TBILISI: A Rose Among Thorns – Georgia Makes Good

A Rose Among Thorns – Georgia Makes Good

Foreign Affairs
March / April 2004

By Charles King

“Oh, fatherland! How I think of you now,” lamented Euripides’ Medea,
the princess of ancient Colchis — today part of the republic of
Georgia. “In every way the situation is bad.” Modern Georgians
understand her sentiment only too well. In the first decade and a half
since their independence from the Soviet Union, they have faced civil
war, separatist movements, economic malaise, rigged elections, and
dysfunctional government.

Recently, however, Georgians have started to take matters into their
own hands. In November, they staged a bloodless revolt against their
president, Eduard Shevardnadze, for overseeing fraudulent
parliamentary elections. When Shevardnadze tried to open the new
legislative session, protesters took over parliament peacefully, some
handing out roses to the police. At first, Shevardnadze responded by
declaring a state of emergency, but he soon thought better of his
legacy. Within days, he agreed to resign. New presidential elections,
which international observers deemed generally free, were held on
January 4, 2004. By an overwhelming majority, the vote awarded the
presidency to Mikheil Saakashvili, a 36-year-old Columbia
University-educated lawyer who had led the demonstrations.

During his brief electoral campaign and tenure as president,
Saakashvili has made all the right moves. He has promised to fight
corruption, to reform government-from the structure of the
constitution to taxation policy–and to improve relations with Russia
while maintaining strong ties with the United States. What his
government must do first, however, is find a way to win the allegiance
of all Georgia’s inhabitants, including staunch secessionists in the
north and a prickly potentate along the Black Sea. Before it can
become a real democracy, Georgia must become a real state.


The peaceful ouster of Shevardnadze was a signal event in the politics
of Eurasia-but only because it is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere in
the region. Georgia is the only member of the Commonwealth of
Independent States, the association of 12 former Soviet republics,
that can be said to have genuinely democratic aspirations.

Some–Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova–still use the language of
democracy but have spent the last several years perfecting their own
brand of illiberalism. Others–Azerbaijan, Belarus, and
Turkmenistan–have tired of even pretending since the downfall of
communism, most governments across the region have simply replaced
Soviet authoritarianism with homegrown varieties. Elections–if they
are held at all–are systematically manipulated, either at the ballot
box or, more subtly, through control of the media and harassment of
opposition parties. In Russia, the “dictatorship of law” promoted by
President Vladimir Putin now seems disturbingly close to a
dictatorship pure and simple. If, as the old adage goes, democracy is
a system in which it is safe to lose an election, then Eurasia’s
democrats still need to watch their backs. Georgia’s “revolution of
roses” stands out as the former Soviet Union’s only successful popular
uprising against this trend and the lackluster statesmanship and
corruption that have attended it.

Observers have been quick to draw lessons from the Georgian
experience, for Eurasia and for other parts of the world. The billion
dollars in democracy and development aid that Georgia has received
from the United States since 1991–by far Washington’s largest per
capita investment in any Soviet successor state–seem to have paid
off. Washington at first lauded Shevardnadze as a beacon of democratic
reform, but as the 1990s progressed, his democratic credentials became
more suspect. The United States, along with nongovernmental
organizations such as the Open Society Institute, stepped up support
for the growing political opposition. That assistance was an important
catalyst of change. And it is evidence, observers say, that sustained
political engagement, party training, and civil-society building can
eventually bring down autocrats.

Yet the story of Georgia’s awakening is also a cautionary
tale. Development strategies there and in many other parts of the
world have sometimes encouraged democratization programs without
tackling basic problems such as undefined state boundaries or weak
government capabilities. In fairing states, the strategy has been to
build a democracy and hope that, in time, the rest will take care of
itself. But the history of Georgia since 1991 illustrates that leaving
fundamental questions unanswered–Is this one country or several? Who
is sovereign? Where are the country’s legitimate borders?-can stymie
reform and pollute public life.

Development specialists are not wholly blind to this problem, of
course, which is why “governance”-capacity building, institutional
design, anti- corruption campaigns–has recently, become a fashionable
focus of international assistance programs. But “governance” is simply
a euphemism for what used to be known as “politics,” the first
requirement of which is to know where power resides. Since the early
1990s, Georgia has been divided among a weak central government and
several functionally independent regions, with predictably corrosive
effects on national politics. Turning Georgia into a country that is
both functional and democratic is the goal of the post-Shevardnadze
leadership and of Georgia’s friends in the West. The coming months
will show whether it can be achieved without first settling the basic
issue of territorial control. So far, the lesson seems to be that it


