Batumi: Travails of the City

100 years since the city of Batumi and its province were reunited into the Georgian Democratic Republic

Irakli Iremadze is a historian, researcher of the First Republic. He is a staff writer at Republic-100 and a researcher at SOVLAB – Soviet Past Research Laboratory.

7 July marks one hundred years since the city of Batumi and its province were reunited into the Georgian Democratic Republic. The story of Batumi’s loss and return to the Georgian fold offers an apt illustration of the international environment where the first republic was born and fought to survive.

WWI Debacle

Batumi was lost before the birth of the Georgian republic. Following the Bolshevik revolution, Russia exited World War I. As the frontline collapsed, Ottoman troops counter-attacked.

On 3 March 1918, a peace treaty was struck in Brest-Litovsk between Soviet Russia and central powers – Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. That treaty ceded control to the Ottomans in three provinces of the erstwhile Russian Empire’s Transcaucasia – Batumi, Ardagan, and Kars.

At that point, Transcaucasus was in political flux, governed by the provisional bodies of governance – Seim and the Commissariat – that emerged following the February revolution and the abdication of the Tsar. These two bodies refused to recognize the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk since they did not participate in negotiations.  Still, the Ottoman Empire demanded to pull out the troops that remained and to formally cede control.

The Transcaucasus Commissariat demanded additional negotiations, saying they will not submit to the conditions of the treaty that they did not sign. The peace conference duly opened in Trabzon on 12 March 1918. Akaki Chkhenkeli, a seasoned Georgian social-democrat, led the Transcaucasus delegation as the chief negotiator.

The delegates from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia often did not see eye to eye. The talks lasted for almost one month without progress: the Ottomans continued to demand the fulfillment of Brest-Litovsk provisions, threatening military action.

As the talks stalled, the Ottoman army launched its attack by the end of March 1918. Demoralized Batumi garrison, mainly ethnic Georgian soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army – retreated and yielded the city. On 1 April, the Ottoman army entered Batumi.

Historian Dimitri Silakadze, who studies this period, tells us that the primary cause of Batumi debacle was poor morale of the troops stationed in Batumi. “Ottoman troops and their allies were inferior to Batumi garrison, both in number and by pieces of artillery,” says Silakadze, “but the numbers are one thing and the will to fight – quite another… The troops stationed there [in Batumi] were full of demoralized soldiers, former deserters and marauders, who had no intention to fight.”

Silakadze says that the majority of the troops did not even engage, although there were isolated pockets of resistance. “Captain Simon Shavgulidze and his 50 troops had distinguished themselves, fought and died heroically on Anaria fortification,” recounts Silakadze.

But this was not to be the end of the Ottoman offensive. “Ottoman [Empire] has risen from the dead… it is poised to take Transcaucasus and strives – with allied support – to become a great nation once again,” thus wrote “Ertoba”, Georgia’s social-democratic daily on its front page on 11 May 1918. By May, the Ottoman troops were in Dmanisi (today’s southern Georgia) and poised to attack Tiflis (Tbilisi). On 26 May they demanded Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki to be transferred under their control. For Georgia, the situation was dire, even critical.

The Republic truncated

But the German allies were loth to give too much leeway to their Ottoman ally in the Caucasus. Apart from wishing to control the strategic routes, they feared a potential backlash from the Ottoman domination. Akaki Chkhenkeli’s diplomatic dexterity and personal rapport with German military command helped secure Georgia’s independence and averted the threat from Tiflis.

Already after the proclamation of Georgia’s independence, Georgia and the Ottoman Empire were back to the negotiating table. A peace treaty was signed on 4 June 1918. Batumi and its province remained under Ottoman control. However, as Georgians hoped, this was not to last – after the central powers’ defeat, the Ottoman army left Batumi.

The British troops were deployed to Transcaucasia for expulsion of the hostile German and Ottoman armies and securing Baku-Batumi line under their control.

Beka Kobakhidze, professor at the Ilia State University of Tiflis, studies the role that Britain played in the era of Georgia’s independence. He points out that the Batumi province was the only one in the region, that was directly administered by the British, not by a local government.

Kobakhidze finds at least four main reasons for that. First of all, “Batumi was the key to the Caucasus [at that time], the region’s main gate to the West. Giving control over it […] to Georgia would have given [Tbilisi] a great advantage, making both Armenia and Azerbaijan “hostages” of Georgia,” he says.

Secondly, since several local political forces contested Batumi, by governing directly, the British were trying to head-off the potential confrontation between pro-Georgian, pro-[white] Russian, and pro-Turkish factions.

