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RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies: GEORGIA: How to Make or Break a Revolution…
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Eduard Shevardnadze, deposed president of Georgia and the liberal former Soviet foreign minister, who once penned a celebratory political memoir after he helped guide the breakup of the Soviet Union titled "The Future Belongs to Freedom," suddenly faced that future and that freedom in his own republic as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, furious at rigged elections, stormed the parliament in the capital of Tbilisi, forcing him to resign. His peaceful departure from the political stage after dominating it for 12 years was made possible by a variety of internal and external factors as well as his own decisions, all of which will be studied closely in the coming months to see whether they could be replicated elsewhere in the region in upcoming elections. Shevardnadze is not the last of the Soviet-era strongmen who still remain in power in other parts of Eurasia, but he is the first leader among the former Soviet states since the fall of the Soviet Union to be removed by popular protests, since elections have tended to reinforce the stature of strongmen rather than undermine them.
While wire service stories spoke of the Russian foreign minister "seeking a compromise" between Shevardnadze and the opposition, wire photos filed by Georgian photojournalists were telling a different story even before Shevardnadze stepped down. Soldiers lining the streets to block demonstrators were laughing as a little girl bearing a leaf toddled in front of them; Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was smiling broadly as he spoke at an opposition rally where demonstrators chanted "Igor, Igor!" Later, Ivanov was staring grimly as he met with Shevardnadze for "mediation"; the leader himself sat looking glum in a gold-brocaded chair in the presidential palace, as outside, the head of the special forces was already kissing opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, and numerous Georgians, some holding infants and national flags aloft, were singing, lighting candles, and refusing to budge.
The situation had been touch and go as fatigue, poor weather, and government threats to blame the opposition for violence -- and use force to stop them -- diminished the numbers of protesters. The savvy Shevardnadze, veteran of numerous political battles and survivor of two assassination attempts in the last decade, refrained from actually using force, concentrating more on displaying power with phalanxes of special forces bearing metal shields. He tried psychological scare-tactics by invoking the images of bloodshed in the revolution of 1993 when the erratic leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia was overthrown. Shevardnadze then bused in his own supporters, mainly middle-aged residents of Tbilisi who spoke somberly of the need for peace and stability, and inhabitants of Adjaria, whose leader, Aslan Abashidze, while at odds with Shevardnadze, decided to ally with him in part to distract attention from massive election fraud in his region.
The tactics appeared to be working, as official Georgian television as well as the Russian media, widely watched in the region, repeatedly described the Georgian demonstrators as the "radical opposition," not explaining that this term was used even by some foreign journalists less as a characterization of the opposition's potential for mayhem as to distinguish them from the loyal opposition, which did not question the election and sided with Shevardnadze. Russian media also played up the numbers of those supporting Shevardnadze, especially among the Revival Party.
Shevardnadze constantly accused the demonstrators of promoting violence, but in fact government forces appeared to be involved in the few violent incidents that did take place, according to reports in "Moskovskiye novosti" and the local press. At one point to stop rallies from building, police closed off side streets, pushed milling crowds toward narrow exits, and halted traffic coming into the city, under the pretext of having to look for what they claimed would be arms shipments to aid the opposition. None were found, but meanwhile some people were injured in traffic collisions. "Violence" for an authoritarian ruler can mean the kind of civil disobedience democracy groups practice by marching without a permit.
Shevardnadze's own nonviolent response -- he remained a perestroika liberal to the end -- and his reluctance to send troops against activists was just as important as the decision of his opponents not to give in to state provocations to violence, which often come when demonstrations are suppressed.
By contrast, when confronted with protests, Armenian President Robert Kocharian and the ailing Heidar Aliyev in Azerbaijan instantly began rounding up dozens of protesters, some of whom were tortured or mistreated. As soon as the voting results were announced in Baku and several thousand protesters gathered, truncheon-wielding police attacked them with dogs, injuring about 50 people. Aliyev's designated successor, his son, Ilham, began shutting down media (six papers in Baku were locked out of the state-owned printing press this week because they cannot buy newsprint at suddenly inflated prices). Although Shevardnadze had blocked the opposition station Rustavi-2 for a time, determined reporters as well as his own reluctance to suppress information further (especially under foreign pressure) enabled Georgia's revolution to succeed. The protests got another break that Azerbaijan never had, when the head of Georgia's state television, Zaza Shengelia, resigned when Shevardnadze criticized him for his coverage and then began speaking to reporters.
