Permanent Revolution in Georgia

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was on a routine visit to Opiza customs terminal near Tbilisi when he was confronted with complaints of citizens. On the spot, the Georgia president fired the head of the customs services, and gave the following directives to his prime minister: “Dismiss everybody from this service. Take on new people, give them a GEL 1000 [443 Euros] salary, give them exact instructions, so that I will not see any more how people are tortured here” and added: “if we are really building a free economy, (…) if we want our economy (…) to develop quickly and dynamically, we should make these structures more citizen-oriented.”[1] On the same day the president ordered to close down another administrative structure, the Georgian National Commission for Transport Regulation, calling it a “parasite”. Those events describe in a nutshell what is happening today in Georgia: a top-down social transformation aiming to modernize the society. And to do all that in the shortest delay.

Among all the non-violent, “colour” revolutions Georgia is a case apart: while the revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine, Lebanon or Kyrgyzstan led to political paralysis, where a president and prime minister each representing either the old regime or reformist camps, in Georgia the post-revolution leadership feels it has the popular mandate to move forward. The political leadership that resulted from the revolution, embodied by Saakashvili, has both the power and the will to bring change into the Georgian society. In this sense, among the numerous “colour revolutions” Georgia is going through a real revolution today, with a small group of educated elite working to impose social engineering over the rest of the society. But what is the path chosen by the Georgian revolution?

To understand the aims of the Georgian revolution one should look at the state of the country under the old regime, and see what the revolution was reacting against. Under Shevardnadze Georgia was both a country aiming to join the Western club of nations ­ it was under Shevardnadze that Georgia declared its intention to join NATO, as well as enjoyed large margin of political freedoms and pluralism. Yet Shevardnadze’s democracy was based on state weakness, which did not help to get the respect of the West, or carry out economic reforms. Corrupt and criminalized clans controlled much of the state. The revolutionaries came from the reformist and Westernized wing of Shevardnadze’s party, who by late 2001, felt it was time to break with the “white fox”. The main objective of the revolution seems to be to build a strong state so that it is capable to carry Georgia into the modern world: The West.

In case Georgia is going through a revolution, then it should necessarily have an ideology: “Westernization” seems the closest one can get. Georgia not only wants to look like the West, it wants to be in the heart of it: “pour les pays occidentaux, nous somme un partenaire en puissance, et non un petit pays qui quémande protection.”[2] For Georgia today making part of the West is not simply a political objective, it is an emotional, and even an ideological one. Becoming part of the West is meant to be part of the modern world, and leaving behind the archaic Soviet past. It is the answer imagined to every evil that this nation suffers from: this evil is Russia-the Soviet Union-Russia. In case until then all what was modern was accessed through Russia ­ this was true for Georgian nationalism of the 19th century, the social-democrat Mensheviks of the early 20th century, as well as the Georgian Communists under their compatriots Stalin and Beria, yet the events of 1989 broke this trend when the Soviet army opened fire on unarmed demonstration in Tbilisi killing 19 people, Russia transformed to symbolize all of the failures of contemporary Georgia. For the elite in a country notorious for internal divisions, anti-Russian sentiments constituted one of the few poles of consensus. Many of the political steps in Georgia today are conditioned by those emotional, even ideological considerations.

Reforms or Revolution?


The changes this young revolution has brought in few years are impressive: now, Georgia has an assertive state both internally and on the international arena. It is capable of collecting taxes, paying salaries on time, and realizing infrastructure projects. There is an energetic struggle against corruption ­ one of the major failures of Shevardnadze regime. Entire branches of the state are deconstructed and reformed: both the army and the traffic police have been disbanded and new officers recruited, both institutions were previously the most visible symbols of inefficiency and corruption.

But probably the most important reforms are taking place in the education sector. “The aim of our reforms is to increase the level of our education system,” said Gigi Tevzadze, rector of Ilia Chavchavadze State University, and one of the architects of the reform, with a feeling of urgency: “for fifteen years there was no reform and what we inherited from the Soviet Union was only degrading,” he added, “the decrease in the level of education was leading to increase of corruption” in education. For example, few years back for a student to access university bribes of 500 to 15’000 USD were paid, according to Tevzadze. University had become a center of conservatism as well: “Many in education system thought their role was to transfer national identity to students, and not to teach them basic skills.”

The on-going reform aims to bring Georgian education into modern standards. Now the state distributes vouchers to students who by their choice bring state subsidies to schools or universities. Old teaching staff ­ up to 90% at Chavchavadze University ­ has been fired, and new, often younger professors recruited, salaries increased 4 to 5 fold, and the introduction of nation-wide entrance exams decreased corruption dramatically.

The new leadership is initiating mass privatization. There are plans to privatize universities by 2010, and create closer links with the economy, as well as private donors to fund university education. The health sector will be put in private hands as well. According to official givens, 70 out of 108 hospitals are already privatized, while the government hopes private investors will build one hundred new hospitals.[3]

The model for reforms is therefore the neo-liberal, and specifically the American model: labour laws have been relaxed where hiring and firing workers depends on the will of the employer, import duties have been removed but on agricultural products, and red-tape has been cut down, and a new law proposes to reduce tax on profit from 20% to 15%. The intention of this policy is to facilitate foreign investments to modernize the Georgian economy.

