In Other Words

Georgia’s Rose Revolution

Caucasus Context, Spring 2004, Hauppauge Standing in the rain outside the parliament building in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi last November to protest the fraudulent parliamentary elections, I witnessed Georgians caring about their future for the first time. I belong to a generation that never really knew a leader besides then President Eduard Shevardnadze, and ...

Caucasus Context, Spring 2004, Hauppauge

Standing in the rain outside the parliament building in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi last November to protest the fraudulent parliamentary elections, I witnessed Georgians caring about their future for the first time. I belong to a generation that never really knew a leader besides then President Eduard Shevardnadze, and I almost felt sorry for him. But when people began chanting his name and calling for his removal, the stoic silence that had persisted in the face of corruption and deception for so long was broken. At that moment, I understood how Shevardnadze and his regime had robbed Georgia of its dignity for all these years.

This newfound dignity is a central theme of a Caucasus Context special issue on what has since become known as the "Rose Revolution." When Shevardnadze’s attempt to pronounce his coalition victorious after an election riddled with fraud triggered massive protests, he allegedly fled the country, allowing a coalition led by Tbilisi city councilman Mikhail Saakashvili to take control. These climactic events constitute "the most interesting and important experiment in democracy in the region — and perhaps the world — today," according to editors Zurab Karumidze and James Wertsch.

The journal, relaunched this year by Tbilisi’s U.S.-Caucasus Institute for Strategic and Cultural Studies, a think tank devoted to binational dialogue, reassesses the revolution through the eyes of its pivotal figures. The volume opens with a timeline followed by interviews with leaders such as acting President Nino Burdzhanadze and U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles, as well as analyses by prominent Georgian intellectuals George Nizharadze and Ghia Nodia. Throughout these accounts run several themes that the editors deem "crucial" for "anyone concerned with moving a country along the path toward democracy": the role of civil society and a free press, the absence of state authority, and, perhaps most poignantly, the importance of national identity and unity.

The first question the editors ask each of their interview subjects — who also include civil society leader David Zurabishvili, Georgian Foreign Minister Tedo Japaridze, and State Minister Zurab Zhvania — is whether the revolution was inevitable. Although none say yes, all agree that dissatisfaction with Shevardnadze had reached a tipping point, and that his refusal to address that dissatisfaction pushed citizens over the edge.

This obstinacy is the subject of Nizharadze’s article, "Georgia: The End of the Age of the Nomenklatura," a reference to the Soviet system of patronage and power. Nizharadze, an analyst with the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi, traces Shevardnadze’s journey from his days as a "hero of perestroika" to an openly corrupt leader. His downfall, says Nizharadze, was that he "never understood the importance of a Western economy and its governing principle: government must be in the service of the economy, not vice-versa."

Shevardnadze could only function within the nomenklatura environment. Eventually, his system went the same way as that of the Soviets. But the Rose Revolution, Nizharadze concludes, was still vital for clearing away the remnants of the nomenklatura that would surely have lingered if Shevardnadze had left office peacefully after the end of his term next year.

In "The Meaning of Georgia’s Latest Revolution," Nodia, an analyst with the Caucasus Institute for Peace, points out that the Rose Revolution was not a classic revolution. Rather than overthrowing the national constitution, Georgians protested to keep a dishonest regime from hijacking their existing one. In doing so, they shook off the self-reproach they had long suffered for accepting the status quo under Shevardnadze. "The revolution broke the mold of powerlessness for the Georgian people," writes Nodia. "It told us: If we can carry out a revolution without a single window being shattered, we can also build a country we will not be ashamed of."

The challenge now is for Georgians to ensure that their new leaders are as honest and open as those who stood in front of parliament last November for several cold, rainy days and nights to defend their dignity and their rights.

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