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Is The Bloom Off The Rose In Georgia?

  • Daisy Sindelar

Even before the recent war with Russia, Saakashvili's image as a powerful, can-do reformer had already suffered numerous blows.

Even before the recent war with Russia, Saakashvili's image as a powerful, can-do reformer had already suffered numerous blows.

On November 22, 2003, Mikheil Saakashvili -- a 35-year-old lawyer and politician with a dynamic, populist streak -- stood outside the Georgian parliament building, surrounded by a crowd of demonstrators.

They were protesting the results of that month's legislative elections, which they said were rigged in favor of parties loyal to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

With television cameras broadcasting live, Saakashvili issued an ultimatum to the Soviet-era holdover, a man 40 years his senior. "Friends, it is now or never!" he shouted to an explosion of cheers: Shevardnadze must resign.

When Shevardnadze refused, hundreds of protesters pushed their way into the chamber where the president was attempting to open parliament for its first postelection session. They overturned desks and stormed the podium, demanding Shevardnadze's ouster and chanting "Misha!" in a reference to Saakashvili, their preferred successor.

Thus the events that came to be known as the Rose Revolution began to reshape the future of their small South Caucasus country.

Shevardnadze, still defiant, declared a state of emergency and threatened to call in Defense Ministry troops. But late in the evening on November 23 -- following talks with the Georgian opposition and Russia's then-foreign minister, Igor Ivanov -- Shevardnadze offered his resignation, saying he would not resort to force.

"I see that what is happening will not end without bloodshed if tomorrow I exercise the powers I have in this situation," Shevardnadze said. "I have never been untrue to my people, and so now I declare that it is better that the president resign, that everything end."

Two months later, Saakashvili -- the crowned victor of Georgia's bloodless rebellion -- would be elected the country's new president, setting Georgia on a new course of aggressive reforms and an almost obsessive drive for NATO and EU integration.

On November 23, however, he still had time for reflection, and in thanking Russia for its role in the peaceful handover, he uttered a statement that five years later would prove prophetic.

"The main guarantee that we got from [Ivanov] was that Russia would not intervene in the internal affairs of Georgia," Saakashvili said. "That's quite a change from what we had in the early 1990s, when they were meddling in civil wars here. I hope they keep their word."

'The Things That Were Most Important, We Lost'

Five years after the Rose Revolution, it is no longer November 23, 2003 that serves as a place-marker in Georgians' collective memory. The anniversary is now commemorated simply as a day of national unity, and has lost much of the fiery enthusiasm that marked its inception.

Instead, it's August 7, 2008 that is now fixed in the public consciousness as the day when things changed for Georgia. It was the day when years of simmering hostilities with Moscow -- and the "meddling" that Saakashvili had feared -- bubbled over into war.

That five-day conflagration was a major military and humanitarian loss for Georgia. But the conflict -- which ended with the independence declarations of its two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- also took an immense toll on the country's deep-seated determination to restore and preserve its territorial integrity.

One of Saakashvili's earliest presidential pledges had been to return to Tbilisi's control both Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, which have enjoyed de facto autonomy since the early 1990s, thanks in large part to patronage from Moscow.

Now, such a goal seems not only distant, but nearly impossible. And for many Georgians -- who before the war repeatedly named the restoration of territorial integrity as the most pressing issue facing the country -- the various triumphs and failures of the Rose Revolution government pale in comparison to this single, stunning loss.

"After five years, we lost even more territories. Instead of regaining them, we lost even more," Tbilisi resident Mamuka Gvenetadze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "Yes, there are some improvements -- the roads are better, and so forth. But the things that were the most important, we lost. And when we'll get them back, god only knows."

Saakashvili may go down in history as the leader who lost the breakaways. But even before the August war, his image as a powerful, can-do reformer had already suffered numerous blows.

There were complaints that Saakashvili, who speaks fluent English and clearly enjoys the limelight of the world stage, pursued foreign policy at the expense of domestic concerns like infrastructure, employment, and corruption.

More worrying, however, were the creeping concerns that the president, having ousted a despot, was at risk of becoming one himself.

