A velvet revolution in Georgia?

The changes in Georgia might not be as positive as it seems on first view

After the parliamentary elections in Georgia on 2 November the opposition was very quick to shout "fraud"! What followed then was a well orchestrated wave of protests, which brought the Caucasus state to the brink of a civil war, and lead in the end to the resignation of president Eduard Shevardnardze. However, there is only one serious candidate for the new presidential elections, to be held in January: Saakashvili, the leader of the opposition movement. A revolution in Georgia? Hardly. WRI staff member Andreas Speck takes a closer look. (Graswurzelrevolution)

Briefly, Georgia was in the news in the West. Election fraud, threat of civil war, and a popular velvet revolution created a mix which catapulted this almost forgotten country onto the front pages of Western news outlets. The fact that the person accused of benefitting from fraud was Eduard Shevardnardze, Soviet Foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev, and thus involved in the German "reunification" and disarmament agreements – the end of the Cold War – might have played a role too. Now, only a few weeks later, Georgia is again forgotten.

A closer look reveals a much more complex situation, with much more players than just Shevardnardze, Saakashvili, and the people of Georgia.

What happened?

The bare facts are known. After the parliamentary elections on 2 November 2003, the opposition was quick to condemn these for fraud. Parallel to the elections, two groups held exit polls: a group called "Fair elections" and a US firm called The Global Strategy Group 1. According to the preliminary results published by the official election commission, the government parties would have won the elections. The two parallel polls, however, showed an opposition victory, and Mikhail Saakashvili claimed victory the same day 2. He also called for protest actions and street demonstrations – which in the end lead to the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November 2003 3. Shevardnadze's resignation followed his attempt to crush the opposition movement with the declaration of a "state of emergency". However, it became obvious that his own security forces were not supporting him any longer. A victory for the people?

Behind the scenes things look different. The election monitoring by Fair Elections was part-financed by the Soros Open Society Georgia Foundation, as was the Global Strategy Group 4. There are several other problems here. While it is pretty obvious that there were "irregularities" during the elections – the OSCE election monitoring mission issued a statement on 3 November, which noted "serious irregularities on election day, although in a relatively small number of polling stations, included direct observations and allegations of ballot stuffing, use of pre-marked ballots, multiple voting, and destruction of ballot boxes" and "inplausible turnout figures in some districts, potentially affecting national election results". The OSCE mission concluded that the election "fell short of a number of OSCE commitments and international standards for democratic elections" 5. Even the official government election commission announced late on 2 November that voting results were nullified in at least eight polling stations throughout the country. CEC chairwoman Nana Devdariani characterised voting irregularities as "of a procedural as well as a criminal nature" 6. However, the preliminary results were not really that much different from the two exit polls – probably within the error range of polls, especially as these polls were seen as politically motivated (with the exception of Shevardnardze's "For a New Georgia bloc, which won roughly 6% more in the official results than in the two polls). Surprising were the official final election results from 20 November 2003. Suddenly, the Revival Party of Adjarian leader Aslan Abashidze was supposed to have won 18.8% instead of 8% in the preliminary results. Adjaria is also the region were huge irregularities and intimidation have been reported. And although Abashidze formally belonged to the opposition, Shevardnadze managed to get his support prior to the elections.

Outside influence

The Open Society Institute, which part-financed the parallel polls, is also one of the main sponsors of the Liberty Institute, an organisation with close links with Mikhali Saakashvili and one of the main organisers of the street protests. Soros also part-financed some of the media supporting the opposition 7, and – according to Georgian media – helped the Georgian student organisation Kmara (Enough!) with US$500,000 start-up money. And Open Society financed the exchange of experience between Serbian Otpor activists, who played a role in overthrowing Milosevic, with Kmara and Liberty Institute activists 8. In May 2003, Mikhael Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania went to Serbia, to meet with leaders of the democracy movement there. They invited them back to Georgia, to train 1,500 National Movement members in two-day training courses in political activism. Kmara too, only founded in April 2003, trained roughly 2,000 students in activism 9. In April 2003, in a discussion at the Nixon Center, Saakashvili refered to Serbia repeatedly when describing the situation in Georgia 10. In 2002, Mikhael Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania – now interim state minister and therefore leading the government – both received the Open Society Prize of the Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest 11.

An interesting fact is that Richard Miles, US Ambassador to Georgia, was chief of mission (effectively ambassador) to Yugoslavia from 1996 to 1999 12, and laid the groundwork there to get rid of Milosevic in 2000 13. Another coincidence: the Serbian Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESiD), which monitors elections in Serbia, was financed by USAid via the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) since 1997 14. CESID condemned the Yugoslav elections of 2000 as fraudulent, and – surprise – was involved in training Georgian Fair Election activists prior to the 2003 elections 15.

