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Looking Back at the Rose Revolution

This book leaves the reader with the unsettling feeling that Georgia, once again, is a one-man show. From EurasiaNet. by Alex van Oss 5 January 2010

Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution, by Lincoln Mitchell. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

In 1905, the Tbilisi painter Niko Pirosmani supposedly bought a million roses for a visiting French dancer he admired. A century later the Georgian capital witnessed another flowery belle geste when thousands of rose-bearing, peaceful demonstrators swept President Eduard Shevardnadze from power.

Uncertain Democracy provides a cool assessment of those heady days of 2003, to which Lincoln Mitchell was an eyewitness. He likens the events in Tbilisi to a kind of “Rorschach Revolution.” In it, the United States mistakenly perceived Georgia as a budding mini-America. Europe viewed it (with some alarm) as being yet another potential member of the EU club. Georgians, elated, thought the Rose Revolution augured peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, the Russians saw evidence of foreign mischief.

Mitchell dismisses as nonsense claims that the Rose Revolution was cooked up by the West. True, the U.S. ambassador, John Tefft (now Washington’s envoy to Ukraine), did call it an example of President George W. Bush’s democracy agenda and policy of “transformational democracy.” But in Mitchell’s view the United States played but an indirect role: in actual fact the Rose Revolution bloomed on the bush of Georgian domestic politics, was watered by Shevardnadze’s unpopularity, and fertilized by his government’s attempts to steal elections.

And there was action by non-governmental organizations, groups including the National Democratic Institute (Mitchell’s employer at the time), National Republican Institute, the Eurasia Foundation, the Open Society Institute (OSI), and others. Mitchell staunchly defends their efforts: It was not a plot, he argues, to inform a public that was ignorant of polling or vote monitoring techniques. But if not a plot, democracy assistance, largely American-funded, was certainly multi-faceted and involved with everything from women’s issues to exit-polling.

Mitchell scrutinizes the actions of OSI and the Open Society Georgia Foundation, the Tbilisi-based OSI affiliate. (EurasiaNet publishes under OSI’s auspices.) Mitchell describes how OSI paid for young Georgian opposition figures (the founders of the radical movement Kmara) to travel abroad for training in what amounts to community organization. On their trips, young Georgian activists came into contact with their counterparts belonging to the Serbian group Otpor. On such trips, Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania, and other future Georgian political leaders studied the techniques by which Slobodan Milosevic had been ousted in 2000. In 2003, the Kmara activists applied those lessons learned during the Rose Revolution.

The Russian press accused OSI of political meddling and (perhaps coincidentally) a private security agency raided and sacked OSI’s Moscow office during the same month as the Rose Revolution. Mitchell does not discuss the Eurasia Foundation, another major funder of efforts to support Georgia media, election coverage, and exit-polling projects.

Mitchell says the Rose Revolution caught America by surprise at a time when it was sending aid to Georgia while also supporting a range of opposition figures. These young people benefited from round-table discussions, educational exchange programs, and study tours to the United States and Europe.

The United States tried to foster among Georgian politicians a “loyal opposition” (an institution which, incidentally, had taken centuries to emerge in Western Europe, and only after many wars and revolutions) – but was unsuccessful. And so America settled for the next best thing: cultivation of a new generation of leadership – which is exactly what the Rose Revolution did usher in.

Mitchell details the intricacies of Georgian politics and elections, and he dispels popular Rose Revolution mythology about huge demonstrations and pure motives. He doesn’t say much, alas, about the atmosphere, the mood in the street. Nor does Mitchell cover what was apparently the considerable influence on Kmara of writers, such as Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Gene Sharp, of the Albert Einstein Institution, whose pamphlet on tactical non-violence From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation was downloaded from the Internet and widely distributed in Georgia prior to Shevardnadze’s downfall.


One of those who absorbed Sharp’s ideas was the social scientist Irakli Kakabadze, now teaching at Columbia University. In an interview, Kakabadze told me that he personally gave Sharp’s document to Zurab Zhvania, who studied it intently during the incendiary times when Tbilisi citizens realized the degree of fraud involved in the 2003 parliamentary elections. Kakabadze says crowds of up to 40,000 gathered daily in Tbilisi’s Liberty Square, whereupon Zhvania (taking a cue from Sharp) organized a peaceful surrounding and picketing of the Georgian parliament building.

As for the roses: that idea, says Kakabadze, came from 1960s photographs of American antiwar protesters inserting flowers into the rifles of National Guardsmen. “We addressed Abkhazians this way,” Kakabadze says: “We said we are not against you – and threw roses at them. Later, Zvania and Saakashvili bought 10,000 roses and gave them to the Georgian army.” The demonstrators then went home peacefully. Another crowd, again armed with roses, chased Shevardnadze out of the parliament. One hopes that this exuberant aspect of the Rose Revolution will be more thoroughly researched in the future.

Mitchell feels that Georgians today resort too quickly to months-long street demonstrations and inflated rhetoric. (Actually, Georgian politics has always been lively, and protests were a part of the Tbilisi scene, to a limited degree, even during Soviet times.) Now, Mitchell argues, Georgians need to simmer down and work hard to consolidate civil structures and improve relations with their neighbors.

While Mitchell is genuinely sympathetic to Georgia, he has little patience for the ongoing David-versus-Goliath “narrative” with which Georgia woos U.S. policymakers. Mitchell is skeptical about the political intentions of Mikheil Saakashvili (whose endorsement of the book, nevertheless, appears on its back cover), and he questions the received wisdom that Georgia possesses unique strategic value, is a poster-boy for democracy, or even that it is, ipso facto, a Western nation.

Mitchell worries that America got suckered into an excessively “personal” relationship with Georgian officials, and that this led, ironically, to misperceptions about American intentions and capabilities in the event of a Georgian-Russian conflict. Now is the time, he asserts, for the United States to concentrate on its fundamental interests in the region. Mitchell doubts that democratization is currently a top priority of the Georgian government, and says that it needs to keep its hands off the media, encourage free debate, and re-balance power between the legislature and the executive. (Steps, or at least promises of steps, in these areas have been taken.)

After the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili secured the presidency with an astonishing 96 percent of the vote, and by last count he retained a 68-percent approval rating. By all accounts he remains as charismatic, mercurial, and ambitious as ever. While Lincoln Mitchell has called Saakashvili a lame duck president (his presidential term ends in 2013), it is doubtful that he will act like one. Uncertain Democracy leaves the reader with the unsettling feeling that Georgia, once again, is a one-man show – something no democracy can afford to be.

This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.


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