The Blush Is Off Georgia's Rose Revolution
Another U.S. ally declares a state of emergency.
TBILISI, Georgia—It was a clear and cool afternoon—and the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution—when thousands of protesters marched from Tbilisi's central square to the nearby bank of the Mtkvari River Wednesday. On the sixth day of an opposition-led protest that had closed off Tbilisi's main street, a growing number of demonstrators had been held off by gas-masked special forces and police since early morning. Canisters of tear gas were lobbed into the air with the sound and speed of shuttlecocks.
All this was a preamble for the coming event: A large group of peaceful demonstrators who had gathered at Mtkvari would be hit with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. By evening, Imedi, the main independent TV news channel (part-owned, incidentally, by Rupert Murdoch) was raided by the government. ("They are now trying to break into this studio," the anchor announced seconds before the screen went blank.) Hours later, President Mikheil Saakashvili declared a state of emergency—sending all but government TV channels off the air and banning all demonstrations—claiming that Russia has been trying to orchestrate a coup.
Unlike many of its post-Soviet neighbors, Georgia does not respond stoically to police violence. What the opposition had not managed in six days of protest, the government achieved in a period of hours: galvanizing most of the population against it. President Saakashvili may have been lionized by Georgians as a populist hero, touted by the West as a democratic reformer, and hailed as the personification of President George W. Bush's greatest foreign-policy achievement (barring Afghanistan), but his recent actions have left people scratching their heads.
Those of us who have been here a while have one thing to say: We told you so.
The details of the current crisis are too murky and require too many meandering back stories and conspiracy theories to explain here, but the broad strokes should sound familiar: A former government minister is ousted and exiled, enters the opposition, and galvanizes a following. A president panics, calls a state of emergency, rounds up the opposition, shuts down the media, and bans all demonstrations. U.S. allies are unhappy with the turn of events but are stuck: Both are fighting a common enemy, and they need each other.
But while no love is lost for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, there is much hand-wringing over Saakashvili. When Saakashvili led an opposition movement to oust former President Eduard Shevardnadze from power in the much-touted Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia was a failed state, one of the most corrupt and moribund in the world. Since being elected president (with 97 percent of the vote—Georgians have a long tradition of deifying their leaders before turfing them out), Saakashvili has attracted unprecedented levels of foreign investment, privatized all but the most unprivatizable, reformed the police and tax-collection apparatus, and courted every Western institution you can think of. There's steady gas and electricity for the first time in years. Georgia has more troops in Iraq, per capita, than any other nation in the world. It has also taken former colonial power Russia to task—which none of the other post-Soviet neighbors, other than Ukraine, has dared to do. All this has made Saakashvili an important ally.
But Saakashvili has been important in another way, too: He is the West's favorite example of democracy emerging from peaceful regime change. With Ukraine's Orange Revolution consigned to a dustbin of failed coalitions and bitter infighting, Georgia's was the last of the so-called color revolutions to stick.
But many people here thought Saakashvili's reputation as a democratic reformer was wildly exaggerated. A reformer, no doubt, but reform often requires extra-democratic measures, and from the early days of his tenure, Georgian politicians quietly, furtively, understood they would need to break some eggs along the way.
Democracy, with its checks and balances and trilateral distribution of power, was doomed here from the get-go. After the revolution, most of Georgia's best and brightest took government posts. The opposition was largely made up of people too marginal, or too crazy, to enter mainstream politics, or former government employees who had been pushed out and carried a grudge. Georgia became a one-party state, with a rubber-stamp parliament and a tiny group within the executive branch making all the important decisions.
The reforms did come, but people complained that they came at too high a price. Small businesses have been seized for municipal makeover projects; the judiciary runs on orders from above; the media, while far freer here than in other former Soviet countries, complained that the government was shutting them out. Prisons are overcrowded with teenagers, and despite an 11 percent growth in GDP, unemployment hovers at more than 20 percent.
The West has been cautious—too cautious—in issuing reprimands for Saakashvili's failings, and Georgia has suffered as a result. The endless approbation from abroad made it difficult for Saakashvili to recognize the very real grievances at home. For at least the past year, his party has invoked the bogeyman of meddling Russia to discredit dissenters and incense the population. In his long-awaited address to the nation Wednesday, Saakashvili announced that some of the opposition was being supported by Russia, which he claimed (not for the first time) was trying to overthrow him. Audio- and videotapes of opposition members talking to alleged Russian intelligence agents were unearthed. Badri Patarkatsishvili, probably Georgia's richest man—part-owner of Imedi and funder of the opposition—was accused of being a Russian stooge and of using Imedi to foment revolution.
Daria Vaisman is a writer based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Photograph of protesters in Georgia by Sergo Belousov/AFP/Getty Images.