Back Promises of the Rose Revolution - Next 
Demonstration at the Mayor's Office, Freedom Square, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2003.
Photo: Government of Georgia

In November 2003, Georgia's long-time ruler, president Eduard Shevardnadze, was pushed to resign following weeks of non-violent protests in the streets of Tbilisi. On 4 January 2004, the lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president with 96 percent of the vote. He was 37 at the time; all of his most trusted associates and ministers – the interior minister, chief prosecutor, minister of defence – were also in their thirties. Mikheil Saakashvili had studied in France and at Columbia University in the US. Six of the 20 ministers in his first government had previously worked for NGOs supported by Western funding in Georgia.[11] They saw themselves promoting a generational change project – even a cultural revolution. Under Saakashvili's leadership, they set out to push through a series of radical reforms, first concentrating power in the hands of the executive, and then using their revolutionary mandate to transform their country.

The Rose Revolution raised many expectations, in Georgia and abroad. It was two promises in particular that excited its supporters.

First, there was the promise of a democratic breakthrough: an end to the electoral manipulation that had marked the Shevardnadze era, a serious fight against the all-pervasive corruption eating away at Georgia's democracy, and an end to the ineffectiveness of many core state institutions, from the police to the tax authorities. Until 2004, Georgia's elections had been deeply flawed. Georgia was listed in international indexes among the most corrupt countries in the world, and public trust in institutions such as the police was at rock bottom. All this was to change, as Mikheil Saakashvili explained in a speech in early 2004:

"For anyone who ever thought, or hoped, that Georgia was a failed State, our Revolution and our people, proved them forever wrong … The second lesson of the Rose Revolution is that Georgians have become full members of Europe and the European family. In reflecting on this point, I am not simply looking to geography, but rather, to national identity … our Revolution was about people fighting for their freedom and their desire to live in a democratic society. A society that respects human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law and the belief that citizens and citizens alone, have the right to choose their leaders and their destiny … I am the President of democracy!"[12]

Freedom Square
Freedom square. The design features the Georgian flag and a rose,
presumably for the rose revolution. Photo: flickr/ritingon

Second, there was the promise of state-building: restoring Georgian sovereignty over its whole territory. There were areas where real control had shifted to local strongmen, such as the region of Adjara bordering Turkey and the Black Sea. The greatest challenge, of course, was reintegrating the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Abkhaz and Ossetian leaders had declared independence in the early 1990s. This too was something the new leadership promised would be achieved within one term of office.

These were ambitious objectives. But Georgia's new leaders were nothing if not bold in their vision – convinced that their small nation could defy its history and geography and become a prosperous European democracy. If there were doubtful voices, they were barely heard in the groundswell of optimism.


[11] Jonathan Wheatley, Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution, Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union, Ashgate, 2005, p. 200

Suggested readings

For reliable and insightful journalistic accounts of the Rose Revolution there are a large number of excellent articles on Of these we recommend: Georgia: President Shevardnadze Resigns (2003); Tbilisi Revels After Shevardnadze's Resignation (2003); Provisional Authorities in Georgia Grapple with Centrifugal Political Forces (2003).

The OpenDemocracy website also has a number of good articles on the Rose Revolution and its aftermath. For more on Georgia, please see the OpenDemocracy Caucasus Debate.

Lincoln Mitchell lived in Georgia prior to the Rose Revolution, working for the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Tbilisi. His years of experience resulted in a book published in 2008. Uncertain Democracy is essential reading for anyone interested in the story of the Rose Revolution. Mitchell – currently a leading Georgia expert at Columbia University in New York – debunks some common myths, pointing out, for instance, that far from having been a "US project", the Rose Revolution was a home grown phenomenon. "Until the summer and fall of 2003, there was no consensus on the American and European side that Saakashvili was the best choice to lead Georgia," he points out. Of the Revolution itself, he writes:

"The demonstrations began on November 5 and continued until Shevardnadze resigned on November 23. These two weeks have become the founding myth of the Rose Revolution … the popular understanding of the Rose Revolution is that it looked something like Ukraine's Orange Revolution, with hundreds of thousands of people coming to the streets in support of a unified opposition. This is to a great extent the narrative the Georgian government has encouraged. Saakashvili, for example, wrote in a 2004 opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune that 'hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens … took to the streets,' and referred to 'three weeks of massive demonstrations'. The Tbilisi demonstrations in November 2003 were in fact significantly smaller than this." (p. 63)

At the same time, Mitchell is critical of the Bush administration for assuming, after 2003, that Georgia had become a consolidated democracy overnight, a view challenged by the declaration of a state of emergency in late 2007.

