24 December 2003, 12:03

Georgia, November 2003: Revolution of Roses

Georgia has embarked on the post-Shevardnadze era. What new it will bring to the nation and in what it will differ from the past stage - time will tell. But it is a fact that it had to happen and in the last few years, especially after the November 2001 events, Georgia was living in expectation that the Babu ("Grandfather") would soon quit.

Let me start in a roundabout way, to highlight the key reasons that determined the large scale of the last few days' turmoil which led to the resignation of Shevardnadze who had ruled Georgia over 31 years (with a break in 1985-92).

Paradoxically enough, after the 1993 upheaval (a defeat in Abkhazia, an upsurge of civil war in West Georgia and so on), Shevardnadze's rule in Georgia grew noticeably stronger. The overwhelming majority of the population still believed the experienced leader. People hoped the end of the military campaigns would at once bring a rise in the economy. These hopes were chiefly based on expecting Western aid and the widely advertised plans of turning Georgia into a transportation route between the East and the West. Realization of all future goods was tied to the name of Eduard Shevardnadze, his personal relations and influence on world politics.

Impaired by the turmoil in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state organism started to grow stronger and "put on fat" (grow bureaucratized). Numerous autonomous armed groups - "fraternities" - were eliminated. Their leaders and activists, too late to escape abroad, were put in prisons, and some of them were killed under obscure conditions.

In 1995, Georgia's new Constitution was adopted (symptomatically, this act coincided with the first terrorist attempt at Shevardnadze) and a parliamentary election was conducted. Abolished after Gamsakhurdia's overthrow, the post of President of the republic was restored, too.

President Shevardnadze was building the new Georgia using his old experience and resting on old staff. A lot of former party and Komsomol members emerged in government bodies, ousting people from the so-called national liberation movement. However, Shevardnadze also promoted some young politicians who were not connected with the former nomenklatura and stepped up his reputation as a Westerner and reformer. Biologist Zurab Zhvania, b. in 1963, leader of the Greens party, stood out among those politicians and became speaker of the Georgian parliament at the age of 32.

Shevardnadze's political support was his Citizens' Union of Georgia party which gained most seats in the parliament. Thousands of people rushed to become "citizens," reckoning, not without good reason, on promotion under the presidential party's roof. Bureaucratization of the state and growth in corruption linked to this process became the most remarkable realities in Georgia under Shevardnadze.

By the late 1990s, the economic growth tendency that appeared to have been outlined previously came to naught. Huge funds which Georgia received as aid from Western countries were embezzled by the powers-that-be. Financial activities of Shevardnadze's relatives became the talk of the town. Wages and pensions, meager as they were, were regularly in arrears. The promise of the Citizens' Union (1995) to provide 1 million jobs proved to be fiction. Looking for a job, hundreds of thousands of Georgian residents left for other countries. The public began to realize that reforms and fighting corruption announced by the president were just formal. Widely-advertised international economic projects did not yield noticeable results, state revenue sources operated badly (the treasury received scarcely one-seventh of the revenues the budget provided for), and three in four court decisions were not executed. Permanent cuts of electricity and gas caused strong discontent of the population. Settlement of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian interrelations also reached an impasse. The situation was aggravated by the presence of a numerous army of refugees in the country.

The society's discontent with the situation once again became focused on the personality of Shevardnadze (like before, he was actually alone expected to solve almost all national tasks). In such conditions the parliamentary (1999) and presidential (2000) elections occurred. Again, the Citizens' Union won, but persistent rumor began to circulate in the public about large-scale falsifications in its favor. Terms came into use such as "administrative resource," "electoral merry-go-round" and others.

Shevardnadze's undoubted merit is the complete freedom of speech that prevailed in Georgia during his rule. Numerous media extensively commented on the existing situation and quite often criticism against the authorities, including the president, passed all bounds of correctness. Unfortunately, however, even this freedom began to be associated in Georgia with absolute permissiveness and impunity prevailing in the country: journalists could write whatever they liked, officials stole, gangsters robbed - and they got away with everything.

In October 2001, some Georgian militarized structures with the help of an armed Chechen unit organized an absolutely senseless invasion of Abkhazia which (as was to be expected) resulted in a defeat, material, political and moral damage. Probably, this was the last straw that caused mass actions of Tbilisi residents, discontent with the general situation. In November 2001, spontaneous meetings began in front of the parliament. Crowds scanned "gadadeki" ("quit") before the windows of the State Chancellery where the president's office is.

