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Georgia's "Rose Revolution"

In mid-November 2003 Russia indicated it might try to mediate the political crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia along with two of Georgia's neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The move came after nearly two weeks of demonstrations calling on President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Loshchinin says Moscow may try to mediate between the opposing factions in Georgia, telling reporters that Russia "cannot be indifferent" to what happens there. The political crisis is being watched closely by western countries because of the impact unrest in Georgia can have on the volatile Caucasus Mountain region as a whole.

Georgia's "Rose Revolution" was planned and centrally coordinated by the US government. The 24 November 2003 Wall Street Journal credited the fall of Eduard Shevardnadze's regime to the operations of "a raft of non-governmental organizations . . . supported by American and other Western foundations." According to the Journal, the NGOs had "spawned a class of young, English-speaking intellectuals hungry for pro-Western reforms" who laid the groundwork for a bloodless coup. Shevardnadze had switched sides, and was backed by the Russians. Richard Miles, the US ambassador to Georgia, was the chief of mission (effectively ambassador) to Yugoslavia from 1996 to 1999, and laid to groundwork to get rid of Milosevic in 2000.

After returning to his homeland in 1992, Shevardnadze, the former Soviet Foreign Minister, had helped restore stability to a country wracked by chaos and lawlessness. He fostered the establishment of political parties and state institutions and promoted a cadre of impressive young politicians. But by the late 1990s, Shevardnadze's pluses were increasingly vanishing. Under his leadership, Georgia had degenerated into what many viewed as a failed state, plagued by rampant corruption, unable to provide basic services and incapable of controlling its borders. The separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had been factually independent since 1993. Ajara, an ethnically Georgian region on the Black Sea coast, was ruled by a defiant local boss, Aslan Abashidze, who refused to pay taxes to the national budget and skimmed millions from customs and contraband. Abashidze also cultivated cozy ties with Russia which maintained a military base in his fiefdom.

By 2002, therefore, Shevardnadze's position was increasingly problematic. Georgia's prospects of restoring its shattered unity, which required Russian neutrality if not active cooperation, seemed bleak. At home, Shevardnadze's former reformist allies and protégés accused him of tolerating corruption. Former Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili, former Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania, and current Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze aligned against Shevardnadze in a fractious opposition bloc.

The United States, for its part, continued to support the Government of Georgia but Washington's patience with Shevardnadze's perpetual balancing act among Georgia's corrupt and reformist political forces was quickly coming to an end. To emphasize the importance of holding of a free and fair parliamentary election in November, President Bush during the summer sent former Secretary of State James Baker as his personal envoy to Tbilisi. His goal was to facilitate agreement between Georgia's Government and the opposition over the most contentious issues, especially the composition of the Central Election Commission. Despite much hoopla, however, the "Baker Plan" was not fully implemented by Tbilisi.

Against that backdrop, Georgia's November 2003 parliamentary election turned out far more interesting than anyone had expected. Pro-Shevardnadze forces united in the bloc "For a New Georgia." Other leading contenders, apart from Aslan Abashidze's Revival Party, included: Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement; the Burjanadze-Democrats, uniting supporters of Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania: the New Rights; and Industry Will Save Georgia.

Tens of thousands of people came from across the land demanding freedom, fair elections, and democracy. Without violence they came, after an independent parallel vote count showed the government claim to have won the Nov. 2 parliament election was a fraud. Waving red and white banners bearing the St. George's Cross-now on the national flag-demonstrators grew in number and determination for 20 days until President Eduard Shevardnadze left his office peacefully.

When the Central Election Commission announced after substantial delay (November 20) results that gave Saakashvili's National Movement only 18 percent of the vote, he, Zhvania and Burjanadze decided matters had come to a head. On November 22, when Shevardnadze, whose support was visibly melting away, tried to seat the newly elected parliament, Saakashvili and his backers entered the legislature bearing roses and demanded that Shevardnadze step down. The chastened president, already incapable of resistance, was hustled away by bodyguards.

The January 2004 election was less a contest among candidates than a coronation. Though five other politicians threw their hat into the ring, Saakashvili's victory was certain. His leadership of the peaceful revolution had completely transformed Georgian politics: politicians allied with Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia had either left the scene or were irrelevant; opposition parties like the New Rights or Industry Will Save Georgia, which did not join Saakashvili's bandwagon, lost much of their popular support.

International NGOs were deeply involved in Georgian events. Much press and analytical attention has been focused on the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation, which funded critically important groups like Georgia's Liberty Institute, its leading human rights organization. Some Liberty Institute associates traveled to Serbia to study how Slobodan Milosevic had been ousted. Closely allied with the Liberty Institute was the student movement Kmara ["Enough"], which mobilized opposition to vote fraud countrywide. These groups, urged on by opposition politicians, were determined not to let Shevardnadze and Georgia's entrenched political groups steal the election. "The success in Georgia is a result of the people's commitment to democracy, but without foreign assistance I'm not sure we would have been able to achieve what we did without bloodshed," said Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute, an NGO that received U.S. funds since 1996.

Ukraine's Orange Revolution followed in 2004; and Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution took place in March 2005.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:35 ZULU