A Short Report of the 2021 South Caucasus Regional Conference on Memory Politics

On October 11-12, 2021, the Heinrich Boell Stiftung/Foundation (hbs) Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region, together with Ilia State University and the Soviet Past Research Laboratory (SOVLAB), organized the South Caucasus Regional Conference on Memory Politics to address the foundations and legacy of the first independent republics (1918-1920/21) in the South Caucasus (SC).

The conference was opened by Dr. Sonja Schiffers, Director of the hbs Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region and by Giorgi Gvalia, Professor of International Relations and the Vice Rector at Ilia State University, who emphasized the first republics’ importance for the region’s and the three countries’ historical trajectories.

The first discussion of the conference was regarding the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic of 1918: Federal Aspirations, Geopolitics and National Projects. Ketevan Gurchiani, a professor at Ilia State University, held a conversation with Timothy Blauvelt, Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Ilia State University about the central ideas behind the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation, how it dissolved, and about the geopolitical realities that set the stage for the declaration of independence of its constituent parts as the separate republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Timothy Blauvelt -Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic of 1918 - Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus

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This talk prepared a good basis for the next discussion on the foundations and ideals of each of the first republics. The speakers touched upon different issues such as the institutional reforms that were implemented during this period, the civil and political rights that were guaranteed, as well as the conditions that led to declarations of independence.

After analyzing the political ideals of the first republics, the conference continued with a discussion focusing on cultural and educational policies, which was moderated by Nika Musavi, a writer and freelance journalist. During the panel, Lilit Mkrtchyan, PhD in History, talked about the history of establishing Yerevan State University and emphasized its importance.  Furthermore, one of the speakers – Lela Gaprindashvili, a professor at Tbilisi State University - made a speech about the women who were a part of the cultural and educational processes of the First Democratic Republic of Georgia. By citing several examples, she analyzed how women saw the political meaning of their cultural, educational work in the process of forming a national identity and in achieving independence and freedom.

The first day of the conference concluded with the questions from audience regarding cultural links among the first republics and important publications/translations during the period of 1918-1920/21.

The second day of the conference started with a panel discussion on changing the official narratives about the first republics of the SC in Soviet and post-Soviet historiography. The speakers discussed how the history of the first republics was "bolshevised" during the Soviet period and when the shift in Soviet historiography towards the first democratic republics took place.

The final session was dedicated to the legacy of the first republics from today’s perspectives. The following key questions were raised: how do the modern independent republics of the SC have different approaches to the succession of the first republics, why and how did this happen, and are there any similar challenges that political elites of the first republics and current political elites must deal with? The speakers pointed out that some of the issues (e.g. implementing court system and local governance reforms) that were on the political agenda during the period of the first republics, still remain to be addressed by the current political elites. It was also mentioned that unlike today, when different political parties have difficulty cooperating with each other and we see growing political polarization, there were examples of successful cooperation among different political forces in 1918-21.

At the end of the conference, the participants emphasized the importance of having a regional platform where researchers and students from different disciplines as well as politicians and decision-makers can discuss the important topics of memory politics that are relevant today.

Together with its partners, the Heinrich Boell Foundation will hold the next South Caucasus Regional Conference on Memory Politics in 2022.

Meanwhile, we would like to share with you some of the inputs that were recorded during 2021 conference.

Richard Hovannisian - 'The Republic of Armenia: Making a Virtue out of a Necessity' - Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus

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Changing Official Narratives About the First Republic of Azerbaijan - Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus

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