In this period, the rift between Shevardnadze and the group of young "Westerners" from the Citizens' Union became obvious. Zurab Zhvania quit as speaker. Mikhail Saakashvili (b. in 1967; a lawyer, studied in the USA and then worked with a law firm in New York for a while) became an important figure in the new opposition wing.

In the parliament, Saakashvili became well-known for his revelatory statements against senior budget embezzlers. His name is associated with reform of the Georgian judiciary. Over a short period he managed to become a parliament member, then a Justice Minister (Shevardnadze appointed him on Zhvania's recommendation), then returned to the parliament of the same convocation winning a vote, and without waiting for his authority to expire was involved in a local election, won it and headed Tbilisi's City Council.

Nino Burjanadze became parliament speaker (b. in 1964, candidate of sciences in law, like Zhvania and Saakashvili, she passed through Shevardnadze's political school in the Citizens' Union). Analysts estimated her as a figure of compromise that suited both the opposition and Shevardnadze who was a friend of her father (the latter in the Soviet period held senior posts in the Georgian Communist Party; he is presently a successful businessman, president of the Georgia's Bakery Products company). In spite of this, Burjanadze soon joined the opposition without quitting as speaker.

By that time Shevardnadze's authority had substantially decreased in the eyes of Georgia's Western friends watching the developments in the country. They also said Saakashvili and Zhvania were viewed positively by Western politicians.

All Georgian political forces were especially carefully preparing for the 2003 parliamentary election. Ambitious political leaders, considering that Shevardnadze's last term in office ended in 2004, laid special emphasis on this election as a stage in fighting for the presidential seat. New alliances and unions began to take shape. Thus, young people that left the Citizens' Union formed two political blocs:

  • United Democrats with Burjanadze and Zhvania at the helm. This organization also includes Eldar Shengelaia, former deputy speaker and a well-known film director. Almost at the last moment, the bloc was joined by the Traditionalists' Union headed by Akaki Asatiani who chaired the Georgian Supreme Soviet under Zviad Gamsakhurdia. 
  • The National Movement headed by Saakashvili. This union comprised heterogeneous political forces:
    • a number of important figures from the disintegrated Citizens' Union;
    • the Republican Party of Georgia (the oldest of the existing political organizations in the country, established in 1978; it was destroyed by the KGB, but reappeared during the perestroika), headed by David Berdzenishvili, a former political prisoner;
    • the Union of National Forces, an organization with one part of the disintegrated "Zviadist" movement as its backbone, headed by Zviad Dzidziguri, formerly an associate of Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

The election campaign was in full swing, the names of those opposition unions included the names of their popular leaders - Burjanadze Democrats and Saakashvili National Movement. An ordinary voter in Georgia so far votes for an individual leader, not for a political organization as a whole.

Long before the election campaign was launched officially, the media had stepped up criticism against Shevardnadze and the socio-political situation associated with his personality. Radio channels broadcast funny songs about the president, the independent television company Rustavi-2 whose lobbying is attributed to Zhvania and Saakashvili showed cartoon series, its hero being a funny, sly and egoistical little old man - Eduard Shevardnadze.

All of a sudden, streets in Tbilisi came out in handwritten inscriptions "KMARA!" which means "Enough!" in Georgian. It turned out they were daubed by very young men and girls, members of the national-patriotic organization of the same name. Their appeal meant protest against the existing situation: corruption, protectionism, unemployment, poverty and so on. The "Kmarists" came out under a white flag with a furiously clenched fist on it. (Just the same flag and tactics were shown by the Repulse! movement in Serbia when Milosevic was being overthrown.) Kmara's ads were regularly broadcast on TV at the most expensive evening time. There were persistent rumors that Kmara was financed by Western funds.

The "nationals" demonstrated special activity in the election battle. Huge resonance was given to their "raids" to Kvemo Kartli controlled by the presidential "governor" in that area, Levan Mamaladze, and Batumi where the situation is in full control of the influential head of the Ajar autonomy, Aslan Abashidze.

The nationals' noisy "raids" caused an adequate response of the local authorities. Dozens of people were wounded in conflicts (including some politicians and administration representatives) and assets were damaged.

Such actions brought the National Movement political benefits. Voters considered the nationals the victim party and began to sympathize with them more. Launched by Saakashvili as head of the City Council, campaigns for repairing dilapidated houses in Tbilisi, building sports and children's facilities, etc. also gave a certain effect. Besides, the nationalist leader initiated a rise in pensions to Tbilisi pensioners from 14 to 17 laris (1 lari = USD0.45) at the city budget's expense.

