WORLD

The thorns in the Rose Revolution

Abuses of power may be threatening Georgia’s democratic reforms

MICHAEL PETROU June 12 2006
WORLD

The thorns in the Rose Revolution

Abuses of power may be threatening Georgia’s democratic reforms

MICHAEL PETROU June 12 2006

The thorns in the Rose Revolution

Abuses of power may be threatening Georgia’s democratic reforms

MICHAEL PETROU

It was the democratic revolution that inspired people living under autocratic regimes around the world. In November 2003, Georgian opposition politician Mikheil Saakashvili and his supporters, all carrying roses, successfully seized the parliament buildings and forced the resignation of president Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the old Soviet Union who was clinging to power after rigged parliamentary elections. More than 100,000 Georgians took to the streets to celebrate, and Saakashvili was elected president in free and fair elections six weeks later.

Over the next two years, similar democratic movements—some successful, some not—erupted around the world. During Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko held a rose aloft while greeting his supporters, some of whom waved Georgian flags, and close ties still exist between prodemocracy youth groups in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere. “Before there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq, or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia,” U.S. President George W. Bush said when he visited Tbilisi last year. Bush was praising his hosts and allies, but what he said was also accurate: the Rose Revolution was a watershed moment.

Television news anchor Irakli Imnaishvili watched it all unfold. A serious and slightly laconic young man of 28, Imnaishvili was too professional to get swept up in the euphoria of the event. He reported the news as objectively as he could, but inside he was pleased with what he was witnessing. “I thought this is a great opportunity for Georgians to change everything and start building our country,” he told Maclean ’s.

Last summer, a much smaller street protest flared up in Tbilisi, following a controversial court decision. Riot police broke it up, using excessive force, according to some observers. Imnaishvili reported on these events, too. But then his show was cancelled, after government officials complained about his

critical coverage, he says. The cancellation generated a lot of publicity, and Imnaishvili was later invited to appear on a talk show to discuss press freedom in Georgia. The other guest, a regional governor named Akaki Bobokhidze, took issue with Imnaishvili’s comments and stormed off the set. He was waiting for Imnaishvili in the corridor, with his driver and bodyguard. The two allegedly

held Imnaishvili while Bobokhidze beat the journalist, breaking his nose and spilling blood all over the television studio’s carpets. Bobokhidze claims he was defending his family’s honour.

Imnaishvili’s case is not an isolated event.

‘WE WANT NORMAL LIVES-THAT IS WHY WE SUPPORTED SAAKASHVILI. THERE HAS BEEN DISAPPOINTMENT.’

Other critical journalists have been beaten by police, or are subjected to less overt pressure to amend their coverage. Human rights groups have complained about government pressure on the judiciary. Even the U.S. State Department criticizes Georgia for its lack of judicial independence, government pressure on the media, arbitrary arrests, corruption in law enforcement, and the tor-

ture and abuse of detainees—although it also notes that the government is taking steps to stop these offences.

Saakashvili’s defenders say that after decades of Soviet rule and post-Soviet autocracy, drastic measures are needed to weed out the corruption and organized crime that still permeate Georgian society. Bidzina Bregadze, a member of parliament for the governing National Movement party, has likened the mafia in Georgia to that of Don Corleone, the Italian crime boss in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. Sergi Kapanadze, an assistant professor at Tbilisi State University, thinks they are worse. “You have very strong organized crime in Georgia, incom-

parable to what it was in eastern Europe,” he said. “There are certain methods—and I absolutely believe that the human rights and other rights of the prisoners should be respected—but there are certain instances when you have exceeded your powers a little bit.”

There is no question that organized crime is endemic in Georgia. Some Georgians might even favour a heavy hand to deal with it. Only seven years ago, Georgian intellectual Zaal Kikodze told the American journalist Robert Kaplan that Western-educated reformers such as Mikheil Saakashvili could never be heroes to Georgians because they had never killed anyone, didn’t drink two litres of wine a night, and carried no daggers.

Kikodze was wrong about Saakashvili. He was a hero for a moment, and he is still popular with many Georgians, as was made evident by the electoral success of his party in

recent by-elections. But more of his countrymen are beginning to voice their opposition. They supported Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution but are not willing to blindly follow his government. “We see what it is like in Canada, the United States and Europe. We see they have normal lives, and we want the same. This is why we supported Saakashvili, and there has been disappointment,” said Ruso Imnadze, a grandmother and retired journalist.

Imnadze admits many things have improved in Georgia since Shevardnadze was president, and certainly since Soviet times, but she is frustrated and impatient. “It is not enough. And it is not what we were waiting for after the Rose Revolution. Freedom of speech means you can say something and people will react. In Georgia, you can say anything you want, but no one in government will pay attention to you.”

Roman Zvarych, a senior adviser to fellow democratic revolutionary Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, says that the aftermath of all revolutions is about managing inflated expectations. And there can be few revolutions that brought with them higher expectations than the Rose Revolution in Georgia. So it is natural that some of Saakashvili’s former supporters are now disappointed. All reforms are disruptive. It is also true that, in relative terms, Georgia is one of the freest democracies in the Near East. Given the challenges his government faces, perhaps the president should be given a bit of leeway?

Opposition politician Tina Khidasheli doesn’t buy the argument. The young mother used to chair the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a human rights watchdog organization that played a vital role in the 2003 Rose Revolution. She is now a leading member of the Republican party and a fierce critic of the current government. “That was exactly the logic behind Shevardnadze,” she says. “When Shevardnadze came here the situation was 500 times worse than when Saakashvili came. We had two wars [over the secessionist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. We had no state actually. We had paramilitary forces running the country. At five o’clock in the evening, you couldn’t go out in the streets.” Khidasheli says authoritarian methods were unacceptable under Shevardnadze, and are equally unacceptable now. “If there is no legitimacy, then there is no hero that can save the nation.”

For Khidasheli, and for many other Georgians, it is not enough for their country to be more free and democratic than their neighbours in a difficult part of the world. They aspire to be part of Europe and the West. They think their government should be judged by the same standards. M