Open Democracy, UK
July 15 2005

Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road

Neal Ascherson

The liberating unity Georgians discovered in late 2003 is dissolving
under the pressure of political disputes, energy shortages, and
regional turmoil. In Tbilisi, Neal Ascherson finds a country more at
home with its past than its future.

A few revolutions open the way to golden futures. All, without
exception, open the path to golden pasts. Georgia's "rose
revolution", which brought young Mikhail ("Misha") Saakashvili to the
presidency eighteen months ago, is doing great things in that
respect.

Walking down Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi recently, I found the
novelist Dato Turashvili surrounded by uproar in a new shopping mall.
He was organising a marathon read of Georgia's medieval epic, The
Knight in the Panther Skin by Shota Rustaveli (the avenue is named
after him). Applauding shoppers sat in rows as a queue of volunteer
children hopped up to the lectern to read their two minutes' worth.
Did they understand much of the Old Georgian words? Probably not, but
that wasn't the point. This was a rite to celebrate cultural roots.

Further down the avenue, I admired the new hangings over the National
Museum door proclaiming: Colchis, Land of the Golden Fleece. The
latest finds of dazzling Iron Age gold ornament, from royal tombs at
Vani, were on display. And inside I found that the two little hominid
skulls from Dmanisi, some 1.8 million years old, had been promoted in
every sense. A huge poster behind them announces: Georgia, Cradle of
First Europeans. Their faces, modelled from the skulls by a French
artist, now have names: Zezva and Mzia. They also have a new
taxonomic title - Homo Georgeous (sic).


Also in openDemocracy on Georgia's "rose revolution" and its
aftermath, see our "Caucasus: regional fractures" debate. Among the
highlights:

George Hewitt, "Sakartvelo: roots of turmoil" (November 2003)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: a rough road from the 'rose revolution'
" (December 2003)

Nino Nanava, "Mikhail Saakashvili: new romantic or modern realist?"
(December 2003)

Sabine Freizer, "The pillars of Georgia's political transition"
(February 2004)

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The past, in short, is still thriving on the freedom it gained in
2003. The future is looking less happy. The initial surge of joyous,
patriotic confidence is gone, and so is the passion for Misha, who at
first seemed to do nothing wrong. Instead, the capital is twitching
with rumours, some plausible and others total phantasms, but all
alarming. After the revolution of roses, the mood of unity and
purpose suggested a Georgia which could stand up to any of its
neighbours - even, at the diplomatic level, to Russia. The programmes
for economic reform and the war on corruption would be hard but they
could be won. But now, for the first time, things feel fragile.

A spreading mistrust

Take the absurd, yet sinister events on 30 June 2005. Three notorious
Georgian all-in wrestlers, accused of extorting thousands of dollars,
were refused bail when they appealed to the supreme court. Their
supporters smashed up the courtroom furniture and then poured out to
block the main avenue outside parliament. Some opposition MPs joined
them. There were yells about "dictatorship".

Then heavily-armed special police rushed up and began to club and
arrest the demonstrators. In parliament itself, opposition members
punched government supporters and rolled about the aisles. A
Caucasian farce? But nobody laughed, and many people shivered to see
how easily political violence had foamed back across the streets of
Tbilisi.

A Georgian said to me: "Look, it's not really about reform
programmes. It's about state survival!" On the surface, this seems
exaggerated. After all, some things have gone well. In Tbilisi, at
least, the winter passed without serious power cuts: there was
heating and light. Some of the worst monsters of state and private
corruption have been arrested. Police pay and conditions have been
improved - an essential anti-corruption measure - and a start has
been made on giving Georgia a modern planning and banking
infrastructure.

An ambitious educational reform is going ahead, designed to remove
unqualified teachers (but also purging perfectly good lecturers who
had no chance to qualify). The 250,000 refugees who fled Abkhazia
after the 1993 independence war are at last being offered permanent
housing (they spent ten years fermenting their hatred in camps or
derelict slums). There are funds in the treasury now, and more to
come from oil transit royalties as Caspian oil crosses Georgia by
pipeline on its way from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey.

There have been political successes too. In May 2004, Saakashvili
regained control of the semi-seceded Adzharia region without firing a
shot. Only a month ago, Georgia and Russia agreed on terms for the
removal of Russia's last two bases on Georgian soil - "the end of 200
years of Russian military occupation", boasted the defence minister,
Irakli Okruashvili. Conversations about a Georgian approach to Nato
and (an even more distant prospect) to the European Union have at
least produced friendly western oratory and many visits to Tbilisi.

Above all, Mikhail Saakashvili has snatched the imagination of the
White House. The ecstatic state visit of President George W Bush and
Condoleezza Rice in May scored two superlatives. It gathered the
biggest crowd ever seen in living Georgian memory, to greet the
president in the huge square at the end of Rustaveli Avenue. This
provided Bush with the biggest, warmest welcome he has ever received
in a foreign country. (It's true that somebody chucked a grenade at
him, but it didn't go off. Although the grenade was thrown a dozen
metres from the president, in a crowd scanned by a dozen film
cameras, nobody has been arrested. Odd, that.)

