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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and US President George Bush. Photo: NATO

In 2005, US president George W Bush described Georgia as a "beacon of liberty" during a visit to its capital Tbilisi. He informed an enthusiastic crowd: "As you build freedom in this country, you must know that the seeds of liberty you are planting in Georgian soil are flowering across the globe."[13] In the annual address to the parliament in 2006 Saakashvili also told Georgians:

"[Georgia has become] a country … whose revolution was followed by other revolutions. Flags of the Georgian revolution were raised in Kiev, Beirut and Kyrgyzstan. They are being raised today in Belarus and many other countries … The Georgian flag and freedom have become identical notions."[14]

At the time, it appeared that a wave of "electoral revolutions" was sweeping aside corrupt or semi-authoritarian regimes in former communist countries: events in Bulgaria in 1996, Slovakia in 1998, Croatia in 2000, Serbia in 2000 and now Georgia in 2003 all suggested a pattern of "velvet" (i.e., non-violent) revolutions.[15] In April 2008 in Bucharest, Mikheil Saakashvili asserted that Georgia had already become a global model by demonstrating that: "No country is unfit for democracy. No people is unfit for dramatic development. And there is no cultural relativism when it comes to freedom."[16]

To re-brand Georgia as a global model after the Rose Revolution was, by any measure, remarkably ambitious. A few years before, Georgia had been regarded as one of the most corrupt countries on earth. At that time, USAID staff informally referred to Georgia, one of the biggest per capita recipients of US aid in the world, as "white Africa."[17] In 2001, following a visit to the country, Caucasus expert Charles King had concluded that "in a region of only minimally successful countries, however, the Georgian case is particularly dire … [I]t is worth asking whether a state called ‘Georgia' even exists today in any meaningful sense."[18] And the way Georgians viewed themselves at the time was well captured in a popular cartoon series (Dardubala) broadcast weekly from 2000 to 2002 on Rustavi 2. In one episode Georgia faces an alien invasion:

"The alien leader is telling his minions that they have decided to conquer and destroy the planet Earth, beginning with the country of Georgia. One confused minion asks "Why Georgia?"; to which the leader replies that Georgia was chosen because it is notoriously the weakest country on the face of the earth, adding "Don't you know this? Everone knows this.""[19]

In the cartoon series Georgia is saved only when the aliens become fully Georgianised, i.e. infected with a special corruption virus which destroys them in the way it has already destroyed Georgia.

House at the seaside in Batumi
House at the seaside in Batumi. Photo: flickr/Henning(i)

After 2004, Georgia moved quickly to shore up its failing state institutions, starting with reform of the police, customs and tax administrations. The results of Georgia's initial state building efforts were impressive: opinion polls showed rising confidence in the police, public revenues increased sharply and petty corruption decreased dramatically. But was this institution building really democratic? As Miriam Lanskoy and Giorgi Areshidze put it in 2008, the post-revolutionary leadership had strengthened the capacity of the state to provide security and public goods, dramatically improved services like electricity, and had successfully campaigned against crime and petty corruption. However,

"the laudable achievements of Saakashvili's state building program have come at the high price of a superpresidential political system. The government acts unilaterally according to the principle that "the ends justify the means", violating basic human rights and failing to achieve consent from other political forces or the nation as a whole."[20]

As many observers pointed out, Georgia was experiencing "a destructive cycle of tradeoffs between democracy-building and state-building." In 2005, Jonathan Wheatley concluded his book on Georgia with an open question: "Of course, the development of democracy takes time … On whether progress is being made in this direction, the jury is still out."[21] When the Georgian government responded to street protests in autumn 2007 by sending the police to beat up protesters, imposing a state of emergency and closing the most important opposition television station, Imedi, its reputation suffered a severe blow in the West. The US-based think tank Freedom House now found Georgia to be as imperfectly democratic in 2007 as it had been before the Rose Revolution, labelling it "partly free", in the same category as Kuwait, Nepal or Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. The London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, which puts together its own Democracy Index, ranked Georgia 104th out of 167 countries in 2009, placing Georgia among 36 "hybrid regimes", a category including neighbouring Armenia, the Kyrgyz Republic and Russia.[22]

Riots in Tbilisi in 2007
Protesters clash with riot police on the streets of Tbilisi
on 7 November 2007. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Whatever the value of these rankings, the larger point is clear: after 2007 Georgia's leaders were no longer able to easily present their country as a model of democratisation. The coverage of Georgian politics changed, both in the US and in Europe. The International Crisis Group published a report with the title "Georgia: Sliding Towards Authoritarianism?"[23] In November 2007, the New York Times wrote under the title "Georgia's Future Looks Like More of the Past":

"When he was elected president of Georgia after a bloodless revolution in 2003, he was deemed a savior for the post-Soviet landscape, as if he had been conjured by a committee of Washington think tanks and European human rights groups … Now, Mr. Saakashvili has begun to draw comparisons to a leader who has chosen a different path to lift his nation: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Georgia's neighbor, former overlord and, these days, frequent adversary."[24]

If Georgia wanted be recognised for its contribution to global policy debates, its leaders had to find a new mark of distinction. Thanks to Kakha Bendukidze, they did.


