Exactly 13 years ago, on November 23, 2003, Georgia’s Rose Revolution took place – a key event in the country’s modern history which defined the course of its development for many years.
The start of the mass protests was caused by the falsification of parliamentary elections, which took place not long before this memorable event. On November 22, led by Mikheil Saakashvili, opposition figures with roses in their hands burst into the hall where the first session of the newly-elected parliament was being held. They cut off the speech of President Eduard Shevardnadze, and forced him to leave the premises.
Having received no support from either the security ministries or foreign powers, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the USSR could do nothing but step down. On the evening of November 23, the holiday of Saint George, Shevardnadze officially relinquished power, which he had held since the overthrow of Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s government in 1992.
“On November 23, the people put an end to the long stagnation of the Shevardnadze epoch”
“2002-2003 is the time when the new Georgian generation was in fact born – a generation that thirsted for transformation and that couldn’t live as people had previously. At that time, non-governmental organizations were the place for expressing one’s own ambitions, for putting to use one’s knowledge and potential, and they helped youth understand that a better life is both possible and necessary”, remembers Irakli Tskitishvili, director of the Gruziya Online media group.
As a graduate of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) he headed one of the NGOs that worked to develop stronger governance in Tbilisi. This was the period when Mikheil Saakashvili headed the Tbilisi City Council and this new team felt an enormous desire to do something new, to get things done, and not to just sit in one’s position and receive a paycheck. This was, in fact, the time when the Rose Revolution was born.
«Our non-governmental organization held various forms of trainings with Western specialists that we invited, gave out stipends in the form of perks for those young state employees who were present on the ground and tried to change something. This was necessary at that time, so that young civil servants would feel secure from an economic standpoint and wouldn’t get caught up in corruption like their predecessors. After the Rose Revolution and the United National Movement’s rise to power, these people began to create an environment around themselves that would later lead to the most outstanding forces in terms of the struggle against corruption”, said Irakli Tskitishvili.
“Because of its corruption and penchant for nepotism, the government of former Georgian communist leader Eduard Shevardnadze couldn’t offer the country a path out of the deep socio-political crisis”, notes Kakha Kvashilava, doctor of history and professor of Sukhumi State University. In his words, the Rose Revolution was a natural phenomenon.
After attaining state sovereignty, Georgia immediately fell into serious some difficulties: complications with autonomous formations inspired from without, the overthrow of the country’s first president, Gamsakhurdia, the civil war that followed, the ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population of Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, the uncontrolled activities of armed formations, the full collapse of the economy, and the growth in emigration.
To summarize in short, leading up to 2003 a revolutionary situation was created in the country, wherein “those at the top couldn’t and those at the bottom didn’t want to live as people had before”. And then, on November 23, 2003, the people put an end to the long stagnation of the Shevardnadze epoch”, said Kakha Kvashilava.
“There was always a threat that the government would use force, including the army. But it should be said that, to Shevardnadze’s credit, he didn’t do this. He simply left”, remembers Irakli Tskitishvili. His resignation surprised even the leaders of the revolutionary movement. The country found itself faced with the fact that the man who had lead the country for more than thirty years altogether, was no longer the leader. And leadership of the country fell to young, ambitious people, who were faced with changing Georgia.
By the way, at the time of the mass protests during the first period after the Rose Revolution, many people spoke of the process being manipulated. As noted by Interpressnews agency journalist Koba Bendeliani, some people saw Washington’s hand in it, others – Moscow. Time revealed that both sides were involved in what took place. Just about everything was shunted off on the US thanks to Russian propaganda. “After finding himself behind the wheel in the government, Saakashvili began to play his game, and in doing so irritated both Moscow and Washington. The Kremlin’s dissatisfaction was observed more often. As a result, we can suppose that Saakashvili didn’t meet Moscow’s conditions, and Moscow doesn’t forgive such things”, affirms Koba Bendeliani.
“The revolution was timely and necessary”
Any revolutionary transformations carry with them positives and negatives. Georgia transformed from a formal state formation into a state on the world map. In the country there was no longer corruption, there began a mass process of creation and construction. “This list could go on forever. But most important is the fact that people felt they were humans. They saw that they can change the world around them, that what sort of an environment they will live in depends on them”, said Irakli Tskitishvili, who took part in the protests of November, 2003. Be believes that, if the Rose Revolution hadn’t taken place, then Georgia would to this day live in complete poverty under the rule of the Soviet nomenklatura.
“On the whole, characterization of things as positive or negative is completely subjective. For the majority of people, clearing the country of corrupted officials was a positive. But for the members of the nomenklatura themselves, difficult times had arrived. The new government almost fully cleaned all the state structures, and many found themselves without employment. Did this need to be done? Opinions are divided on this, and will be split again many times. For example, some Ukrainians believe that the government should change smoothly, not so rough and at such a breakneck speed as was done in Georgia. But we see that in Ukraine nothing is changing. A new government has come with old ways of thinking, and it gets in the way of everything new. This is why I personally believe that in Georgia everything was done correctly. The positives in the country from the Rose Revolution were so unequivocal that we don’t even have to speak of negatives. This came afterwards, years later, especially after the 2008 war, some government representatives developed a sense of impunity and the people of Georgia once more put an end to this, electing new leaders. However, this doesn’t change attitudes towards the Rose Revolution itself, which was timely and necessary”, emphasized Irakli Tskitishvili.
