disputed provinces might want to have a say. But over time, they grew frustrated with the intransigence of the Dashnaks, who trusted no one, and suggested that the League of Nations try to mediate.

The more serious threat to the Georgian state came not from tiny Armenia but from General Denikin's Volunteer Army. Denikin, whose forces were armed and equipped by the Allies, was supposed to be marching north to Moscow to bring down the Bolsheviks. But he found it easier to attack soft targets like Georgia, whose independence he refused to recognise. For many months, there was constant pressure from Denikin's forces operating to the north of the Georgian border, and many border clashes.

The British, whose commitment to Denikin was far greater than their love of the Georgians (who they suspected of being pro-German) tried to mediate, but with little success. The Georgians feared for their very survival as an independent state, and this proclamation by the People's Guard deserves to be quoted at length to show how they felt about the White armies threatening their country:

"A new danger is felt today: the dark shadow of General Denikin's forces overclouds Georgia; they have treacherously entered the Sochi and Gagry districts and this threshold of our republic is at present in their hands; this threatens us with a new invasion, we are obliged to defend ourselves, saving our democracy and republic from the gory hands of Denikin which have turned Sochi district into a flaming fire, and have delivered all over to fire and sword. The population of Sochi district rose with arms in hand. Comrades! Hurry all to your arms, let all our armed forces be ready for defence.

"We will defend ourselves from the terrible power of reaction from the old 'gendarmerie' and from slavery, and we will preserve our literal existence from destruction. The aim of the treacherous foe is to knock out of our hands the valiant red banner, to establish despotism, the triumph of the forces of darkness and to crush our freedom and democracy.

"The sacred blood spilt by our comrades on the field of battle, in defence of freedom and democracy, compels us comrades, to unite ourselves and closely surrounding the red banner with arms in hand to join battle to the death with the forces of reaction advancing against revolutionary Georgia.

"Everyone should join the colours. Our revolutionary obligation summons us. Away with black reaction. Long live revolutionary democracy! Long live Socialism!"

This is not how Trotsky and other Bolshevik propagandists would later portray the Georgian Mensheviks. In their view, the Georgian leadership colluded with Denikin and the British to fight the hated Soviet regime. In fact, Trotsky was convinced that the British (and prior to them, the Germans) kept the Mensheviks in power solely to help crush Bolshevism. He could imagine no other reason for European powers to have an interest in the country.

On 17 July 1919 the War Office in London sent a secret memorandum to the British commander in the region, General Milne. It ordered him to tell General Denikin that there was a line which he must not cross. “Denikin must be made to understand that the continued support of H.M. Government depends upon the loyal observance of this line,” the memorandum stated. “The Caucasian States must be informed that they are to abstain from all aggression against the Volunteer Army and cooperate with Denikin at least to the extent of supplying oil and other supplies for the Caspian Fleet and withholding them from the Bolsheviks. They should be warned that if they fail to comply with these conditions they will be deprived of British Goodwill and it will be rendered impossible for H.M. Government to insist upon the retention of Denikin’s troops north of this line.”

In other words, in exchange for Denikin halting his aggression against Georgia, the Georgians were ordered by the British to supply Denikin’s army with oil and other supplies and to deny these to the Bolsheviks. So much for Georgian neutrality.

General Milne himself was keen to teach the Georgians a lesson. Earlier he'd written to London saying that “Once the western frontier between Denikin and Georgia is defined, I request I may be authorised to instruct the Navy to open fire on any Georgian troops advancing north of it and inform the Georgian Government accordingly.” A handwritten minute scribbled onto this telegram reads: “I think the Georgians ought to be warned that they must behave themselves.”

Denikin would probably have continued his efforts – possibly with British support – to bring Georgia back under Russian rule had it not been for his defeat at the hands of the Red Army. But Denikin's defeat, like that of the Armenians, did not end the threat to Georgia. An even greater danger loomed.