Some observers who have tried to explain the different outcomes between success -- so far -- in Georgia and failure in Azerbaijan have reasoned that Georgians were more oriented toward Europe. Yet Armenia is also oriented toward Europe, as well as a Russian ally, and elections there this year saw a massive defeat for those seeking democratic change. Civic groups in Azerbaijan have also benefited from Western support and pushed for their country to join the Council of Europe, hoping it would provide a continued arena for pressure especially on the corrupt and abusive judicial and law enforcement system. They went to the same kind of democracy-training seminars as their friends in Tbilisi, with whom they often exchanged notes, but likely with smaller budgets -- activists believe sanctions against Azerbaijan over its blockade of Armenia have taken a toll on civil society over the years while not succeeding in changing the government's abusive practices.
In both the cases of Azerbaijan and Georgia, the United States used the exact same wording to describe elections -- "extremely disappointing" -- but went further in the case of Georgia to say they "do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people, but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Adjaria and other Georgian regions," the State Department said on 20 November. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe was dispatched to Tbilisi in a last-ditch effort to mediate between Shevardnadze and his opponents on 18 November.
The "velvet" revolution did have some "corduroy" moments, and more may be coming. When it seemed that Shevardnadze would not heed calls to resign, Saakashvili began calling on his followers to storm his residence. Right before Shevardnadze's resignation, members of the opposition group Kmara dispatched two female students to inform the rebellious Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili, who was refusing to resign, that unless he stepped down, the opposition would "hand him over to the people," telegraph.co.uk reported. The minister resigned that night on television.
At the end of the day, while U.S. and Russian interventions through funding and diplomacy, and the bravery of state media and policemen turning around to back their fellow citizens are vital to the success of democracy movements, the determination of ordinary people to be free and persist in trying to tell the truth in the face of official lies is a priceless commodity that cannot be artificially created either from outside or from above by opposition leaders. "We showed the government what we wanted," Maria Mamasashvili, a now-unemployed laborer who came from the provinces to participate in the vigil outside the parliament building, was quoted as saying by the "Christian Science Monitor" on 26 November. "It was my election, they stole my vote, so I showed them my voice means something."
...WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS.
The events in Georgia show that democracy movements, with some strategic outside help, can compel even those interested mainly in safe routes for oil pipelines to take notice and heed the popular will. The last two weeks indicate that democrats elsewhere in the region may be able to take heart, even after the flawed elections of Yerevan, Grozny, and Baku in the last year, which led to new rounds of repression.
U.S. and Western European funding of NGOs and democracy training in the last decade, on subjects ranging from constituency-building to nonviolent demonstration tactics, paved the way for Georgia's "rose" revolution. American investment (up to $1.3 billion in the last decade), coupled with pressure to reform and democratize, was crucial to change, according to a report in the "Christian Science Monitor" on 26 November. Since 1992, a lot of the aid went to the government for military and economic reforms that were not realized and little was actually allocated for democracy by contrast. In 2002, $23.5 million was spent on democracy programs out of the whole package of $103 million for all programs related to Georgia. This year, approximately $3.4 million -- $2.4 from the United States and the rest from European countries in the period immediately before the parliamentary elections.
Will such a formula -- having the West pay for the extensive costs of democracy-building while taking a back seat as Russians handle the direct diplomatic pressure -- work to encourage reform in Belarus, Moldova, or Ukraine? Democrats themselves in Minsk and Chisinau seem far less certain than their counterparts in Tbilisi that Russia will play a positive role in their situation; they are also uncertain that the United States will put the kind of pressure on their own governments or Russia that they were able to mount for Georgia -- and point to the outcome in Azerbaijan as a good example.
