Georgia: A Question of Legitimacy

4 January 2004

Georgia: A Question of Legitimacy

By Gwynne Dyer

“Doing good may be noble, but fighting evil can be fun,” wrote billionaire financier George Soros in 1989, and he’s been at it ever since. He had considerable influence on events in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism in 1989-91, he had a bigger role in the overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and his Open Society Foundation was central in organising last November’s ‘rose revolution’ in Georgia. Last Sunday Soros’s candidate, Mikhail Saakashvili, won the Georgian presidency by a landslide — but did the Georgians really have a choice in the matter?

The mass protests against Eduard Shevardnadze, the ex-Communist autocrat who had ruled Georgia since 1993, only began after he blatantly rigged parliamentary elections in November, but Open Society was at work long before that. It flew Georgian opposition leaders to Belgrade almost a year ago to learn how the Serbs had made their revolution, and last summer Soros’s foundation paid for members of Otpor (Resistance), the Serbian movement that overthrew Milosevic, to run training courses in civil disobedience in Georgia for thousands of students.

When the November election came around, it all went according to the script, from the roses and the placards saying ‘Enough’ carried by Saakashvili’s National Movement supporters to the dramatic invasion of the parliament building as Shevardnadze was trying to swear in the newly ‘elected’ members of parliament. “All the demonstrators knew the tactics of the revolution in Belgrade by heart,” National Movement general secretary Ivane Merabishvili told the ‘Washington Post’ in November. “Everyone knew what to do. This was a copy of that revolution, only louder.”

So your inner cynic starts to tell you that this was a fake revolution — especially since the US government recently started hedging its bet on Shevardnadze, whom it had hitherto backed as a reliably anti-Russian leader. The questions multiply: was Soros just a pawn of the Bush administration? Was the ‘rose revolution’ just part of the US strategy for dominating the countries through which a $3 billion pipeline will carry oil from the Caspian oilfields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan? Can it ever be legitimate for foreigners to train the citizens of a country in the techniques for overthrowing their own government?

Washington’s support for Shevardnadze’s overthrow certainly had nothing to do with its love of democracy, which was not much in evidence when Azerbaijan, just east of Georgia and another pipeline country, held even more outrageously rigged elections in October. For the Bush administration, the goal is to freeze Russia out of the new oil bonanza in the Caspian and Caucasus countries, all former Soviet fiefdoms, and Shevardnadze’s crime was to be too accommodating to the Russians.

Shevardnadze was not a pawn of Moscow’s — Georgia in recent years has been the largest per-capita recipient of US aid after Israel, and American advisers have been training the Georgian army — but he did see the need to maintain good relations with Russia. That’s only common sense, since the country will never be whole again unless Moscow permits it. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two ethnic-minority provinces that broke away from Georgia during the 1992-93 civil war, both have Russian military bases on their territory and in practice are Moscow’s hostages for Georgia’s good behaviour.

But when Shevardnadze signed a deal last year with the Russian gas giant Gazprom, Washington went ballistic. Bush’s energy adviser Steven Mann flew in to warn Shevardnadze not to go ahead with the deal, Mikhail Saakashvili denounced it — and Shevardnadze signed it anyway.

So no illusions about America’s motives for opposing him — but on the other hand, most Georgians really did want to be rid of Shevardnadze. Under his corrupt and incompetent rule the country has descended into poverty and despair: about one-fifth of its five million people have gone abroad in the past decade, mostly to seek work in Russia. The November elections demonstrated that his gang could not be voted out by legal means. What recourse was left but revolution?

What George Soros supplied was instruction in a technique for removing Shevardnadze without bloodshed. Non-violent democratic revolutions have become a global phenomenon with great potential for good in the past two decades, from South Korea and East Germany to Indonesia and Serbia, but the autocrats are not stupid. They have learned that the best way to discredit these popular movements is to provoke them into violence, so protesters must be trained in the tactics and disciplines of non-violent protest if their democratic revolution is to succeed. That is what Soros provides.

It is not illegitimate for outsiders to help, because the enterprise cannot possibly succeed unless the local people are truly determined to claim their rights. And Soros is no agent of the Bush administration: he is helping to fund the anti-Bush activist organisation Move On in this electoral year in the US. As he wrote in ‘Atlantic Monthly’ last November, “The supremacist ideology of the Bush administration stands in opposition to the principles of an open society, which recognise that people have different views and that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth.”

It’s not clear how much impact Soros’s intervention will have on the US election. It’s not even clear whether his intervention in Georgia will succeed, for president-elect Mikhail Saakashvili faces enormous challenges: the country is broke, partitioned, and trapped between Washington and Moscow. But what has happened there so far is at least legitimate, and even a bit hopeful.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Shevardnadze was…anyway”)