“Mistakes made by the government are not
Doctor of history Kakha Kvashilava considers the major achievement of the Rose Revolution to be not only the battle with corruption and the reduction of crime almost to zero, but also the concrete reforms made in the spheres of education and energy. According to him, in the final tally, this all positively reflected on the country itself. But the electorate begins to get fed up with any political power that is in power for two terms. It gets fed up even in the case that the government was successful.
“Let’s remember 1945 in Great Britain. The people removed Churchill’s conservative government from power even though is government was successful, including victory in World War II. It was the same in Georgia. But in addition to this, the governing power made serious mistakes, among which were: strengthening the presidency and the vertical structure of politics, moving only its own supporters up the job ladder, dispersing opposition demonstrations. I wouldn’t say that the ideas of the Rose Revolution lost in October 2012, when the opposition Georgian Dream party took victory in the parliamentary elections. No, they didn’t lose. It’s just that Mistakes made by the government are not forgiven in the political arena, and besides all else, the time for change had arrived”, noted Kakha Kvashilava.
Interpressnews agency journalist Koba Bendeliani emphasizes the fact that, having come to power after the Rose Revolution, the United National Movement tried to make transformations at too fast a tempo, and in their rush made a number of mistakes. As a result of the aggressive liberal policies they pursued, Western values were discredited in the country and in certain parts of society people even began to feel nostalgia for the Soviet past.
“But, despite all the pluses and minuses, I can confidently state that in 2003-2012 the Georgian government and Georgian society passed through the most difficult stage in the process of becoming a European country and a modern nation. This was an incredibly painful but irreversible part of the path that we had to go down”, emphasized Koba Bendeliani.
“If power is usurped for long, a revolution must take place”
The color revolutions have not yet brought success in any one of the countries of the post-Soviet space, aside from Georgia. The main reason is that in Georgia those at both the bottom and the top wanted change, and what’s more, the latter thirsted specifically for transformation, and not just to receive posts and continue working in the spirit of the former leadership.
Irakli Tskitishvili believes that precisely this is missing in other countries, where as a result of the revolutions, people of this exact same Soviet class came to power, who couldn’t and didn’t want to live any other way. Corruption was beneficial for them because they had adapted to it with all of their being and didn’t know any other life. They are temporary rulers, trying to grab up more today so that tomorrow, if something goes wrong, they can escape to someplace warm. The Rose Revolution showed everyone that a poor, corrupted country has a chance to become a state that is normal, civilized and even outstanding by many indicators. And the people of several different countries likely believed this was an opportunity to change their lives. It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t properly use the people’s trust all the same, pointlessly wasting time on talk and on forming their own version of corrupt vertical power structure.
Irakli Tskitishvili is sure that “It’s a law than if the right of the people to live in a dignified manner is usurped for long, a revolution must take place. The coil that has been compressed for years will at some point be released and come back to bite”.
“The likelihood of new color revolutions in the CIS is very low”
When we speak of the likelihood that the scenario with the color revolutions will be repeated in the post-Soviet space, we must remember that Georgian society was ready for revolution. The pent up dissatisfaction of the people was used to bring to power those same powers that grew up in Shevardnadze’s team. Later they disavowed it, managed to enter the political field as independent and weren’t associated with the former boss among the people.
Koba Bendeliani maintains that the team of reformers with Mikhail Saakashvili at their head prepared the people for change over a long period of time, actively using the Rustavi 2 opposition TV channel for this purpose. We can confidently say that this channel played a decisive role in the formation of public opinion, directed at the necessity of fundamental changes. Whereas in the post-Soviet countries the ruling elites control the information field, as previously. They also control the human resource of qualified youth that could potentially have a chance at creating revolutionary processes.
“If we follow this logic, then the likelihood of new color revolutions there is very low”, said Koba Bendeliani. According to him, President Putin made sure of this, and Russia’s experience was embraced by all the governments of the CIS, where the situation is everywhere the same. The political field in these countries was so cleared that not one of them presents a threat of revolutionary ‘danger’.
“Sooner or later the ruling class will feel the need for radical changes”
“On multiple occasions I’ve had to meet with people abroad who are disappointed with the policies of the present Azerbaijani government, who had to leave their homeland and escape the political realities of Azerbaijan. As a rule, these people stand out from the modern Azerbaijani political elite because of their education, world view, ideas, qualifications and desire for quick reform in their own country” explains Koba Bendeliani. He is sure that such people are in Azerbaijan as well, especially among the youth. It’s entirely possible that they are now part of the governing team so that it is easier to control them.
If we account for the peculiarities of Azerbaijan’s political structure, at present there is not even a hint that a color revolution is likely. However, sooner or later the ruling class itself will feel the need for radical changes and begin revolutionary transformations ‘from above’.
Koba Bendeliani’s opinion is that, in order to implement radical transformations in the country, precise, brave steps are needed from top government officials and the political elite. President Ilham Aliyev is a progressive political actor for various reasons. But whether or not he wants it, he represents the political class that has been ruling in Azerbaijan since Soviet times. Because of this, it is this same political class that must say ‘no’ to clan rule and of their own will ‘retreat’ from politics, only being involved in business. But the Azerbaijani elite knows full-well that in the post-Soviet space untouchable status is achieved only by active participation in political processes, and not by empty external contemplation.
“The question is only about how much Azerbaijani society wants change. Ilham Aliyev is a pragmatic politician and if he believes that cardinal changes are a political demand from society, then he tries to painlessly replace the old political elite with a new one. It seems to me that in Azerbaijan this process is already going less successfully”, concluded Koba Bendeliani.