One Party Democracy?


The massive social restructuring could be realized thanks to the complete domination of the National Movement over the state and the political arena in Georgia. The conditions in which the drama of the Rose Revolution developed led to concentration of power. First, Shevardnadze’s Citizen’s Union disappeared from the political scene after end of 2003, therefore eliminating a major opposition institution this party could have developed to. The parties of the revolution that is Saakashvili’s National Movement, the Burjanadze-Democrats block led by former prime minister Zurab Zhvania united to create the new ruling party: the National Movement ­ Democrats (NMD). The youth movement Kmara who were the “foot soldiers” of the revolution joined the party in power, and dissolved itself. The hasty constitutional reforms carried out in January 2004 – practically days after the revolution increased the power of the president. Following these changes repeat parliamentary elections were held on March 28, 2004, the NMD won 66% of the votes, and eliminated opposition forces from the parliament by keeping a 7% barrier,[4] in spite of international criticism. As a result the NMD controls the legislative power and has the capacity to pass all the bills it drafts. The death of former prime minister and the political mentor of Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania in 2005 freed the last obstacle for the creation of a pyramidal power. Symbolically, the flag of the National Movement ­ five red crosses on a white background ­ was adopted as the national flag, as if to say that there is no difference between the ruling party and the state.

For those defending the Georgian leadership, the political domination of the National Movement is a necessary condition to realize rapid reforms, and not to fall into the same trap as in Serbia or Ukraine. Saakashvili has been very sensitive with the fate of Zoran Djindjic, the Serb reformer assassinated by the remnants of the old regime, as well as with the in-fight within the Orangist camp in Ukraine. Yet, the supporters of the Georgian revolution are conscious that their experimentation of state-building while insisting on democratic values in a poor country with an unsolved national issue is ­ to put it mildly ­ a delicate balancing act. David Darchiashvili is the representative of Open Society Foundation (Soros Foundation) in Georgia: “I would say that the Georgian revolution was made by the elite ­ with popular support. This shows the weakness of the process, it needs constant bottom-up support. If you allow total bottom-up support then you will not get democratic reforms,” he said.

Next to democratic discourse there is not only increasing authoritarianism, but also nationalism. Human rights abuses such as torture in prison have increased since the Rose Revolution, and the media is less free. The ethno-territorial conflicts that infected the country in the early 1990’s have once again come to dominate the headlines. The status of Abkhazia or South Ossetia were absent from the political discourse during the time of the revolution. But immediately after, the territorial unification of Georgia was put on the top of the agenda. The first attempt to bring Ajaria ­ a rich coastal town on the Black Sea bordering Turkey, in May 2004 was a great success. Yet, a similar attempt to bring South Ossetia under the control of Tbilisi led to violent clashes and increase of tensions with Russia.[5]

Salome Zurabishvili, a former French diplomat, occupied the post of foreign minister of Georgia from March 2004 to October 2005, thinks that it was not the fighting in South Ossetia that led to the current antagonism between Moscow and Tbilisi. She said that just after the clashes “negotiations on the closing down of the Russian bases restarted” and Moscow agreed to empty its bases in Batumi and Akalkalaki, whih should be completed by 2008. Things started changing with the arrest of four Russian officers accused of espionage. Was the objective in Tbilisi to attract the attention of the West to accelerate the question of NATO membership? “But the result is the opposite,” says Zurabishvili, “if one wants NATO membership it is not necessary to confront Russia, which will make only a certain countries less enthusiastic by a Georgian membership.” Zurabishvili qualifies some of the actions of the regime as ‘neo-bolshevik. “The way the NMD conceives its role in the society, the ‘education’ of the youth in patriotic camps, the ideological instrumentalization, all this resembles a totalitarian rather than a democratic regime. Why does this regime needs such instruments?” One such youth camp is planned to bring this summer “Young Patriots” near the Abkhaz conflict region, and many fear that the young activists might try to cross the front-line, and provoke violence in a region already tense of late.

Saakashvili has taken steps to rehabilitate Gamsakhurdia, considered up to them as a controversial leader responsible for the chaos that reigned in Georgia in the early 1990’s. Gamsakhurdia’s body was reburied in Tbilisi in April this year amid an official ceremony, yet there have been little discussions in Georgia about his political legacy and the conflicts his nationalism generated. This nationalist fervour coming from a leadership clearly marking itself as neo-liberal and part of globalizing trends could sound contradictory, but it permits the National Movement complete domination over the political scene in the country and prevents the emergence of a strong opposition on the basis of nationalist ideology.

Revolution Betrayed?


“The objectives of the revolution is simultaneously state building, and democracy building” said Levan Ramishvili the director of Liberty Institute, an NGO which played key role in the Rose Revolution, “it is about modernization of Georgia,” he added. The underlining of the ‘mission’ of the revolution as a modernizing project, one could justify temporary shortcomings, suspension of certain liberties for example, or economic sacrifices, for an ultimate goal to be achieved sometime in the future.