During the election campaign, the National Movement, as well as some other strongest political unions, arranged regular tours of Georgian regions where their local offices helped them hold mass meetings with voters and organize various actions. Such tours often led to conflicts with supporters of rival parties. Such conflicts-brawls have already become a typical reality for political life in Georgia.

Passions ran high about shaping the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and specifying a number of particular issues linked to the elections. Election participants (a total of 24) were afraid of being deceived in vote calculation (and, maybe, were themselves not against making good at their rivals' expense). Those passions went beyond the country, as the former U.S. State Secretary, Mr. Baker, arrived in Georgia to provide mediation between the authorities and the opposition (in this case, however, the opposition can only be quite conventionally differentiated from the authorities, because all of Georgia's strongest political parties have their representatives in government).

Shevardnadze who actually had lost his backbone political organization set up a new union before the election, named For a New Georgia, which was distinguished for its eclecticism. It gave shelter to remnants of the Citizens' Union; "left-wing" socialist and "right-wing" national democrats; a movement of the national-patriotic sort named Language, Fatherland, Faith; the Greens Party; the Abkhazia Liberation Party which came out in support of a military settlement of the problem (this is when Shevardnadze proclaimed a peaceful settlement); and the newly-established Christian Democratic Union. The bloc even included the Transport Workers' Union (?! - G.A.) and some of the former "Zviadists."

The pro-government bloc was headed by Georgia's State Minister Avtandil Jorbenadze.

I will also give a brief account of the other election campaign favorites that went over (or approached) the cherished 7% barrier.

  • The Democratic Revival Union, an organization that rests on the Ajar Autonomous Republic but also has a wide network in a series of other Georgian regions, including Tbilisi. 
  • The Labor Party, stakes on the most socially unprotected part of the Georgian population. 
  • New Rightists, an organization of the right-wing liberal sort. Its core includes young businesspeople, former members of the Citizens' Union. 
  • Industry Will Save Georgia, a movement representing big business in politics.

A while before the election, all election campaign participants, including pro-government bloc representatives, began to talk about grandiose falsifications of the electoral roll. Everyone viewed this as their rivals' intrigues. The media and NGOs became extensively drawn into discussion of this issue. It turned out the roll failed to include a substantial part of potential voters. Entire blocks of flats, streets and neighborhoods were omitted. Meanwhile, the roll featured names of people who died 5, 10, 20 and 30 years ago. At once, they were called "dead souls." In spite of the "dramatic" struggle to correct the mistakes, the situation did not change. Authorities called on citizens for personal attendance at polling stations, inquiring via the Internet and seeking to be restored on the roll. Very many did exactly so, but the corrected matter was again, "miraculously," distorted. Many of those who restored their names on the roll two or three times (!), on the voting day... turned out to be off the roll.

The election on November 2 went on with high activity of the population. In Tbilisi, people stood in lines for 2-3 hours to get to the ballot-boxes. Apparently, there were two main reasons for that:

  • people sincerely wished cardinal changes in the national life;
  • a few months before the election, the media started constantly to fill newspaper lines and broadcasts with materials on the forthcoming election, with extensive comments provided even on the most insignificant details linked to preparation for the election; every night, about nine main television channels (both state-run and independent) provided the screen for representatives of different political forces. Spectators were showered with ads calling not to fail to take part in the vote.

Results of the election, watched by a number of foreign and local observers, turned out to be different in CEC figures and NGO estimates. I quote these data in percentage terms: CEC figures are given under 1; indications of the Georgian office of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) go under 2; and figures of the American-based Global Strategy Group go under 3.

Overstepped 7% barrier

1

2

3

For a New Georgia

21,32%

18,92%

14,2%

Democratic Revival Union

18,84%

8,13%

7,3%

Saakashvili National Movement

18,8%

26,6%

20,7%

Labor Party

12,04%

17,3%

14,1%

Burjanadze Democrats

8,79%

10,15%

8,1%

New Rightists

7,35%

7,95%

less than 7 %

Publication of the abovementioned figures caused a wave of indignation among the "nationals" and "democrats." On Rustaveli Avenue, near the Parliament, where the April 9 tragedy occurred, they called a 24-hour protest meeting and threatened the authorities they would not go away until the president declared the CEC figures wrong. Willing to gain time, Shevardnadze suggested bringing the issue to court to settle it by the law, but the protesters' urge grew rapidly despite that other political forces of some influence in the country did not support them. Saakashvili and his allies demanded that results of the vote in Ajaria, Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli where Revival and the pro-government bloc received the majority should be declared invalid. (Representatives of the national minorities inhabiting Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli are en masse distant from party rivalry in Georgia and usually vote for the ruling party.) Kmara activists, shouting and waving their flags, stood out at the opposition meeting.

