Georgia: a rough road from the rose revolution

Alexander Rondeli
4 December 2003

The dignified political transition in the south Caucasian republic of Georgia brings hope to its people. But, says one of Tbilisi’s most influential analysts, even harder challenges – of good governance, internal unity, and improved relations with its Russian neighbour – lie ahead.

The November 2003 events in Georgia – from fraudulent election results, the mass protest of its people, to the resignation of its president, Eduard Shevardnadze – have been extensively covered and analysed by news media across the world, including several articles in openDemocracy.

From within Georgia itself, these events vividly reveal three elements of the country’s current political condition: the extreme weakness of the patronage system which Shevardnadze operated; fundamental internal problems of weak and fragile statehood; and the fact that the country’s population has accumulated significant democratic potential. Many people in Georgia have democratic values – the dignity and peacefulness of the whole transfer of power confirm that.

Read in our forums the moving email correspondence about Georgia’s political transition between Wendell Steavenson, acclaimed author of Stories I Stole and openDemocracy columnist, and her friend Lela Gabunia.

These events also confirm once more the fact that Russia, the country’s largest neighbour, wants to maintain its presence in Georgia – so much so, that it is ready to ignore any international norms and rules of behaviour, even in the immediate aftermath of what has been called the “rose revolution”. This behaviour includes the hosting of a gathering in Moscow of leaders of areas seeking separation from Georgia; this cannot be described as a friendly, constructive and “good neighbour” policy.

It is becoming evident that after transferring Georgia’s energy sector to Russia’s state energy giants (Gazprom and RAO-EES), Georgia’s leadership – more precisely, the clan of Shevardnadze – could no longer depend on the full support of the United States. The massive fraud in the unfair parliamentary elections of 2 November meant that Shevardnadze and his cronies had further squandered their reputation in the west.

In these circumstances, the regime in Tbilisi saw Russia as representing the only possible instrument of its survival. But the Russian leadership itself tried to seize the moment, solving its own “Georgian equation” by exploiting the regime’s weakness to secure further concessions from Shevardnadze and establish strategic control over Georgia.

In the perspective of the last, troubled decade, Russia’s long-standing strategic and security ambition to dominate Georgia was never closer to success than in the recent period. This is indicated by the arrival after midnight in Tbilisi of the country’s foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, with dozens of Russian special operations forces. Was this really an attempt at “mediation”? What was its real purpose? Moreover, the way the Russian leadership and its mass media has commented on the peaceful revolution in Georgia reveals that Russia is far from happy about the outcome of the November events.

What the people expect of their leaders

Russia’s indignation with the expected pro-western orientation of Georgia’s new leadership is only one of the problems the latter will face. There are also extremely serious internal problems to contend with. The political leaders who are coming to power in Georgia, even in advance of the presidential elections on 4 January 2004, are people who have no experience of Soviet-style governance. They are democratically-minded and western-oriented, and it is likely that they will be supported by the majority of the Georgian people in their efforts to bring positive changes.

What is fascinating and refreshing about the Georgian political conjuncture is that the people themselves suddenly became the most important actors on the country’s political stage. Despite the overall disillusionment and nihilism that reigned during the last four-to-five years of Shevardnadze’s rule, the rosy revolution has brought a certain hope and even quite high expectations. If they are to match these, the new leadership of Georgia will have to be very careful in designing and implementing its economic and social policies.

There is one overriding need: good governance, something Georgia desperately lacks and which the previous regime failed completely to provide.

The new leadership also has to demonstrate to the non-Georgian people of this country that it considers them to be respected citizens in their own right, and that any ethnic or religious discrimination will not be tolerated. A leadership that both delivers this positive message and confirms its reality will be recognised and appreciated even in the separatist regions of Georgia.

The people in these regions, like all the people of Georgia, expect the same things from their government: fair elections, order, dynamism in economic life, evidence of real progress that is felt by the people in their daily lives. It is clear that many positive changes cannot be achieved quickly; but an impoverished and disillusioned population does expect actions and results, not mere declarations and promises.

What Georgia expects of its allies

Thus, Georgia’s November revolution will have reverberations both within and beyond the country’s borders. The effect on the countries in the region that belong to the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) will be interesting. In some of these countries, fear at the upper echelons of power has already become evident. Georgia has sent a message that democratic change in this post-Soviet space is still on the agenda and that authoritarian tendencies are not as omnipotent as sometimes appears.

What can be expected in Georgia’s immediately surrounding region, the southern Caucasus? The United States has embraced the changes in Georgia. The young and reform-minded leadership in Tbilisi presents a clear opportunity for the US to support democracy and a fresh culture of governance that could even be a potential model for future change in other post-Soviet societies.

Georgia aspires to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). This makes for a closer relationship with Turkey, and entails that this western neighbour will be regarded even more as a strategic partner.

The three southern Caucasian countries – Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – have developed their own, distinct political subcultures. The November revolution in Georgia has made that diversity even more evident. Nevertheless, Georgian-Azeri relations will continue to be friendly, and both countries will enjoy a strategic partnership based on their common economic and strategic interests.

Georgian-Armenian relations will also remain friendly, especially if Yerevan remains responsive to Georgia’s sensitivity towards the situation in the Armenian-populated enclave of Dzhavaketi in southern Georgia.

As so often in Georgian history and politics, relations with Russia present the most complex dimension. In brief, the future will depend largely on Russia’s attitude and actions toward Georgia. No Georgian politician of even minimal patriotism will welcome an imperial approach. Now is the moment, rather, for the Russian leadership to show respect for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The evidence is not altogether promising. Both in the energy sector and in regions of Georgia where Russia commands influence the likelihood of Russia using its leverage over a small and weak neighbour remains high.

Russia’s influence is significant in an especially serious problem for any Georgian government, that of internal unity and cohesion. Two provinces of Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) remain out of the central government’s jurisdiction and under Russia’s military control. Moreover, the south-west province of Adzharia is ruled by a local “Papa Doc” character, Aslan Abashidze. There, the local ruler’s clan has created serious problems for Tbilisi, and Russia has skilfully exploited them. Russia will not easily let go of its “Adzharian card”.

In short, a younger generation of Georgian leaders confronts very grave dilemmas that can only be resolved with the solidarity and active support of leading democratic states. The “rose revolution” leaves Georgia with significant challenges that are far from easy – and not at all velvet.

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