The Rose Revolution: When Georgia said "Enough!"

Vision & Motivation

Crumbling cities, endemic poverty, an eternal leader, and corruption as a way of life; this was Georgia in 2003. Twelve years after independence from the Soviet Union and the brutal civil war that followed, the country had a post-apocalyptic feel. It even had zombies.

 “For 200 years the Georgian people…never expressed what they had in their hearts, but did what they were required to do. A person remembered that he couldn’t say what he thought. He was a zombie."[1] But if Georgians were zombies, their leader was a mummy. Eduard Shevardnadze had ruled with brief interruptions for over 20 years, first coming to power in 1972. Surrounded by wealth, he had managed to embalm the old ways of corruption and electoral fraud into Georgia, preserving them, and himself, well after the death of the Soviet Union.

Predictably, the general attitude towards political participation was nihilistic and distrustful.[2] However, an increasing number of the young and well-educated were growing tired of Georgia’s social, economic, and political inertia. They came to see Shevardnadze’s 26 year rule as directly responsible for their country’s stagnation. In the words of one, “Shevardnadze’s face was the sum of all evil and the hope to get rid of it...at a certain point it became ‘if we get rid of him, we will get rid of our problems.’”[3] Getting rid of Shevardnadze became a question of unseating his party in the November 2003 parliamentary elections, which were regarded as a critical “dress rehearsal” for the 2005 presidential elections.[4]

Even by the standards of Georgian politics, the 2003 elections proved highly corrupt. Independent exit polls and parallel vote tabulations (PVT) sharply contradicted the official election results, which put Shevardnadze’s “For a New Georgia” bloc first in number of votes.[5],[6] Opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, whose party had come first according to the PVT, compared Shevardnadze to a card thief stealing the people’s votes and a united opposition rally was mobilized shortly after the results. The size of the rally exceeded all expectations.[7]

Protest fervor increased when the results of Georgia’s Adjara region were announced. The region was ruled as a de-facto feudal fief by strongman Aslan Abashidze. The official election results put Abashidze’s “Union of Democratic Revival” party second nationwide at 18.84%, a number which strained all credulity.[8] Protesters believed that Shevardnadze would validate these results despite sharp criticism and form a majority with Abashidze, so they radicalized their demands from recount to revolution.[9]  They were determined to oust Shevardnadze at once, and uproot the corruption, decadence, and injustice he symbolized. “I do not intend to resign at the demand of individual politicians and a few dozen young people waving flags”, Shevardnadze declared at first.[10] Years later, deposed and in exile, he admitted his mistake, “I did not think to pay serious attention to these young people running around with flags and drawing graffiti on the streets. I was wrong."[11]

Goals and Objectives

Long before the elections were held, opposition groups had been laying the groundwork for a change in Georgian society. First, using mass actions and mass media, they sought to draw attention to how the corruption endemic impacted all aspects of life in Georgia. Second, they worked to overcome the people’s apathy to democratic participation, calcified under a near century of non-competitive one-party rule. Both objectives were designed to convince people of the need for change and persuade them that change was possible through the ballot box.

One of the undisputed leaders was the civic group Kmara. Modelled and heavily influenced by the Serbian civic protest movement Otpor!, Kmara planned several initiatives designed to combat both corruption and civic apathy. In their first show of strength, Kmara launched protests against official corruption in universities.[12] A “Street Activities Project” followed, where they distributed posters, stickers, t-shirts, and leaflets with the Kmara slogan, which translates to “Enough!”.[13] Next was Kmara’s “Mobilization Phase.” Kmara advertised events on television and on the radio, drawing people to debates, meetings and concerts.[14] A series of commercials on the sympathetic “Rustavi 2” network also helped paint Shevardnadze and his bloc as a gang of corrupt officials.[15] For example, one commercial showed a crumbling building and needy people with the Georgian words ‘kmara vardnas’ or ‘enough of falling!’[16] Later, with clever prefixing and suffixing, this evolved to ‘kmara she-vardna-dzes’ - enough of Shevardnadze![17]

