By David Iberi
On November 23, 2010, Georgians mark the seventh anniversary of the Rose Revolution, a peaceful, popular uprising that ended Eduard Shevardnadze’s post-Soviet regime in the Caucasus country. The revolution followed the parliamentary elections in early November 2003 that had been assessed by opposition political parties, domestic and international observers and, most importantly, by hundreds of thousands of Georgian voters as unfair and undemocratic. The longtime ruler of Georgia, Shevardnadze, submitted his resignation after realizing that he had virtually no public support. His old elite-based regime had exhausted all legitimate means, both at home and abroad, to remain in power.
The new government of young, pro-Western reformers led by Mikheil Saakashvili, who briefly served as minister of justice under Shevardnadze but resigned in protest to the clan-based corrupt power structures, was legitimized in the presidential and parliamentary elections that were held shortly after the revolution.
On all accounts, the Georgia of late 2003 was a failed state. The central government exercised control over only a portion of the country with Abkhazia, the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and Ajara under direct or indirect Russian rule. The remainder of the territory was hardly governed properly, either. Economic and political reforms undertaken between 1995 and 2000 ended nowhere since they were half-measures at best and parts of devious schemes at worst. Add to that the arrears for months in salaries and pensions, the inefficient and bribe-taking police and bureaucracy, the depleted state coffers, and the acute shortage of electricity keeping the half of the country constantly in the dark and the other half with daily blackouts, and you will have a clearer picture of what Georgia in 2003.
There was, however, more than that. The aging Shevardnadze busied himself more with balancing interest groups and competing clans than exercising his constitutional duties. His utterly corrupt ministers and governors nearly reestablished the practices of the tumultuous years of the early 1990s when gangs roamed the streets and criminality ruled the countryside. Abductions for ransom and crimes related to illegal drugs were so frequent that Georgia’s only portrayals in Western media at the time were journalistic accounts of foreign businessmen’s travels in remote Georgian villages in the company of local warlords.
It was at that period in time when Western audiences first learned about the Pankisi Gorge, a tiny area in northeastern Georgia where armed paramilitary units were engaged in all sorts of illegal activities. Although Pankisi became the epitome of lawlessness and the trademark of Georgia in that day, no better was the situation in other parts of the country, be it Ajara, the Tskhinvali region, Svaneti or Abkhazia, where pockets of illegal transactions were rapidly expanding.
The first priority for the Saakashvili government was to restore law and order across the country and to provide normal administration and services to the population. Pankisi was soon free of gangs and, step by step, other provinces were as well. The Russian-supported regime in Ajara, which had become the fiefdom of local landlord Aslan Abashidze and his clan, was deposed peacefully in late spring 2004. One of the least developed regions of Georgia at the Black Sea near the Turkish border, subtropical Ajara, with the central city of Batumi, has since become Georgia’s Riviera and home to five-star hotels and kilometers of seashore boulevards attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists.
In summer 2006, Georgia succeeded in restoring constitutional order in the interconnected regions of Svaneti and Upper Abkhazia in northwestern Georgia. Assessing Tbilisi’s successes, Matthew Bryza, the then U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told the press in August 2006: “In this case [Upper Abkhazia], the Georgian government is eliminating the lawlessness and restoring the rule of law. In Gali, that’s not happening.” What he meant was the despicable situation in the Russian-occupied parts of Abkhazia, which continues up to this day.
Almost in the same period of time, in 2005-2006, the government succeeded in removing two Russian military bases from Georgian soil that should have been closed much earlier in accordance with the commitments Moscow had undertaken at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Istanbul Summit in 1999. The removal of the Russian military bases and the restoration of central rule over Ajara have arguably been the two biggest victories of the Saakashvili administration in terms of consolidating Georgia’s sovereignty. Over time, the country’s institutions, including the police force, the army and the bureaucracy, have changed and become almost unrecognizable. The ambitious economic and structural reforms have put Georgia in the eleventh spot in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business category and have made it one of the fastest reforming economies.
Societal changes have been likewise impressive. The traditional Soviet-styled elites, which in fact were competing clans with connections to power echelons in the Kremlin, have been largely replaced by associations and parties of Western-educated individuals who have the same kinds of debates about the role of government, religious and moral issues, and political and economic freedoms as elites do in the West. The organization of Georgian society today is increasingly along the Western lines. This is true not only in the capital of Tbilisi but in the rapidly developing provinces as well. The modernization process will only deepen with the expansion of infrastructure projects, including highways, railroads and educational institutions, interconnecting the nation. Moving the parliament and government to Kutaisi, the second largest city in central-western Georgia, will only speed up the dynamic changes, as will making English a second language and attracting a population of thousands of English teachers and other professionals from the English-speaking world.
The rapid changes, arguably, have disadvantages too. As Georgia moves farther and farther from the Russian reality, a gap widens between the lifestyles of those who live in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia in the lawless environment under factual Russian rule and the society in the rest of Georgia. For better or worse, however, those provinces remain depopulated largely due to the ethnic cleansing but also because of the unbearable conditions. And, besides, there will hardly be any chance for those Russian-occupied Georgian territories to reunite with the rest of the nation unless the bigger part keeps advancing along the path of reform and modernization.