Q: We are having this conversation on 11 February. Exactly 100 years ago the detachments of Soviet Russia’s 11th Army started their military intervention, which led to the fall of Tbilisi on February 25 and to an eventual occupation of the whole of Georgia. Can you give us the mountain-top overview of the international context in which this invasion occurred?
Beka Kobakhidze: Project of the independent Caucasus was championed by the British Foreign Office and personally by the Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon. In his youth he had travelled to the region three times and left interesting accounts of these voyages. He knew Georgia and Georgians, he sympathised with people, but his calculations were very pragmatic: according to the British-Russian agreement of 1907 two Great Powers divided Persia into the spheres of influence – north Persia was dominated by Russia and the south one by Britain.
Curzon, as an orientalist and former Viceroy of India, had a great affection for oriental affairs. As any 19th century British orientalist, he was wary of a potential expansion of Russia to India. Hence, in the collapse of the Russian Empire, he saw a chance to stop them at the Caucasus chain of mountains by establishing independent states in what was then called Transcaucasia.
In the collapse of the Russian Empire, Lord Curzon saw a chance to stop them at the Caucasus chain of mountains by establishing independent states in what was then called Transcaucasia
He stressed that Georgia was a leading country in the region with its own ancient history, culture, etc. He said the Republic of Azerbaijan had no more rights for independence than the Persian provinces of Azerbaijan and Ghilan, but he said if the Russians crossed the Caucasus ridge, occupy Baku, security for Georgia could never be provided.
And this is what happened in April 1920. The Red Armies marched to Baku from Dagestan without major resistance. By the 27th of April, a Soviet government took power in Azerbaijan. It meant that getaways to Armenia and Azerbaijan were unlocked. It also meant that parts of the major economic arteries – Transcaucasian railway and Baku-Batum oil pipeline – were cut. The region, including Georgia, lost its significance for the west.
By April 27, 1920, Soviet government took power in Azerbaijan. Transcaucasian railway and Baku-Batum oil pipeline were cut. The region, including Georgia, lost its significance for the West.
Therefore, Curzon surrendered to the pressure by then War Secretary, Winston Churchill, and agreed to withdraw the last remaining British brigade from Batumi. After that, the occupation of the rest of the region by Soviet Russia was just a matter of time.
It is noteworthy that traditional geopolitical rivals – Russia and Turkey – from 1919 to the beginning of the 1920s joined their forces to resist the Allied Powers (Entente). This happened because the Treaty of Sevres of August 1920 envisaged territorial partition and political collapse of the former Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the West or Entente did not recognize the Bolshevik regime in Moscow, they fought against it, supported all Bolshevik rival parties, and made, let’s say, “half-hearted attempts” to overthrow the Soviets. Consequently, Mustafa Kemal and Lenin realized that they could not afford to fight each other, became situational allies and they used Transcaucasia as a venue for their alliance.
Lenin sent Mustafa Kemal arms and munitions, gold reserves, etc. Turks played a significant role in the Sovietization of Baku. Then, in November-December 1920, they occupied Armenia together. By December 1920, Georgia was the only independent Republic in the Caucasus and her position looked hopeless
The last shadow of hope was hinging on a possible admission to the League of Nations, but voting on 16 December 1920 proved to be a failure. From the League’s 42 members, 10 voted for and 13 against Georgia’s membership. The rest abstained or did not attend the voting. Georgia needed 2/3 of the votes of all members. Just for the comparison’s sake: Armenia got 8 supportive votes and the three Baltic States only 5 votes each. It means that the fear of the Bolshevik Russian invasion was looking large in the West. Among the Allied Powers, only Italy voted in favor of Georgia’s admission, but France and Britain, together with their dominions and client smaller states voted against.
Nonetheless, things soon seem to turn to Georgia’s advantage. On 15 January 1921 Aristide Briand became France’s Prime-Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Briand, left-wing politician himself, had some – moderate – sympathy towards the Social-Democratic Government of Georgia. But most importantly, he disliked the idea of a direct land border and alliance between reemerged Russia and Turkey. He thought he could fortify Georgia and prevent such an alliance. Just 11 days after taking the office, he championed the recognition of independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Georgia. Immediately after the recognition, the French Mission in Tiflis was bombarded with questions from Paris on what kind of military aid Georgia needed in order to resist a potential Soviet invasion.
On the same day as Georgia’s independence was recognized by the Allies, Bolshevik Party Politburo green-lighted an invasion of Georgia.
The Soviet government in Moscow realized that the situation was changing in Georgia’s favor. They had to act before Briand had taken tangible steps. At the same time, as we said above, Britain had lost interest in the region and now Foreign Office prioritized a trade agreement with Soviet Russia. So, the same day as Georgia’s independence was recognized by the Allies, Bolshevik Party Politburo greenlighted an invasion of Georgia.
Q: Soviet Russia recognized Georgian independence in May 1920. What changed during that one year, what compelled the Kremlin to act militarily?
