The sad lessons of Georgia's violent counterrevolution.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 12 2007 7:57 PM

After the Counterrevolution

Georgia is yet another country where Washington declared "mission accomplished" too soon.

Mikheil Saakashvili. Click image to expand.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

The French revolution had its Jacobins; the Russian revolution erupted in Red Terror. The peaceful revolutions of more recent years weren't supposed to produce violent counterrevolutions. But now one of them has.

Indeed, in the space of a single week, the president of Georgia—Mikheil Saakashvili, or "Misha" to his friends—probably did more genuine damage to American "democracy promotion" than a dozen Pervez Musharrafs ever could have done. After all, no one ever expected much in the way of democracy from Pakistan. But a surprising amount was expected of Georgia—a small, clannish, mountainous country wedged between Russia and Turkey—expectations that have now vanished in the crowds of riot police and clouds of tear gas that Saakashvili sent pouring out over the streets of Tbilisi, breaking up street demonstrations there last Wednesday. Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, put it best: "Even for those of us who work professionally with self-destructive countries, this was an exceptionally bad day."


It is true that Georgia never attracted hordes of enthusiastic Western groupies, let alone the actors and models who flock to Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. Full-time Georgia-watchers, a small but hardy group, have long had serious doubts about "Misha," a man of whom amazing tales are told, variously involving wine, women, temper tantrums, and even Ferris wheels.

Nevertheless, during his visit to Tbilisi two years ago, the American president did go out on a limb, praising his Georgian counterpart for "building a democratic society … where a free press flourishes, a vigorous opposition is welcome, and unity is achieved through peace." Now that Saakashvili's goons have not only broken up public demonstrations with tear gas but also smashed up a private TV station largely owned by Rupert Murdoch (not, one would think, the best way to attract positive international media coverage), that speech sounds not just naive and premature but usefully idiotic, to paraphrase Lenin. That Bush has made no comment about Georgia this week is a disgrace.

For, in fact, it was not just predictable that Georgia would somehow go wrong, it was a certainty: That's because just about all revolutions, even peaceful ones, somehow go wrong. In the decade following 1989, for example, Communists were re-elected to power in pretty much every Central European country.

Over the subsequent decade, however, many of these same Communist parties were then voted out again. Meanwhile, the rest of the region's politicians gradually grew more competent, and more predictable. Over the long term, then, the question is not whether the revolution goes wrong, but how it goes wrong and how long it takes to fix itself again. Georgia has achieved many things in the past few years—investment is up, economic growth is up, infrastructure is recovering from its post-Soviet collapse—but a tradition of peaceful exchange of power has not been established. Democracy is not a single moment—one revolution and, presto, everything changes—it is a procedure, a course of development that Georgia had yet to complete. Despite Georgia's achievement in overthrowing the Soviet-style political and economic nomenklatura that had run the country since 1991, it was too early to declare "mission accomplished" in Georgia. Unfortunately, we did.

Many excuses can be made for Georgia, and Saakashvili has already made most of them. Clearly, the country's geography doesn't bode well for a peaceful evolution to democracy, and the timing isn't great, either. This is not the early 1990s, when Russia was looking inward, and the West had nothing better to do than think up interesting ways to integrate Eastern Europeans. There is no question that Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime has used every tool at its disposal to undermine Saakashvili, from economic boycotts to separatist movements to military threats. Nevertheless, for Saakashvili to accuse the entire political opposition—critical journalists, street demonstrators, and all—of collaboration with Russia is not credible. Besides, whatever problems you have, you clearly don't solve them by smashing TV equipment.

Ironically, all this has disturbing echoes of another mistake made by another American president not that long ago in the same part of the world. Over and over again, throughout the 1990s, Bill Clinton told Boris Yeltsin he was a democrat. In one summit after another, the American president praised the Russian president as an example for others to follow. Even as Yeltsin shot up his parliament, revived the KGB, and started the repressive processes that culminated in the selection of Vladimir Putin as his successor, the U.S. government kept using the words "democracy" and "free markets" about Russia, hoping it would all come out right.

It didn't. Picking democratic "friends," it seems, is no easier than picking winning horses. We'd be better off building institutions, not egos. I hope next time we will.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?