Georgia is among the smallest of the former Soviet republics—a
little bigger than West Virginia, with a population of about five
million. Yet it loomed large in Soviet history and post-Soviet
politics. Its capital, Tbilisi, was the site of one of the first major
Bolshevik operations, a 19o7 bank heist that swelled party
coffers. (One of its planners, Iosif Dzhugashvili, would later change
his name to Stalin.) Blessed with an appearing climate, productive
farmland, and legendary hospitality, Georgia was also among the Soviet
Union’s wealthiest republics. After the end of communism, it adopted a
strongly pro Western orientation and learned to leverage its strategic
location on the Black Sea’s eastern shore to become a major player in
discussions about routes for Eurasian oil and gas exports. (The
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline now under construction will be the
primary conduit for transporting hydrocarbons from the rich Caspian
basin to the rest of the world. Transit fees are expected to bring
Georgia billions of dollars in the coming decades.)

The breakup of the Soviet Union was accompanied by the fracture of
Georgia itself. In the northwest, members of the Abkhaz ethnic group
asserted their right to self-determination, and the Georgian army
launched a poorly executed war to prevent their secession. Ethnic
Ossetes also declared their own separate republic in the north, while,
in the south, Azeri and Armenian minorities complained of
discrimination and occasionally rumbled about breaking away. Political
differences, fueled by competition among regional clans and criminal
gangs, escalated even among ethnic Georgians. A full-blown civil war
of Georgians against Georgians raged alongside the secessionist

Because of these disputes, the state known as “Georgia” has largely
been a fiction of recent international diplomacy. Nearly 20 percent of
the country’s territory remains beyond the central government’s
control. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, function as de facto
independent countries, even though no one has recognized them. The
presence of Russian soldiers–in peacekeeping contingents authorized
by the Georgians themselves and on bases left over from the Soviet
era–has discouraged Tbilisi from trying to retake the areas by
force. And Adjaria, a province along the Black Sea, maintains an
uneasy “autonomous” relationship with the Georgian center—and hosts
a Russian military base to underscore it.

When Shevardnadze stepped into the presidency in 1992 promising to
restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and promote ties with the
West, he was greeted as a savior. Relative political calm did return
during his tenure, but he proved unable to solve the basic conundrums
territorial control and state performance. Today still, the central
government’s influence begins to wane just a few miles outside
Tbilisi. Even in the capital, average citizens often do without
electricity or Sunning water. Although the population is highly
educated, the economy is in shambles. Georgia’s per capita national
income is lower than Swaziland’s, and more than half of the population
lives under the poverty line.

Under Shevardnadze, the government’s inherent weakness was exacerbated
by a dysfunctional political system: Parties appeared and
disappeared. Elections were falsified. Corruption became rampant:
police officers extracted fines for imaginary traffic offenses and
government officials misappropriated international aid or helped sell
off state industries to their cronies. In the end, nothing became
Sheyardnadze in power like the leaving of it.

This is the difficult legacy that Saakashvili’s government has
inherited. The secessionists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will look
no more kindly on the new leadership than they did on the old. There
are signs, in fact, that they may be even less inclined to cooperate
with energetic reformers than they were with the generally
accommodating and avuncular Shevardnadze. As soon as Shevardnadze
fell, the renegade regions appealed to Russia, their long-time
protector, to dissuade the new Georgian leadership from making
aggressive moves. Elsewhere, local elites have become accustomed to
running their own affairs, and efforts by the central government to
rein them in may produce conflict. That is the casee with Aslan
Abashidze, the potentate in Adjaria. Once a rival of Shevardnadze,
Abashidze threw in his lot with the former president and often
manipulated electoral results to guarantee a victory for
Shevardnadze’s party, as he did last November. Abashidze has already
proved to be a thorn in the side of Saakashvili by discouraging
Adjarians from participating in the latest presidential elections and
complicating plans for the next parliamentary ballot.

Then there are the entrenched interests of bureaucrats and business
people who benefited from the largesse and laxity of the Shevardnadze
years. (Off-the-record deals are said to account for 60 to 70 percent
of the country’s total economic activity) Corruption has long
tentacles in Georgia, and setting out to tame the criminal networks
that infest state structures can be a dangerous pursuit. Shevardnadze
himself was the target of several assassination attempts, even though
he was hardly a serious reformer. The murder of Zoran Djindjic, the
reformist prime minister who tried to clean up Serbia after Slobodan
Milosevic, undoubtedly weighs heavily on the minds of Saakashvili and
his cohort.