A: The Kremlin had exactly the same agreements with the Baltic States. However, she never thought of respecting these agreements. This was a tactical step: as noted above, Soviet Russia was fully blockaded by the West and she needed a major diplomatic and economic breakthrough. In 1920, the first steps were taken to negotiate the trade agreement with Britain, and for Lenin, this was a priority. Occupation of Georgia could wait.
Before the occupation of Baku Curzon would disallow Russia’s meddling into Transcaucasia. However, after the coup in Baku, the Red Armies marched in just to secure the fait accompli [in April 1920]. Leader of the Caucasian Bolsheviks, ethnically Georgian, Sergo Orjonikidze was promising Lenin that in a fortnight he could have taken Tiflis. For this reason, uprisings were pre-planned in “South Ossetia” and Tiflis. Orjonikidze was ready to march with a pretext of “helping suppressed workers and peasants”. It is noteworthy that Orjonikidze was supervised personally by Stalin (Ioseb Jughashvili, another ethnic Georgian Bolshevik).
However, Bolshevik troops met fierce resistance from the Georgian army. Lenin halted the operation because an open war with Georgia could have jeopardized negotiations on the trade agreement with the British. Lenin was a smart pragmatist. He wanted to display internationally that the Soviet invasion in Azerbaijan had never happened, that the Azerbaijani people themselves changed the government in a bloodless revolution. To prove Soviet Russia’s friendly and neighborly intentions to the peoples of the Caucasus, Lenin personally sponsored a peace treaty with Georgia.
In 1920, the collapse of the trade talks with Great Britain would have been too much of a risk to take for Soviet Russia, while it was fighting two hostile armies.
Importantly, Soviet Russia was simultaneously fighting Poland in the west and the White Armies of General Wrangel in the south. The collapse of the trade talks with Great Britain would have been too much of a risk to take while fighting two hostile armies. That was too high a price to pay for the occupation of Georgia. So it was postponed for several months.
Q: What are the lessons that modern Georgia can draw, in your mind, from 1921 debacle in terms of structuring its foreign relations with Russia and with Europe?
A: I am not sure if Georgia has drawn any conclusions, but there are lots of lessons to be learned from the First Republic. For one, this history remains unknown or superficially known by the politicians both in the West and in the Caucasus.
Again, traditional geopolitical rivals, Russia and Turkey, are pushed into an alliance.
Take, for example, the West’s half-hearted resistance to current regimes in Russia and in Turkey. Again, traditional geopolitical rivals are pushed into an alliance and again they worked together in the recent war in Karabakh. As then, both Russia and Turkey try to weaken western presence in the region. Their policies are supported by unresolved discords between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Let’s look at another example: the Allied Powers recognized Georgia on 27 January 1921 and only afterwards, they started thinking about how to back up this recognition with credible security guarantees. Russia was much faster, more resolute in actions. Before the Allied Powers found any solution, Red Armies occupied Georgia and established control. The West was put in front of a fait accompli.
The Allied powers recognized Georgia in 1921 and only then they started thinking about security guarantees.
This is eerily familiar: the NATO Bucharest Summit of April 2008 provided a vague promise for Georgia’s NATO membership and the NATO foreign ministers were tasked to discuss the Membership Action Plan (MAP) at their next meeting by the end of 2008. This actually invited Russian aggression – before the West made any irreversible commitment or decision, the “new realities on the ground” – like the Kremlin likes to call occupation these days – had to be established. It worked – after Russian-Georgian war of August 2008, Georgia’s NATO membership was never again seriously discussed.
Like in 1921, the West finds it easier to provide rhetorical, legal, or other non-military or non-binding support to Georgia. The western conscience is relieved by such actions and Georgia, as a small state, is tempted to take these signs of attention eagerly and to boast such achievements. In reality, such behavior accelerates aggressive decisions in Russia and puts Georgia in a precarious position. Both the West and Georgia should learn, that deeds, tangible commitments must come first, and nice declarations and flattering words could wait for later.
Both the West and Georgia should learn, that deeds, tangible commitments must come first, and nice declarations and flattering words could wait for later.
In a contrasting example, the German Empire sponsored Georgia’s declaration of independence on 26 May 1918. However, Germany did not immediately recognize Georgia. First, Germans prepared the legal ground for Georgian independence with rival powers: with their mediation, on 4 June 1918, the Ottoman Empire recognized the independence of Georgia. On 27 August 1918, Soviet Russia formally agreed to German recognition of Georgia’s independence. Meanwhile, Germany deployed up to 20000 troops in Georgia to physically secure what was obtained legally. Only after that Germany started negotiating with Georgia a protectorate agreement and this would have been followed by formal recognition. This was a well-calculated plan, but unluckily for the Democratic Republic of Georgia, Germany was defeated in the Great War.
Georgia needs deeds instead of words, arms and friendly troops instead of the Summit papers, economic development, and integration into the EU market instead of moral support. This is the key lesson.