Exactly 100 years ago the Georgian National Assembly, elected by both men and women by direct popular vote, proclaimed Georgia’s independence. Thus on May 26, 1918 six months after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, the world’s first democratic socialist republic was created. It lasted only for three years until Bolshevik Russia invaded Georgia and incorporated it into its new Soviet empire. You may wonder what are three years in the life of an ancient nation? Why are we making so much fuss about it? But these were three years packed with history and their significance for modern Georgia cannot be underestimated.
This is where the roots of modern Georgian statehood lie, where its struggle for a place in Europe begins and where today’s fears of being left on the wrong side of the divide find their source. The brief but tumultuous history of the First Republic offers many lessons to Georgia today, and we celebrate it both as a tribute to the progressive past and as a promise of a better future.
In September of 1920, a delegation of prominent European socialist leaders from the Second International visited Tbilisi. The party of visitors included Britain’s future prime minister Ramsay MacDonald, Thomas Shaw, Karl Kautski, and most notably prominent Belgian politicians such as Emile Vandervelde, Louis de Brouckere and Camille Huysmans. Following this visit, Karl Kautski wrote a short book about the Georgian democratic republic, calling it ‘the antithesis to Bolshevism’ and describing it as ‘a paradise’ especially when compared to ‘the hell which was Soviet Russia’. Other delegates were equally enthusiastic about what they saw. In the words of Camille Huysmans: « La Géorgie est le seul état socialiste qui n’a pas été fondé sur la terreur, la contrainte ou le meurtre, mais sur la démocratie. »
Indeed Georgian social democracy was founded on principle of liberty, social justice and equality, including equality between men and women. It upheld universal suffrage, free elections, freedom of press and built a functioning multiparty system. Death sentence was abolished and freedom of assembly was guaranteed. Women were not only allowed to vote, an exception in those days, but also were elected as members of parliament. Thus Georgia’s independence act bears signatures of 5 women, including that of the first ever elected Muslim woman. An American historian Eric Lee pointed out in his recent book on the First Republic that Georgians ‘imagined a society unlike any which existed in the world at that time or since’. Georgian leaders at a time were largely educated in Europe, returning to their homeland infused with ideals of national liberation and individual emancipation. They were confident that Georgia’s past as well as its future was inextricably tied to Europe.
European leaders at the time, however, were divided over the fate of the Caucasus. Ramsay MacDonald, reflecting on Georgia’s democratic achievements upon his return from Tbilisi, urged the British government not to abandon the region, which in his words ‘will in the future become a major route for invasions and imperialist intrigues – just as it was once open to agents and rival European plans’. Instead he called upon allied governments to recognise and support Georgia as an anti-Bolshevik outpost which would guard the West’s strategic interests in the wider region. Similarly, Emile Vandervelde spoke about the regrettable indifference of Europe towards Georgia and a shameful resignation of the Entente which passively watched how the three Transcaucasian countries were strangled. Georgians, he added, ‘have known the misfortune that we Belgians understand too well and suffered from, it is the misfortune of being too good a place where everyone jostles you to grab it.’
Not everyone in Europe was convinced of Georgia’s utility to the West. Professor Stephen Jones from Mount Holyoke college recalls in one of his writings how Winston Churchill was dismissive of Georgia’s importance as a buffer to Soviet Russian expansion, and compared it to using a piece of putty to stop an earthquake. The British troops left Georgia in 1920 and the western powers conceded to a Soviet future for Georgia. The Russian Red Army invaded in February 1921 and Tbilisi fell, after weeks of bloody fighting.
Much has changed in the world since then. There is a more advanced system of international cooperation based on international norms. The kind of predatory power politics that characterised the world 100 years ago has been abandoned and deal making by big powers over the fate of smaller ones is no longer acceptable if not entirely impossible. And yet, the problems Georgia faced then, both internal and external; the costs accrued for the stubborn pursuit of freedom and life in dignity; the choices made that go against the political currents of the region almost in defiance of history and geography…all have a strikingly contemporary ring to them.
When Georgia is denied a perspective of joining the EU and NATO, it understandably fears the repeat of history.