Columbia University professor Lincoln Mitchell, the author of the upcoming book "Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution," credits Saakashvili and his revolution cadre with returning the Georgian state to functionality.

But he also says that from the moment Saakashvili took office and pushed through constitutional amendments strengthening presidential powers, it was clear the revolution "pretty quickly stopped being about democracy."

"From that moment on, they set a tone that state-building was going to be more important than democracy," Mitchell says. "But the problem was if you try to do only one, you're not going to get either. So Georgia in January 2004 had to rebuild the Georgian state and they had to become democratic and they had to do those things together. They didn't. And that's been their biggest mistake."

End Of An Ideal

The democracy deficit reached a low point in November 2007, when Saakashvili, the target of mass antigovernment demonstrations, made the choice that Shevardnadze himself had resisted four years earlier -- declaring a media blackout and calling out riot police to use tear gas and rubber bullets to violently disperse the peaceful crowd.

Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Georgian Institute for Strategic and International Studies, says for many Georgians, the original spirit of the Rose Revolution evaporated with those events.

"The events of last November cast doubt on the ideals of the Rose Revolution," he says. "If we add to that the August events, which brought the loss of the territories for Georgia -- this is something that, according to many observers, outweighs the other possible positive results of the performance of this government. Whether Georgia will remember the Rose Revolution five years from now.... I think it will be remembered only in the history books."

Before November 2007, Saakashvili had enjoyed the uncritical support of the international community, in particular the United States. But the November crackdown sent a chill through his supporters abroad, and eroded any hopes Tbilisi still harbored of a fast-track accession into NATO and the EU.

His popularity was suffering at home as well. Forced by the November protests to call early elections in January 2008, Saakashvili succeeded in securing a second term with 52 percent of the vote. It was a telling slide from the sweeping 96-percent mandate he had won in the wake of the Rose Revolution.

But is Saakashvili the only option? Mitchell says the president's supporters -- particularly those in the international community -- have long labored under the impression that Saakashvili was synonymous with the Rose Revolution and therefore uniquely qualified to rule Georgia.

"The problem in Georgia is that there is very much this 'L'etat, c'est Misha' quality. And that is not good. And that has frankly been encouraged by a lot of the friends of Georgia," Mitchell says. "On the other hand, if Misha were to remove himself from the political scene, I think that some of the changes have been institutionalized. The economic reforms wouldn't go away, the level of corruption would not return to what it was in Shevardnadze's time. Obviously you'd have to have a new president, but I completely disagree with the notion that there's no one other than Saakashvili who can guide Georgia."

Still, Saakashvili has displayed survivor tactics in recent months, toning down his personal style to suit the more skeptical public mood. The brashness that characterized his early days in office has evolved into something humbler, more nuanced.

Even so, many onetime allies have moved out from under his considerable shadow, seeking a viable political future of their own in the first postrevolution political generation.

The most notable of these is former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, a steadfast partner during the Rose Revolution who broke with Saakashvili's United National Movement this year amid disagreements over the party list ahead of parliamentary elections.

Burjanadze, who is often cited as a potential successor to Saakashvili, will be marking November 23 not by commemorating the anniversary but by launching her new political party, Democratic Movement-United Georgia.

"For me, looking back, those events are still very important," Burjanadze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "I think the main aims of the Rose Revolution in themselves were very important, and very progressive for the country, even though I have to say that those aims, unfortunately, have gone largely unfulfilled. Five years later, we still speak of the need to strengthen democracy, the need for free media, for people to overcome a syndrome of fear, and for a fair judiciary -- which means that the most important goals of the Rose Revolution, unfortunately, have not been reached."

Still, some Georgians remain at least nominally faithful to Saakashvili. Nona Gambashidze, a Tbilisi resident, speaks regretfully of the social problems that continue to dog Georgia. But she says that even if the president hasn't lived up to all of his promises, it is only because repairing the country has proved too daunting a task.

"It's bad that there's high unemployment, and that so many young people are using drugs. Those are the things that need the government's attention," she says. "Radical reforms can't be implemented in such a short period of time. Five years ago, this country was in ruins. It's easy to talk, but it's much harder to actually get things done."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report