The president's personal meeting with the opposition leaders, Saakashvili, Burjanadze and Zhvania, did not lead to agreement, so the opposition stepped up its demands - they put forward the "Georgia without Shevardnadze" slogan.

Shevardnadze personally went for support to Aslan Abashidze in Ajaria. He did so at every critical moment despite that general relations between official Tbilisi and Batumi were more than cool. Over the entire period when Shevardnadze headed the independent Georgia (from 1992), Aslan Abashidze never came to Tbilisi being afraid of an attempt on his life.

Nevertheless, Abashidze always came to the president's aid in time of trouble. This time, too, he actually proved to be his only support. The pro-government bloc manifested complete inability to show resistance to the opposition. Supporters of Revival and the autonomy's civil servants were moved from Ajaria to Tbilisi; they occupied the meeting square before the Parliament when Saakashvili had suddenly cleared it after several days of "standing."

The new meeting on Rustaveli Avenue put forward diametrically opposite demands. Above all, it was said there that Saakashvili should beg a pardon from the active president of Georgia, as well as the future one - Aslan Abashidze.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili and Burjanadze arrived to West Georgia where they called on all those discontent with the ruling clique to unite and go to Tbilisi. Thousands of people started east by busses and cars, in columns of many kilometers. The television company Rustavi-2 broadcast the impressive march of an endless row of vehicles on the capital. Going in the dark, with lights on, from above they resembled a river of fire.

Late on November 22, the vanguard busses covered with National Movement flags (a white cloth with five red crosses), tooting constantly, entered Tbilisi. Excited Mikhail Saakashvili stood in the first car, rising behind the windscreen. Crowds of citizens greeted him with shouts: "Misha! Misha!"

The same night, on Liberty Square, before the city hall where Saakashvili's office is situated, a mass meeting was held. Speeches were delivered by Saakashvili, Burjanadze, Zhvania and other opposition leaders.

Before the Parliament, 300 m away from them, the Revival supporters continued their 24-hour meeting which, however, yielded to the opposition meeting in both the number of participants and emotional tension.

The "rival" meetings were divided by cordons of police and Ministry of Interior troops in special outfit (helmets, shields, truncheons), their front on the opposition. The law enforcers warned the meeting on Liberty Square strictly against movement toward the Parliament.

On November 23, when Giorgoba (St. George's Day) is celebrated, which is one of the most popular traditional holidays in Georgia, Shevardnadze was to open a meeting of the new parliament. The opposition leaders were drastically against it. Some other political forces hesitated. The square before the Parliament was guarded by the Revival supporters.

The parliament session was to start at 4 p.m., but the quorum did not gather, so Shevardnadze continued waiting. Ilya II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, who had usually consecrated the first working day of a new parliament, refused to come this time, referring to the need for his attendance at another service.

Meanwhile, a numerous group of opposition members surrounded the State Chancellery (about 200-250 m from the Parliament) guarded by forces of law and order.

At about 4.30 p.m., parliament members finally gathered in the necessary number and Shevardnadze opened the meeting. This spurred events. Thousands of opposition supporters headed by their leaders easily broke through the police force (no resistance was put up actually) and occupied the "Parliament Square" (for some reason, this place has been called a "square" since the April 9 events, although it is just a part of Rustaveli Avenue and a broad pavement before the government building). The Revival supporters retreated.

Shevardnadze was standing on the platform and speaking when the doors flew open and the excited opposition crowd burst in. They were headed by Saakashvili with a rose in his hand (later they would call all those events a "Revolution of Roses"). The bravest parliament members, probably, sprang to their feet and rushed to meet them; others began to steal away via free exits. A hand-to-hand fight began in the hall, young men were running about on parliament members' desks, but Shevardnadze was standing on the platform as if nothing happened and continued his speech. Only when the epicenter neared the platform dangerously, his personal guards surrounded the president and brought him out of the hall. The vacant platform was at once mounted by Saakashvili who proclaimed victory of the revolution and... drank the tea prepared for Shevardnadze. (Everyone knows in Georgia that Shevardnadze never spoke in the parliament or at government meetings without the famous glass of tea in a metal glass-holder.)

