Rose Revolution Still Haunts Georgia
The political upheaval of 2003 was a seminal moment in the country’s history, but its legacy is up for debate.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream (GD) did not mince his words when describing the 2003 Rose Revolution, the political upheaval which changed the country’s post-Soviet direction.
“You know what the Rose Revolution brought to our country: total abuse of human rights, abuse of people’s dignity, torture of people, inhuman treatment,” Kobakhidze said on November 14. “The racketeering of business, takeover of TV stations, total falsification of the election and handing the 20 per cent of our territory to the Russian Federation.
“This is the heritage of the Rose Revolution,” he continued, adding that attempting to celebrate that day was “insolence”.
But for many people, the Rose Revolution brought years of hope. As President Eduard Shevardnadze, the USSR’s last foreign minister who was acclaimed for his role in helping to end the cold war, resigned, fireworks lit the sky over the capital Tbilisi. Jubilant crowds filled the air with cheers, whistling and the honking of car horns.
The first of the “colour” revolutions that swept through a number former Soviet Union republics in the early 2000s, the Rose Revolution began a new phase after a decade of civil and ethnic conflicts, corruption and economic collapse that had marked the country since independence in 1991.
Was Kobakhidze’s brashness just a political pose, fishing for votes as the country headed to critical 2024 elections? Or did his words carry an undertone of bitterness, for something that could have been?
The Rose Revolution certainly had its successes, starting with the fight against lawlessness, improving public administration, beefing up the country’s investment and strengthening the security apparatus and the army.
But even as the contours of the new administration were taking shape after Shevardnadze‘s resignation, many were asking – was this really a revolution?
After all, all the three leading political figures of the political change served in Shevardnadze’s administration in senior capacities: Zurab Zhvania had been the leader of the ruling Citizens Union of Georgia (CUG) and parliament speaker for years, Nino Burjanadze was the parliamentary speaker, and Mikheil Saakashvili had been appointed as Justice Minister by Shevardnadze himself.
In many ways, the years after 2003 were full of rapid, at times unimaginable, change. The purge of the rotten patrol police, the restoration of electricity supply, and the revitalisation of public services seemed extraordinary to those who survived the hopelessness of 1990s.
In less than four years, Georgia looked like a functioning state – flawed, perhaps, but buzzing with anticipation.
Under the leadership of the mercurial Saakashvili, elected president on January 4, 2004 with a huge public mandate, a cadre of relatively young Georgians in their late 20s and early 30s helped to drive through these changes. Often educated in the US or Europe, with business or NGO experience behind them, they were forging the new ethos of the civil service.
With official recognition of their knowledge and enthusiasm, their ascension was perhaps truly revolutionary. Those who expected to have no access to real power could suddenly transform things. And they did.
Yet while the breadth and depth of that change is debatable, its symbolic effect was clear. The same Kobakhidze, during a briefing on March 8, 2023, where he had to respond to the public pushback to the Russian-styled law “on foreign agents” that would have shut down civil society groups and independent media, said “A revolution of agents [spies] took place in Georgia in 2003, which was followed by nine anti-European years.”
A “revolution of agents”: this moniker, linking civil society now and then, resonated well with those who found the winners of the Rose Revolution alien to both their values and lifestyle.
HEADING WEST, BUT LEAVING MANY BEHIND
The westernisation drive of the 2000s was rapid, even reckless.
I recall one official, who changed several high executive offices in the mid-2000s, telling me what he did when he arrived in his new post.
“I first ask for the oldest-serving civil servants and fire them,” he said, arguing that there was no place anymore for Shevardnadze-era holdovers, all corrupt, incompetent and unfit.
The permeating disdain for experience gained before the Rose Revolution stood out.
The UNM administration liked to point out that many “losers of transition” – corrupt politicians, nomenklatura artists getting budget money, faded sports stars who ran illegal business, crime bosses – deserved to be discarded. But the message failed to convince when scores of others felt left behind.
The exclusion for those who did not fit in the new system was acute. Crushing the core of the powerful criminal underworld was a necessary precondition for exiting the civil strife of 1990s, but the draconian legislation sowed resentment among the young who were not a match for the new order. Socialised and often brutalised in the penitentiary, these youths and their families joined the ranks of those who equalised westernisation with abuse in the name of progress.
Apart from the ruling clique around Shevardnadze’s family and some top officials, notably in the police and energy sectors, in 2003 there were just two super-rich men in Georgia.
One was Badri Patarkatsishvili, often in the public eye vaunting his friendship with Shevardnadze. The other, so reclusive that a handful knew his face, was Bidzina Ivanishvili. Both secured imposing residences in the capital – Patarkatsishvili settled for restoring a Soviet modernist tower while Ivanishvili’s hypermodern glass lair overlooked the main square.
These two did not oppose the Revolution. On the contrary, it seemed that both, especially Ivanishvili, poured cash into initial reforms, paying salaries for some of the new civil servants lured from business or from good jobs abroad.
But as the new administration grew increasingly bold and independent, buoyed by public support and dizzy with initial successes, both oligarchs– in their own ways - signed the revolutions’ death sentence.
Patarkatsishvili posed the first and open challenge to Saakashvili’s administration, mostly relying on the disgruntled elites. The United National Movement (UNM) leadership saw this as an attempted counter-revolution and reacted by massively cracking down on street protests in 2007 and shutting down the oligarch’s TV mouthpiece.
The debacle signaled a breaking point of the government with most of Georgia’s human rights community. It also dissipated the “pro-Western” credentials of the UNM administration, at least in some quarters in Europe.
Patarkatsishvili died in the United Kingdom in February 2008, a few months before Russia invaded Georgia. Ivanishvili slowly emerged from obscurity and challenged the UNM, bringing it down in a bitter battle that was fought without rules on both sides.
Weakened by Russia’s invasion in 2008, cut from its erstwhile supporters in civil society, increasingly grasping at populism and ethno-nationalism, the UNM administration succumbed to the political challenge in 2012 elections and conceded power.
They say every revolution ends in disappointment. Hastily inserted into history books, the Rose Revolution has been now almost erased or painted black, in compliance with the Georgian Dream’s doctrine.
Yet, some of the gains – improved public services, lack of petty corruption – was too politically costly to reverse. Some bad aspects – politically subordinated judges, security services that penetrate public lives with wanton impunity – were gladly appropriated by the new regime. Frail and out of touch, Mikheil Saakashvili is languishing in a prison hospital.
Will the last sparks of this impulse 20 years ago help propel Georgia into Europe? If so, it would have achieved the purpose that many Georgian standing that November morning on Rustaveli avenue could have only hoped it would.
Jaba Devdariani is an expert in post-conflict institutional development and public administration reform and co-founder of the United Nations Association of Georgia (UNA) and the news outlet Civil.ge.
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.