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Remembering Georgia’s First Republic

Georgia's Constituent Assembly in Session, 1919. Photo: National Library of Georgia

by Stephen Jones:

One hundred years ago, on May 26, 1918, in the midst of international conflict and Russia’s imperial collapse, members of the Georgian National Council gathered in the former Caucasian Viceroy’s palace on Golovinskii Avenue, Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare, and declared Georgia an independent republic.

The Georgian National Council, which governed the republic until February 1919, when it was replaced with a Constituent Assembly, was a nationally representative body. It included lawyers, trade unionists, local government officials, professional revolutionaries, landowners, military officers and businessmen. Sixty-six of its 120 members were social democrats.

The social democrats, who led the republic until its fall to the Red Army in February 1921, established the first social democratic state in Europe. The government created one of the most progressive constitutions, which guaranteed private property and the rule of law along with labor protections and social rights. It introduced comprehensive civil and political liberties for all citizens, along with an innovative network of self-governing institutions.

European roots…

The roots of Georgian social democracy were in Europe. The leaders of the Georgian social democratic movement imbibed ideas of equality, self-determination, democracy and civil rights from Georgia’s Europeanized intelligentsia, who were educated in Russia and Europe, and were known locally as the tergdaleulni – those who have drank of the river Tergi (Terek) leading them to St. Petersbourg and sometimes further, to Europe.

By the 1890s, Georgia’s young Marxist sympathizers were traveling to Europe, many of them escaping the Tsarist police. They attended meetings and conferences of the German and Austrian social democratic parties, debated with the French socialists, participated in the congresses of the Second International, and corresponded with the leading lights of European socialism, such as Jean Jaures, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky.

Despite Georgia’s poverty, its backwardness, and its physical isolation from Central and Western Europe, European social democracy had a more powerful influence on Georgian social democrats than Russian forms of socialism.

Georgian leaders were attracted to the ideas of Russian Menshevism, but between 1905-1918, Georgian social democracy shaped its own tactics and strategy, and moved closer to the parliamentary policies of European parties.

Like Georg Von Vollmar, leader of the Bavarian social democrats, the Georgians incorporated the peasantry into the party and courted small traders, and like Jean Jaures, they supported participation in legal institutions, such as local government bodies, civil society organizations, and the Duma.

They defended revolution, but like Karl Kautsky, interpreted it as a democratic takeover of power, not as a dictatorship of one class. Finally like the Austrian socialist, Otto Bauer, they defended socialism as a means for preserving cultural difference. Like today, Georgia’s pro-Western orientation underpinned its commitment to democracy, even though its practice remained flawed.

…for charting the local path

Georgia’s social democrats did not just copy Europeans, they contributed to the debates; they promoted innovative solutions to the conflict between nationalism and socialism, to the balance between reform and revolution, and to the disputes over the role of the state.

After the victory of Bolshevism in 1917, Georgian social democrats were convinced their interests lay with Europe. Noe Jordania, Chairman/President of the Georgian government declared in 1919

“Our life today and our life in the future…is indissolubly tied to the West, and no force can break this bond…”

The state the Georgian social democrats created between 1918-21 differed in dramatic fashion from the Bolshevik model. It reflected a shift toward the political management of capitalism rather than its overthrow.

It emphasized the democratic elements of socialism and defended the principle of a free press along with political pluralism. A significant break with both Bolshevism (and Menshevism), was the government’s support of national independence.

If in 1918, this could have been interpreted as a response to existential threats – “accidental independence” as one opponent put it – it soon became clear that Georgian social democracy had a national vision for the social democratic state. Georgian leaders argued that social democracy defended the rights of small states to independence, and that internationalism was built upon the rights of all nations to statehood.

Principles tempered by times

The practice of Georgian social democracy, given the chaotic conditions and the inexperience of its leaders, did not always conform to its principles.

Georgian social democracy faced a hostile environment, not only threats from abroad (the Volunteer Army (anti-Bolshevik army operating in southern Russia) and Bolsheviks from the North, the Ottomans to the south), but from internal revolts among Georgia’s own national minorities.

The parallels with today are evident. As in the 1990s and 2000s, between 1918-21 the government of the first republic faced the challenge of secessionist movements from South Ossetians and Abkhazians, who were supported by a foreign power.

This is perhaps the most tragic element in the life of both the first republic and Georgia today. Georgian governments have consistently failed to implement effective measures to integrate their national minorities. This failure, exacerbated by poverty and joblessness in the regions, and by Georgian central governments’ unwillingness to devolve power, opened the door for foreign interference.

How governments deal with their national minorities is a crucial factor in the success of stable statehood and the avoidance of conflict (including war). The first republic was a nation-builder, a nationalizing state. This is the norm among new states, seeking to modernize, unify and establish legitimacy.

But such policies, if implemented without sensitivity to the needs and demands of national minorities, undermine statehood and encourage Great Powers like Russia to exploit internal divisions among weaker neighbors.

In 1918-21, and again after 1991 during the presidencies of Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze and Saakashvili, more courageous nationality policies would have undermined Russia’s excuse for intervention and fortified the Georgian state.

Liberalism and socialism?

The revolution in Georgia in 1917-18 was as much about the establishment of democratic rights as it was about class.

Paradoxically, the leaders of the first republic, despite the overwhelming peasant nature of Georgian society in 1918, were able to combine the ideas of liberalism – a legacy of the tergdaleulni – with the egalitarian impulses of socialism.

The Georgian social democratic organization before 1918 had laid the groundwork for “social capital” through a broad network of reading groups, theatrical societies, cooperatives, and trade unions.

Civil society remained thin, but it provided a basic network, which both supported and challenged the social democratic government.

Self-government was officially encouraged through local councils known as “eroba” and the election of judges and city representatives. This emerging tradition in the first republic was cut short by Soviet power, which left a post-Soviet generation far less capable of self-organization in the public domain.

After a quarter century of independence, civil society and the impulse for civic engagement remains weak in Georgia today. This encourages irresponsible elites and exacerbates the chasm between ordinary Georgians and their governors.

Legacy that lives?

What is the legacy of the first republic today? The current Georgian constitution acknowledges “the historical-legal legacy of the Constitution of Georgia of 1921.”

A comparison of the current constitution with that of 1921, shows both emphasize the principles of liberal constitutionalism.

The commitment to European models of government, and to an alliance with European powers, began with the Georgian Democratic Republic.

This was not just due to fear of imperial neighbors and a vulnerable geography, but fostered by Georgian social democracy’s intellectual allegiance to the West.

Today’s political consensus on neo-liberal strategies of economic development has created a woolly-headed prejudice against the social democratic republic in Georgia. Its left-wing credentials have created hostility among Georgia’s elites.

On the centennial of the first republic, we deserve a better assessment of the first republic, one that would reveal its complex face as a mix of democracy, nationalism, and egalitarianism, along with the defense of private ownership and public welfare.

The Georgian government did not always adequately defend its pluralistic principles, but it created the beginnings of liberal-democracy and modern statehood in Georgia, which deserves far more attention from Georgia’s historians, and far less prejudice from its politicians.

This post is also available in: Georgian

About Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones has been a member of the Mount Holyoke College faculty since 1989. He is an expert on post-communist societies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Jones has briefed the U.S. Department of State on a regular basis, as well as a number of U.S. ambassadors to Georgia.