Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Caucasus Countries Mark 90th Anniversaries of Post-1917 Independence

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 10 – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have just commemorated the 90th anniversaries of their first modern declarations of independence, thus continuing the process of recovering an important part of their pasts and laying the foundation for their present and future existence as independent countries.
It has long been generally accepted that since 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have had an easier path than the former Soviet republics in large measure because they, unlike all the others, stressed their continuity with the pre-war republics and have thus been engaged in restoring that rather than creating something new.
Now, however, the three Transcaucasus countries by marking this earlier period of independence are insisting that they too have a specific past to build on, one that does not in the nature of things put them in the same position as the Baltic countries – their earlier experience was both shorter and more troubled -- but does set them apart from the other post-Soviet states.
In an article posted online last Friday, Sergei Markedonov, one of the most thoughtful Russian commentators on ethnic issues in the post-Soviet space, surveys this development, underlining some of the implications this focus on the post-1917 republics in that region has for their post-1991 successors (www.polit.ru/author/2008/06/06/caucas.html).
Each of the three countries in the southern Caucasus had a brief period of independence in the wake of the collapse of the Russian Empire. Georgian was independent from May 26, 1918 to March 18, 1921. Azerbaijan was independent between May 28, 1918, and April 28, 1920. And Armenia was independent from May 28, 1918, to November 29, 1920.
All three emerged with the collapse of the Transcaucasus Seim, the common body of the Transcaucasus Democratic Federative Republic, and the independence of each was ended by Soviet military occupation and the proclamation of each as a Soviet republic within what was soon to become the USSR.
The peoples of the region never entirely forgot their experience with independence, Markedonov notes, and both Georgia and Azerbaijan explicitly sought to “recover” their independence as they moved to exit from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Armenia in contrast explicitly chose to begin “from zero” by pursuing “a legal separation” from the USSR.
This effort to claim continuity, he points out, created certain problems because “the ‘restoration of statehood,’ as a theory and practice of the acquisition of independence was accompanied by the restoration of all those conflicts and contradictions which had existed during the period of the ‘first republics,’” conflicts which allowed Moscow to occupy the region.
Among the most serious of these problems, Markedonov says, were the absence of “clear and mutually acceptable state borders” among these states and ethnic conflicts, involving both the lack of autonomy and a lack of respect for ethnic and religious minorities, within their borders.
Indeed, the Moscow analyst insists, “the present border problem [between Armenia and Azerbaijan] is the result of the conflict of two nationalist discourses of the beginning of the 20th century,” which reached their greatest extent during the brief period of independence of those two nations.
(This problem is further complicated, he points out, by the fact that “the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh … strives to base its pretences for independence not on the right of ‘the first republics’ but on the laws of the USSR about the right of the withdrawal of union and autonomous formations from the Soviet state.”)
If these problems and the fact that “not one of the first independent states of the Transcaucasus was fully recognized” by foreign powers – the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was recognized de facto at the Paris Peace Conference – few would think it a good idea to talk about these first republics as something of more than historical interest.
But these three republics took several other steps that continue to matter in vastly more positive ways. It was precisely during their brief existence that these states introduced many concepts and structures of Western democracy, including “parliamentarianism, the need for elections and the legitimation of the authorities by elections, freedom of speech and civil rights.”
Azerbaijanis, for example, remain proud to this day that theirs was the first democratic republic in the Muslim world which not only gave women the right to vote even before the United States did but also, underscoring that country’s commitment to education, laid the foundations for Baku State University.
Obviously, the more than 70 years of Sovietization that these three nations experienced changed them in fundamental ways, and no simple restoration of the past is possible. But as Markedonov concludes, in the life of the Transcaucasus, this history remains “extremely important, especially since its lessons have not yet been fully taken into consideration.”

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