How radical groups become in their quest for change is also a major factor whether they go on attracting foreign as well as domestic support -- and sometimes the perceptions of how far to go diverge between those within the country and those outside. Western advisers at first warned Serbia's Otpor that their now-famous clenched fist symbol was too violent. The young people retained it, saying the image was meaningful to older people steeped in the icons of the socialist past. In Belarus, youth groups were told that instead of spraying anti-government graffiti, they should perform neighborhood clean-ups to impress the older generation with their sincerity. In Georgia, Kmara appears to have heeded such advice after the media hysteria earlier this year when accusations were made that the Soros-funded Open Society Institute was backing their movement to topple Shevardnadze. Soros denied the charges, talked with Shevardnadze personally, and pledging to cooperate with him. For a time Kmara seemed less visible in street protests as they fanned out to perform community services. Yet their persistence in not letting themselves get sidelined and the Open Society Institute's support for a coalition of youth groups to perform the basic tasks of getting out the youth vote and exposing the fraud that took place at the polls were vital ingredients of the success of the Georgian movement.
Oppositions must walk a fine line between alienating domestic and international supporters with radical actions, and being effective. When Serbian demonstrators marched on the parliament in 2000, no Western leaders complained about potential violence, and it was understood that forceful entry was required. In Tbilisi, rumors circulating of plans to storm the parliament several days before Shevardnadze was persuaded to step down, were enough to raise the specter of opposition-incited violence and cause foreign advisers to caution against it. The cause was nearly lost when Saakashvili appeared to counsel peaceful actions on one day and then, the next, invoke the fate of Romania's dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu.
Another nuance that opposition political parties must get right to keep support at home and abroad is their relationship with NGOs. Supporters also question whether NGOs should stray into politics, as often they are used as covers for nascent political parties. Saakasvili, 35, a U.S.-trained lawyer now nominated by the opposition for president, has been a long-time member of the Young Lawyers' Association of Georgia, widely recognized as among the strongest NGOs in the region. He is also associated with the Liberty Institute, which backed out of the "peacemaking" effort early on, as they saw it as a cooptation. Those who favor a close working relationship between NGOs and parties say that justifiably NGOs serve as an incubator for future political leaders. Others reject such a role and say it harms the nonprofit sector.
At one point in the crisis, the local Georgian press reported that various NGOs were stepping forward as mediators, trying to position themselves as neutral parties who could end the crisis. They wound up on the wrong side of history. Some of the sports-related NGOs and other groups were perceived as pro-government forces assuming the task of peacemaking in order to bolster the pro-government "stability" movement. The Liberty Institute, the victim of attacks on its offices in the past, refused to take part in these efforts and was denounced as "too close" to the opposition -- the same opposition that would wind up temporarily running the country two weeks later, while the NGOs that helped the democracy movement would then be praised because they took a stand and were not coopted.
Another factor in addressing a government that will not change is inside knowledge gained from experience. Although democracy supporters are often reluctant to admit it, the political figures that have often succeeded in crossing the threshold of opposition to legitimate power are those who used to be in the old system, and therefore understand the levers of power and its pressure points. Saakashvili, former justice minister, and Nino Burjanadze, speaker of parliament, fit this profile.
According to Jayhun Mollazade, president of the U.S.-Azerbaijani Council, in a speech at the Carnegie Institute on 15 September, opposition newspapers claimed that the departure of President Aliyev from power would result in a complete collapse of the government and massive defections from the ruling party to the opposition. Contrary to such expectations, the elite and the government demonstrated complete unity and readiness to continue supporting the Aliyev family, he said.
What democracy movements also need to succeed is stamina. As Serbia's democrats have found, as once again voters have failed to elect a president, storming the parliament and toppling a dictator doesn't lead to instant solutions and durable democracy. And even getting to that point took four years of constant hard work. For democracy activists to have the wind behind them in the coming months in Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus, they will need not just least a minimum of 20,000 people willing to stand in the cold for several weeks, nursing their aspirations for democracy along with makeshift fires. They will require significant Western financial support, diplomacy rather than disruption from Russia, at least one functioning independent television station and state-sponsored television willing to cover the news, other alternatives news sources, and rulers in power who will have the wisdom to bow to pressure for change without resorting to violence. They will have to engage in a delicate choreography with armed forces and police, NGOs and ordinary people, to bring them on board in high-risk bids for democratic change.
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