Georgian-Armenian War

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Armenian-Georgian relations figure hardly at all in public discussion. Yet in their enduringly fraught character they have been and to this day remain important to the fashioning of Armenian nationhood and are also significant for the future stability of the Armenian state and the region as a whole. Varik Virapian's `The Armenian-Georgian War of 1918' (250pp, Yerevan, 2003) provides therefore a valuable introduction to the subject starting from the war that exploded between the two states immediately upon their formation in that same year.

As with Armenian-Azeri and Armenian-Turkish relations, disputes over territory were a main cause for the hostilities between Armenia and Georgia with the latter laying claim to regions such as Lori and Akhalkalak both of which were populated overwhelmingly by Armenians. Georgian ambition to annex these territories flouted pre-independence agreements made by the major nationalist forces in the Caucuses - the Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis - to mark out new state borders in accord with demographic facts and the wishes of the majority populations inhabiting disputed territory. Georgia had its reasons for disregarding such agreements.

Besides seeking an expansion of territory Georgian ambitions were driven by another equally important domestic consideration. Historically the Georgian elite had rallied its forces against Armenian economic supremacy in Georgia. Following independence it seized the opportunity to destroy bastions of Armenian power, resorting to whatever means it could. In this enterprise the Georgian state had every interest in weakening its Armenian neighbour that it regarded not only as a contestant over territory, but as a possible defender of Armenian elites in Georgia and a contender in the struggle for hegemony over the Caucuses.

In the looming war the Georgian state had a decided advantage. The ruling Menshevik Party provided it with an experienced and well-oiled political machine that received critical support from German imperialism that had made of Georgia a semi-colony. Here it is perhaps worth noting that though all post 1918 territorial disputes in the Caucuses were generated by the clash of locally rooted nationalist forces, these were exacerbated by European powers who acted the role of chess players manipulating and moving their chosen regional allies in accord with these allies' intrinsic powers but to a design of their own ambitions.

Throughout the disputed regions and Georgia as a whole, the Georgian authorities moved fast to secure advantageous positions. They systematically tightened the political and military noose round Armenian populated regions. They set deadlines for the removal of Armenian national organisations from Tbilisi and demanded the immediate disarmament of Armenian military contingents that were based on what they regarded as their sovereign territory. Simultaneously they launched a political and economic assault on all Armenians in Georgia - with raids on Armenian properties, confiscations of goods, unprecedented tax levies and other arbitrary demands. In Lori and Akhalkalak Georgian forces having disarmed local Armenian units began to plunder the population, confiscating crops, foodstuffs and property. Thus was set the basis for the Armenian-Georgian war of 1918.

Armenia was ill equipped to wage war. Virapian's quotes from many founders of the Armenian republic pointing to the new state's economic and social dislocation and its political and military isolation, surrounded as it was by two other hostile neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan who also had appetite for territory populated by Armenians. Reminiscent of Armenian politics today, Armenian disadvantage was compounded by the refusal of Diaspora capital and its educated elite to come to its assistance. Armenian military operations were further hindered by lack of political and military centralisation, huge logistical and communication problems and increasing indecision by the Armenian government as well as by hostile Turkish and British manipulation.

Armenian-Georgian tensions finally exploded into open war in December of 1918. Full-scale military clashes followed attempts by Georgian forces to repress an Armenian uprising in Lori protesting against Georgian misrule and abuse. Taking the form of a popular peoples' war, Armenian forces initially registered significant gains particularly under the leadership of General Dro. Rapidly however their fortunes dipped. Armenian positions were undermined by Georgian control of sea, road and rail routes essential for Armenian supplies and reinforcements. Georgia also received significant direct and indirect support from Turkish and Azeri forces. In disputed regions where political and military control changed hands regularly Georgia was not averse to Turkish conquests hoping these would drive out Armenian populations fearful of renewed Turkish slaughter. Once they retook possession of these areas, in an indirect form of ethnic cleansing, they proceeded to erect barriers to returning Armenian refuges thus beginning a hoped for demographic transformation of Lori and Akhalkalak.

The conclusion to the war and the final anti-democratic settlement expressed accurately both the balance of forces and the predatory ambitions of the Georgian elites. Armenia, against its will, against the wishes of the local population and against previously agreed principles of dividing territory according to the democratic wishes of national majorities was forced to concede the larger part of disputed areas.

Though Virapian's account is in many places over-detailed he nevertheless supplies a shocking record of Georgian chauvinist assault on the half million-strong Armenian community within its borders. This community was treated as a criminal entity, thousands were arrested, their property was confiscated and they were beaten, humiliated, isolated and transformed into pariahs. So the basis was set for the neutralisation and assimilation of Armenian communities in Georgia. During the Soviet era this process continued by other means.

There is in Virapian's account a significant gap. He does not explain why Georgian nationalism proved to be so decisive and why Armenian strategy and tactics so prevaricating, based on wishful thinking and expectations of British or other European assistance. Independence for the Georgian nationalists presented them with the political power with which to take on and defeat their main internal competitor, the Armenian economic class. So brimming with confidence they set out to secure for themselves the lion's share of Caucasian territory that would give them the best geo-political and economic foundations for their state. In contrast, the Armenian elites lacked all these qualities. They had in fact opposed the formation of an independent Armenian state. They preferred instead a confederation of Caucasian nations that would secure them rights to function freely throughout the Caucuses and particularly in Tibilisi and Baku that for them were pastures more profitable than Yerevan. Independence for the Armenian elite was a set back, a hoped for temporary inconvenience to be put right by imperialism. So the Armenian elite floundered while vainly waiting for imperialist charity.

Virabian's book also prompts thought about another important problem of history that today receives little or no attention. In its own way the experience of the Armenian-Georgian war demands consideration of received opinion that the individual nation state is necessarily the most appropriate form for national freedom. In the Caucasus nation-state formation led to repeated wars, to the persistence and even aggravation of wartime miseries, illness, hunger, starvation and to a further dislocation of local economic life. During the Soviet era dominant elites hoping to build homogenous nation-states resorted to quiet ethnic cleansing, national repressions, cultural assimilation and isolation of `foreign communities' that had in fact inhabited the region for centuries. The seeds were sown for yet more hatred and yet more war. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union new elites exploited old hatreds to wage war for new privileges, war in which once more the common people suffered whilst a tiny minority built mansions. Whether there are alternatives more amenable to harmonious, democratic inter-national coexistence requires further consideration, and here too the Armenian experience offers a rich legacy.

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