ISSUE 2-2018
Роман Темников
Владимир Воронов Radko Mokryk Jakub Csabay Рафик Исмаилов
Ярослав Шимов Михаил Ведерников
Рафик Исмаилов
Владимир Сергийчук

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Jakub Csabay | student at University of Glasgow, Slovakia | Issue 2, 2018


The end of May 2018 will be the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the first republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which provides an opportunity to look back at the context of both their formation and failure.

The period following the end of the First World War witnessed a considerable rise of nation states. In this regard, a lot of attention in the literature has been given to the newly formed countries in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Czechoslovakia, but the three short-lived states in the Caucasus, the First Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, have been largely overlooked. This paper aims to discuss the transition failure to a “Wilsonian” state of the three first republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia). It will be argued that contextual settings and processes in the case of the three first republics were not compatible with the “Wilsonian” concept of a state. The first part of this essay will outline the historical and contextual settings, in which these states were formed, by referring to significant processes going on at the time, including the First World War or the fall of the Russian and Ottoman Empires as well as the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the Russian Civil War. Secondly, a brief literature review part will follow, highlighting the limited attention having been given so far to the study of these three republics in the English language as well as highlighting some common positions in the studies. Thirdly, it will be suggested what is meant by a “Wilsonian state” with reference to the three first republics, drawing from the Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The fourth section will discuss the theoretical framework, namely several propositions from transition literature relevant to the respective Wilson’s points, which will be subsequently applied in the following section. Fifthly, by referring to the transition propositions and the case studies of the first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the relevant factors of the failure of three “Wilsonian” states will be highlighted and analysed, specifically both the intra-state and inter-state processes incompatible with the “Wilsonian” characteristic. The overall conclusion of this paper is that the characteristic of a “Wilsonian” state was predisposed to a transition failure in the given contextual settings of the three first republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia).    

Historical Background and Contextual Setting of the First Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia

As the topic of this paper is concerned with transition of the first republics to “Wilsonian” states, it is important to establish from what historical roots and previous state entity the republics were transitioning.  This section will, therefore, briefly outline the key historical developments preceding the foundation of the three republics and will set the context of their creation.

The people of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia constitute the dominant populations in the region of the South Caucasus. In the centuries prior to the foundation of the first republics, they lived at the intersection of three great empires in the region, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Persian Empire. While until early 19th century it was primarily under the rule of the Ottoman and Persian Empires, the Russian Empire dominated the region thereafter. In the case of Azerbaijan and Armenia, this was eventually marked by the Treaty Tukmenchay in 1828 following Russo-Persian wars, deciding that the territories to the north of the river Araz would be ruled by the Russian Empire, which was related to Azerbaijan, while it concerned the territories of Eastern Armenia, whereas Western Armenia remained under the Ottoman rule. (De Waal, 2010: 38) Georgia’s fate was decided in 1801, when the Russian Empire formally annexed the territories of Georgia after a series of internal instabilities. (De Waal, 2010: 39)

Following the out-break of the First World War, the predominant conflict in the Caucasus was between the Ottoman Empire, on the side of the Central Powers, and the Russian Empire, on the side of the Allies, whereas there was some sympathy and support from the Azerbaijani groups within the Russian Empire towards Ottoman Empire. Another significant development in the course of the war was Armenian genocide, referring to atrocities having been committed in Western Armenia of the Ottoman Empire. (De Waal, 2010: 53-57) Eventually, after the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, essentially marking the collapse of the Russian Empire, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic was established for a month from April to May of the same year. (Gachechiladze, 2012: 19-20) However, each of the dominant groups in the federation had different aspirations and security needs. In a slightly generalized way, these can be summarized as following: (1) Armenians fearing the Ottoman Empire advancing to the Caucasus with Russia not having been able to provide security guarantees (2) Azerbaijanis’ inclination towards Ottoman Empire (3) Georgians’ lack of inclination to neither of the great powers surrounding the region. (Cornell, 2011: 22-23) As a result, at the end of May 1918 Georgia withdrew from the Federation and declared independence, with security guarantees provided by Germany, which was subsequently followed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. (Gachechiladze, 2012: 19-20)

