On February 18, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned, citing disagreements with his own Georgian Dream party. Gakharia criticized the arrest of opposition party leader Nika Melia, calling it “unacceptable.”
Melia was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his bail while awaiting trial for leading a June 2019 protest outside the parliament building in Tbilisi. This year, Melia has been encouraging the opposition and its supporters to boycott the parliament, claiming last October’s elections were rigged in favor of the ruling party.
The opposition leader’s arrest and Gakharia’s resignation have sparked the south Caucasus nation’s most severe political crisis in years.
On February 22, former prime minister Irakli Gharibashvili, also a Georgian Dream party member, succeeded Gakharia. In a speech to his party that day, Gharibashvili claimed that Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, which ended the 30-year reign of Eduard Shevardnadze and brought a Western-style government to power, was a bad thing.
“People tired of [a] tough decade had hopes for the so-called Rose Revolution, as a result, instead of an imaginary development, we ended up with a ruined economy in a hopeless state,” Gharibashvili said.
“We have to remember the torture of people, the violation of human rights, the fateful war with the worst consequences, the loss of territories and the recognition of Abkhazia and Ossetia, which further complicated the possibility of reconciliation with Abkhazians and Ossetians."
This appraisal of the Rose Revolution is highly misleading.
Prior to the 2003 revolution, Georgia had suffered from widespread corruption and civil war. Separatists in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, aided by Russia, managed to create their own de facto territories. A third region – Ajara, on Georgia’s Black Sea coast – was also threatening to go the way of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Georgia had been ruled for nearly 30 years by Shevardnadze, who began his career as the head of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Communist party and remained in power after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
What came to be known as the Rose Revolution occurred in November 2003, after protesters contested the results of a flawed election. During the protests, demonstrators gave roses to the soldiers and police guarding the streets and the parliament building. In January 2004, Georgians overwhelmingly voted for protest leader Mikheil Saakashvili to succeed Shevardnadze as president.
Saakashvili inherited a dire economic and political situation. Organized crime, corruption and bribery were rampant, especially among the police and customs officials.
“You had to pay bribes to accomplish the most simple thing. Policemen were not paid, basically,” Richard Miles, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia from 2002-2005, told the Huffington Post in 2017.
“A police or customs officer job was considered a license to steal.”
Schools and hospitals were in disrepair and many homes lacked basic utilities like running water and electricity.
Saakashvili launched a massive reform program, targeting and firing corrupt public officials and raising salaries for police and other civil servants so they could live on their legitimate earnings. Bureaucracy, which had made life difficult for both local businesses and foreign investors, was reduced, and tax reforms helped increase revenue, drastically increasing the state’s budget.
To be sure, Saakashvili’s record in dealing with the country’s separatist movements was mixed. A report on the results of the Rose Revolution one year on, from the independent conflict monitor International Crisis Group, evaluated the new government’s successes and failures in this sphere. Arguably his biggest success was reaching an agreement with Ajara, which fully integrated the region into the Georgian state. Saakashvili also made overtures to Abkhazia, stressing that the breakaway region would be reintegrated peacefully via various incentives. His least successful effort was in reintegrating South Ossetia, and limited fighting broke out between Ossetian and Georgian government troops. Russian mercenaries are suspected to have been involved as well.
A five-day war with Russia in August 2008 had disastrous results for Georgia and Saakashvili’s administration. Many observers say that the war began with an attempt by Georgia’s military to seize Tskhinkvali, South Ossetia’s capital. That interpretation, however, ignores the events that led up to the fighting.
The road to confrontation began on August 1, 2008, when Ossetian militia blew up a military vehicle carrying Georgian peacekeepers. Georgian forces retaliated, killing several militiamen. That was followed by an escalating series of attacks by both sides, starting with sniper fire and graduating to artillery duels, with weapons increasing in caliber, leading to the outbreak of open hostilities on August 7.
Saakashvili declared a unilateral ceasefire on August 7, but South Ossetian forces ignored it and the fighting continued.
On August 8, Russia launched a military operation against Georgia, blockading the country’s Black Sea ports and occupying parts of Georgia proper. Russian forces were assisted by allies from Abkhazia. Later in August, Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and has since maintained a military presence in both.
While the results of the conflict were humiliating for both Georgia and Saakashvili, they cannot be blamed entirely on him or the Rose Revolution that brought him to power. Saakashvili had demonstrated with Ajara in 2004 that he could resolve a separatist crisis peacefully, and supported a peaceful, moderate approach to Abkhazia.
In the case of the war in South Ossetia, there is credible evidence that Russia, which already had a military presence in the breakaway territories when the war broke out, sought a conflict and encouraged its local allies to provoke the Georgian military into providing a pretext for military action. In any case, Russia moved large numbers of troops and equipment into the region prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
Moscow’s hand in Georgia’s territorial woes did not end in 2008. More recently, Russia, with the help of its local separatist allies, has repeatedly moved the breakaway regions’ de facto borders into government-controlled Georgian territory. The process has been referred to as a “creeping occupation.”
In sum, the negative developments that followed the Rose Revolution, including Russian trade sanctions and Russia’s invasion, were at least partly caused by Moscow.
Meantime, other results were overwhelmingly positive. A thoroughly corrupt system was overthrown, the economy grew from 2005-2019 despite the war with Russia, and poverty was drastically reduced from 30 percent in 2005 to 14 percent by 2019, according to the World Bank.
Georgia has enjoyed significant foreign investment since the revolution, and signed a free trade agreement with the European Union in 2014. Prior to 2010, the country was working toward joining NATO as well, and despite not being a member, 11,000 Georgian troops have supported NATO’s mission in Afghanistan over the years.