Finally, Kmara ran a “Get Out the Vote Campaign” in the month prior to the election. Activists from the leading opposition party, National Movement, ran a similar campaign. Leaders employed dignity as a central theme, appealing to people’s belief that Georgia should be like a ‘normal country.’[18] The corrupt status quo disregarded popular will and, more importantly, misused the national budget and deprived citizens of essential resources.[19] Simultaneously, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) and the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) did their part by organizing major vote observation efforts.[20] All this amounted to what one activist described as the “pre-heating” of society for the upcoming elections.[21]

When it became clear to the opposition that significant election tampering had taken place, the leading opposition blocs united in protest two days after the elections.[22] On November 6, the results from Adjara were announced and on November 7, an ultimatum from the opposition demanding an end to electoral corruption expired unfulfilled. Thereafter, protests became more numerous and the various demands of the opposition crystallized into one: the resignation of President Shevardnadze.[23]

By November 14, several opposition figures called for “full civil disobedience" and citizens responded enthusiastically.[24] A determined core of protesters maintained a constant presence in front of parliament, dressing in extra warm clothing and taking umbrellas to combat the terrible weather. Supporters who lived or worked at the epicenter brought food and tea to them and long plastic sheets were delivered, which people held overhead to stay dry.[25]

The height of the civil disobedience came on November 22, when protesters moved towards the parliament and, without opposition from security or police forces, entered the building. Brandishing red roses and interrupting parliament as Shevardnadze was giving his opening remarks, they swarmed into the chamber to Saakashvili’s shouts of “Resign! Resign! Resign!”[26] Shevardnadze was hurried out by his own bodyguards, fled the capital, and resigned the next day.

Leadership

Three groups played significant leadership roles in the Rose Revolution. Mirroring other successful color revolutions, this included a youthful civic activism network, the political opposition, and sympathetic media organs. Kmara represented the youth and employed brand promotion and use of humor to great effect.[27] Throughout, Kmara encouraged media coverage of their actions because, as Kmara activist Lika Sanikize explained, they viewed the presence of media as “one of the main guarantees” against violent state action.[28] Meanwhile, Kmara’s use of humor helped overcome voter apathy. Staging mock funerals for the government’s economic plan and erecting banners where a passersby could pretend to flush Shevardnadze down the toilet helped create a feeling of participation among ordinary Georgians.[29]

Among the ranks of the political opposition, the foremost leader was Mikheil Saakashvili, head of the National Movement. Like Kmara, National Movement had high organizational capacity, but they also benefited from their leader’s effective public persona and charisma. Unlike his rivals who continued to use Soviet-style public relations techniques, Saakashvili had spent time living and studying in the west and employed the full arsenal of Western politicians: walkabouts, glad-handing, baby-codling, and more.[30] He was young, spoke freely, and cultivated an image of closeness with the people, coming to constituents’ neighborhoods and addressing the issues that concerned people the most, such as educational reform and corruption.[31] In short, Saakashvili carried the promise of economic and political salvation.[32]

The final part of the Rose-revolution triad was sympathetic media. The most prominent of these media outlets were Rustavi-2.[33] An informal partnership developed between Kmara and Rustavi-2, who went to great lengths to document Kmara’s activities.[34] Several of Kmara’s commercials highlighting the corruption of Shevardnadze were shown on Rustavi-2.[35] The channel also repeatedly broadcasted the film “Bringing Down a Dictator” which told the story of the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia.[36] After the election, they co-sponsored and immediately televised an independent exit poll, which was crucial to undermining the fraudulent results.[37]