Georgia’s revolution injects a welcome dose of uncertainty in a region
where political outcomes have become oppressively predictable. It is
unclear, however, whether the country’s new leaders will have the
conviction and deftness to capitalize on Shevardnadze’s
departure. They will have to deal with (or buy off) local power
brokers without prompting them to turn to violence. They will have to
root out the widespread use of public office for private gain. They
will have to find ways to keep the electricity on and the water
flowing. Otherwise, Georgians will begin to wonder whether the end of
Shevardnadze really marked the beginning of something better.


Georgians say that the country’s biggest problem is Russia. The
Russian government has never denied that it takes a keen interest in
its neighbor, and Georgia’s secessionist leaders welcome Russian
support–they even visited Moscow just days after Shevardnadze
resigned. Russia has effectively cemented the status of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia as protectorates by maintaining preferential visa and
passport regimes with them and making it easier for their inhabitants
to obtain Russian citizenship. (It has extended that special
relationship to Adjaria as well.) Russia also operates military bases
in Georgia, in contravention of international agreements to close them

To balance Russia’s influence, Georgia’s central government needs
outside help, especially from the United States, which has been the
country’s most generous backer for a decade. A stable and democratic
Georgia is the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Caucasus, and the
Caucasus, in turn, is a critical part of the strategic future of
Eurasia and the greater Middle East. The Clinton administration gave
Georgia massive amounts of aid, a good deal of which helped
Shevardnadze stay in power so long. Since the “revolution of roses”
last fall, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other senior
U.S. government officials have visited Tbilisi, underscoring
Washington’s commitment to Saakashvili and his associates. These moves
are encouraging to many Georgians, who say that the country needs to
establish the right “pressure gradient” in its foreign policy. They
hope that the United States and its allies will put pressure on
Russia, so that Russia, in turn, will put pressure on the Abkhaz and
South Ossetian leaderships to give up their quest for
independence. With a big enough push from the outside, their logic
goes, Georgia’s territorial problems would go away.

Things are more complicated than this, however. Abkhazia and South
Ossetia certainly depend on Russia. Their trade is oriented almost
exclusively toward the north, and Russian financial assistance,
especially via subsidized energy supplies, is the bedrock of their
existence. Moreover, Russian bases support local economies, even
outside the secessionist zones; closing them down without a plan for
replacing the jobs lost would be disastrous. At the same time,
residents of these regions remember the violent conflicts of the early
1990s and remain understandably wary of the central government. Over
the past decade, they have built their own administrations, security
forces, and–most critically-school systems, with little connection to
the rest of the country. Shevardnadze did little to reach out to the
average people in these peripheral regions or to restore their
confidence in the recognized government. Reversing that practice
should be one of the key criteria by which outside powers judge
Saakashvili’s leadership.

Thinking creatively about what a meaningfully united Georgia ought to
look like, instead of simply condemning Russia’s dark influence, is
the best way forward. There are several ways to bring together the
country’s disparate regions and interests, provided someone dares to
consider and implement them. Federations, confederations,
condominiums, and various forms of limited sovereignty have never
really been put on the table in Georgia, even though these solutions
are already being discussed in other parts of eastern Europe and the
former Soviet Union. Until now, the situation in Georgia has not been
sufficiently dire for anyone—at least not for anyone with real
political power-to worry about solving it.

Saakashvili has a chance to change Shevardnadze’s dismal legacy. But
that will require statesmanship in the purest sense of the word,
including articulating a clear case for why residents of Abkhazia,
South Ossetia, and any other part of the country should think of their
future as lying within a state controlled by Tbilisi. Continued
kvetching about territorial integrity and the nefarious designs of the
Russian Federation will only alienate the secessionists further. In
time, even Georgia’s friends may come to wonder whether a country with
fictitious borders and no plan for making them real is a country worth

Georgia’s strategic location and its pro-American foreign policy first
helped put the country on the United States’ radar screen. The
government’s weakness and Washington’s fear that terrorists might set
up camp in the country’s mountain passes have kept it there. Money has
flowed freely from Washington to Tbilisi for more than a decade, and
U.S. soldiers have helped train the Georgian military. It is only
recently, however, that the U.S. commitment to Georgia has come with
meaningful admonitions about democracy, human rights, and the rule of
law. Washington’s growing honesty about the reality of Georgian
politics helped bring about Shevardnadze’s resignation. The United
States should now help Georgia’s new leadership think creatively about
basic questions of sovereignty, territorial control, and institutional
design. The central government must recognize .he multiethnic and
multireligious reality of the country. It must accept a decade of
state-building in the secessionist regions and allow local governments
to be empowered. If these efforts succeed, Georgia could well become
the positive example for eastern Europe and Eurasia that observers
have long hoped for.

Charles King is Associate Professor of Foreign Service and Government
at Georgetown University and author of “The Black Sea: A History”.