Literature Review

As already stated in the introduction, not much attention has been given, in the English-language academic literature, to the study of the first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The existing studies, which will also be used as the core sources for this paper, constitute predominantly chapters, sometimes introductory, in broader historical narratives of the region or individual countries, such as for the former De Waal’s or King’s accounts of the Caucasus (De Waal, 2010; King, 2008) and in the latter case Cornell’s portrayal of contemporary Azerbaijan (Cornell, 2011) or Jones’ of Georgia (Jones, 2014). Notable examples of more historically focused studies include Hovannisian’s three volumes on the first republic of Armenia (Hovannisian, 1971; 1982; 1996), Swietochowski’s Russian Azerbaijan (1905-1920) (Swietochowski, 1985), and The Experiment by Lee, on the first republic of Georgia (Lee, 2017).

None of the above studies is particularly concerned with transition failures of the first republics or such relation to the “Wilsonian” principles, and they rather focus on providing of overall historical picture. Nevertheless, common factors for the failures of these states can be identified. These can be essentially summarized into three respective categories: (1) intra-state divisions (2) relations between the three republics (3) the role of regional and great powers. The first set of factors is associated with ethnic, class-based as well as political division in each of the three countries. The second group of factors is related to contestation of and conflict over territories between the three republics and lack of sufficient cooperation between them. The final set of factors can be summarized and further divided between lack of support and recognition from the (western) Allies, and a threat coming from the Soviet Russia and the former Ottoman Empire. These three points will form a basis of the analysis part of this paper, where they will be discussed in more details in relation to the “Wilsonian” principles of state and the relevant propositions from the transition literature.

The concept of a “Wilsonian” State

This section of this paper will discuss what are the characteristics and meaning of a “Wilsonian state”, which will be subsequently used later on in the analysis part of this paper. It is essential to highlight that tumultuous period towards the end the First World War observed a rise to prominence of new ideologies that were undermining the old system and competing among each other for legitimacy, which included with oversimplification primarily Marxism, Fascism as well as political Liberalism. The individual discussion of these is nevertheless beyond the scope of this paper, which focuses on the “Wilsonian” notion, associated with the newly-emerging school in International Relations, Liberalism, being advocated by then President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, concerned with how relations between states should have been operating, with the aim of contributing to a more peaceful world. The “Wilsonian” philosophy equally encompassed the most suitable arrangements on a domestic level, which had significant relevance for the newly-founded states at the time, including those in the Caucasus. In this regard, a useful starting point are the Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, addressed to the US Congress on the 18th January (Avalon Project, 2008), preceding the creation of the three first republics only by few months. Relevant selected points from the list are presented below.

While none of the fourteen points specifically referred to the territories in the South Caucasus, unlike to those in Central Europe and the Balkans, the general principles, applicable to the first Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, can be identified. These are specifically, (V.) impartial adjustments of colonial claims, where in the questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned possessing equal claims with the equitable claims of the governments…, (XII.) opportunity of autonomous development for other (non-Turkish) nationalities of the Ottoman Empire…, (XIV.) association of nations formed under covenants affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike…(Avalon Project, 2008) The only peculiarity in the context of this paper can be observed in point (VI.) about Russia, where there is a reference to “all Russian territory”, though it is unclear whether it was meant to refer to the territory of the former Russian Empire, which would obviously undermine the independence of the Caucasus republics in  relation to them as “Wilsonian” states. (Avalon Project, 2008) However, later on it refers to Russia as to a “nation” or to its “national policy”, which appears to be more in line with the decolonization argument. (Avalon Project, 2008)  Based on these principles, the “Wilsonian” philosophy of states can be summarized as envisioning the rise of nation states, with a political system of representative government, which would nowadays be perhaps called democracy, and whose continuous existence would be guaranteed by other states through international law and associated mutuality. Other more broadly relevant points in the contexts of the three first republics (III.) removal of…all economic barriers, and (IV.) national disarmament (Avalon Project, 2008). These “Wilsonian” notions were to promote international relations with less conflict and more cooperation between states. With the benefit of hindsight perspective of analysis and with regard to these principles that constituted a dominant political notion at the time, an interesting question that essentially arises is why some countries had managed to achieve longer-lived state-hood during the post-WWI period, such as some of those in Central Europe, but others had not.

