Accessibility links

Breaking News

Georgia: One Year Later, Bloom Fading On 'Rose Revolution' Despite Achievements

Mikheil Saakashvili (file photo) One year ago, former Soviet Politburo member Eduard Shevardnadze stepped down as president of Georgia. Shevardnadze's resignation ended a three-week political crisis triggered by disputed legislative polls and paved the way for the rise to power of young opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili. During the election campaign that followed the so-called "Rose Revolution," Saakashvili pledged to impose the rule of law and enhance democratic standards in Georgia. If the new Georgian president has succeeded in restoring order and combating economic crime, his critics say he has yet to implement the second part of his electoral program.

Prague, 19 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On 22 November 2003, hundreds of opposition supporters chanting the name of their leader, Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikheil Saakashvili, stormed the national parliament while President Eduard Shevardnadze was addressing the newly elected chamber.

Bodyguards rushed the veteran leader away through a back door, leaving loyal parliamentarians scuffling with the intruders. The following day, Shevardnadze announced his resignation.

After a short interregnum, Saakashvili was elected president in January with more than 96 percent of the vote.

Some experts have ascribed his landslide victory to the absence of serious challengers. Others have argued that Georgians, exhausted by more than a decade of war and economic hardship, were longing for radical change.

Former civil rights activist and lawmaker Davit Zurabishvili is a member of Saakashvili's National Movement ruling party, which won control over parliament in legislative polls in March. He said Georgia has achieved a lot over the past few months.

"The main achievement of the 'Rose Revolution,' I would say, is that a genuine democratic statehood is now in the making. The process has been launched, so to speak. Under Shevardnadze -- particularly during the last two to three years of his rule -- we had reached deadlock. State structures were decaying, the economy was crumbling, and corruption was taking on considerable proportions. This is a fact. The Rose Revolution helped us get out of this deadlock," Zurabishvili said.

Over the past 12 months, Saakashvili and his team have succeeded in reestablishing central control over the restive autonomous republic of Adjara, taken steps to impose the rule of law, restore the chain of command, stem organized crime, and curb the most obvious forms of corruption.

Government efforts to impose fiscal discipline have helped replenish depleted state coffers, while measures have been taken to reform the Soviet-style education system, privatize the economy, and modernize the military and police forces.

Under Saakashvili's rule, Georgia has also improved relations with the international financial community and donor nations and boosted ties with the European Union. To Saakashvili's supporters, these are no small achievements. But critics say there is another side to the coin.

Businessman Devi Khechinashvili runs the Tbilisi-based Partnership for Social Initiative, a nongovernmental think tank dedicated to promoting democratic and economic reforms in Georgia. He told RFE/RL that Saakashvili's record has been mixed.

"New hopes and energy to carry out changes are the main positive aspect of the past year. The negative aspect, I believe, is that these hopes and energy are being misused. I think the government should have made better use of them if it had sought ways to develop new institutions that would have ensured the existence of a well-balanced political regime -- in other words, a strong competition between various branches of power independent from each other and a strong local self-government. This, in turn, would have ensured the success of economic reforms. Unfortunately, not enough is being done in this respect. Rather, what is being done is in the wrong direction," Khechinashvili said.
One matter of widespread concern is Georgia's human rights record. NGOs say cases of police violence and expeditious justice have increased over the past year.

Khechinashvili is particularly concerned about constitutional amendments approved a month after Saakashvili's election. Those amendments reduced the power of parliament and increased government control over the judiciary. Khechinashvili said the overhaul "abolished the already weak balance of power" that had existed under Shevardnadze.

Zurabishvili agrees. Although already a member of the ruling party at the time the changes were made, he said he was against them because he believed the previous system "worked better."

Another matter of widespread concern is Georgia's human rights record. Nongovernmental groups say cases of police violence and expeditious justice have increased over the past year. They also blame the new leadership for a campaign of arrests that has swept up dozens of alleged tax evaders and former government officials suspected of corruption.

Rights activists say none of these detainees has been properly tried and criticize the judiciary for ignoring the presumption of innocence when dealing with suspected financial misdemeanors.

Lawmaker Zurabishvili said he does not believe the human rights situation has deteriorated in the past 12 months. Yet he admits to the existence of serious shortcomings.

"I wouldn't say the human rights situation has deteriorated. Rather, it has remained largely unchanged. But what has seriously deteriorated is the position of the courts of justice. Courts have become mere recording chambers for the Prosecutor-General's Office. The fight against corruption and the arrest of many corrupt government officials are among the achievements attained in the past year. Yet very often, judges have handed over hasty, incompetent, and at times even seemingly tendentious sentences. There have also been numerous cases of ill-treatments and torture [by police]. We must take radical steps to address these problems. What we've done so far is not enough," Zurabishvili said.

Zurabishvili also said the situation of the media has "deteriorated" in the past year. He said increasing pressure is being exerted on both state-owned and private newspapers and television channels by the government, sometimes leading to self-censorship among journalists.

Khechinashvili said that what he describes as the climate of fear that followed last year's political upheaval has led to the reemergence of Soviet-era reflexes among Georgians. "To tell you frankly, one hears today in Georgia things that had not been heard for the past 15 years," he said. "People say to each other, 'Don't say that in public, it's dangerous!' This kind of [behavior] had disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it is back now."

"Revolutions make a divide between 'us' and 'them,'" Khechinashvili said. "And their main characteristic trait is that those who carry them out always believe they are right against the rest of the population."

Still, recent polls show the majority of Georgians continue to trust Saakashvili and would vote for him again, despite a number of concerns.