Don’t start the revolution without us! But they did. We missed it by about 18 hours. The night before we had sat with all of NI designer Andy’s Ukrainian relatives in their friendly apartment in Kiev watching the quiet revolution unfolding to our south on the other side of the Black Sea. The TV screen was filled with images of demonstrators and men in uniform milling around the Georgian Parliament. Weeks of protests had come to a head.
The family was a lot more nervous than we were about our departure for Georgia the next day. For Ukrainians, ghosts in military uniform are never that far away. After all, theirs is a land laid waste by Stalin in his forced collectivization of agriculture. Some seven million Ukrainians died in the space of a few years in the early 1930s. Add to this a bloody history of pogroms, nationalist risings, a brutal world war and, more recently, Chernobyl. Andy’s cousin Anna broke out various packaged foods and an odd kettle to cook them with in case we got caught in a state of siege. But it looked safe enough to us – lots of high spirits and no gunfire.
And indeed that is how it was. The celebrating crowds we found around the Parliament buildings were so dense that it was impossible to pass. Most people we met in those heady days in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, were enthusiastic and optimistic.
‘This is the first velvet revolution in the former Soviet Union. This is the beginning of a new era, not just here but in the whole region.’ This – the general opinion – was held not just by intellectuals and activists but by ordinary folk: everyone from students to Georgian refugees from the breakaway province of Akazia. Everyone had a claim on the protest, either as part of the crowd that stormed into Parliament or because a close friend or relative had been there.
And they have a great deal to protest against – a series of rigged elections and backroom deals. As in other parts of the former Soviet Union, government office is viewed more as an entrepreneurial opportunity for loot and pillage than as something held in public trust. Grinding poverty and corruption are everywhere. Georgia is tied with Uzbekistan near the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Index.
But there is something larger than life about this country. Maybe it’s the breathtaking beauty of the place, the intense joie de vivre, the wonderful cuisine and excellent wine downed in copious quantities; or the inclination of Georgians to break into song or pick up an instrument at a moment’s notice. It has about it the feel of grand drama. It is the birthplace of a multitude of poets and artists.
This is the first velvet revolution in the former Soviet Union
It is also the birthplace of both Joseph Stalin and Eduard Shevardnadze – the two faces of communism. Shevardnadze is widely credited with having rescued Georgia from brutal civil war and the rule of armed gangs. For his troubles two attempts were made on his life. Indeed the whole story of Shevardnadze is a sort of Shakespearean tragedy. While some talked King Lear (a ruler out of touch with reality), I thought Macbeth. Here was a man who recognized the fatal flaws of the communist system and with Gorbachev tried hard to change things. Yet here was also a man who could not live (or at least govern) in the post-communist world he helped create. Like Macbeth, his was the fatal flaw of personal ambition – a platform politician addicted to the cronyism of the old ways.
Yet he also allowed the space for civil society to start to thrive in Georgia. As a consequence, Georgia has become a hotbed of NGO activity organizing around the environment, civil and human rights, against corruption and for democratic renewal. In addition, Shevardnadze resisted closing the independent Rustavi TV station. Both factors in the end played a big part in his downfall. In January, Georgians overwhelmingly voted for ‘Rose Revolutionary’ Mikhail Saakashvili (85 per cent) to replace Shevardnadze as President.
Still, Georgia faces huge problems, not just from a culture of endemic corruption dominated by clan bosses quick to resort to violence. There are also a spate of regional insurgencies (which many believe are supported by the Putin regime in Moscow).
Then there is the geopolitical situation, in which Georgia finds itself not only the host of the BTC oil pipeline (see Once Upon a Pipeline NI 361) but also a strategic linchpin in the South Caucasus. Georgia now has both Russian military bases and a small contingent of US troops as the country tries to balance competing political influences.
But danger lies in reducing all local events to part of some grand geopolitical chess game. Some on the Western Left see Georgia’s Rose Revolution as little more than a ‘made-in-America’ coup. But such an approach sucks the meaning from struggles for democracy and justice. Shevardnadze was no enemy of the US and the US is no defender of democratic rebels in either Azerbaijan or Armenia where it has alliances of convenience with leaderships that have dubious democratic credentials. Whatever its ultimate fate, Georgia’s Rose Revolution needs to be respected for the courage of its participants and their faith in moulding made-in-Georgia solutions for the future.