Theoretical Framework

As the main focus of this paper is on the failure of transitions of the three case study countries in the Caucasus from the Russian Empire to independent nation-states based on the above-described Wilsonian principles, there are some relevant theoretical propositions from the transition literature that are worth presenting. Even though most of the transition literature focuses on transition to democracy, whereas the “Wilsonian” state does not explicitly refer to it as such but as it is essentially in very close proximity to it, these can be used in the general sense and applied to the case study states. In their book, Linz and Stepan understand the process of “democractisation” in two steps, namely transition and consolidation. While transition refers to the process of (institutional) change to a new form of state entity, consolidation is related to the consequent process of embedding or enrooting the new forms of institutions and the state structures. (Linz and Stepan, 1996) Even though some authors refer to consolidation of these republics, for example Swietochowski (1985) or Altstadt (1992), due to the early disintegration of the first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, from the transitology perspective these states had not had the opportunity to pursue consolidation, which is why this paper is focusing on the transition processes and their failures only.

The first “Wilsonian” characteristic of such state was that it would be a nation-state with representative government. However, Linz and Stepan, in their work “Democratic Transition and Consolidation”, highlight that many “Wilsonian” nation-states, including Czechoslovakia, Poland or Latvia, were actually not nation-states but multi-national states with “titular nation/s” and minorities, where over-focus on nation-building over multi-national state-building led to transition failures.  (Linz and Stepan, 1996: 23-24) Their proposition is that in a multinational states, inclusive policies and adequate representation increase the chances of a successful transition. (Linz and Stepan, 1996: 33) This proposition will be subsequently tested with respect to intra-state policies of the first republics.

The second characteristic of a “Wilsonian” state refers to preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity through mutual recognition and international law, which will be discussed in relation to inter-state relations of the studied republics. In this regard, Linz and Stepan’s proposition distinguishes between positive and negative international influence towards transition, in both peaceful and non-peaceful scenarios. (Linz and Stepan, 1996: 73-74) While external supporters’ role can be only “supportive” but not “determinative” in a country’s transition efforts, external spoilers’ role in transition failure may be determinative, whereas in purely peaceful situation, the domestic forces take this role. (Linz and Stepan, 1996: 73-74) These propositions will be discussed in the following part with reference to the relations in between the three first republics as well as with reference to the relations of the three first republics vis-à-vis the so-called great and regional powers.

Analysis: Transition Failures of the First Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to a “Wilsonian” state

This section will analyse the transition failures of the three first republics to a “Wilsonian” state in relation to the above described transition propositions. The relevant factors will be divided into three categories that were identified as dominant in the literature review: (1) intra-state divisions, (2) relations between the three republics, and (3) relations with great powers. With reference to these, it will be argued that “Wilsonian” principles of states were not compatible with the contextual setting of the three republics.

Intra-State Divisions and Internal Instability

In the case of all three first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, there were considerable intra-state divisions which constituted an important factor in undermining the transition process to a “Wilsonian” state. These can be divided, in a simplified way, between ethnic and political, although these were often interlinked.

