It is a great honor to speak to you on the 90th anniversary of the Georgian Democratic Republic. The Georgian Democratic Republic was one of the great state building and democratic experiments of the early twentieth century. It was an attempt in the most adverse conditions – imperial collapse, civil war, economic catastrophe and military invasion – to steer a “third way” towards democracy based on a mixed economy and social protection for the poor. It was led by extraordinarily sophisticated and experienced politicians such as Noe Zhordania, Akaki Chkhenkeli, Karlo Chkheidze and Irakli Tsereteli, all of whom had by 1918 established themselves as leading figures not only in the Russian politics, but in international circles of social democracy. These men, and the majority of Georgians who supported them – women were very much a part of the movement for economic and social equality in Georgia at this time – created a democratic state which, against tremendous economic and political odds, lasted almost three years. It was, at the time, a genuine beacon of hope (a beacon of liberty too) among social democrats such as Emile Vandervelde, Karl Kautsky and Ramsay MacDonald, all of whom visited the republic and wrote about it as a viable democratic alternative to other authoritarian and more statist models. Despite the tremendous difficulties and hardship faced by the population of a state surrounded by aggressive imperial powers, when the republic came to an end, it was not as a result of internal collapse but invasion.
Let me mention the republic’s most significant achievements: Between 1918-1921, there were two successive national legislatures, a parliament and Constituent Assembly (CA), both elected on the basis of universal suffrage. Fifteen parties across the political spectrum contested the elections to the CA which like the parliament, had considerable powers over the executive arm from the right to interpolate ministers and control the budget to the power to elect and dismiss the prime minister. Members of the CA enjoyed parliamentary immunity and opposition parties were allowed to organize public rallies, publish newspapers and freely contest all local elections. A glance at the stenographic reports of the CA show highly charged debates and many government bills were successfully amended by parliamentarians and openly criticized by the press. In the economy, multiple forms of ownership were promoted. Free trade was encouraged, small producers were protected, foreign concessions welcomed, private banks and credit institutions continued to operate freely alongside municipal and cooperative production. In the countryside, land above a certain norm was confiscated – remember Georgia’s rural situation was still feudal in 1918 with rich nobles owning vast tracts of land – and sold to small farmers through a system of cheap credit. There was judicial reform including a jury system, the election of judges at lower levels, the creation of a council of barristers to supervise the profession and a Senate, which acted as a Supreme Court. The constitution passed on the eve of the Bolshevik invasion, devotes a whole chapter to the rights of citizens, enshrines the principle of judicial independence, equality before the law and puts clear limitations on the state’s powers in the judicial field.
But this, of course, is only part of the story. I would be belittling the genuine achievements of the Georgian republic if l didn’t mention some of its problems too. Opposition parties were, at times, forced to close their papers, minorities and ethnic groups were not always fairly treated, military courts and tribunals were used during revolts in non-Georgian areas, city and rural councils were often overruled by centrally appointed prefects. Georgian social democrats monopolized government posts and frequently ignored accusations of executive arrogance. This must be said because ignoring unpleasant history means that we are not yet ready to learn from it.
For all Georgian democracy’s flaws in these years, the First Republic was an outstanding achievement. Civil rights and dissent were recognized and, on the whole, legally protected. Society gained autonomy from the state. It preserved the two cardinal institutional guarantees of democracy – the right to participate and the right of public contestation – which includes freedom of expression, freedom to form and join organizations, the right to vote, and the existence of free and fair elections.
This was truly remarkable, given the conditions and the times. In other great democracies of the world like the UK and France, it’s worth remembering that national suffrage for women on the same terms as men didn’t come till 1928 and 1944 respectively. It came to Georgia in 1918. In the USA it came two years later. A final point: the memory of the first republic played an important role in the movement for renewal of Georgian independence in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s its constitution was used as a working legal document for the new republic. But today most Georgians suffer from political amnesia when it comes to the First Republic. It is odd, to say the least, that Tbilisi is basking in the monuments of great historical and literary figures, but no square nor plinth is dedicated to some of the greatest fighters for Georgian dignity, emancipation and independence. It is time, surely, to proudly recognize in Georgia the achievements of the pioneers of Georgian democracy and their first Georgian democratic republic.