Civic Environment

The widespread optimism which accompanied Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 had been significantly eroded by 2003. Following independence from the Soviet Union, longtime political dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia became Georgia’s president. Described in one obituary as “only rational when discussing literature”, Gamsakhurdia’s monoethnic policies and various human rights violations led to his violent overthrow.[38],[39] When his old rival Shevardnadze took over in 1995, Georgia was a ruined and fractured country. However, Shevardnadze’s early presidency brought some improvements: a new constitution, elections, reduction of inflation, and profits from new oil pipelines through Georgia. Shevardnadze enjoyed popularity and future opposition leaders like Saakashvili were even part of his government.[40]

This initial period of improvement did not last. Political corruption remained thoroughly entrenched and proved especially debilitating.[41] Corruption touched everything from the universities to the national infrastructure.[42] It shrank the tax base and destroyed the state’s ability to execute its basic functions, like paying pensions or civil servant salaries.[43] By the early 2000s, only 4 percent of state university graduates could find employment.[44] By 2003, Georgia seemed well on the path to becoming a failed state, with Transparency International ranking Georgia 124 out of 133 on its Corruption Perceptions Index.[45] All this coincided with Shevardnadze’s increasing distance and isolation from the people.[46] Political protests occurred often, but they were small and short-lived.[47]

Message & Audience

The message which drove the Rose Revolution is symbolized most straightforwardly by the name Kmara, which simply means “Enough!." To one activist, it summarized what was on everyone’s mind, “I don’t want to live like this. I want to live in a different way."[48]

Universally, the anti-Shevardnadze coalition stressed a message of nonviolence for strategic and ideological reasons. The success of the peaceful Serbian overthrow of Milosevic informed the civil society groups tremendously. Before the elections, Georgian activists went to Serbia to learn nonviolent techniques for building pressure on undemocratic regimes.[49] Kmara took Otpor as a direct inspiration, going as far as adopting the same emblem of a raised fist.[50]

Overall, the anti-Shevardnadze camp felt soldiers and police officers were equally reluctant to unleash violence. In the words of one activist, “I knew those young men and soldiers standing there in uniforms had lived together with the regular people through the bad times from 1991-1997, so I was confident they wouldn’t shoot the people.”[51] Their faith was proven when the soldiers let them enter the parliament building at the climax of the Rose Revolution. One member of the National Movement recalled, “They couldn’t shoot us, there were so many of us. And they didn’t want to...they all said finally, “we won’t do anything.” We went inside and took control of the building where government sat."[52]

Conclusion

The Rose Revolution represented a genuine change for Georgia: a substantial portion of the old elite were removed, market reforms were vigorously pursued, bureaucratic accountability increased, and state capacity and discipline were enhanced.[53] Just one year after the revolution, the economy and tax collection improved so much that the government could pay off its arrears to teachers, pensioners and other civil servants.[54] By 2005, the state treasury increased five-fold, a major anti-corruption campaign was launched, and tourism reached its highest level since independence.[55]

However, the task of establishing long-term democratic norms was neglected. This contributed to government heavy-handedness and by Saakashvili’s second term, he became increasingly unpopular and kleptocratic.[56] Even so, his loss in the 2013 presidential elections established a precedent of fair and uncontested transfers of power in Georgia. Victories such as this demonstrate that the Rose Revolution corrected the country’s trajectory from corruption and stagnation to freedom and prosperity.  It was, in the words of one prominent opposition leader, “the first time since regaining independence that Georgians feel like winners. They have this sense that they won . . . People are still in poverty and have the same economic problems and so on, but they now feel much, much stronger than before. It was like regaining dignity.” [57

Learn More

News & Analysis

Books

  • Georgia Since the Rose Revolution: a Story of a Democratic Transition. Tbilisi: 2012. Print.
  • Hash-Gonzalez, Kelli. Popular Mobilization and Empowerment in Georgia’s Rose Revolution. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.
  • Karumidze, Zurab & Wertsch, James V. Enough!: The Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005. Print.