Right after that, the opposition members that were besieging the State Chancellery demanded that the building is surrendered and the Kajeti Castle fell before them. (This is how in the Soviet time Tbilisi residents had nicknamed this huge building of the former Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party; by the way, it was built under Shevardnadze when he was a candidate to the Political Bureau. The Kajeti Castle in a poem by Shota Rustaveli is the stronghold of evil demons.)

Late on November 23, the president announced a state of emergency in the country. At the same time, he called on the opposition for negotiation, but only after they clear the occupied sites. Sure enough, his suggestion was ignored.

The next morning, Russia's Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov came to Georgia. First of all, he headed to the Parliament and delivered a speech to the opposition meeting. His speech in which he used some Georgian words was greeted by applause. Then Ivanov went to Shevardnadze.

During one day in the Georgian capital, Ivanov repeatedly met with the president and opposition leaders. Apparently, his "shuttle diplomacy" facilitated the detente to a great extent. In the evening, declaring his mission fulfilled, Russia's foreign minister departed for Batumi to meet with Abashidze.

The media later disseminated information that Shevardnadze had sought political support from the U.S. and Russian governments, but he did not receive it. The Western states officially announced they were not going to interfere in Georgia's internal affairs. The same announcement was made by the Russian troops quartered in Georgia. The president was not able to rest on the Georgian military, either. Even if he had ordered to move them against the demonstrators, soldiers and officers would not have obeyed the order. Some of them, leaving weapons at the quarters, joined the people.

Saakashvili who occupied the "Parliament square" put forward an ultimatum: Shevardnadze should come to the people; otherwise, we would come to visit him at Krtsanisi (the president's official residence in a Tbilisi suburb).

A Rustavi-2 camera team was sitting in the airport to shot Shevardnadze fleeing from Georgia. They even found a plane ready for departure, and showed it; however, it turned out soon that was Igor Ivanov's plane.

Late on November 24, Saakashvili and Zhvania went to Shevardnadze. About 200 supporters accompanied them to the gates of the Krtsanisi residence. Rumor has it the meeting with the president even had a slightly idyllic nature. The conversation, not all its details known to the wide public, was quite calm. After that journalists were invited and Shevardnadze announced his resignation. He should be given his due: Eduard, 75, comported himself perfectly. He even joked a couple of times. To a young journalist's naive question "Where are you going now?" he answered simply: "Home."

That night, Shevardnadze's popularity rating which was at the zero point in Georgia fluctuated and rose slightly. I do not rule out that in a couple of years, if the new authorities do not fulfill the promises they are presently making to the people, Shevardnadze will again become popular and turn into a moral authority for the nation.

Thus, the second president of the independent Georgia, too, was removed from power in a non-constitutional way (although the victorious opposition disputes this thesis). Unlike the bloody overthrow of Gamsakhurdia though, there was no firing and victims this time, without taking several beaten parliament members into account.

This is briefly what the Velvet Revolution or the Revolution of Roses was like, as the winners and media now call this event. During the three days while this opus was being written, quite important events have been taking place in Georgia, resulting directly from what happened. However, everything is developing so rapidly that starting the narration of subsequent facts presents a risk of getting into a magic circle.

Short conclusions:

  • No doubt, the Georgian population welcomes the president's resignation. No one knows what the subsequent destiny of the nation will be like, but the people are glad that there is at least any prospect - a thing that a certain majority of the people was deprived of under Shevardnadze.
  • Television played a huge role in the events. Several TV channels continuously covered the developments and a person sitting at home before a TV set was probably better informed of the proceedings than an ordinary participant in the meetings being in the thick of events. 
  • I will also add that most television companies and especially the popular Rustavi-2 sympathized with the opposition, which to a great extent shaped the public opinion.

(State-run television that ventured a somewhat different evaluation of the developments was literally attacked by numerous opposition supporters. After that, the government channel grew "dumb" and broadcast only the opposition meeting on the "Parliament Square," with no comments, until the end of the political confrontation.)

The conviction is growing stronger that some quarters in the West had a hand in Shevardnadze's overthrow. If it is confirmed that the Kmara organization is financed from the outside (but from where else can it be financed?) and that its activists were taught effective methods of street demonstrations in a suburban resort settlement, one can come to definite conclusions.

(By the way, after his resignation, ex-president Shevardnadze told a journalist who was interviewing him that "some foreign organizations borrowed the Yugoslavian experience and used it here.")

November 27, 2003

Author: Georgy Anchabadze, Institute of History and Ethnology, Georgian Academy of Sciences;

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