100 years later: Lessons of the three South Caucasian republics

The little known flag of the Transcaucasian Republic of 1918, which united Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The little known flag of the Transcaucasian Republic of 1918, which united Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

This is the text of my presentation to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Regional Lab held in Kvareli, Georgia. The event was attended by young leaders and activists from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

I have been asked to speak with you today about the first Georgian republic, which lasted for three brief years until the Red Army invasion of 1921. I have been given the job of making this sound relevant to you, as your countries make a second attempt, one hundred years later, to create independent, democratic societies.

I should start by saying that I’m not a political scientist and I’m not really qualified to speak about what is happening in Georgia today, let alone what is happening in Armenia and Azerbaijan.

My expertise is really with what happened one hundred years ago, and I’ve written many articles and a book on the subject. The book is available in English, Georgian and even Esperanto, and we’re hoping soon to have editions in Russian, Polish and German too.

Which raises an interesting question: why would people who don’t live in this region be interested in the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918 – 1921?

Why would an author who is not from here, who does speak any of the South Caucasian languages, write a book like this?

I need to be brief so I do recommend that you read the book and that you check out the book’s website as this presentation will be, by definition, superficial.

I think the first thing to point out is that the leaders of the Georgian Democratic Republic, who were Social Democrats, were far ahead of their time. Some of the things that they did were only realised decades later in western Europe, if ever.

For example, they pioneered the idea of social partnerships in which powerful and independent trade unions voluntarily worked together with businesses and government to ensure that workers were treated fairly, paid a decent wage, and their families’ basic needs were met.

The Wages Board established by the Social Democratic government here in Georgia was a very early version of a kind of social partnership which later became popular in Germany and elsewhere.

The idea that trade unions should be fully independent of the state, and that their right to strike should be constitutionally-protected, was part of the Georgian Social Democratic experiment. In this, as in so many other things, they differed sharply from the Bolsheviks, who swiftly crushed the independent trade unions, turning them into “transmission belts”, encouraging workers to work harder.

The Georgian republic was also characterised by a very powerful cooperative movement that seemed to be gradually displacing the free market in some sectors of the economy.

But probably the thing about the Georgian republic that made it so different from Bolshevik Russia was its vigorous defence of human rights, including a multi-party system with free and fair elections. Women voted in those elections, and were elected to the Constituent Assembly – and this happened here before it happened in the UK or the USA.

If you’d asked the Georgian Social Democrats back in 1921 what their greatest achievement was, they’d probably point to their successful agrarian reform. This broke up large estates, doled out land to peasant families, and began the creation of a middle class in the countryside. This too stands in sharp contrast to the Bolsheviks’ war on the peasants, which resulted in mass starvation and eventually the full horror of Stalinist collectivisation with its millions of innocent victims.

The Georgian Social Democrats did not create a perfect society and we can discuss things they got wrong. But they never intended to create a perfect society, just a better one, and I believe that they succeeded in this. We have much to learn, even today, from how they did this.

I’ve been asked to address three current issues – the level of democracy here, the question of independence, and finally what future we’d like to see.

In Georgia, the road to democracy has been a difficult one. From the time that Georgia restored its independence, it took some twenty years until one party could replace another in power in a peaceful and orderly fashion. After a bloody civil war and a “rose revolution,” it was only six years ago that one party replaced another following an election, which is how things are done in democracies.

There is other evidence that this young democracy has a way to go. Democracies are not just countries where people can vote; they must also be places where minorities have rights and which are tolerant of difference, and are inclusive. In many ways, and there are recent examples of this, Georgians have not yet stood up to the test.

And from the little I know about current affairs in Armenia and Azerbaijan, I think those countries as well have a way to go before they are robust modern democracies, inclusive, open, and tolerant of differences.

As for the independence of these countries, as we learned 100 years ago, if they do not work together, they are more vulnerable to aggression. The Bolsheviks understood this very well, and picked off the South Caucasian countries one by one. After 1921, the exiled leaders of the three countries vowed that this would never happen again.

But also the Georgians understood back then the importance of international support. They sought relations with major powers, first Germany, then Britain, then others. They were eager to be admitted into the League of Nations.

But more than that, they sought to win friends for their country based on its achievements, first and foremost its democratic character. That’s why they invited leaders of Europe’s social democratic and labour parties to visit in 1920. Those leaders – and among them the great German socialist writer Karl Kautsky and the future British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald – were very impressed with what they saw.

No country can be truly independent in today’s globalised world, and that’s why it’s so important for Georgia to join both NATO and the European Union as soon as possible. I hope that the other South Caucasian countries will follow a similar route.

Looking ahead, what I’d like to see in all these countries is a much more powerful civil society, in particular trade unions. In some senses, workers were better represented, and better defended, back in 1921 than they are today. Most workers here are not members of trade unions, and unions struggle to recruit new members. This is not a good thing, as trade unions are the best way to ensure workers are treated fairly and paid a decent wage.

But it’s not enough to have strong trade unions independent of the state, important though that is. As workers in many European countries learned, they also need political parties which represent them. Historically, those have been parties like the British Labour Party or the German SPD. Those parties have not always done a great job of representing workers and sometimes there are strains between them and the trade unions. But without social democratic parties, there can be little hope of creating fairer and better democratic societies.

No one would suggest that those republics 100 years ago were perfect, or were models which we should return to.

However, they were inspiring, they did amazing things, and though they have been largely forgotten – and actually erased during the Soviet period – there is evidence today of growing interest in them, especially among young people.

The brilliant American socialist writer Irving Howe once asked, do great historical movements – he meant Social Democracy – ever get a second chance?

Let us hope they do.