Videos


Footnotes:

[1] Hash-Gonzalez, Kelli. Popular Mobilization and Empowerment in Georgia’s Rose Revolution. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012. Print. p.26

[2] Kandelaki, Giorgi. Georgia’s Rose Revolution: A Participant’s Perspective. USIP, 2006. Web. https://www.usip.org/publications/2006/07/georgias-rose-revolution-participants-perspective. p.8

[3] Hash-Gonzalez. p.38

[4] Angley, Robyn E. "Escaping the Kmara Box: Reframing the Role of Civil Society in Georgia’s Rose Revolution." Studies of Transition States and Societies, vol. 5, no.1, 2013, pp.42-57. p.47

[5] Kandelaki. p.4

[6] Georgia Parliamentary Elections 2 November 2003 OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission Report, Part 1. Warsaw: OSCE, 2004. Web. https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/georgia/22206?download=true. p.20

[7] Karumidze, Zurab & Wertsch, James V. Enough!: The Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005. Print. p.4

[8] OSCE. p.20

[9] Kandelaki. p.4

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. p.1

[12] Jakopovich, Dan. “The 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia: A Case Study in High Politics and Rank-and-File Execution.” Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, vol. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp.211-220. p.214-215

[13] Duda, Aleksandra. When “It’s Time” to Say “Enough!." March 2010. University of Birmingham, Ph.D Dissertation. University of Birmingham Research Archive, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/75977.pdf. p.191

[14] ibid.

[15] Angley. p.49

[16] Hash-Gonzalez. p.52

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. p.89

[19] Ibid.

[20] Angley. p.51

[21] Hash-Gonzalez. p.49

[22] Karumidze & Wertsch. p.4

[23] Ibid. p.10

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hash-Gonzalez. p.70

[26] Ibid. p.16

[27] Kandelaki. pp.5-6

[28] Angley. p.48

[29] Kandelaki. p.8

[30] Jones, Stephen F. “The Rose Revolution: A Revolution Without Revolutionaries?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1, 2006, pp.38-48. p.48

[31] Hash-Gonzalez. pp.46-47

[32] Jones. p.43

[33] Ibid.

[34] Angley. p.48

[35] Angley. p.49

[36] Foer, Franklin. “Regime Change, Inc.” The New Republic, 25 April 2005 https://newrepublic.com/article/68175/regime-change-inc.

[37] Kandelaki. p.9

[38] McCauley, Martin. “Obituary: Zviad Gamsakhurdia.” The Independent, 25 Feb. 1994 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-zviad-gamsakhurdia-1396384.html.

[39] Helsinki Watch. Conflict in Georgia: Human Rights Violations by the Government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Human Rights Watch, 1991 https://www.hrw.org/reports/pdfs/g/georgia/georgia91d.pdf.

[40] Hash-Gonzalez. p.135

[41] Jones. p.38

[42] Hash-Gonzalez. p.36

[43] Kandelaki. p.3

[44] Kandelaki. p.6

[45] Machurishvili, Nino. “Colour Protest in Post-War Georgia – Chronology of Rose Revolution.” Annals of Danubius University. International Relations, vol. 11, no. 2, 2018, pp.152-173. p.159

[46] Jones. p.40

[47] Hash-Gonzalez. p.37

[48] Hash-Gonzalez. p.50

[49] Angley. p.46

[50] Kandelaki. p.11

[51] Hash-Gonzalez. p.67

[52] Ibid. p.77

[53] Jones. p.34

[54] Wertsch, James V. “Georgia as a Laboratory for Democracy.” Demokratisatsiya, vol. 13, no. 4, 2005, pp.519-535.  p.522 http://georgica.tsu.edu.ge/files/01-Politics/State-Building/Wertsch-2006%20(to%20Politics_Democracy).pdf.

[55] Georgia Since the Rose Revolution: a Story of a Democratic Transition. Tbilisi: 2012 print. pp.4-5

[56] Karatnycky, Adrian. “The Rise and Fall of Mikheil Saakashvili.” Politico, 2 Feb. 2018 https://www.politico.eu/article/the-rise-and-fall-of-mikheil-saakashvili/.

[57] Karumidze & Wertsch. Interview with Zurab Zhvania interview. p.42

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