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Georgia's "Rose Revolution"
Thursday, July 01, 2004

First, a “revolution” was possible in Georgia because during Eduard Shevardnadze’s tenure, opposition leaders, parties and society had developed leeway for action which did not exist elsewhere in the Caucasus, not to speak of Central Asia. Since the late 1980s, many parties and NGOs had emerged, as had relatively free media. Their freedom of maneuver and action, which translated into effective political influence, reflected Shevardnadze’s own relatively liberal attitudes, the weakness of the Georgian state— i.e., its inability to control and co-opt competing center of power and authority—and Georgians’ unruly national character.

Moreover, international NGOs were deeply involved in Georgian events. Much press and analytical attention has been focused on the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation, which funded critically important groups like Georgia’s Liberty Institute, its leading human rights organization. Some Liberty Institute associates traveled to Serbia to study how Slobodan Milosevic had been ousted. Closely allied with 5 the Liberty Institute was the student movement Kmara [“Enough”], which mobilized opposition to vote fraud countrywide. These groups, urged on by opposition politicians, were determined not to let Shevardnadze and Georgia’s entrenched political groups steal the election.

Second, the Georgian state, crippled by corruption, was extremely weak. The worst consequence of this weakness was that criminals and crooked officials did not worry about the possible penalties of breaking the law. But this weakness ultimately made possible November’s Rose Revolution by dissipating the state’s ability to resist better organized players. True, international organizations and foreign capitals were urging a peaceful resolution of the showdown and warning Shevardnadze—whom everyone expected to remain in office until 2005—that resorting to violence would end in disaster. But by November 2003, Shevardnadze could no longer command the state’s coercive apparatus; in the end, nobody was willing to act against crowds peacefully calling, first, for new elections and then for his resignation.

Third, Georgia’s key opposition leaders were united. Unlike counterparts in Armenia and Azerbaijan, “Misha” Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze were able to overcome their longstanding differences and competing ambitions to act together. While the latter two may have—as reported—trailed the former in his conviction that Shevardnadze had to go, they overcame their doubts and hung together until the final triumph. Saakashvili, for his part, has continued to collaborate with them after his inauguration and often restates his determination to keep doing so.

Fourth, Georgia had Rustavi-2 TV, which powerfully shaped public opinion. In fact, the events in Georgia last November have demonstrated convincingly the power of independent—i.e., not state-controlled—television in former Soviet republics. It was a failed attempt by the state to pressure Rustavi-2 in November 2001 that produced the biggest public protest in Georgia before November 2003. At that time, thousands of demonstrators not only forced Shevardnadze to back down, he was compelled to dismiss his entire government.

Not for nothing has the ruling elite in other former Soviet states contrived so consistently to keep TV in its own hands. If there is any downside to the influence Rustavi-2 wielded in Georgia, it is the strengthened conviction of repressive rulers elsewhere to prevent at all costs the emergence of analogous TV stations.

Fifth, economic conditions in Georgia had been deteriorating for years, with no respite in sight. Over the last few years, residents of Baku and Yerevan have told Helsinki Commission staff that things were getting better, even if slightly, but in Tbilisi conditions had fallen steadily. A seemingly endless stream of winters without heat or electricity and little or no prospect of improvement sapped support for Shevardnadze. Desperate Georgians had concluded by November 2003 that almost anything was better than what they had, despite the uncertainties.

Within Georgia, the Rose Revolution greatly accelerated the country’s scheduled political processes, resolving several fundamental problems and opening the door to new opportunities. In one stroke, a longanticipated political succession that was expected to feature a long winnowing process, tough negotiations and possibly violence among contending groups was eclipsed by a sustained manifestation of popular will.

The Rose Revolution has had a major impact on the other countries of the former Soviet Union. First of all, it was an inspiring victory for democracy and even peaceful conflict resolution. While ruling elites have stolen elections throughout the former Soviet space, in Georgia a group of opposition leaders managed to unite and unify behind themselves large enough numbers of voters to thwart an attempted theft of the vote. No less important, they did so peacefully, settling the dispute between state and society without bloodshed. The Georgian events have created an important precedent and elsewhere have inspired frustrated opposition activists who followed Georgian events closely.

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