The Rise of the “Young Reformers” The political system established in Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze rested on a sophisticated “balancing of interests,” where former members of the Soviet elite were balanced against a faction of young, reformoriented liberals, who had often worked or studied in the West. This system strengthened the president’s position as an indispensable arbiter between various interest groups. At the same time, this provided for a slow and complicated decision-making process, avoiding tough decisions, which would risk alienating either faction. While these groupings were not clearcut, the “young reformer” camp headed by Zurab Zhvania was a forthcoming faction in Shevardnadze’s ruling party, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG), and was active in recruiting Western-educated Georgians into government positions, one of whom was Mikheil Saakashvili, who joined the CUG in 1995, became Minister of Justice in 2000, but resigned in 2001.1 A crucial precondition for the Rose Revolution was the system of “weak authoritarianism” under Shevardnadze’s presidency. This system allowed the “liberal” factions of the CUG to develop reform-oriented agendas. They could, furthermore, establish their own support platforms, and eventually defect from the CUG and form opposition parties of their own.2 Mikheil Saakashvili thus formed the National Movement in 2001. Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze formed the United Democrats in November 2002, running in the 2003 elections in the bloc named the “BurjanadzeDemocrats.” The New Rights Party, which had left the parliamentary majority faction in 2000, and the Labor Party constituted fairly strong opposition forces in parallel with the former young reformist camp in the CUG government, while the Industrialists appeared a moderate force.3 All these parties revolved around the strong personalities of their leaders. The political system under Shevardnadze provided for a fairly free media, where the
Rustavi-2 television channel, critical of the authorities, functioned as the mouthpiece of the opposition and allowed the opposition forces to communicate their agendas and voice strong criticism of Shevardnadze. Furthermore, a vibrant civil society had developed in Georgia during the 1990s, thanks to the large amounts of foreign aid provided for Georgia’s democratization. Thus, professional watchdog NGOs such as the Georgian Young Lawyers Association and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) were able to conduct parallel vote tabulations and help uncover election fraud, while the Liberty Institute functioned as a think tank and helped to develop the political agenda of the reformist opposition. Student organizations at Georgian universities formed the youth organization Khmara (Enough), modeled on the organizations that had proven instrumental in the regime changes in Serbia and Slovakia. Especially Serbian Otpor activists provided inspiration for Khmara, training several of its activists in techniques of civil disobedience. These activities, as well as Khmara itself, received funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute. Khmara cooperated closely with other NGOs and segments of the reformist opposition, and in their protest actions against the Shevardnadze regime explicitly promoted a shift of power to the opposition.4 After 2001, the CUG became increasingly fragmented, with splinter factions setting up vocal opposition parties able to articulate an attractive agenda of reform, which was backed by important segments of civil society. The local elections in 2002 constituted the first significant event in the opposition parties’ struggle to hasten the presidential succession, as well as a test of public support for the opposition parties. These elections signaled a significant weakening of the CUG, as the National Movement and Labor Party managed to defeat the CUG in Tbilisi, while the New Rights Party and the Industrialists were successful in several districts outside of Tbilisi. Saakashvili thus became the chairman of Tbilisi City Council.5 In these local elections, the various opposition parties demonstrated their strength as a force to be reckoned with in Georgian politics, achieving a significant shift of power from the CUG. Shevardnadze realized that he was becoming increasingly unpopular and that his party was falling apart, and sought to strengthen his position ahead of the 2003 parliamentary elections. The Rose Revolution Prior to the parliamentary elections of November 2, 2003, Shevardnadze formed the government bloc For New Georgia, consisting of the CUG and
