Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road

Neal Ascherson
14 July 2005

A few revolutions open the way to golden futures. All, without exception, open the path to golden pasts. Georgia's “rose revolution”, which brought young Mikheil (“Misha”) Saakashvili to the presidency eighteen months ago, is doing great things in that respect.

Walking down Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi recently, I found the novelist Dato Turashvili surrounded by uproar in a new shopping mall. He was organising a marathon read of Georgia's medieval epic, The Knight in the Panther Skin by Shota Rustaveli (the avenue is named after him). Applauding shoppers sat in rows as a queue of volunteer children hopped up to the lectern to read their two minutes' worth. Did they understand much of the Old Georgian words? Probably not, but that wasn't the point. This was a rite to celebrate cultural roots.

Further down the avenue, I admired the new hangings over the National Museum door proclaiming: Colchis, Land of the Golden Fleece. The latest finds of dazzling Iron Age gold ornament, from royal tombs at Vani, were on display. And inside I found that the two little hominid skulls from Dmanisi, some 1.8 million years old, had been promoted in every sense. A huge poster behind them announces: Georgia, Cradle of First Europeans. Their faces, modelled from the skulls by a French artist, now have names: Zezva and Mzia. They also have a new taxonomic title – Homo Georgeous (sic).

Also in openDemocracy on Georgia’s “rose revolution” and its aftermath, see our “Caucasus: regional fractures” debate. Among the highlights:

George Hewitt, “Sakartvelo: roots of turmoil” (November 2003)

Alexander Rondeli, “Georgia: a rough road from the ‘rose revolution’ “ (December 2003)

Nino Nanava, “Mikhail Saakashvili: new romantic or modern realist?” (December 2003)

Sabine Freizer, “The pillars of Georgia’s political transition” (February 2004)

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The past, in short, is still thriving on the freedom it gained in 2003. The future is looking less happy. The initial surge of joyous, patriotic confidence is gone, and so is the passion for Misha, who at first seemed to do nothing wrong. Instead, the capital is twitching with rumours, some plausible and others total phantasms, but all alarming. After the revolution of roses, the mood of unity and purpose suggested a Georgia which could stand up to any of its neighbours – even, at the diplomatic level, to Russia. The programmes for economic reform and the war on corruption would be hard but they could be won. But now, for the first time, things feel fragile.

A spreading mistrust

Take the absurd, yet sinister events on 30 June 2005. Three notorious Georgian all-in wrestlers, accused of extorting thousands of dollars, were refused bail when they appealed to the supreme court. Their supporters smashed up the courtroom furniture and then poured out to block the main avenue outside parliament. Some opposition MPs joined them. There were yells about “dictatorship”.

Then heavily-armed special police rushed up and began to club and arrest the demonstrators. In parliament itself, opposition members punched government supporters and rolled about the aisles. A Caucasian farce? But nobody laughed, and many people shivered to see how easily political violence had foamed back across the streets of Tbilisi.

A Georgian said to me: “Look, it's not really about reform programmes. It's about state survival!” On the surface, this seems exaggerated. After all, some things have gone well. In Tbilisi, at least, the winter passed without serious power cuts: there was heating and light. Some of the worst monsters of state and private corruption have been arrested. Police pay and conditions have been improved – an essential anti-corruption measure – and a start has been made on giving Georgia a modern planning and banking infrastructure.

An ambitious educational reform is going ahead, designed to remove unqualified teachers (but also purging perfectly good lecturers who had no chance to qualify). The 250,000 refugees who fled Abkhazia after the 1993 independence war are at last being offered permanent housing (they spent ten years fermenting their hatred in camps or derelict slums). There are funds in the treasury now, and more to come from oil transit royalties as Caspian oil crosses Georgia by pipeline on its way from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey.

There have been political successes too. In May 2004, Saakashvili regained control of the semi-seceded Adzharia region without firing a shot. Only a month ago, Georgia and Russia agreed on terms for the removal of Russia's last two bases on Georgian soil – “the end of 200 years of Russian military occupation”, boasted the defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili. Conversations about a Georgian approach to Nato and (an even more distant prospect) to the European Union have at least produced friendly western oratory and many visits to Tbilisi.

Postscript (21 July 2005): Bush grenade suspect seized

Ten weeks after the grenade was thrown at President Bush on 10 May, Georgian police finally arrested a 27-year old man – an ethnic Armenian called Vladimir Arutyunian - on the outskirts of Tbilisi on 20 July. The arrest followed a gun battle and house siege, in which one policeman was killed and another wounded. Arutyunian was also wounded, but escaped into a wood where he was captured by anti-terrorist detectives.