Thirdly, 15% of the oil from Baku oilfields flowed to Batumi through the pipeline. Kobakhidze says the British never directly controlled those fields, but their Black Sea fleet depended on these supplies.

And finally, the tactical military stakes were also high. The British troops were stationed in Tiflis and Baku. In case of an unexpected Bolshevik onslaught, these troops could be trapped. Though evacuation from Batumi was a matter of hours.

In the case of an eventual Soviet takeover, “the British War Office and the General Staff were counting on rapid evacuation,” recounts professor Kobakhidze. “In a marked difference of opinion from the Foreign Office, they considered the Caucasus as belonging to Russia. The Foreign Office, for its part, saw the British brigade in Batumi as a political deterrent for Russia’s aggression.”

Claiming control

The Georgian state and Batumi Georgians did not stay idle. Starting in 1918 the Committee for Liberating Muslim Georgia was operating in and around Batumi under the leadership of indefatigable Memed-Beg Abashidze, a local nobleman. The Committee campaigned actively to prepare the region’s reunification into Georgia.

At the same time, supporters of the white Russian General Anton Denikin, Bolshevik, and Ottoman agents had all spread their spy networks, agitating the residents against the Georgian Democratic Republic.

Throughout 1919-1920 the Georgian government engaged in active diplomacy with the British and other allies, trying to ensure reunification of Batumi district into the Georgian fold. But the talks dragged on.

At the beginning of the year 1920, rumors circulated in the Georgian press and political circles, that the Allies, led by the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Curzon aimed to make Batumi a free port. The Georgian government saw this plan as a threat and countered it aggressively.

Professor Kobakhidze argues that the British had their own internal political reasons to advance this plan: “Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon could not see eye to eye on this issue with the War Secretary Winston Churchill. [To reconcile their differences] he decided in February 1920 to make Batumi a free port and proclaim it an independent republic under the protection of the League of Nations. Batumi district was to be protected by one battalion each from Britain, France, and Italy. This meant splitting Batumi from the rest of Georgia for some time – perhaps for a long time – but Lord Curzon preferred to have at least one part of the Caucasus under collective responsibility of the Allies, and in so doing, to protect the whole region from the Bolshevik aggression.”

Yet, the Georgian government, apparently unaware of these intricacies received the news “quite aggressively” as an attempt to split Batumi from the rest of Georgia, explains Kobakhidze.

The resolution

Almost every facet of the Georgian society craved clarity about Batumi district. Citizens rallied and passed resolutions calling for Batumi’s return to Georgian jurisdiction. The Georgian government was dispatching Notes Verbale to the Allied Powers, urging for prompt resolution.

In spring 1920, the Georgian government moved troops into Artvin and Khulo areas, triggering the official British protest. The Georgian army tried to take Batumi, but the British garrison signaled its willingness to defend the city with arms if necessary. The personal intervention of the British High Commissioner Sir Oliver Wardrop helped avoid an armed confrontation.

In the end, the British cabinet decided in June 1920 to pull out from Batumi. The decision to accelerate the removal of British troops from the area and to return Batumi to Georgia’s jurisdiction was a signal of changing military and political disposition – and not to independent Georgia’s favor – tells professor Kobakhidze.

In April 1920 Bolshevik coup succeeded in Baku. Kobakhidze says that “by occupying Baku, the Soviet Army nullified strategic importance of Batumi, as well, since those two cities were links of the same economic and transportation chain.” This link was now broken.

The Soviet takeover of Azerbaijan, in view of the allies, also made it impossible to protect Georgia’s independence militarily.

The regional context also pushed the British towards the exit. Kobakhidze reminds us that in May 1920, Bolsheviks “attacked the British fleet stationed in the Persian port of Enzeli. The British had to evacuate to the Persian heartland… An attack on Enzeli showed [the British admiralty] that a similar scenario could play out in Batumi.”

Using these very arguments, the War Secretary and the General Staff took the decision to vacate Batumi. With them, departed also the newly arrived French Battalion of Algerian origin.

On 7 July 1920, Georgia was in the throes of patriotic fervor, as Batumi finally and formally went back to Georgia.

“Sadly, few people understood, that by transferring control of Batumi, the British and the west had renounced the defense of the whole Caucasus,” says Kobakhidze.

Or perhaps, having just pushed back the first massive tentative of Soviet military invasion from the eastern border, and having quelled Bolshevik-inspired rebellion in northern Java district, Georgia’s leaders hoped, that they could resist the Soviet Red Army up until the point when the political context in the west became favorable again? We need more research to know for certain.

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