20 years after the Rose Revolution in Georgia

November 23 marks the twentieth anniversary of Georgia’s Rose Revolution, a landmark event in Georgia’s modern history. On the 20th anniversary of the Rose Revolution, its legacy remains controversial given its importance to current Georgian politics and, more broadly, the impact of “color revolutions” on what Russia calls its “near abroad.” On the one hand, Georgia made a phenomenal leap forward between 2004 and 2012. On the other hand, many of the avoidable mistakes made by the young leaders of the Rose Revolution still haunt the country today.

“He who controls the past controls the future,” is George Orwell’s famous line from his prophetic “1984.” This novel has become a playbook for the battle for the past that has been raging in Georgia since 2012, when Georgian Dream (GD), a political conglomerate founded by Russian-born billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, won parliamentary elections. It was the first (and so far last) time in the history of modern Georgia that power changed hands through democratic elections. The Peaceful The orderly transfer of power was one of the most important legacies of Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM). This presented Georgia with a unique opportunity to move forward and address the problems that had led to the fall of Saakashvili’s government. Instead, The Winners – the GD party still in power – immediately went down the path of political persecution of their predecessors, freeing Russian spies from prisons as “political prisoners” (and have found none since). It unleashed organized mob violence against opponents and minorities (February 8 and May 17, 2013 were just the first examples of action by such proxy groups), embarked on a journey of historical revisionism, and seized power in all local self-governments a A series of violent attacks occurred in the following months.

The world welcomed Georgia’s democratic transition and was visibly pleased with the fall of the Saakashvili government (long out of favor in Western capitals). Since then, the GD propaganda machine has continuously attacked Georgia’s recent past, referring to the period after the Rose Revolution as the “Bloody Nine Years.”

“We inherited a country that has been destroyed and literally ruined,” Prime Minister Gharibashvili repeated, insulting the intelligence of anyone even remotely familiar with Georgia in 2003 compared to Georgia in 2012. It is indeed worth remembering what life was like in this small but proud country before the Rose Revolution:

In 2003, Georgia was a failed state riddled with endemic corruption. The Shevardnadze government could not even pay the minuscule salaries of its civil servants. The monthly pensions amounted to around 8 euros and remained unpaid for months or even years. The Kremlin appointed or vetted key government ministers (including the ministers of defense, state security, and interior).

The country was a haven for organized crime bosses. It was operated, among other things, by crime syndicates who worked hand in hand with those they were supposed to hunt – i.e. the police and the state security service. Parts of Georgia (e.g. Svaneti and Pankisi) were lawless areas. Others, such as Ajara and Javakheti, were de facto independent (Ajara was administered as a fiefdom by a strongman reporting directly to Moscow, while Javakheti was ruled by local clans, protected by the Russian military base stationed at Akhalkalaki). Kidnappings for ransom were commonplace. Foreign businessmen and scores of Georgians were routinely kidnapped in broad daylight. Many were killed. Among those kidnapped and killed was a brother of the current mayor of Tbilisi, a former AC Millan player, Kakha Kaladze. Police brutality and frequent killings of inmates did not lead to street protests because it was seen as an insurmountable reality.

Power outages were common, and despite Georgia’s enormous hydroelectric potential (notably, Georgia became a net energy exporter shortly after the Rose Revolution), there were only a few hours of electricity per day. Critical infrastructure was dilapidated. The journey from Zugdidi to Mestia took five hours, a distance of only 135 kilometers. The only remaining international airport was hopelessly outdated. Post-Soviet legislation, coupled with a massive, incompetent bureaucracy, made economic progress nearly impossible.

All of this changed within the first two years of the Rose Revolution. Georgia soon became one of the least corrupt and safest countries in the world. Corruption was eradicated from the education system and nationwide school aptitude tests were introduced, opening up new opportunities for previously disadvantaged youth and minority and regional groups. Only 6 out of 27 taxes remained in place, while about 90% of existing licenses and permits were abolished (thereby eliminating areas of potential corruption and shocking formerly privileged social groups). Georgia’s public services were among the most efficient in the region, adopting a one-stop/single-window approach to registering companies, paying taxes, clearing goods through customs, and issuing passports, identity cards, construction permits and licenses a. Despite the Russian energy blockade, the Russian trade embargo (as a result of an espionage scandal), the open Russian invasion in 2008, and the global financial crisis, the Georgian economy grew at an average annual rate of just under 7% between 2004 and 2012. This fundamentally transformed the country, allowing the development of new infrastructure, the renovation of cities and heritage sites, and an increase in salaries and pensions. As a result of these reforms, the World Bank recognized Georgia as a world leader in reform for the five-year period from 2006 to 2011.