[13] "Text: Bush's speech in Georgia", BBC News, 10 May 2005.

[14] "Annual Presidential Address to Parliament," Official website of the President of Georgia, 14 February 2006.

[15] See: Valerie J Bunce and Sharon Wolchik, "Youth and Electoral Revolutions in Slovakia, Serbia and Georgia", SAIS Review, Summer-Fall 2006. For a good overview see also: Pavol Demes and Joerg Forbrig, ed. Reclaiming Democracy, 2007.

[16] President Saakashvili speaking on the eve of the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008.

[17] Quoted in Barbara Christophe, Metamorphosen des Leviathan in einer postsozialistischen Gesellschaft. Georgiens Provinz zwischen Fassaden der Anarchie und regulativer Allmacht, 2005

[18] Charles King, "Potemkin Democracy: Four Myths about Post-Soviet Georgia", The National Interest, 1 July 2001.  

[19] Paul Manning, "Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia", Cultural Anthropology, Vol 22, 2007, p. 187. 

[20] Miriam Lanskoy and Giorgi Areshidze, "Georgia's Year of Turmoil", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19/4, October 2008, p. 166.

[21] Jonathan Wheatley, Georgia From National Awakening to Rose Revolution, 2005, p. 226

[22] Economist Intelligence Unit, Georgia Country Report, June 2009, p.20. For more on the methodology : One reason for Georgia's low score is the fact that the government's authority does not cover Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, even leaving this factor, which is not under the control of the government, out of consideration Georgia's score would be 5.6: i.e. it would still be a "hybrid regime" like Russia.

[23] ICG, Georgia: Sliding Towards Authoritarianism, December 2007.

[24] New York Times, "Georgia's Future Looks Like More of the Past," 15 November 2007. 

Suggested readings

President Bush's Tbilisi speech can be read here: "Text: Bush's Speech in Georgia," BBC, 10 May 2005.

In "Georgians Embrace Bush, but Expectations Vary for the Presidential Visit to Tbilisi," a EurasiaNet piece published 9 May 2005, Molly Corso captured the sentiment in the streets of Tbilisi – and in Moscow – ahead of Bush's visit.

"Russian media outlets have treated Bush's visit as a slap in the face to Moscow, and some Georgian politicians agree. Timur Grigalishvili, a spokesman for Georgia's governing National Movement Party, said Bush's trip to Georgia will show Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow can no longer treat its southern neighbor like an extension of its own territory. 'With this visit, the president of the United States is announcing that Georgia is a partner of America and a friend of the United States,' Grigalishvili said. 'That has huge meaning.'"

One of the best analyses of Georgian politics is Jonathan Wheatley's 2005 must-read book, Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, it is quite expensive; for excerpts, please go to Google Books. Wheatley's book provides a very good description of the politics of post-Soviet Georgia under Shevardnadze:

"… pluralism in Georgia had little to do with democracy. The pluralism of Shevardnadze's administration was, first and foremost, a pluralism of often incompatible private interests. As such it was an elite phenomenon that had no relationship with ordinary citizens. … Moreover, given that tolerance of graft and corruption was used as a mechanism for control, the incumbents feared that were they to lose elections they would not only lose their power but also their liberty." (p. 134)

Wheatley offers a good analysis of the different pressures that finally produced the revolution in 2003. He also argues that despite many changes brought by Saakashvili's presidency, the new president has still not broken with the illiberal tendencies of his predecessors.

"The crucial question is whether the Rose Revolution, despite replacing Shevardnadze as an individual, can really change the 'system Shevardnadze' that proved so destructive to the Georgian state. Unfortunately it is still too soon to tell whether the old rules of the game will still determine the behavior of the new leadership."

Wheatley concludes:

"Of course the development of democracy takes time and depends to a large extent on society's own capacity to define its own interests and to act in their own defence – a capacity which, as we have observed, remained weak in Georgia. On whether progress is being made in this direction, the jury is still out."

Although his book is indispensable for anyone interested in the details of Georgia's road to the Rose Revolution, there are also other interesting articles by Jonathan Wheatley available online. These include studies on the Armenian minority-inhabited region of Javakheti, "Impeding the Regional Integration of the Javakheti Region of Georgia" (2004); on elections in Georgia: "Democratic Governance in the Former Soviet Union: the Case of Georgia" (2004); on minority issues in Georgia: "The status of minority languages in Georgia and the relevance of models from other European States" (2006). For more, refer to the website of the European Center of Minority Issues (ECMI).

It is useful to see events in Georgia in the context of other "electoral revolutions" which took place between 1996 and 2004. There is now a rich and interesting literature on these velvet or "color" revolutions.