Internal factors

Certainly, Shevardnadze was not at all popular in Georgia after a decade of ruling the independent state of Georgia, and after more than 30 years of dominating Georgian politics. The countries economy never recovered from the civil war in the early 1990s. In May 2003, the IMF declared its worry that Georgia "is on the brink of bankruptcy", and again demanded budget cuts from the Georgian government 16. The country has a total foreign debt of 1.7 Billion US$, 40% of which are with the IMF, Worldbank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The remaining 60% of debt are bilaterial with other CIS countries 17, Turkmenistan being the largest. The official Georgian unemployment rate is at 30%, the average monthly salary – for those who have one – at US$20 18. An improvement of the economic situation is not in sight.

Corruption is widespread in the country, and openly visible. Police offers stop cars and routinely ask for 2-5 Lari (1-2.50€), draft evasion is mainly possible through corruption. Also on higher levels in the administration, corruption is the rule rather than the exception.

The conflicts around Abkhazia and South Ossetia have not been solved, and remain in a state of "neither war nor peace". Internally displaced persons – ethnic Georgians from these two regions – push for a violent solution to the conflict; especially Georgians from Abkhazia still don't have any chance to return to their homes. Shevardnadze was regarded as not strong enough, although his more moderate approach probably avoided an escalation of the conflicts, and gained him support from the West.

Enough reasons for frustration, and more than enough cards for the former opposition to play with – and they played them successfully.

Energy in Georgia

Goergia borders Russia (including a border with Chechnya) in the north, and Armenia and Azerbaijan in the South. Although there is not much oil in Georgia itself, the Baku (Azerbaijan) -Ceyhan (Turkey) oil pipeline, which is presently being built, goes via Tbilisi in Georgia. This makes Georgia an important transport route for the Caucasian and Central Asian oil reserves (especially Azerbaijan and Kazachstan), which so far can only be exported using the Russian pipeline system. The same is true for natural gas reserves, and a new pipeline is about to be built from Baku via Tbilisi to Erzurum 19 in Turkey, again bypassing Russia and in competition to an existing Russian Gazprom pipeline to Samsun in Turkey, which stopped operating earlier this year due to Turkey wanting to negotiate better conditions 20.

Georgia's energy market was until this summer in the hand of US companies. On 6 August, the Russian electricity company RAO Unified Energy Systems, the Russian monopolist, bought 75% of the shares in Georgia's AES Telasi, a subsidiary of the US based AES Corp 21. Earlier, in May 2003, Georgia and the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom signed a strategic partnership, under which Gazprom would develop the Georgian gas pipeline system, and would gain control of gas distribution in Georgia 22. This alarmed the US, and George W. Bush jr sent his special envoy for Caspian energy issues, Steven Mann, to Georgia, to warn "that the proposed gas-sector cooperation agreement between Georgia and Gazprom could undermine prospects for the exploitation of Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz Caspian gas deposit and the export of that gas through a pipeline from Baku via Tbilisi to Erzerum" 23. On the other hand, the then opposition and now government rallied against these energy contracts 24 – coincidence?


Georgia is also a focus of NATO attention. It is a partner of NATO's "Partnership for Peace" programme, and both, the old 25 and the interim government 26 declared that they want to join NATO as soon as possible. Already now Georgia participates in the NATO mission in Kosovo (KFOR) 27. Mikhail Saakashvili, the most likely future president of Georgia wrote in an editorial for the Financial Times on 2 December 03: "Under Mr Shevardnadze, Georgia participated in Nato's partnership-for-peace pro gramme, and this will continue, but the time has come to develop the relationship further." 28

An article on gasandoil.com (Global Energy and Security Analysis) states NATO's interests as follows: "From the east Balkan coast, the alliance is well positioned now to reach out directly to Georgia and the energy-rich Caspian basin, which have become the new neighborhood of the West. NATO therefore urgently needs to devise a strategy that will permanently guarantee Western overall interests in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Such interests include: direct access to energy resources through west-bound pipelines; West-East trade corridors; and forward bases for allied operations against terrorist groups and mass destruction-weapons proliferator states." 29


After the end of the cold war, the USA turned to Georgia quite early. Georgia the second largest receipient of US aid after Israel. Between 1992 and 2000 Georgia received US$ 778 million of aid, roughly five times the amount neighbouring Azerbaijan received. However, on 24 September the US announced that the aid for 2004 would be less than the US$ 100 million Georgia was to receive in 2003. Interestingly, the aid for energy-related projects was cut by US$ 34 million following Georgia's Gazprom deal 30. Now, after the "velvet revolution", the US is again increasing its aid to Georgia 31.

