20 years from Georgia’s Rose Revolution

Bittersweet Lessons of Democratic Naivete
© picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb | Zurab_Kurtsikidze

The past is rewritten so fast that you don’t know what will happen yesterday.

A Soviet joke

November 23rd marks twenty years since Georgia’s Rose Revolution, a seminal event in Georgia’s modern history. On the 20th anniversary of the Rose Revolution, its legacy remains controversial due to its importance for current Georgian politics and, in the broader picture, the implication of "color revolutions" for what Russia calls its "near abroad." On the one hand, Georgia made a phenomenal leap forward during 2004-2012. On the other, many avoidable mistakes made by the young leaders of the Rose Revolution continue to haunt the country to date.

 “Who controls the past, controls the future” runs George Orwell's famous line from his prophetic "1984". This novel has become a playbook during the battle for the past which has been raging in Georgia since 2012, when Georgian Dream (GD), a political conglomerate created by a Russian-made billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, won the parliamentary elections. It was the first (and so far, the last) time in the history of modern Georgia that power changed hands through democratic elections. The peaceful and orderly transfer of power was among Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM)’s, principal legacies. This presented Georgia with a unique chance to surge forward and address the problems that had led to the downfall of the Saakashvili government. Instead, the victors – the GD party, which is still in power – immediately set out on a road of political prosecution of their predecessors.  It freed Russian spies from prisons as “political prisoners” (and have not found one since). It unleashed organized mob violence against opponents and minorities (February 8 and May 17, 2013, were only the first examples of acting through such proxy groups), embarked on a journey of historical revisionism, and seized power in all municipal self-governments through a series of violent attacks in the following months.

Welcoming Georgia’s democratic transition and visibly delighted to witness the ousting of the Saakashvili government (which had long fallen out of favor in Western capitals), the world was looking the other way as all of this was unfolding. Since then, GD’s propaganda machine has continuously attacked Georgia’s recent past, by labeling the post Rose Revolution period as the “Bloody Nine Years”.

“We inherited a country which was destroyed, literally ruined,” PM Gharibashvili used to repeat, insulting the intelligence of anyone with a remote knowledge of Georgia in 2003 compared to Georgia in 2012. Indeed, it’s worth  recalling what life was like in this small but proud country prior to the Rose Revolution:

In 2003, Georgia was a failed state, riddled with endemic corruption. The Shevardnadze government could not pay even the minuscule salaries of its public servants. Monthly pensions amounted to approximately 8 Euros and remained unpaid for months, even years. The Kremlin appointed or vetted key government ministers (including the Ministers of Defense, State Security, and Interior).

The country was a sanctuary for organized crime bosses. It was run inter alia by criminal syndicates, who worked hand in hand with those who were supposed to hunt them – i.e., the police and the state security service. Parts of Georgia (e.g., Svaneti and Pankisi) were lawless territories. Others like Ajara and Javakheti were de facto independent (Ajara was administered as a fiefdom by a strongman, who reported directly to Moscow, while Javakheti was run by local clans, protected by the Russian military base stationed in Akhalkalaki). Kidnappings for ransom were commonplace. Foreign businessmen and scores of Georgians were routinely abducted in broad daylight. Many were killed. Among those kidnapped and killed was a brother of the current Tbilisi Mayor, a former player for AC Millan, Kakha Kaladze. Police brutality and frequent killings of inmates did not lead to street protests, as this was seen as an insurmountable reality.

Blackouts were a daily routine, with only a few hours of electricity per day, despite Georgia’s vast hydropower potential (notably, Georgia became a net energy exporter soon after the Rose Revolution). Critical infrastructure was dilapidated. It took five hours to drive from Zugdidi to Mestia, a distance of only 135 kilometers. The only remaining international airport was hopelessly outdated. Post-Soviet legislation, along with a massive, incompetent bureaucracy, made economic progress nearly impossible.

All this changed within the first two years of the Rose Revolution. Soon, Georgia joined the ranks of the world's least corrupt and safest countries. Corruption was rooted out from the education system and nationwide scholastic aptitude exams were introduced, which opened up new opportunities for previously disadvantaged youth as well as minority and regional groups. Only 6 out of 27 taxes remained, while about 90% of the existing licenses and permits were abolished (thus eradicating areas of potential corruption and shocking the formerly privileged social groups). Georgia’s public services became among the most efficient in the region, introducing a one-stop/single-window approach to registering businesses, paying taxes, clearing goods through customs, as well as issuing passports, national ID cards, construction permits, and licenses. Despite the Russian energy blockade, the Russian trade embargo (following a spy scandal), the outright Russian invasion in 2008, and the world financial crisis, Georgia’s economy grew at an average annual rate of just under 7% between 2004 and 2012. This fundamentally transformed the country and allowed the development of new infrastructure, the renovation of cities and cultural heritage sites, and an increase of salaries and pensions. As a result of these reforms, the World Bank recognized Georgia as the world's number one reformer for the five-year period between 2006-2011.