While each of the respective titular nationality, Armenian, Azerbaijan, Georgian, constituted the dominant ethnic groups in the countries, the newly founded states were not able to institutionally account for the complexity of demands of different groups. In the case of Armenia, these were predominantly Muslim sections of population, Turkish and Azerbaijani, as well as Russians and Georgians. In Azerbaijan, the other dominant groups were Armenian and Russian. Finally, the boundaries of Georgia contained Armenian, Russian, and Azerbaijani, but also Ossetian and Abkhaz groups.  These were further complicated by divisions within them, for example in Armenia between Armenian refugees from the Ottoman Empire and immigrant Armenians from Russia (King, 2008: 170), as well as through other divisions within society and politics. In this regard, with certain element of simplification Fowkes suggests that “in Armenia, liberalism, nationalism, and the middle-class predominated; and in Georgia, socialism, the working class and the peasantry”. (Fowkes, 2002: 67-68) In Azerbaijan the dominant political forces were Himmat, a working-class movement with roots in Baku, and nationalist Musavat Party, having intellectual base in the jadid movement. (Fowkes, 2002: 67-68) These led to many local revolts or conflicts, of which perhaps the most significant was the control of Baku having been taken for several months in 1918 by Bolsheviks and Dashnaks, which is the reason why the Azerbaijani Republic, led by Musavat, operated from Ganja during early days of the republic. (Swietochowski, 1985: 130) In economic terms, such divisions and conflict had vast negative impact on functioning of economies of these states. For example, Azerbaijan’s lack of control over Baku, where oil production was based, in early days of the republic prevented the newly-founded state from being able to use the oil revenues. Equally, there were several peasant revolts, notably in Georgia (King, 2008: 164), and as the agricultural sector constituted the dominant area of economy in the region, perhaps apart from Azerbaijan, such revolts negatively affected already scarce resources these countries had available. (Gachechiladze, 2014: 20)

Institutionally, these complex divisions were not fully reflected in the newly founded states, for example in their legislative bodies. Even though each of the three republics was very democratic for the standard in the early 20th century, following elections in 1919, Armenia and Georgia were essentially one-party states, dominated by Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak) and Social Democratic Labour Party of Georgia (Menshevik) with 72 out of 80 and 109 out of 130 parliamentary seats respectively. (King, 2008: 164 and 170) Although elections were never held in Azerbaijan, its national assembly was more representative, with the strongest party, Musavat, possessing around two fifths of parliamentary seats. (Cornell, 2011: 24) Nevertheless, Russian and Armenian groups were allocated only a minor proportion of seats.

What this meant, in terms of the transition process to states based on “Wilsonian” principles, is that such accomplishments were hardly feasible in the context of the three first republics. The “Wilsonian” notion favours self-determination of nation states with representative system of government. However, the three first republics were clearly multi-national or multi-ethnic and as shown above, the representation in parliaments did not but also could hardly reflect and meet the demands of the various divisions in these states. Moreover, in relation to the Linz and Stepan’s transition proposition of inclusive policies and adequate representation increasing the chances of a successful transition, the policies in the first republics were inclusive to an extent, the representation was clearly not adequate. Therefore, it can be concluded that the contextual setting of the republics associated with intra-state divisions and internal instability was not compatible with the “Wilsonian” notion of states.

Relations between the first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia

The second factor to be discussed is associated with the relations between the first republics themselves, which undermined the transition to a “Wilsonian” form of states. While the disintegration of the Transcaucasian Federation constituted an indication of these divisions, they became even more prevalent with independence. This part will highlight these divisions in terms of territorial contestation and failure of economic cooperation, having been important points among “Wilsonian” principles. 