But there is another side to this coin. After the Rose Revolution human rights abuses have increased[6], media freedoms have decreased, and the oversight of civil society over governmental activities has decreased, and the most important, there are little checks and balances left to control the activities of the executive. “Property rights are not protected, there is a process of property redistribution going on,” said Irakli Iashvili, a parliamentarian from the New Rights Party. While the government is hailing increase of foreign investments, Iashvili says that those investment come from Russia, Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan, not because of economic advantages in Georgia, but out of political considerations. For him the main problem remains the judiciary: “Courts have become the notary of prosecutors’ office,” he said with a smile.

So, in case the Rose Revolution is not about democracy, could it be about modernization? Marina Muskhelishvili, a political scientist, doubts it. She considers what is happening in Georgia “is a real revolution, but it is not about democracy. Their social origin comes from ‘globalized’ Georgian yuppies that developed in the last 15 years: they are English speaking, computer literate, neo-liberals. English is known by 5-6% of the population,” while the Russian speaking, older, and Soviet educated part of the society finds itself increasingly marginalized. “The result is strong stratification of the people. Many feel that they are second class citizens,” she added. But does Georgia need to sacrifice democratic freedoms, the liberties of expression and political formations that it enjoyed in late-Shevardnadze period, in order to achieve its state-building and modernizing project? Muskhelishvili thinks not. “This is a neo-liberal project, I do not know in what sense it could be called ‘modernizing’. The policies followed now do not answer the challenges Georgian society faces today: inequality and unemployment. Fifteen years ago the way to a Western model was through privatization and the establishment of political pluralism. Today, the way to Europe is through social justice and fight against poverty,” she concluded.

Similarly, the economic figures give a mixed picture. The GDP grew by 9% in 2005 and 8% in 2006, real tax revenues up by 46% in 2004 and 15% in 2005.[7] But at the same time poverty increased from 35.7% of the total population in 2004 to 40% in 2006[8] and unemployment increased from 12.7% in 2004 to 13.8% in 2005. Average wages are 45 Euros and pensions 22 Euros per month.[9] True, budget revenues have increased thanks to taxes and privatization, but a quarter of the budget goes to defence spending (see the next article).

History Repeats Itself


Revolutions are moments of radical rupture in the history of a society. Yet, as Moshe Levin has shown in his studies of Russian and Soviet history, one could also look at revolutions as essentially continuation of socio-political patterns under a different format.[10] In spite of the pro-Western turn and pro-democratic rhetoric, there are fundamental reproduction of old patterns in Georgia today, under a renovated institutional format. Saakashvili is the third president of independent Georgia, and while there is an apparent revolutionary change in Georgian politics today, it is easy to identify repetitive patterns as well. The first president Zviad Gmsakhurdia was elected president in 1991 with 86% of the votes, Eduard Shevardnadze succeeded him in 1992 elections when he received 91% of the votes, while Saakashvili was elected in 2004 with 96% of the votes. When Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze left the presidency they did not leave behind them a political party that could have played the role of parliamentary opposition. Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in an armed uprising while Shevardnadze as a result of velvet revolution, in sum both were overthrown in unconstitutional manners.

Yet there are more parallels between Saakashvili and the leader he overthrew, rather than the leader of Georgian independence. When Shevardnadze came to power in what was then Soviet Georgia in 1972 his main task was “to fight corruption” in which he arrested thousand of party members, and then became a land of exception in the Soviet Union where freedom of expression and trade was unparalleled with the practices elsewhere in the Union. Did Georgia create a political system where revolutionary fervour coupled with anti-corruption struggle succeeds to state failure and the next revolt?


Le Monde Diplomatique July 2007

Permanent Revolution in Georgia

By Vicken Cheterian

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist based in Geneva

From Johnson’s Russia List 


[1] Civil Georgia, February 21, 2007.

[2] Interview of Mikhail Saakashvili by Galia Ackerman in Politique Internationale, No. 114, Winter 2007, page 185.

[3] Civil Georgia, April 19, 2007;

[4] Only the “Rightist Opposition” composed of the “New Rights” and “Industry Will Save Georgia” parties passed the barrier, receiving 7.6% of the votes. Since, the Republican Party broke with the ruling party and joined the ranks of the opposition.

[5] See Florence Mardirossian, “Géorgie-Russie, les raisons d’une escalade”, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2006.

[6] Amnesty International, “Georgia : Torture and ill-treatment Still a Concern After the ‘Rose Revolution'”, November 22, 2005 :

[7] See National Bank of Georgia, Annual Report 2005, page 16.

[8] M. Alkhazashvili, “Poverty up in Georgia” The Messenger, April 24, 2007. In 2001 the figure for those living below poverty was estimated to be 54%.

[9] Associated Press, April 17, 2007.

[10] See Moshe Levin The Making of the Soviet System, Methuen, 1985, and The Soviet Century, Verso, 2005.



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