"The events of November 2007 were a wake-up call for many policy makers and observers, but given all the problems of Georgian democracy between 2004 and 2007, it is puzzling why anybody was still asleep." (p. 129)

And he warns:

"If democracy in Georgia fails, Georgia will return to being a semi-democratic, semi failed post-Soviet state about which nobody in the US or Europe will care a great deal, albeit one through which several energy pipelines pass … Georgia's ongoing strategic value to the US is dependent on the growth and consolidation of Georgian democracy." (p. 136)

For a shorter analysis, see Mitchell's "Georgia's Rose Revolution" (2004), originally published in Current History – Russia and Eurasia, Vol. 103.

Early articles on the revolution also include Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr.'s "Georgia's Rose Revolution", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 15 (2) 2004. Fairbanks worked with the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Georgia to monitor the 2003 elections. He captures the mood of the time, when most outsiders expected Georgia to have made a decisive turn towards democracy. Fairbanks also looks at the role of the US before and during the fraudulent 2003 elections:

"The United States was in the throes of its most consistent and serious attempt ever in any ex-Soviet republic to secure free and fair balloting and ensure the effectuality of the people's verdict. The U.S. Agency for International Development spent US$1.5 million to computerize Georgia's messy voter rolls. The U.S. and European governments also gave OSCE money to deploy an unprecedented number of foreign election observers.

At the same time, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute gave a Georgian NGO known as Fair Elections enough money to field thousands of domestic monitors and conduct a parallel vote tabulation – one of the most effective tools for establishing prima facie evidence of large-scale election fraud. Other Georgian and foreign NGOs also monitored the elections and conducted exit polls."

And then there is Georgetown University Caucasus expert Charles King, author of the excellent The Ghost of Freedom – A History of the Caucasus. In "A Rose among Thorns – Georgia Makes Good", an article published in a 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs, King writes:

"Saakashvili has a chance to change Shevardnadze's dismal legacy. But that will require statesmanship in the purest sense of the word, including articulating a clear case for why residents of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and any other part of the country should think of their future as lying within a state controlled by Tbilisi."

An article on Georgia in 2005 by Neal Ascherson "Tbilisi, Georgia: the Rose Revolution's rocky road" raises some of the early criticisms to Saakashvili's style of governing:

" … there is this growing nervousness, this spreading mistrust. It's hard to source it precisely. But two things have contributed heavily. One was Misha's disastrous grab at the secessionist South Ossetia region a year ago [summer 2004], which ended in failure and some dozen deaths. This dissipated all the "machismo" capital he had won by defying Russian threats and repossessing Adzharia three months earlier. The other was the death in February [2005] of the prime minister, Zurab Zhvania, found dead with a friend in a Tbilisi apartment. Zhvania, an older man with more government experience, was felt to be the essential realist who kept the mercurial Misha's feet on the ground, and there is anxiety about how Saakashvili will handle crises without him.

Grafting a capitalist infrastructure into a desperately poor and corrupt country, whose very unity is fragile, was always going to be slow. Things are starting to change, but as they do, the gap between glittering cities and dark villages – places where parents dream that their children might one day learn to tell the time and count coinage – grows wider."

Giorgi Kandelaki was one of the leading activists in the Kmara youth movement that participated in the Rose Revolution and is currently represented in the Georgian parliament. In 2006 Kandelaki wrote "Georgia's Rose Revolution, A Participant's Perspective", an article published by the United States Institute of Peace.

Finally, to get a sense of the vision set out by Mikheil Saakasvhili in early 2004, it is best to read some of his early speeches. In a speech delivered at John Hopkins University on 4 February 2004, Saakashvili presented Georgia as a model for the region:

"As Georgia succeeds in strengthening its governance, in establishing a model of good governance we have the ability to bring positive change to an entire region. Not through exporting revolution because revolutions don't work that way. But rather, by providing an example of democracy and stability. Prosperity and respect for human dignity are quite possible in this region of the world, in that interconnected space linking Europe with the Middle East. When Georgia succeeds, the region succeeds."

President Saakashvili's annual address to the Parliament in February 2005 proudly looks back at a year of achievements and at the many challenges that remained:

"We have to improve power supply by next winter, which at present is the biggest failure of our government. Tbilisi and Batumi are supplied with electricity 24 hours a day, but in the rest of Georgia there are problems almost everywhere. This is where investments have to be made and this is what we need the money for. In health care, we urgently need money to build new hospitals, because we are losing our medicine, which is effectively on the verge of ruin. In education, we are building new schools. … As regards defense capabilities, the country should no longer be a pushover. All of this costs money and this money is not going to come easily. Georgia has no oil, Georgia's main asset is its people and this asset should start working, people should start working in enterprises and these enterprises should have real owners. This is what privatization is about."

All of Saakashvili's speeches since February 2004 are available in English on the president's website:

April 2010

 Back Promises of the Rose Revolution - Next