Soviet Georgia: The most likely to secede

This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 4 May 1989. Two years later, Georgian independence became a reality.

My bet is on Georgia to become the first Soviet republic to withdraw from the USSR.

It has become increasingly clear in the last year or two that sooner or later one national republic or another is going to say goodbye to the Russian-dominated empire. The right of secession is not only enshrined in the Soviet constitution, but is in fact the very basis of Leninist-Stalinist doctrine on the nationalities question.

At an early stage in the Russian Revolution - long before Lenin had to actually grapple with rebellious nationalities - he made the issue of secession a virtual litmus test for real revolutionaries. Lenin scorned the vague slogan "self-determination" and said that the real issue was the right of nations to actually secede.

Shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power, they did allow some of the border areas to secede. Poland and Finland were granted their freedom at once. The independence of Ukraine had to be acknowledged under the threat of German bayonets. As late as 1920, the Bolsheviks were recognizing the right of Georgia - then under Menshevik rule - to independence from the Moscow regime.

The common denominator in all these cases was Russian Bolshevik weakness. Where secession could not be prevented, Lenin readily granted the right of withdrawal from the Russian imperial system. Poland and Finland were simply too strong to restrain. Ukraine and Georgia were under protection of other empires (German and British). So long as these countries could not be subordinated to Russian rule, the Bolsheviks magnanimously granted them their freedom.

As soon as the opportunity presented itself to renew the ties of friendship that bonded these peoples to the Russians - in other words, to recapture them for the empire - the Red Army always intervened. The "friendly family of Soviet nations," as the Stalinists always called it, has grown steadily larger throughout this century. Nations have been added to it one by one. None has ever left.

YET TODAY, nationalist unrest in all three Baltic republics, in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, threatens to reverse that process for the first time. The Estonian Supreme Soviet passed overtly separatist legislation last year, reasserting Estonian sovereignty in a formally legalistic sense. In the recent elections to the new Congress of Peoples' Deputies, nationalists defeated Communists in nearly all the non-Russian republics.

The question is not whether the imperial system is breaking up, but when it will finally come to an end. The formally legal act of secession of one or another of the Soviet republics will mark a critical new phase in the breakup of the empire.

Georgia was among the very last parts of the old Czarist empire to be returned to the Russian fold. It managed to remain free of Russian rule and under the leadership of the Bolsheviks' worst enemies - the Mensheviks - until the spring of 1921. The Russian invasion that year encountered vigorous Georgian resistance, and only succeeded because the Turks threatened to attack from the south, forcing the Georgians to choose between Russian or Turkish domination. The immediate period following the invasion was one of constant unrest, strikes, and underground activity.

By the fall of 1924, when the Russian Civil War was already fading into distant memory, the New Economic Policy was in full swing and Soviet Russia had finally stabilized, Georgia exploded. In an organized rebellion, virtually the whole country once again threw off the Russian yoke. Rebel armies seized whole regions. Thousands were killed, imprisoned and deported before the Russians were able finally to restore order. The anniversary of this bloody 1924 rebellion is still commemorated by Georgian communities abroad.

THE COLLECTIVIZATION of the 1930s brought with it peasant unrest in Georgia like in other parts of the USSR. Georgia was distinguished from the other republics by the violence of its resistance - just as it had been distinguished in Czarist times. American Ambassador Davies, in his pro-Stalinist memoir Mission to Moscow, casually mentions an assassination attempt made on Stalin during one of his visits to Georgia at this time.

Georgians, like other Russian and non-Russian peoples, split when the Nazis invaded in June 1941. Many fought with and died in the ranks of the Red Army. Others volunteered for the German forces, including the Waffen SS. The mainstream Georgian exiles, including the surviving Mensheviks, threw their support to the Allies.

During the early period of de-Stalinization, Georgians felt once again that they were being mistreated by the Russians. Student riots broke out in Tbilisi in 1956 in opposition to the Moscow-inspired de-Stalinization campaign.

By the early 1970s, Georgian nationalist resistance had re-emerged as a coherent political force. A Georgian Helsinki Watch committee had been formed to monitor human rights violations. Under the surface, various terrorist groupings also operated. Cases were reported of policemen being shot, the Tbilisi opera house being burned, even a plane hijacked by nationalist students in the early 1980s. In 1978, mass demonstrations were held in Tbilisi demanding that the Georgian language be retained as the official state language.

THE GEORGIANS HAVE a long memory. The occasion of the 200th anniversary of Russian domination - in 1983 - triggered student protests in Tbilisi. The 70th anniversary of the Menshevik declaration of independence, in May 1988, was the cause of nationalist activity. Recently a mass rally in the city of Kutaisi commemorated the victims of Bolshevik outrages during the first years of the revolution.

The extreme character of the Georgian resistance is made clear by its symbols. While the Armenian mass protests were dominated by huge portraits of Gorbachev, the Georgians hoisted slogans like "Russian Invaders Go Home!" More than six decades after the Red Army successfully drove the Menshevik government on to an Italian freighter in Batumi port, Georgian youth continue to view the Russians as a foreign invader.

One can hardly doubt, if a referendum were held today in Georgia, what the results would be. The vast majority of Georgians have never reconciled themselves to Russian rule, and would seize, at the very first opportunity, the chance to restore independence. Today, under the conditions of glasnost, they've taken out of their attics and closets the long-concealed flags of the old Georgian republic. They've remembered and sung the old nationalist hymns. They've created genuine mass political parties - the National Democratic Party is the largest - whose authority far exceeds that of the Communists.

Given the chance, the Georgians will opt for independence. But will they be given the chance? The Russian empire will allow nations to secede in certain circumstances. The rule seems to be that, where keeping a rebellious nation in tow becomes too expensive, the Russians will withdraw. They will do a cost-benefit analysis, and if it's no longer profitable, they'll leave. Gorbachev pulled the Red Army out of Afghanistan. He may have to withdraw it from a non-Russian republic as well.

Gorbachev may well find an honorable way to loosen the ties that bind Georgia to Russia. A first step would clearly be a referendum on Georgia's future. Soviet law and Leninist-Stalinist doctrine clearly allow Gorbachev to grant increasing degrees of autonomy up to and including secession. If the Georgians push hard - and they are pushing - they may succeed in pushing the Russians to the very limit. They may reverse the historic process which until now has only drawn nations into the Russian orbit, never releasing them. If Georgia succeeds in pulling away, in re-establishing its freedom, it will surely exacerbate nationality problems elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it remains a possibility. If the price of keeping Georgia in the USSR becomes too expensive, Gorbachev will have to consider the alternatives. If any of the Soviet republics has a chance of seceding in the next few months or years, my money is on the Georgians, their determination and their long memories.