And yet there is this growing nervousness, this spreading mistrust.
It's hard to source it precisely. But two things have contributed
heavily. One was Misha's disastrous grab at the secessionist South
Ossetia region a year ago, which ended in failure and some dozen
deaths. This dissipated all the "machismo" capital he had won by
defying Russian threats and repossessing Adzharia three months
earlier.

The other was the death in February of the prime minister, Zurab
Zhvania, found dead with a friend in a Tbilisi apartment. Zhvania, an
older man with more government experience, was felt to be the
essential realist who kept the mercurial Misha's feet on the ground,
and there is anxiety about how Saakashvili will handle crises without
him. This will not be allayed by Misha's long-trailed replacement of
the mayor of Tbilisi, Zurab Chiaberashvili, on 12 July, by Gigi
Ugulava, civil-society activist and former leader of the Kmara! youth
movement that was central to the "rose revolution".

Inevitably, everyone knows for a fact that Zurab Zhvania was murdered
- by gay bandits, by jealous colleagues, by Russian agents or by
"Zviadists" (fanatical nationalists loyal to the memory of the late,
mad president, Zviad Gamzakhurdia, who pitched Georgia into civil war
in the early 1990s). More probably, he was killed by fumes from
Georgian central heating, but that's too boring to believe.

Sakartvelo not at ease

On Rustaveli, there is a poster showing a beaming crowd in assorted
folk outfits. It's labelled (in English and Russian as well as
Georgian) Celebrating Georgia's Diversity. But at present, people
feel too aware of Georgia's ethnic diversity to celebrate it.
National self-confidence has sagged, and there's a suspicion that the
non-Georgian minorities are threatening the state with
disintegration.

Once, the guidebooks spoke of 5.3 million people of whom almost 80%
were Georgian. Today, the population figure you hear in conversation
is nearer 4 million, and the Georgians are alleged to form only 69%
of it. In the civil wars and economic collapse of the 1990s, maybe
half a million Georgians left the country, especially from Tbilisi.
So far, in spite of the rose revolution, they have not come back.

It's difficult to know the truth about such figures. Georgia has
effectively lost Abkhazia, which has been de facto independent for
over ten years. South Ossetia is much smaller but still defying
Tbilisi's control. But the focus now is on two other regions: Kvemo
Kartli, with a majority population of some 300,000 Azerbaijanis, and
Samstkhe-Javakheti with a population of over 90,000 Armenians.

Few in either minority speak Georgian. The Azeris, relatively
"quiet", are Muslims of highly conservative practice; almost all
girls must leave school at 13 to marry. Among the Armenian minority,
in contrast, discontent is reaching boiling point. There is atrocious
poverty and unemployment is around 80%. The current crisis in the
region is over electricity bills, where an American-led power company
has tried to extort payment by cutting off whole blocks and streets
if one household defaults. "Let them live in darkness until they
start paying for the electricity they use!"

There have been riots, and the (Georgian) governor has threatened to
call in troops. Meanwhile, the Armenians accuse the Georgians,
rightly or wrongly, of seizing Armenian churches for the Georgian
patriarchate. Worse still, the minorities are discovering that the
higher-education reforms are setting a tough examination in Georgian
language and literature as condition for university entrance. This is
all ominous news. In the Caucasus, situations like this eventually
blow up.


Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

"From multiculturalism to where?" (August 2004)

"Pope John Paul II and democracy" (April 2005)




And everyone seems to carry a gun. This has been true since the
1990s, but there have been times when it was less obvious. My best
Tbilisi friends' car has a bullet-hole in the windscreen. They parked
the car outside a theatre some weeks ago, and when they returned,
they found the hole and a bullet stuck in the driver's seat. Then,
the night before I left, their pretty daughter Tamara went to a
birthday party in a restaurant. A man at the next table came over and
asked her to dance. When she refused, he pulled a gun. When she
refused again, he fired four rounds into the ceiling. When Tamara
(being Georgian) still refused, he shrugged and marched off, stuffing
the pistol back into his waistband. Nobody seems to have sent for the
police. One doesn't.

This is a taut period in Georgia. But the big hope which pulled
Mikhail Saakashvili to power is not yet extinct. Grafting a
capitalist infrastructure into a desperately poor and corrupt
country, whose very unity is fragile, was always going to be slow.
Things are starting to change, but as they do, the gap between
glittering cities and dark villages - places where parents dream that
their children might one day learn to tell the time and count coinage
- grows wider.

The answer is not just foreign money and protection. The Georgians
themselves must make peace around and within their borders and that
means, above all, a "land for peace" deal which recognises the fact
of Abkhazia's independence. And, secondly, they must cherish the
small democratic opposition which dares to criticise the charming,
erratic president and his slapdash handling of power. Those who work
in television, for example, say that restrictions on reporting have
become tighter than they were under the Eduard Shevardnadze regime
which Misha overthrew. Only the Georgians, in other words, can save
their revolution.