However, by the end of Saakashvili’s second term, certain authoritarian tendencies started to creep in. Judicial dependence remained a problem. The situation in prisons was far from acceptable, while the media and business community were complaining about unfair treatment. All these issues were legitimate and needed to be addressed. Many Georgians, including the post-Rose Revolution generation, had grown up in a Georgia free of crime and corruption and were now ready to move on.

In 2012, the world was still under the illusion that Putin’s Russia was a strategic partner, not an enemy. The West preferred to think that a resurgent empire, which had engaged in numerous acts of state terrorism (apartment bombings, Litvinenko, Yandarbiyev) could be tamed through engagement. NATO and the EU were guided by an underlying belief that, as Francis Fukuyama had poetically phrased it after the end of the Cold War, “history had ended”. The Russia Reset policy was blooming against all logic. “Democratic Naivete” – a policy of appeasing and empowering anti-Western regimes bent on destroying the post-Cold War world order, a policy of naively looking the other way and pretending not to see the obvious – was the prevailing mood in key Western capitals.

Today, Georgia is a captured state. Numerous reputable international sources maintain that Ivanishvili, whose wealth amounts to approximately a third of Georgia’s GDP, has captured the state, turning democratic institutions into a mockery. He has handpicked and installed previously unknown persons with no political biography into positions of power, with personal loyalty for him often the only factor behind such appointments. Prime Minister Gharibashvili, who has been engulfed in corruption scandals the likes of which would topple any democratic government (e.g., using the government airplane to fly his family members on private tours and transferring valuable state property to his wife), is Ivanishvili’s former personal assistant. Georgia’s Healthcare Minister used to be Ivanishvili’s family doctor. Another Healthcare Minister during the pandemic was Mrs. Ivanishvili’s private dentist (perhaps explaining Georgia’s catastrophic fatality figures during the pandemic, which were among the highest per capita in the world). The Minister of Internal Affairs is his former personal bodyguard. A former Prime Minister and a former Minister of Economy both worked in Ivanishvili’s family-owned bank. For the first time in its history, Georgia has a sanctioned judiciary. In April 2023, the US State Department placed sanctions on four top Georgian judges for political corruption and for undermining the country’s judicial system. Russian subversive influence is an increasingly apparent factor.  

Former President Saakashvili, the engine behind the Rose Revolution, remains incarcerated, based in part for exercising his sole power to pardon prisoners while in office. In March 2023, GD attempted but failed, due to massive youth protests, to enact a foreign agents’ law (a so-called “Russian Law”), which would have openly sabotaged Georgia’s EU integration process. The GD government continues to receive accolades from top Russian officials for “bravely standing up to Western pressure." In parallel, GD leaders continue to claim that a "global war party" is trying to "drag Georgia into war" and "open a second front" against Russia (despite statements from Western diplomats that such messages seem to be straight out of the "KGB playbook"). Notably, the US recently sanctioned Otar Partskhaladze, a former Chief Prosecutor and a close friend of the Ivanishvili family, identifying him as a powerful FSB operative working to strengthen Russian influence in Georgia. In response, the GD government publicly demanded proof from the US. At the same time, the National Bank promptly amended banking regulations to protect Partskhaladze, causing three Deputy Chairpersons of the National Bank to resign. Organized violent mobs continue to roam the country with impunity, attacking vulnerable and minority groups, while an orchestrated anti-Western disinformation campaign creates an ominous background to these alarming trends.

Despite such a state of affairs, future prospects may still be bright. My optimism is rooted in the Georgians’ unprecedented resolve to defend their freedom, to demonstrate their natural adherence to democratic values, and to stay the course till Georgia’s full integration into the EU. Manifestly clear is the will of young Georgians born and raised after the Rose Revolution. 

On November 9, the European Commission acknowledged this historic quest and recommended that the European Council extend Europe’s fraternal hand to the people of Georgia. Georgians have waited for centuries for this door to open. Twenty years ago, on November 23, we took a huge step forward to transform our country and reclaim our future. We will need to wisely navigate the rough seas ahead to reunite Georgia with its long-lost European family of nations based on shared values and a common vision for the future.

Zaza Bibilashvili


The Chavchavadze Center for European Studies and Civic Education