Kety Gujaraidze – Green Alternative
Kety is an environmental activist with Green Alternative – a grassroots organization that is part of the Bankwatch Network in Eastern Europe. They have played a key role in monitoring the BTC pipeline company that is building a strategic oil pipeline carrying Azerbaijani oil through Georgia to Western markets.
‘I know all of them [the new politicians] – what they do and how they think. They had high positions before but they did nothing. I worked for the Parliamentary Committee on the environment for six years and then the Department of the Environment. Now it is up to the public. They should understand that democracy is not just the taking out of Shevardnadze and that’s it. The fight for democracy is a long process. If people don’t realize this in a year everything will be the same as before. I worry that people’s hopes will become inflated but that then they will crash and it will be very disillusioning for them. I think NGOs have a big responsibility here. Their real mission is to be a defender of the public. In the last five years the Georgian NGOs have been too quick to become consulting businesses and lose their original purpose as public defenders.’
Emil Adelkhanov – Caucasian Institute for Peace, Development and Democracy.
When asked how I would identify him at the Tbilisi café where we were to meet, Emil offered, ‘I am very short with no teeth.’ He is a man of dystopian character who identifies himself as ‘half an Armenian and half a Jew’ and he doesn’t trust the popular enthusiasm that has gripped Tbilisi. ‘This euphoria makes me nervous. It always crashes and people get depressed. I know these new political leaders. I know their limitations. They are the spiritual children of Eduard Shevardnadze. What we need here are real social rights as well as political rights. If we want people not to be attracted to fascism and populism they must stop being poor. Look at me. I am probably one of the top 10 per cent of earners and I can’t even afford dentures. We must have trade unions. We need a real socialist party.’
Emil admits to being a pessimist by temperament. ‘In Soviet times I worked for a Samizdat publication, The Chronicle of Current Events. I thought the Soviet system would last 1,000 years. I prefer to be pessimistic because then you can be pleasantly surprised.’
Levan Berdzenishvili – Director of the National Library
As Levan and I talked in his office in the National Library, warm tea helped take the chill out of his large, under-heated room. Levan is part of the old intelligentsia unique to former Soviet societies: intensely proud of the library founded in 1848, ‘the largest collection in the South Caucasus’. He has watched as his precious library has deteriorated while fat cultural ministries sucked up what little money there was. ‘In Soviet times we had 8,000 libraries in Georgia and today the figure is 3,000 but in fact there are only about 150. Meanwhile the cultural bureaucracy has actually expanded.
‘We need a radical decentralization to get rid of these old ministries. We think that the European experience is our best guide. We must retain the public realm. Public television like BBC not CNN – independent from government but supported by public money. I wouldn’t watch the Government First Channel for three years. But now I am a partisan to keep this station, to have public opposition to private stations. Private means you can buy it and impose your view. We want to be together with the world (we are too small to be on our own) but while we put on American faces, we have European hearts.’
Nana Janashia – Caucasus Environmental Network
Nana is plainly exhilarated, her emotions close to the surface as she talks and makes free use of her hands. ‘It is amazing what has happened here. We stood in the rain for those three weeks – all day and all night. When the day came we moved forward with our hands in the air to show the police that we were not armed. There were 80,000 of us at the height of it. It was very scary because we did not know if they would shoot. We said to them “We are fighting for you too!” And many of them joined us. We burst into the Parliament but Shevardnadze just continued to talk. His own security guards led him away. He was still making a speech.
‘This was a genuine people’s movement – the first in the former Soviet Union. It is our Rose Revolution and we did it without violence. Saakashvili and Burdjanadze [the new leaders] came to the demonstration early each morning but I always had the sense that they were drawing strength from the people and not the other way around. The people now have great self-confidence. If we are betrayed, we will come out again! It is a new generation here now. I want so badly to live in this country and now I can see a future.’
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