The Bolshevik leaders in Russia were, on paper, committed to the right of self-determination of all nations. As Lenin made clear, this included the right of secession, even from the Soviet republic. The Bolsheviks were forced to concede that Poland, Finland and the three Baltic states could go their own way, even if from time to time the Red Army might test to see if they really did want to be free of Russian rule.

But the three Transcaucasian republics of Georgia, Armenia and oil-rich Azerbaijan were never to be given that chance. The Bolshevik leadership was committed to getting rid of the pesky nationalists running those countries and reuniting them with Russia at the earliest opportunity.

Stalin had a particular interest in all this. A Georgian himself, he was not well liked by the other Georgian Social Democrats. Suspected by many of being a police spy, he was an outcast, only finding acceptance eventually from Lenin. The Bolsheviks were never a strong force in Georgia and proved unable, despite several well-financed though poorly-planned attempted coups, to pose a serious threat the Menshevik rulers of the country.

Once the Russian Civil War was essentially over the Red Army was given the green light to seize Azerbaijan and Armenia. Both fell like over-ripe fruit during the course of 1920.

Georgia, however, was going to be more of a challenge. The Georgian Menshevik government was a popular one. Its land reform had been a huge success. Workers' standard of living was rising, despite economic crisis, due to government policies. The country was a thriving, multi-party democracy, with powerful cooperatives and trade unions. The Red Army knew that conquering Georgia would not be painless.

Immediately after a last, comical attempt by the local Bolsheviks to seize power in early May 1920, Lenin played the diplomatic card. He offered Georgia a peace treaty. In exchange for recognition of Georgia's independence by the Bolshevik regime, he only asked that the Georgians lift all restrictions on the local Communist party, and free any of the jailed Leninists.

The Georgian government agreed. They had little choice, and whatever suspicions they may have had about the Bolsheviks' genuine commitment to the peace deal, it was the best they could expect.

As a result of the deal, Lenin sent Sergey Kirov (later to be murdered by Stalin, triggering the Great Purge) to take charge of a massive embassy in the Georgian capital staffed by vast numbers of secretive Soviet “diplomats” carrying sack-loads of cash. The local Communist party was revived, and began preparations for another coup attempt.

But this time they would not be left alone to botch it once again. Instead, preparations were underway for the Red Army to enter in force to bring down the hated Menshevik regime.

In the meanwhile, during the brief respite of the second half of 1920, Georgia appeared to be finally free of external threats. Russia had signed a peace deal and the local Communist party had gone quiet. It was time for the Georgian Mensheviks to show off all they had created and to win support and sympathy from around the world. They invited the Second International to send a delegation.

And what a delegation it was. Filled with the leading lights of Social Democracy from Britain, Germany, France and Belgium, the delegates began arriving in the Georgian port city of Batumi in September 1920. Among them were Ramsay MacDonald of the British Labour Party – soon to lead his party to victory and to be elected the country's first Labour prime minister. Another key figure was Emile Vandervelde, the most prominent of the Belgian socialists and a leading figure in the International. But above all the delegation included Karl Kautsky, known as the “pope of Marxism”, and the authoritative voice of pre-war Marxist orthodoxy. While the others stayed for a couple of weeks, Kautsky lingered for several months. The others wrote articles and gave interviews; Kautsky wrote an entire short book about Georgia. All the delegates agreed: Georgian was an extraordinary experiment in democratic socialism.

While the Georgian Social Democrats wined and dined their foreign guests, Georgian diplomats overseas were working around the clock to win the sympathy of foreign governments.

The Georgians won a very early diplomatic victory when on 30 December 1918, they received a message from London declaring: “I am authorised by Mr. Balfour to inform you that His Majesty’s Government view with favour the creation of a Georgian Republic and are prepared to urge its recognition at the Conference and to support its desire to send Delegates to Paris with the object of presenting its claims.”

