Georgians Disillusioned with 'Rose Revolution'

01 September 2009

Many analysts say Georgians are disillusioned with President Mikheil
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili addresses the nation in Tbilisi, 08 Aug 2008
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (file photo)
Saakashvili. Our correspondent looks at the state of Georgian politics, more than five years after the "Rose Revolution".

Mikheil Saakashvili was re-elected in January of last year, receiving 53 percent of the vote. Five years ago, he won 96 percent of the ballots cast, following a popular movement known as the "Rose Revolution" that forced the resignation of the incumbent, Eduard Shevardnadze. He was compelled to leave office after massive anti-government protests following parliamentary elections that were denounced as fraudulent by international observers.

At the time, there was a sense of euphoria, a sense of hope that Georgia was going in the right direction. But many experts say Mr. Saakashvili's drop in popularity over the years indicates a strong disillusionment with the achievements of the Rose Revolution.

Oksana Antonenko, at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies says a great part of the disillusionment is due to the lack of credible opposition to President Saakashvili.

"Which, of course, initially, was not his fault. He was very popular; he came as undisputed leader after the Rose Revolution and he remained very powerful, dominating the political space. But I think as time went on after the Rose Revolution, I think he wanted to perpetuate this kind of system in which there was really absence of checks and balances, no real opposition included in the political process - very much sort of governing by committee of the inner circle, of loyal allies around the president. And I think that kind of dysfunctional political system which was established has really deprived Georgia from effective governance. And I think today, clearly, Georgia is not seen by many experts as a really democratic country," Antonenko said.

Over the years, Mr. Saakashvili has consolidated power in the presidency to the detriment of the parliament. And experts say there is virtually no media freedom in Georgia.

But many analysts, including Ronald Suny at the University of Chicago, say the Georgian leader has a major accomplishment. "One should give him credit for what has been done, particularly the struggle against corruption. He took some very drastic actions of firing the whole police force and recreating it from scratch [completely]. But he has been unable through his rather abrasive and I would say almost arrogant attitude toward fellow politicians to bring them into any kind of unity in order to move the country forward. Rather he's driven many of his allies into opposition," he said.

Public displeasure with Mr. Saakashvili spilled into the streets in 2007.

"In November 2007, the opposition - outside those who made the Rose Revolution - formed a coalition of 10 parties in opposition [and] took to the streets, and the regime cracked down in a way that was clumsy and counterproductive, which raised real questions then about the democratic credentials of the Saakashvili regime, entourage," said Robert Legvold from Columbia University.

Thousands of demonstrators in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, demanded Mr. Saakashvili's resignation. Police responded by using tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. Reports at the time said more than 500 people were injured. Many analysts say it was a low point of Mr. Saakashvili's presidency.

Another serious blow was the August 2008 five-day war with Russia over the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia. Analysts say it was an example of Mr. Saakashvili's erratic tendency to act quickly, without considering the consequences.

Experts such as Stephen Jones at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts say Mr. Saakashvili's decision to attack South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, was a colossal mistake. "The Georgian army was clearly not prepared for a war like this. It led to a rapid decline in foreign direct investment in Georgia and a rapid decline in growth, reinforced, of course, by the economic crisis. To some extent, it was a humiliation for Saakashvili. But more importantly were the economic and political consequences for Saakashvili, so that he could no longer claim to be taking Georgia forward fast and promise that people's lives would improve due to the growing economy because now the economy has slumped," Jones said.

As a result of Russia's victory, Moscow now has firm economic and political control over South Ossetia and over another Georgian separatist region, Abkhazia. In addition, Russia has recognized the independence of both regions.

A few months ago, more anti-Saakashvili demonstrations were held in Tbilisi - once again calling for the president's resignation. But this time, the government did not repeat the mistakes of November 2007. The demonstrations were peaceful and they subsided. But analysts say they could resume at any time.

Suny says overthrowing governments by massive demonstrations may not bring about the desired result. "You might take this as a general principle, that if you have revolutionary transformations, it's extremely difficult to go back to legal, legitimized, constitutional transfers of power - that revolutionary settlements, in fact, are quite dangerous as a precedent. This is much truer, of course, in a place like Georgia, where the first elected president [Zviad] Gamsakhurdia was overthrown by a civil war, then the second [Eduard] Shevardnadze was overthrown from the street in the Rose Revolution and now Saakashvili, after losing his war with Russia, in fact, is now threatened by the street," he said.

Suny and other analysts do not want to see Mr. Saakashvili ousted by another so-called "color revolution." They say it is essential for the Georgian president to reach out to the opposition and find peaceful solutions to Georgia's problems, otherwise he likely will face more demonstrations in the months to come.