Georgia’s Rose Revolution, one of the most dramatic and hopeful episodes of the post-Cold War era, will mark its 15th anniversary in a matter of weeks. For 20 days in November 2003, citizens flooded the streets of Tbilisi and other major cities to protest a stolen election. By the end of the month, a strongman had resigned and a new Georgia was born. At the time, most Western observers saw these protests and elections as a triumph of the liberal, democratic world order. Today, as the gains of 2003 erode, this former Soviet republic is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale. I was able to assess the matter for myself this week on a trip to Tbilisi for a conference aptly titled “The World Upside Down.” It’s a mixed picture. On the one hand, there are genuine opposition parties and a free press. Most urban Georgians consider themselves European, and most of their politicians still openly say they want to join NATO. When the leader of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, stepped down as president in 2013 after losing an election, another important milestone was reached with the peaceful transfer of power.
On the other hand, one man today dominates Georgian politics: a billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili. The founder and chief financier of the Georgian Dream Party, he served as prime minister from 2012 to 2013 and still pulls the strings today (he arranged for the resignation of two prime ministers in the last three years).
Giorgi Bokeria, a leader of the opposition European Georgia Party, told me that he fears the “Moldovization” of his country, referring to how the oligarchy in Moldova began with pro-Western policies but gradually slid into Russia’s orbit. This danger is all the more acute for Georgia, because Russian forces still occupy a fifth of the country after a bitter war in 2008.