A good collection of articles, "Reclaiming democracy: Civil Society and electoral change in Central and Eastern Europe", edited by Pavol Demes and Joerg Forbrig, is available online. This includes an article by Giorgi Kandelaki and Giorgi Meladze on the role of the Kmara youth movement in the Rose Revolution. Some of the most interesting articles written after events in Georgia include Michael McFaul's "Transitions from Post-communism", Journal of Democracy, July 2005:

"Another remarkable thing about these democratic breakthroughs is how few analysts predicted them. To many it seemed a miracle that Serbian democratic forces could overcome a decade of disunity in order first to beat Milosevic in a presidential election on 24 September 2000, and then to galvanize hundreds of thousands of citizens to demand that the actual election result be honored when it became clear that Milosevic was trying to falsify it. Similarly dramatic events unfolded in Georgia after Shevardnadze tried to steal the November 2003 parliamentary elections, leading to his resignation as president and a landslide victory for opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili in a hastily scheduled January 2004 balloting."

And finally, Valerie Bunce and Sharon L. Wolchik, "Youth and Electoral Revolutions in Slovakia, Serbia, and Georgia", SAIS Review, summer-fall 2006:

"In most of the successful cases, in which authoritarian leaders have been removed from office as the result of electoral revolutions, the model has built on the long-term development and organizational capabilities of civil society … youthful activists brought fresh approaches, new techniques, and a great deal of energy to the campaigns to unseat unpopular and often corrupt authoritarian regimes."

Another interesting article is Paul Manning's "Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Post Socialist Georgia (2007)", in Cultural Anthropology. Manning sees the turning point leading to the Rose Revolution in late 2001:

"In November 2001, Georgian students held large meetings protesting a raid by government forces on the offices of a popular television channel, Rustavi 2, which ended in defeat for the government as the channel broadcast the raid live over the air. Two movements emerged from these protests: the 'National Movement' of the politicians Mikheil Saakashvili (now president of Georgia) and the student movement later to be called Kmara! (Enough)."

His article also discusses the impact that the cartoon series Dardubala, shown from 2000 on Sunday nights on Rustavi 2, had on undermining Shevardandze's image:

"Each week, this motley representation of Georgia in miniature confronts real, possible or purely fantastic problems faced by Georgia, ranging from popular insurrections, economic deficits, and Russian spies to alien invasions, Godzilla-like monsters, genies in bottles, and time machines …. The central joke of each episode is that, in effect, Eduard is always trying to solve a post-socialist problem that is, in one sense of another, his own legacy from the socialist period."

In one episode, which sees Georgia being invaded by aliens, Eduard Shevardnadze proposes to infect the aliens with a secret "corruption virus" that he had developed in the 1960s:

"Then the alien shows that he has become fully Georgianized, that is, corrupt, by announcing a general willingness to accept money …. In the final scene, Shevardnadze, against a backdrop of a destroyed Tbilisi, proclaims to the people of Georgia that he has always believed in the positive value of corruption. He proclaims, 'Corruption will save Georgia.'"

The inventor of the Dardubala series, Shalva Ramishvili, became a critic of the government after the Rose Revolution, and in a new cartoon series showed Saakashvili, among other things, as an oriental sultan. He was arrested in 2005 on corruption charges and sentenced to four years in prison for extortion.

The New York Times article "Georgia's Future Looks Like More of the Past" captured a turning point in the international perception of Georgia in 2007. The article notes:

"When he was elected president of Georgia after a bloodless revolution in 2003, he was deemed a savior for the post-Soviet landscape, as if he had been conjured by a committee of Washington think tanks and European human rights groups. Yet this week, with Georgia under a state of emergency after his government quashed a large demonstration and violently shut an opposition television station, Mr. Saakashvili seemed, even in the eyes of some steadfast supporters, to be ruling with the willfulness of the very autocrats that he once so disdained."

Miriam Lanskoy and Giorgi Areshidze describe a similar change in perception following the war in August 2008 in "Georgia's Year of Turmoil", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 19/4, October 2008

"Saakashvili sees himself as a founding father and great reformer in the vein of authoritarian state builders such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He has portrayed himself as a pivotal figure in Georgian history, comparable to David the Builder, the twelfth century king who is celebrated for uniting Georgian territories and driving out foreign invaders while improving the administration of the state … the many constitutional amendments since 2004, however, have vested the preponderance of power in the executive alone. Thus the laudable achievements of Saakasvhili's state-building program have come at the high price of a super-presidential political system. The government acts unilaterally according to the principle that 'the ends justify the means'."

Finally, in "Democratic Transition in Georgia: Post Rose Revolution Internal Pressures" (Caucasian Review of International Affairs (CRIA), Vol.3 (2) 2009) Jesse David Tatum concludes:

"While Saakashvili has made admirable progress overall, he still retains a surfeit of power detrimental to Georgian democracy."

April 2010

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15 April 2010, 00:00