Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Revolutionary Ending

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 2, 2012 --  

Great revolutionaries often make terrible governors. Georgia's Sakashvili did better than most.

Perhaps the greatest victory of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's 2003 Rose Revolution came yesterday when he conceded defeat in the former Soviet republic's parliamentary election. Such a concession would be normal for most Western countries, but it's not for Georgia. In 1992, President Gamsakhurdia was forced to flee Tblisi after being shelled from an opposition guerrilla force and replaced by former Soviet politician Edward Sheverdnadze. He was in turn deposed by massive popular protests in 2003 against his rule that later brought Saakashvili to power. This week's election offers to be the first democratic transition of power in the history of Georgia.

From the beginning, Saakashvili was different than other post-Soviet leaders. He reformed and Westernized his country with zeal, not just privatizing industry, but eliminating the entire GAI traffic police force for corruption in July 2004.1 During a visit in 2007, I saw signs at border crossings in English, giving a phone number to call to report border guards asking for bribes. On the same visit, European Union flags flew all over the capital of Tblisi even though membership was nothing but a distant aspiration. On the transparency index, a measure of corruption, Georgia was ranked 64 last year (lower numbers are better), compared with Russia a 143.2 On the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, Georgia ranked 34 compared with Russia at 144.3

While Saakashvili's rule has been revolutionary in its push for Westernization, it was far from perfect. Critics have rightfully accused him of authoritarianism, such as when his police used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters in 2007 and when a short time later he briefly closed an opposition television station4. His worst sin of all was to recklessly attempt to retake the small separatist region of South Ossetia by military force in 2008, triggering a Russian invasion, and de-facto loss of 20 percent of its land mass in the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain under Russian occupation.

Anger over the 2008 war with Russia runs deep, and it spilled over into the election cycle in a series of bitter accusations. Saakashvili's party shamefully accused the opposition Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, of being a stooge of Russia. And while Putin is probably dancing a jig about the defeat of Saakashvili's party by a tycoon who earned his fortune in Russia, it is unclear how that policy changes will be more to Russia's liking. In his victory statement, Ivanishvili vowed to continue the push for NATO and EU membership.5

Although he is expected to become Prime Minister, Ivanishvili's personal views may matter less than Saakashvili's given that he will lead a fractious coalition in parliament that agree on little other than their opposition to the president, and have to deal with the president's United National Movement's minority block in parliament. What's more, Ivanishvili will have to learn to deal with Saakashvili himself, who (despite a bitter campaign) will not step down as president until next year. This means that Georgia's government will have to pursue a far more consensus-oriented process to accomplish anything than has ever been the case before.

This is good news. Most revolutionaries are great at tearing things down and bad at building things up. Think Russia's Boris Yeltsin, Poland's Lech Walesa, or Cuba's Fidel Castro. While Saakashvili was far better at governing than any of these characters, after two terms in power most any leader's best ideas are spent. As youthful energy dries up, authoritarian impulses can build. That's why it is time to move on.

Without a doubt, Saakashvili will remain a powerful force in Georgian politics. Only 44 years old, he will have to learn to live as an opposition leader after his presidency ends next year. While his revolution has run its course, Georgia can continue to build on the foundations it has laid.

Related Web Columns:

The Reign of the Petro-Bully, August 18, 2008


1. New York Times, Mtskheta Journal; The Traffic Officer With His Hand Out Has It Whacked, August 24, 2004

2. The Guardian, Corruption Index 2011 From Transparency International: Find Out How Countries Compare, December 1, 2011

3. Heritage Foundation, 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, January 12, 2012

4. National Public Radio, Imedi TV in Georgia Shut Down Amid Political Crisis, November 8, 2007

5. Reuters, Once-Reclusive Tycoon on Verge of Power in Georgia, October 2, 2012