However, towards the end of Saakashvili’s second term, certain authoritarian tendencies began to creep in. Dependence on the judiciary remained a problem. The situation in prisons was anything but acceptable, while the media and business complained about unfair treatment. All of these issues were legitimate and needed to be addressed. Many Georgians, including the post-Rose Revolution generation, had grown up in a Georgia free of crime and corruption and were now ready to move on.

In 2012, the world was still under the illusion that Putin’s Russia was a strategic partner and not an enemy. The West preferred to believe that a resurgent empire that had committed numerous acts of state terrorism (apartment bombings, Litvinenko, Yandarbiyev) could be tamed through engagement. NATO and the EU were guided by the belief that “history is over,” as Francis Fukuyama poetically put it after the end of the Cold War. The Russia reset policy flourished against all logic. “Democratic naivety” – a politics of appeasing and empowering anti-Western regimes that sought to destroy the post-Cold War world order, a politics of naively looking the other way and pretending not to see the obvious – was the prevailing mood in key Western capitals.

Today Georgia is a conquered state. Numerous reputable international sources claim that Ivanishvili, whose wealth accounts for about a third of Georgia’s GDP, has captured the state and made a mockery of democratic institutions. He has carefully selected previously unknown people without political biographies and placed them in positions of power, often for him personal loyalty being the only factor in such appointments. Prime Minister Gharibashvili, implicated in corruption scandals that would bring down any democratic government (such as using the government aircraft to fly his family members on private tours and transferring valuable state property to his wife), is Ivanishvili’s former personal assistant. The Georgian Minister of Health was formerly Ivanishvili’s family doctor. Another health minister during the pandemic was Ms. Ivanishvili’s private dentist (which may explain Georgia’s catastrophic death toll during the pandemic, which was among the highest per capita in the world). The Interior Minister is his former personal bodyguard. A former prime minister and a former economy minister both worked in Ivanishvili’s family-run bank. For the first time in its history, Georgia has a sanctioned judiciary. In April 2023, the US State Department imposed sanctions on four senior Georgian judges for political corruption and undermining the country’s judicial system. Russia’s subversive influence is becoming increasingly obvious.

Former President Saakashvili, the engine of the Rose Revolution, remains imprisoned, in part because he exercised sole authority to pardon prisoners while in office. In March 2023, GD attempted to pass a foreign agents law (a so-called “Russian law”) that would have openly sabotaged Georgia’s EU integration process, but failed due to massive youth protests. The GD government continues to receive praise from senior Russian officials for “bravely withstanding pressure from the West.” In parallel, GD leaders continue to claim that a “global war party” is trying to “draw Georgia to war” and “open a second war.” “Front” against Russia (despite statements from Western diplomats that such messages appear to come straight from the “KGB playbook”). In particular, the US recently sanctioned Otar Partskhaladze, a former chief prosecutor and close friend of the Ivanishvili family, identifying him as a powerful FSB agent working to strengthen Russian influence in Georgia. In response, the DG government publicly demanded evidence from the US. At the same time, the National Bank immediately changed banking regulations to protect Partskhaladze, which resulted in three deputy chairmen of the National Bank resigning. Organized violent mobs continue to roam the country with impunity, attacking vulnerable and minority groups, while an orchestrated anti-Western disinformation campaign creates a threatening backdrop to these alarming trends.

Despite this situation, the future prospects may still be bright. My optimism is rooted in the unprecedented determination of Georgians to defend their freedom, to demonstrate their natural adherence to democratic values ​​and to maintain this course until Georgia’s full integration into the EU. The will of the young Georgians born and raised after the Rose Revolution is obvious.

On November 9, the European Commission recognized this historic task and recommended that the European Council extend the brotherly hand of Europe to the Georgian people. Georgians have waited for centuries for this door to open. Twenty years ago, on November 23rd, we took a giant step forward to transform our country and reclaim our future. We must carefully navigate the rough seas ahead to reunite Georgia with its long-lost European family of states on the basis of shared values ​​and a common vision for the future.