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The Critical Corner - 05/08/2006

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Armenian News Network / Groong
May 8, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian



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

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

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

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

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.



Garo Sassooni was a prominent political activist, historian and
literary critic and also a leading figure in the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation (ARF). One among the large volume of his
works is `The Armenian-Turkish War' of 1920. In this short booklet
Sassooni sets about to absolve the ARF-led Armenian government of all
responsibility for the Armenian defeat attributing it exclusively to
Turkish military superiority. Sassooni was however an intelligent and
perceptive fellow and his account reveals significant truths about
Armenian society and politics at the time. While military factors
certainly played important roles in the Armenian defeat, even in
Sassooni's account it is evident that they do not explain the whole
story. In 1918 in battles such as Sardarabad and Bash Abaran Armenian
forces confronted difficult military odds but still scored resounding
victories against invading Turkish armies.

Any discussion of Armenian-Turkish hostilities in the post 1918 period
has to accept as a starting point the fact that the Turkish state and
its elite was not, and even to this day has not, been prepared to
accept an independent Armenia as part of a post-war settlement.
Regarding Armenia as a potential ally of hostile powers Turkey in its
1920 war hoped to forever eliminate an obstacle to its pan-Turkish
designs in the region. There can be little doubt that had it been
totally successful eastern Armenia too, like western Armenia, would
have been cleared of its indigenous Armenian population. So whatever
other issues that feature in Armenian-Turkish relations, it is
indubitably the case that here we had a clash in which the Armenian
side - whatever its qualities and whatever the character of its
leadership - was forced into a war of national liberation.

Turkey, in defiance of all diplomatic negotiations and treaties
prepared its army for war. As part of this preparation it inspired and
provoked rebellion among the large Turkish and Azeri communities
within Armenian borders. The Armenian government failed to respond
with the same determination. It passively waited upon the generosity
of the Great powers. Sassooni shows that the Armenian state and
leadership lacked independent will or vision and had little inner
strength, roots, or tradition within the borders of the new Armenian
nation. The Armenian leadership felt more at home in Tbilisi and Baku
where it had its social and economic roots. When formed the Armenian
state was little more than a patchwork of disparate forces and
interests thrown into this tiny portion of Armenia by the storms and
hurricanes of war that was presided over by an essentially exiled
elite that did not represent the people.

The character of the Armenian army reflected rather precisely the
reality of the new Armenian state and its leadership. Unlike the
Turkish army, the Armenian had no historical traditions, no reserves,
no hinterland to train and operate on. As Sassooni points out, it was
not a genuine national army but in large part a broken down remnant of
the old Tsarist army, supplemented by volunteer units from western
Armenian provinces. Many of its leading elements had not lived in
Armenia nor did they speak Armenian.  Most of its officer class was
depoliticised with little or no nation building ideals. Along with the
ranks, the officer class was ill equipped and ill trained and had no
intelligence network worth speaking of. It just was not capable of
standing up to the Turkish army.

Turkish military advantage was pressed home by successful Turkish
government incitement of Turkish communities within Armenia. The
resulting rebellions tied up the Armenian army, exhausted material
reserves and demoralised both army and government. This lack of ethnic
homogeneity, a feature of life, politics and war in all three main
Caucasian states, was to plague all their respective governments.
Together with the Armenian-Georgian, and Armenian-Azerbaijani wars
this clash too demands consideration of the problems of exclusive
nation-state formation as the way forward for national freedom.

Where Garo Sassooni's work, here and elsewhere, is of great value is
in its honest reflection of the essentially ramshackle affair that was
the First Armenian Republic - whatever the reasons that remain subject
to debate - and in his demonstration that it proved unable to fashion
an army and a state apparatus that could secure the new republic a
truly independent existence. That Armenia survived the post-1918
Turkish state onslaughts and that Armenian forces scored decisive
victories was due more to the outstanding efforts of individual
soldiers and units that were backed by a population for whom the First
Armenian Republic, that became, despite the character of the national
leadership, a barrier against Turkish state annihilation.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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