Above all, Mikhail Saakashvili has snatched the imagination of the White House. The ecstatic state visit of President George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice in May scored two superlatives. It gathered the biggest crowd ever seen in living Georgian memory, to greet the president in the huge square at the end of Rustaveli Avenue. This provided Bush with the biggest, warmest welcome he has ever received in a foreign country. (It's true that somebody chucked a grenade at him, but it didn't go off. Although the grenade was thrown a dozen metres from the president, in a crowd scanned by a dozen film cameras, nobody has been arrested. Odd, that.)

And yet 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, 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 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. This will not be allayed by Misha’s long-trailed replacement of the mayor of Tbilisi, Zurab Chiaberashvili, on 12 July, by Gigi Ugulava, civil-society activist and former leader of the Kmara! youth movement that was central to the “rose revolution”.

Inevitably, everyone knows for a fact that Zurab Zhvania was murdered – by gay bandits, by jealous colleagues, by Russian agents or by “Zviadists” (fanatical nationalists loyal to the memory of the late, mad president, Zviad Gamzakhurdia, who pitched Georgia into civil war in the early 1990s). More probably, he was killed by fumes from Georgian central heating, but that's too boring to believe.

Sakartvelo not at ease

On Rustaveli, there is a poster showing a beaming crowd in assorted folk outfits. It's labelled (in English and Russian as well as Georgian) Celebrating Georgia's Diversity. But at present, people feel too aware of Georgia's ethnic diversity to celebrate it. National self-confidence has sagged, and there's a suspicion that the non-Georgian minorities are threatening the state with disintegration.

Once, the guidebooks spoke of 5.3 million people of whom almost 80% were Georgian. Today, the population figure you hear in conversation is nearer 4 million, and the Georgians are alleged to form only 69% of it. In the civil wars and economic collapse of the 1990s, maybe half a million Georgians left the country, especially from Tbilisi. So far, in spite of the rose revolution, they have not come back.

It's difficult to know the truth about such figures. Georgia has effectively lost Abkhazia, which has been de facto independent for over ten years. South Ossetia is much smaller but still defying Tbilisi's control. But the focus now is on two other regions: Kvemo Kartli, with a majority population of some 300,000 Azerbaijanis, and Samstkhe-Javakheti with a population of over 90,000 Armenians.

Few in either minority speak Georgian. The Azeris, relatively “quiet”, are Muslims of highly conservative practice; almost all girls must leave school at 13 to marry. Among the Armenian minority, in contrast, discontent is reaching boiling point. There is atrocious poverty and unemployment is around 80%. The current crisis in the region is over electricity bills, where an American-led power company has tried to extort payment by cutting off whole blocks and streets if one household defaults. “Let them live in darkness until they start paying for the electricity they use!”

There have been riots, and the (Georgian) governor has threatened to call in troops. Meanwhile, the Armenians accuse the Georgians, rightly or wrongly, of seizing Armenian churches for the Georgian patriarchate. Worse still, the minorities are discovering that the higher-education reforms are setting a tough examination in Georgian language and literature as condition for university entrance. This is all ominous news. In the Caucasus, situations like this eventually blow up.

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

“From multiculturalism to where?” (August 2004)

“Pope John Paul II and democracy” (April 2005)

And everyone seems to carry a gun. This has been true since the 1990s, but there have been times when it was less obvious. My best Tbilisi friends' car has a bullet-hole in the windscreen. They parked the car outside a theatre some weeks ago, and when they returned, they found the hole and a bullet stuck in the driver's seat. Then, the night before I left, their pretty daughter Tamara went to a birthday party in a restaurant. A man at the next table came over and asked her to dance. When she refused, he pulled a gun. When she refused again, he fired four rounds into the ceiling. When Tamara (being Georgian) still refused, he shrugged and marched off, stuffing the pistol back into his waistband. Nobody seems to have sent for the police. One doesn't.

This is a taut period in Georgia. But the big hope which pulled Mikhail Saakashvili to power is not yet extinct. 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.

The answer is not just foreign money and protection. The Georgians themselves must make peace around and within their borders and that means, above all, a “land for peace” deal which recognises the fact of Abkhazia's independence. And, secondly, they must cherish the small democratic opposition which dares to criticise the charming, erratic president and his slapdash handling of power. Those who work in television, for example, say that restrictions on reporting have become tighter than they were under the Eduard Shevardnadze regime which Misha overthrew. Only the Georgians, in other words, can save their revolution.


Further Links:

Institute for War and Peace Reporting


Radio Free Europe - Caucasus Report


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