Besides financial aid, the US seeked military cooperation with Georgia from early on. Georgia received military training from 1994 on 32. In April 2002, Georgia and the US started the "Georgia Train and Equip Program" (GTEP), which involves training of Georgian military by US special forces. This builds on earlier military cooperation, especially support for border guards, to control the border between Georgia and Chechnya 33.

In August 2003, 60 Georgian militaries were sent to Iraq, to form part of the US/UK occupation forces there. Interestingly, the USA covered transport, food, logistics and other expenses abroad, while the Georgian side mainly covers the salaries for its soldiers – highly increased compared to salaries within Georgia 34. The country is supposed to send an additional detachment of 500 troops in 2004 35.


Both, Russia and the United States are important players in Georgia – Europe to a much lesser extent. Russia still has a few military bases left in Georgia, which it is supposed to close, according to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and reaffirmed by an agreement between Georgia and Russia from November 1999. Russia also plays a "peacekeeping" role on the border between the self-proclaimed independent Georgian republic Abkhazia and Georgia proper. Russia also supports Armenia, south of Georgia.

The Russian bases in Georgia are not just military bases which are unwelcome. They play a critical role in the complex dynamic of the relations between the central Georgian state and its regions, especially the breakaway region of Abkhazia and Adjaria, which until recently supported Shevardnardze, but otherwise tried to go its own way. Russian military – although not actively involved – is used as a source of power against the central Georgian state, and undermines Tbilisi's authority 36.

The "velvet revolution" and the conflicts in Georgia

The "velvet revolution" strengthened centrifugal forces in Georgia. Adjaria closed its borders with Georgia proper shortly after the "revolution", and Adjarian leader Abashidze recently declared his opposition to the closure of the Russian base in Batumi, and his boycott of the presidential election on 4 January 2003. Abkhazia put its troops on high alert immediately after the news of Shevardnadze's resignation broke. The Abkhaz prime minister and foreign minister went to Moscow, where they are believed to have met with the leaders of Adjaria and South Ossetia, Abashidze and Eduard Kokoity, who had talks earlier, on 26 November 2003 37. The St Petersburg Times reported that all three held talks among each other, and with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov 38. Adjaria announced it would now seek a similar preferential visa regime with Russia as Abkhazia and South Ossetia 39.

Saakashvili and Bujarnadze both are nationalists, and supporters of a tough stand against Abkhazia. At a memorial in Tbilisi on 27 September, marking the Abkhaz-Georgian war, Saakashvili declared that his National Movement would contribute to the national integrity of Georgia 40. However, after the "velvet revolution", they toned down their rethoric – maybe a sign that now, in power, they might be willing to take a more conciliatory approach.


"This was not a people's revolution. It was a coup, masked by the biggest street party that Tbilisi has ever seen", write Charlotte Keatley in a comment in the Guardian on 6 December 41. She sees the people of Georgia as the biggest losers of Georgia's "velvet revolution". In many ways, this is probably true. Saakashvili, Zhvania, Burdzhanadze and Co came to power with US support, and in power they will depend even more on US support, as the country is basically bankrupt.

This leaves them little room for maneuvring, which is not only bad. It might be a good thing, as far as the regional conflicts within Georgia are concerned, as the US has little interest in an escalation of these conflict, and is probably much more interested in a negotiated settlement, which might involve some form of power sharing, than Saakashvili and Co might be. At the same time, the regional conflicts in Georgia are a trump for Russia – and make Georgia the stage for stiff competition between the US and Russia about influence on the Caucasus.

Democracy might not be a winner in Georgia. Not only was the "velvet revolution" unconstitutional, albeit mainly free of violence. More important and more worrying are recent reports about acts of revenge and violence against former government authorities, and against independent media which does not support Saakashvili and Co 42.

However, there is some hope. Although not a people's revolution, the coup depended on the people of Georgia. Ghia Nodia, political analyst of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, expressed this hope: that the civil society, which helped to make it happen, will continue to monitor and criticise the new administration which it helped bring to power 43. This hope is small – and mainly just a straw to hold on to, because maybe next time the people of Georgia won't have the support of Soros and the US government.