There were considerable territorial disputes between the three republics. The most problematic was the relationship of Armenia with the other two states. This was because there was a territorial contestation as well as armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over even nowadays disputed region of Karabakh but also regions of Nakhchivan and Zangezur; and similarly, there was a small war between Armenia and Georgia over Lori and Borchalo territories between Armenia and Georgia. (De Waal, 2010: 64-65; Altstadt, 1992: 99-105) Facing unstable international situation, Georgia and Azerbaijan managed to settle their territorial claims and signed mutual defense pact in 1919, primarily against Russian “White” forces of General Denikin. (Swietochowski, 1985: 158) However, Armenia never joined this regional alliance. Even though there were such attempts, for example Transcaucasian Conferences in 1918 and 1919, no agreement was made predominantly because of the territorial disputes described above. (Swietochowski, 1985: 159) Apart from the political importance of territorial contestation, these conflicts in between the republics prevented development of regional trade relations that could have served to the benefit of each of the three republics. (Gachechiladze, 2014: 20) Furthermore, these conflicts also weakened the military forces of these countries when facing other external threats, namely from Bolshevik Russia and Turkey/Ottoman Empire. Moreover, predominantly due to these conflicts but also due to other domestic and international security threats, these countries had to allocate roughly half of their budgets to defense expenditure that could have been otherwise used for other areas of state-building. (King, 2008)

In the context of “Wilsonian” principles, these developments were clearly contrary to few of them. The territorial conflicts between the first Caucasus republics were incompatible with Wilson’s point III., IV., and XIV. First, the disputes disallowed creation of environment with “equal conditions of trade” (III.), which could have subsequently served to further cooperation and stability through economic inter-dependence. Second, the conditions, into which the above conflicts placed the three republics with such a high military budget in all three cases, were equally irreconcilable with Wilson’s point on “national disarmament” (IV.). Finally, and most importantly, the three first states were not able to agree even on each other’s territorial integrity through international law agreements (XIV.), which undermined their credibility when seeking international recognition, although Azerbaijan-Georgia defense pact served as notable exception to this. Overall, when referring back to the transition proposition on the role of external actors, the context of relations between the Caucasus republics suggests, apart from the mutual defense pact of Azerbaijan and Georgia, that the countries served to each other as external spoilers rather than in a supportive role, which undermined the transition efforts of these countries to a “Wilsonian” state.

The role of Regional and Great Powers

The final factor to be discussed is concerned with the role of regional as well as the so-called great powers.  It will be argued in this part of the paper that these significant international actors played a vital role in undermining of the transitions of the three republics to the “Wilsonian” states, although differently for each country. This factor is particularly relevant because mutual recognition of states based on international law constituted one of the key “Wilsonian” principles.

In terms of regional powers, while the eventual end of the three Caucasus republics is associated with their fall to the Bolsheviks, which was essentially true, the situation in the region in the course of the short-lived existence of the three states was far more complex. From the north, Georgia and Azerbaijan were threatened not only from the Bolshevik forces but also as the Russian Civil War was still going on, Denikin’s White forces in the North Caucasus were equally threatening for the republics. (Altstadt, 1992: 95) On the hand, the Ottoman as well as Kemal’s Turkish forces constituted an immediate danger primarily for Armenia, though Kemal’s forces, unlike the Ottoman ones supportive of Azerbaijan, were more inclined to ally with Soviet Russia rather than independent Azerbaijan. Therefore, the three republics could hardly counter this situation without a strong support from the great powers.

The role of the great powers can be demonstrated through both diplomacy and direct support or the lack of it. What is meant here by the great powers would perhaps be nowadays referred to as the west. However, as the west was essentially divided at the time, I refer to the great powers particularly as to Great Britain and the United States, which were the dominant victorious forces of the First World War. It eventually became very clear that the three republics were only small stones on a grand chessboard. Firstly, in terms of diplomacy, and specifically in relation to the recognition of the first republics, the three states were only de facto recognized by the Supreme Council of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1920. (Office of the Historian, no date) The only country of the three that was also de jure recognized was Georgia in January 1921, but by then both Azerbaijan and Armenia had already fallen to the Bolshevik Russia by the end of 1920, and Georgia could only enjoy its international recognition for a month, when it followed the fate of its neighbouring states. Subsequently, British treaty with Soviet Russia recognized its claims to the territories in the Caucasus. Equally, the recognition of Armenia through the Treaty of Sevres in August with the Ottoman Empire, with strong support from the United States, was disregarded by the Kemal’s forces. (De Waal, 2010: 68-69) These developments suggest that the international recognition was very fragile and had very little actual impact in terms of security guarantees for the three republics in the Caucasus. In relation to direct support from the US and Great Britain, this was also unstable. Although British military force in the Caucasus from 1918 to 1919 provided the countries with some stability, though also with a certain level of interference into domestic affairs, for example Azerbaijan was not allowed to export oil to the its primary, Russian, market (Swietochowski, 1985: 149-150; Altstadt, 1992: 93-94), its departure left the three republics opened to regional powers. While the three republics continued to be supported materially, such as through arms, munition, or food, whereas this was most significant in terms US financial support to Armenia (Office of the Historian, no date), such support was insufficient for preservation of these countries in the face the above described threats from Bolshevik Russia, Kemal’s forces (primarily in the case of Armenia) as well as mutual rivalries in between the republics, alongside the domestic instabilities.

