‘Revolution’ from without

For all the talk of people power, it was international meddling that drove the weekend's events in Georgia.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘Jubilation at Georgia’s velvet revolution.’ So says today’s UK Guardian, reporting on the resignation of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November 2003. Shevardnadze left office after thousands of demonstrators descended on the capital Tbilisi, seizing the parliament on 22 November, chasing out Shevardnadze’s ministers and declaring an interim government. According to this morning’s papers, ‘This was a bloodless revolution’ and ‘People power prevailed’ (1).

Many Georgians are no doubt delighted to see the back of Shevardnadze – but talk of a revolution is greatly exaggerated. Opposition parties did not mobilise the masses in a fight for an alternative political programme, so much as feed off international condemnation of Shevardnadze as a way of pushing his fragile regime over the edge. It was international pressure that drove events in Georgia over the weekend; for all their vigour and enthusiasm, the people were little more than a stage army to the agenda and prejudices of outside actors.

There has long been domestic opposition to Shevardnadze’s corrupt regime. Shevardnadze was a leading figure in the old Soviet Union: he was made head of Georgia (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1972, and served as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister from 1985 to 1990, during which time he is credited with having helped to ‘unfreeze the Cold War’. He returned to the newly independent, and highly unstable, Georgia in 1992, to become its head of state. He was elected president in 1995 and re-elected in 2000.

The growing Georgian opposition to Shevardnadze’s rule has focused on his failure to challenge high-level corruption and to end cronyism within his party’s ranks. Yet the trigger for the weekend’s ‘velvet revolution’ was not the strength of the opposition parties or their visions of an alternative way of governing Georgia; rather, it was criticism of Shevardnadze from abroad that spurred the outpouring of dissatisfaction, resulting in his resignation.

Georgia held parliamentary elections on 2 November 2003, which are largely considered to have been fraudulent. Shevardnadze’s For New Georgia party won 26.9 per cent of the votes, giving it a four per cent lead over its main rival party, the National Movement. The elections were observed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent 450 observers from 43 countries to keep a check on the voting process, in what one report describes as ‘one of the largest and longest election observation missions in the OSCE’s history’ (2).

OSCE officials rubbished the election results. Special coordinator Bruce George said: ‘These elections have been insufficient to enhance the credibility of either the electoral or the democratic process.’ Georgia’s opposition parties, frustrated by Shevardnadze’s seeming manipulation of the polls, cited the verdict of the unelected OSCE officials to bolster their arguments that ‘Shevardnadze must go’. The final push to their campaign came on 20 November, when the US State Department condemned the ‘massive electoral fraud’ in Georgia, arguing that the elections ‘do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people’ (3). Within 48 hours, Georgians had stormed the parliament in Tbilisi and Shevardnadze was on his way out.

The opposition parties tapped into this international rush to condemn Shevardnadze as a way of putting pressure on the president to step down. As one report says, opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, of the National Movement, continually pointed out that ‘Washington and the OSCE were critical of the vote’ (4). In this climate, the opposition’s call for people to march on Tbilisi was effectively an attempt to give physical expression to what had already been decided in the plush offices of the OSCE and the backrooms of the State Department. In what kind of revolution do leaders get their moral authority from Washington, over the heads of the people?

Indeed, events in Georgia have not given rise to a new era of ‘people power’. Nino Burdzhanadze, the acting president following Shevardnadze’s resignation, has called on the army ‘to maintain order in the country’. ‘The people must obey the forces of law and order’, she said. ‘The nation should return to stability and normal life tomorrow’ (5). So having done their bit to up the pressure on Shevardnadze, the people of Georgia must now learn their place once again and stop being so revolutionary.

International pressure was also decisive in Shevardnadze’s decision to step down. For all the predictions of another civil war, Shevardnadze gave in to protesters’ demands without much of a fight – becoming increasingly isolated after the Georgian army sided with opposition leaders. The intervention of Russian foreign minister Ivor Iganov, who flew to Georgia at the height of the recent crisis, was central to the removal of Shevardnadze. According to one report, Iganov’s role was to tell Shevardnadze that he no longer had the ‘full support’ of Russia. Considering Georgia’s continuing reliance on Russia – which, according to one analysis, ‘simply controls the economy of Georgia’ – Shevardnadze had little choice but to leave after the Russians withdrew their backing for his regime (6).

For the Swiss paper Le Temps, the handover of power from Shevardnadze to acting president Nino Burdzhanadze was ‘probably the subject of a top-level arrangement between the Kremlin and the White House’ (7). Whether or not there was direct agreement between Washington and Moscow about how to resolve the crisis in Georgia, it was certainly their interventions that drove recent events. If what happened in Georgia was a revolution, then the revolutionaries are in the US State Department and the Kremlin.

‘This was a bloodless revolution!’ said a breathless reporter on BBC News on Sunday evening, heralding the ‘democratic uprising’ that got shot of Shevardnadze. Real revolutions, real displays of people power, are not normally celebrated by politicians and commentators in the West. But many feel comfortable with what has happened in Georgia – because the supposed revolutionaries have gone home again, and ‘the new Georgia’ remains under the close influence of Moscow and Washington.

(1) How people power prevailed in Georgia, Stephen Stewart, Glasgow Herald, 24 November 2003

(2) Georgia’s election fraudulent?, Washington Times, Natalia Antelava, 3 November 2003

(3) Key events in Georgia’s political crisis, Associated Press, 23 November 2003

(4) Key events in Georgia’s political crisis, Associated Press, 23 November 2003

(5) Nino Burdzhanadze: A new chapter in Georgian history has begun, Pravda, 24 November 2003

(6) Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze bows to pressure and resigns, Radio Singapore International, 24 November 2003

(7) See European paper’s assess Georgia’s ‘revolution’, BBC News, 24 November 2003

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Topics Politics


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