Andreas Speck


1 www.globalstrategygroup.com
2 Dan Sershen: Chaotic election day in Georgia produces contradictory results. EurasiaNet.org, 3 November 2003; http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav110303.shtml
3 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 23 November 2003; http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/pp112303.shtml
4http://www.esp.ge/?m=news&id=38 , other financies were Eurasia Foundation (financed partly by USAid), and The British Council.
5 International Election Observer Mission: Parliamentary Elections, Georgia - 2 November 2003, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Tbilisi, 3 November 2003; http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2003/11/1031_en.pdf
6 Dan Sershen: Chaotic election day in Georgia produces contradictory results. EurasiaNet.org, 3 November 2003; http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav110303.shtml
7 Mark McKinnon: Georgia revolt carried mark of Soros, The Globe and Mail, 26 November 2003; http://www.globeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20031126.wxsoros1126/BNStory/Front
8 Mark McKinnon, 26 November 2003
9 Peter Baker: Tbilisi's 'Revolution of Roses' Mentored by Serbian Activists, The Washington Post, 25 November 2003; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A11577-2003Nov24.html
13 Globalsecurity.org: Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP); http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/gtep.htm , accessed 08.12.03
15 Fair Elections Campaign Presentation Guide; http://georgia-gateway.org/documents/elections/election1.doc
16 Georgia on brink of bankruptcy, IMF says, RUSNET, 24 May 2003; http://www.rusnet.nl/news/2003/05/24/currentaffairs03.shtml
17 USAid: http://www.usaid.gov/pubs/cbj2002/ee/ge/
18 Anna Badhken: Brutal poverty stalks Georgia, where 30 percent are jobless; St Petersburg Times, 28 November 2003; http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/150211_georgia28.html
20 Jean-Christophe Peuch: Georgia: Smell Of Russian Gas Hangs Over Election Campaign, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 13 June 2003; http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2003/06/13062003144514.asp
21 Zeyno Baran: Deals give Russian companies influence over Georgia's energy infrastructure, EurasiaNet.org; 18 August 2003; http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/business/articles/eav081803.shtml
22 Jaba Devdarani: Potential deal with Russian gas conglomerate sparks controversy in Georgia, EurasiaNet.org, 6 June 2003; http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/business/articles/eav060603.shtml
23 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Newsline, 06 June 2003; http://www.rferl.org/newsline/2003/06/2-TCA/tca-090603.asp
24 Christina Tashkevich: Confusion over Gazprom deal. The Messenger, 28 July 2003 (Georgian English language paper); Maia Misheladze: Russians to seize the Georgian energy field, The Georgian Times, 28 July 2003
25 Jean-Christophe Peuch: Georgia: Shevardnadze Officially Requests Invitation To Join NATO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 22 November 2002; http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2002/11/22112002172610.asp
26 GEORGIA TO MAKE SPECIFIC PLAN FOR JOINING NATO, Xinhua News Agency, 27 November 2003; http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2003-11/28/content_1203328.htm
27 NATO: The Prague Summit and NATO's Transformation. A Readers Guide. NATO 2003
28 Mikhail Saakashvili: Why Georgia is serious about democracy? Financial Times, 2 December 2003
29 Terrorism and security of energy supply forming NATO; http://www.gasandoil.com/gesa/samples/article.asp?key=312
30 Natalia Antelava: United States cuts development aid to Georgia, EurasiaNet.org, 29 September 2003; http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav092903.shtml
31 Ken Stier: Georgia will get more U.S. aid, The Washington Times, 05 December 2003; http://www.washtimes.com/world/20031204-101224-7044r.htm
32 Foreign Aid Watch, http://www.foreignaidwatch.org
34 Georgia Sends Peacekeepers to Iraq, Civil Georgia online magazine, 3 August 2003,
35 Georgia to Dispatch 500 More Soldiers to Iraq, Civil Georgia online magazine, 14 December 2003;
36 Robert M. Cutler: Ajaria, the Russian Military in Georgia, and Stability in the South Caucasus. 29 January 2000
37 Inal Khashig: Fearful Abkhazia talks to allies. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Georgia Alert No 4, 27 November 2003
38 Simon Saradzhyan: Georgian Hopefuls Eye Moscow, St Petersburg Times, 28 November 2003; http://www.sptimesrussia.com/archive/times/923/top/t_11071.htm
39 Optusnet News: Georgian opposition prepares for power, 27 November 2003: http://optusnet.com.au/news/story/aap/20031127/19/international/georgia-cis.inp
40 Till the history sorts out? or remember Abkhazia! Batuminews, 28 September 2003; http://www.batuminews.com/news/index.php?ID=1119
41 Charlotte Keatley: A very Georgian coup. The Guardian, 6 December 2003
42 Zaza Baazov: Violence and fear tarnishes Georgia's bloodless overthrow of Shevardnadze. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Caucasus Reporting Service No. 208, 4 December 2003
43 Thomas de Waal, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Georgia Alert No 5, 28 November 2003