several minor parties, for which he was determined to secure a parliamentary majority. The elections were seen as a preparation for the presidential elections in 2005, where Shevardnadze’s successor was to be elected. A poor result in parliamentary elections would have significantly undermined Shevardnadze’s political camp ahead of the presidential elections. Simultaneously, Georgia’s Western partners demanded that elections be conducted in a free and fair manner, and provided significant funding for securing proper election conduct.6 However, it soon appeared that Shevardnadze and the CUG were determined to stop power slipping from their hands. The OSCE/ODIHR final monitoring report disclosed election fraud to an extent unparalleled since Georgia’s independence. It stated that the elections “demonstrated that the authorities lacked [the] political will to conduct a genuinely democratic process.” Violations included highly flawed voter lists, extensive use of administrative resources, biased media reporting, and strong bias in both the composition and behavior of the election commissions at all levels. Violations were especially severe in Kvemo Kartli and Adjara. As voter lists were published, these turned out to be deeply flawed, excluding significant numbers of voters, among them Saakashvili himself, and including citizens who had been dead for years. The electoral commissions at all levels appeared committed to deliver Shevardnadze’s party the victory it needed. Election day was chaotic, with large numbers of voters turned away from the polls and recurring instances of ballot stuffing and multiple voting. Several Precinct and District Electoral Commissions were directly involved in falsifying results during the tabulation of votes.7 As the Central Election Commission (CEC) began to publicize the preliminary results of the voting, it appeared that For New Georgia had won, which reduced the National Movement’s seats in Parliament. The impression spread rapidly among voters and politicians in Tbilisi that the president’s bloc was about to steal the elections. The announcement of parallel vote tabulations conducted by ISFED, funded and supported by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, and exit polls conducted by the U.S. firm Global Strategy Group, fuelled these suspicions. Both announced a victory for the National Movement and significantly lower support for Shevardnadze’s bloc than in the official results.8 In the official results, For New Georgia gained 21.3 percent, Revival Union 18.8 percent, and National Movement 18.1 percent. In the parallel vote tabulation, the same parties gained 18.9, 8.1, and 26.3 percent, respectively. In total, the official results showed a total of 40.1 percent of the vote for the government bloc and 46.7
percent for the opposition, while the Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT) showed 27 percent for the former and 61.9 percent for the latter.9 As the magnitude of election fraud unfolded, the National Movement and the Burjanadze-Democrats joined forces and called for rallies in downtown Tbilisi. Their goal was to coerce the authorities into submitting the correct election results. The rallies rapidly grew in strength and spread throughout the country. While Saakashvili, Zhvania, and Burjanadze had been viewed heretofore as loosely allied reform-oriented opposition politicians, Saakashvili now emerged as the leader of the anti-government protests, due to his strong results in the elections and his leading role in the anti-government rallies. The CEC announced the results from Adjara on November 6; Aslan Abashidze’s Shevardnadze-allied Revival Union party purportedly received 95 percent of the Adjara votes-making it a leader in the official results on a par with For New Georgia.10 Furthermore, Shevardnadze intensified his collaboration with Abashidze during the protests. Abashidze embarked on a tour to Yerevan, Baku, and Moscow, fuelling fears among the opposition that Shevardnadze intended to quell public unrest by activating Abashidze’s Russian connections11 and that a position in the new government was earmarked for him.12 This blatant instance of election fraud involving the unpopular Abashidze intensified the protests in Tbilisi. As this occurred, supporters of Abashidze’s party were bused to Tbilisi from Adjara in order to organize counter-demonstrations. Over the next three weeks a general uncertainty prevailed whether Shevardnadze would resort to violence to quell the protests and where the loyalty of Georgia’s security forces would lie in the event of such a development. On November 20, the CEC announced the victory of Shevardnadze’s bloc, with Abashidze’s party winning a strong second place. This infuriated the opposition protesters, who increased their presence in downtown Tbilisi. Nearby a progovernment demonstration organized by Abashidze’s supporters was also taking place. The two camps stood cheek by jowl outside Parliament. On November 22, the Parliament convened. As Shevardnadze was delivering his opening speech, opposition supporters broke into the Parliament building holding roses in their hands. The security staff immediately evacuated Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze then declared a state of emergency. However, he failed to secure the support of the security forces, which either took a passive stance or joined the opposition protesters. Confronted by this situation, Shevardnadze resigned on November 23 and Nino Burjanadze, as Speaker of Parliament, assumed the interim presidency.