Revolution of roses
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](http://www.newint.org/issue361/once.htm) [NI 361](http://www.newint.org/issue361/index.htm)) 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.