Referring back to the “Wilsonian” principles, the role of external powers clearly showed that the fourteenth of Wilson’s points, promoting “association of nations formed under covenants affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike…” (Avalon Project, 2008), was clearly not compatible with the context of the first Caucasus republics as the international agreements provided no real guarantees for these countries. This equally goes in line with the transition proposition, suggesting that external supporters are not determinative in countries’ transitions, whereas external spoilers are. Indeed, the external support the three republics received was only marginal compared to external forces that undermined and eventually contributed significantly to the failures of the transitions processes of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.


All in all, this paper has discussed the topic of transition failures to a “Wilsonian” state, using the case study of the first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. It has been argued that the characteristics of a “Wilsonian” state were incompatible with the contextual complexities of the newly founded states in the Caucasus. The first section outlined the historical background that preceded their foundation as well as the dominant contextual developments that coincided with it, including the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, as well as the dissolution of the great empires in the region. Secondly, a short literature review was presented, where dominant sets of factors associated with the failure of the three republics were highlighted, namely (1) intra-state divisions and instability, (2) relations between the three republics, and (3) the role of regional and great powers. Thirdly, a “Wilsonian state” was defined with use of the Fourteen Points of the President Woodrow Wilson, from which the relevant characteristic can be summarized as following: nation states, with a political system of representative government, and whose continuous existence would be guaranteed by other states through international law. Fourthly, the theoretical framework based on propositions from transition literature were discussed. The final part analysed the three set of factors and were then tested against the “Wilsonian” characteristic as well as the transition propositions. The discussion showed that the intra-state divisions (ethnic, societal, and political), mutual relations between the three republics, with the exception of Azerbaijani-Georgia defense pact, as well as disproportionally higher prevalence of external spoilers than external supporters, undermined the transition process to a “Wilsonian” state forms, which were clearly not compatible with the context of the first republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Obviously, more archival work and research is needed to explore different elements of the three states discussed in this paper, but research into these state structures, both in relation to their formation and failure, is important also because of  the relevance of legacies they carry for the present-day states in the region.




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De Waal, T. (2010) The Caucasus: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fowkes, B. (2002) Ethnicity and Ethnic Conflict in the Post-Communist World, New York: Palgrave.

Gachechiladze, R. (2014) Geopolitics and foreign powers in the modern history of Georgia: Comparing 1918-21 and 1991-2010, in Jones, S. F. (ed.) The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: the First Georgian Republic and its successors, New York: Routledge.

Hovannisian, R. The Republic of Armenia, Vol. I (1971), Vol. II (1982), Vols. III & IV (1996) Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jones, S. F. (2014) The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: the First Georgian Republic and its successors, New York: Routledge.

King, Ch. (2008) The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lee, E. (2017) The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921, London: Zed Books.

Linz, J. and Stepan, A. (1996) Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Office of the Historian (no date) Notes of a Meeting Held in M. Pichon’s Room, Quai d’Orsay, Paris, Monday, January 19, 1920, at 10:30 a.m., Department of State of the United States of America, [accessed 1st January 2018].

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