Friday, December 7, 2012

Beginning of the Armeno-Georgian War - December 7, 1918

One of the many conflicts which the first Republic of Armenia had to confront was the short, but crucial Armeno-Georgian war.

Relations between Armenians and Georgians had been strained for a long time. Georgians had resented Armenian role in the country during Russian rule. The largest concentration of Armenian urban population in the Transcaucasus was in Tiflis. The fact, among others, that the mayors of the Georgian capital in the last decades of Russian domination had been Armenian (one of them was Alexander Khatisian, a future Prime Minister of the independent Armenian Republic) did not fare well with the native elite.

After the Russian Revolution, Georgians played their own cards in the attempt to safeguard the existence of Georgia vis-à-vis Ottoman Turkish advance, and at times, they had allied with Muslims during the short-lived Transcaucasian Republic of April-May 1918 and left Armenians alone. In June 1918, shortly after the declaration of independence of both countries, the districts of Lori, Javakhk, and Borchalu had been, until 1917, part of the governorship of Tiflis within the viceroyalty of the Caucasus. Georgian troops entered Lori, which had a 75% Armenian population, in order to forestall an Ottoman advance on Tiflis. Turkish forces started to withdraw after the signature of the Armistice of Mudros (October 31, 1918), which marked the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Georgia laid claim to 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 national forces in the Caucasus—Armenians, Georgians and Tatar-Azerbaijanis—to mark out new state borders in accord with demographic facts and wishes of the majority populations. Georgian ambitions were driven by another equally important domestic consideration. The historical animosity against Armenian economic power in Georgia was seized and nurtured, following independence, to destroy its bastions. The Georgian state had every interest in weakening its Armenian neighbor, which it regarded not only as a competitor over territories, but also as a potential defender of Armenians in Georgia and a contender in the struggle for hegemony over the Caucasus.

Georgian exactions in the areas of Lori and Borchalu (plundering the population, confiscating crops, foodstuffs, and property) triggered reaction from the locals. Armenian groups occupied the south of Lori. Full-scale military clashes, starting on December 7, followed attempts by Georgian forces to repress an Armenian uprising protesting misrule and abuse. Five days later, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Hovhannes Kajaznuni, sent the following message to his Georgian colleague, Noy Zhordania:

“The conduct of Georgian troops in Borchalu, in that part of Armenia occupied forcibly by Georgia, has created an intolerable situation. Only the immediate withdrawal of Georgian troops from that region can prevent new bloodshed and lead to the restoration of friendly, lasting relations between Georgia and Armenia. . . . In the event of refusal or evasion on your part, the Armenian government will be obliged to take the necessary measures to protect the citizens of Armenia from the violence and lawlessness of the Georgian troops.”

The logical rejection of this message and the failure of diplomatic options opened the doors of war. Armenian forces, led by General Dro, made substantial gains in the first ten days. By December 25 they had reached positions 30 miles from Tiflis, when the Allied representatives in Tiflis finally intervened to put an end to the meaningless war. Georgians recovered some initiative in the last week of December. Meanwhile, Armenians were subjects to many arrests, expropriations, and bribery in Tiflis and surrounding communities.

The draft British plan established that Georgian troops would remain in Akhalkalak and northern Borchalu, whereas Armenian forces would settle in southern Borchalu, and the British would take positions between the two opponents. This forced Armenians to relinquish their gains during the war. Georgia accepted the plan and the Allies decided to impose it with or without the approval of the government of Armenia. Finally, hostilities stopped on December 31 when the parties agreed to the British-brokered ceasefire. The result of the war was inconclusive, according to historian Richard Hovannisian: “The question remains disputed although the fact that all battles had taken place in lands formerly held by the Georgian army is not. Statistically, the Armenians had suffered fewer casualties than the Georgians and had given less than a hundred prisoners, while they had captured two armored trains, twenty-eight cannons, nearly seventy-five machine guns, two hundred loaded freight cars, and as many as a thousand Georgian prisoners. But even these figures, when appearing to disprove the Georgian boast of a smashing triumph do not in themselves prove a decisive Armenian victory.”

A bilateral peace agreement signed on January 17, 1919, created a neutral zone between both countries along the lines of the British draft. Georgia failed to establish the border line and lost a small section of prewar-controlled land that was reorganized into a neutral zone. The territorial gains of Armenia (a tiny strip of land in the county of Borchalu) were negligible, compared with previous expectations. 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. According to historian Firuz Kazemzadeh,

“The West was treated to a sad spectacle of two peoples, ruled by parties which were members of the Second International and professed peace to be their chief aim, fighting over a few strips of land in the manner of a Germany or a Russia. Those who were called upon to decide the destinies of mankind at Paris could never again trust Georgia or Armenia. The enemies of Transcaucasia's independence were provided with excellent material, on the basis of which they could, and did, argue that Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan ruled by the Dashnaks, the Mensheviks and the Musavatists, were incapable of preserving order and of guaranteeing a peaceful existence to their peoples. Even in Transcaucasia, doubts were raised whether this land could stand on its own feet.”

After the sovietization of Armenia (December 1920) and Georgia (March 1921), the neutral zone was divided between both countries. Thus, the current Armeno-Georgian border was established.