If the text of Balfour’s message to the Georgians sounds familiar, it may be because the same Balfour had written a year earlier to Lord Rothschild saying that “His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” As the Jewish leaders in Palestine would soon discover, Balfour’s diplomatic language concealed a more nuanced position based on perceived British interests in the region. This would turn out to be the case with Britain’s view of Georgian statehood as well.

There was a huge Georgian delegation attending the Paris Peace Conference, working feverishly to secure Georgian recognition by some of the Great Powers. Eventually, this was to include a failed attempt to get Georgia admitted to the newly-formed League of Nations. These efforts began to finally bear fruit in late 1920 as one country after another announced their formal recognition of the Georgian republic.

But it was all too little and too late. The last British forces withdrew from Batumi in 1920, leaving Georgia on its own to face any foreign threats. Despite the peace treaty with Russia, the Georgians knew that it was only a matter of time until the Red Army would complete its re-conquest of all of Transcaucasia, having already taken Azerbaijan and Armenia.

That moment came in February 1921 when under the pretext of supporting a proletarian armed rising in Georgia, Red Army forces poured in from all sides. The invasion seems to have been ordered by Stalin and his cronies, and Trotsky, the commander of the Red Army, was only told afterwards. Even Lenin seemed not know what was going on. The Georgians offered a stiff resistance at first, emboldened by the hope that foreign powers who were rushing to recognise the new state might come to its assistance. But that was not to be the case. The French navy lobbed a few shells at the advancing Bolsheviks, but that was the extent of it.

While fighting continued, the Georgian leadership retreated westwards toward the port of Batumi. And there, just before the city fell to the Red Army, they completed the enactment of Georgia's constitution, a remarkable document that codified their vision of a democratic, egalitarian society. Having passed it, the Georgian leaders boarded Allied ships and headed off for a life in exile.

But even after the military defeat in February 1921, the dream of an independent Georgia did not die. Unrest continued and in 1924 the Social Democrats organised a large-scale national rebellion. It was crushed by Bolsheviks and their bloody suppression of the Mensheviks launched the career of a young secret police officer named Lavrenty Beria.

The exiled Georgians enjoyed the full support of western European socialists, and were regular guests at party congresses. But inevitably, interest in the Georgians declined as the Russian occupation seemed to become more and more permanent.

Decades later, with the Georgian republic completely forgotten in the west, mass demonstrations shook the capital of Tiflis, now renamed Tbilisi. By 1991, the Georgians were able to reestablish their independent state, adopting its flag and constitution, and declaring 26 May to be the national holiday.

What can the experience of the Georgian republic teach us about the foreign and defence policy of a democratic socialist party in power?

First, the Georgian decision to declare the country's neutrality in the middle of a world war (and with the Russian civil war raging next door) was a genuine one. The Georgians did all they could to avoid becoming embroiled in either conflict and while their record was not perfect, the evidence shows that rather than being allied with Denikin, they kept their distance – infuriating the British in the process.

Second, the armed conflicts the Georgians found themselves part of were in all cases wars of self-defence. There is little doubt that the Armenians started the short war in 1918, hoping to grab Georgian provinces with ethnic Armenian majorities. Turkey was always a military threat to Georgia, using every moment of weakness (including in 1921) to seize territory, particularly in and around Batumi. And the Russians – both the Whites and the Reds – hungrily eyed all of Transcaucasia and never relented in their efforts to recapture these lost provinces of the tsarist empire.

Third, in the course of organising their military, the Georgians relied heavily on the People's Guard, a militia which seemed to be based in large part on traditional socialist ideas about what French socialist leader Jean Jaurès called L’Armée nouvelle in his 1910 book.

And finally, the fate of the Georgian republic was sealed once it became clear that no one, and in particular none of the great powers, would come to its assistance if invaded. The Georgians relied very heavily on diplomacy, but neither their efforts to secure membership in the newly-formed League of Nations, nor their wooing of the leaders of European social democratic parties, could stop the Red Army's advance. It was a lesson the Georgians learned well and it is the basis for their commitment today to collective security, in particular Georgian membership in NATO and the European Union.