2 Years On, Rose Euphoria Has Faded

By Stephen Boykewich
The Moscow Times

December 14, 2005

TBILISI, Georgia — The strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” were still echoing through the hall, and already the president was on the defensive.

The scene was a conference celebrating the second anniversary of the Rose Revolution, which swept Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to power after he led hundreds of thousands in protest of fraudulent parliamentary elections. Two years later, the still-boyish 37-year-old president beamed and whispered comments to his fellow participants during a triumphant video montage of Georgians storming the streets of Tbilisi, armed only with roses and flags.

But the videotaped euphoria faded fast — as has the real euphoria since the first peaceful democratic revolution in the CIS. Despite measurable achievements and repeated calls for patience, Saakashvili and his team have been struggling against popular disillusionment, charges of inexperience and poor planning, and endemic corruption.

“For our country, what is important is that we shattered several myths in these two years,” Saakashvili said on the sidelines of the Nov. 23 conference. “People were saying that in this part of the world, modern statehood cannot exist, it’s a clan-based society. This is rubbish, and we’ve proved it. Georgia has been very efficient and has basically tackled institutional corruption.”

It was a dramatic claim in a country that was ranked among the 10 most corrupt in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index when Saakashvili was elected in January 2004, bringing a team of young, largely U.S.-educated advisers and ministers with him.

A number of the new anti-corruption initiatives have been equally dramatic. In July 2004, Saakashvili fired the country’s entire 12,000-person traffic police force, which was widely reviled for endemic bribe-taking. This year, the Education Ministry targeted corrupt higher-education entrance procedures that squeezed an average of between $10,000 and $15,000 out of students admitted to Tbilisi State University, according to the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. A standardized, SAT-style national entrance exam was instituted this July in an effort to turn things around.

Still, this year’s TI index shows only marginal improvement, putting the country in 130th place — tied with Cambodia, Congo and Kyrgyzstan — out of 158 countries.

TI Georgia director Mark Mullen said that the reform process was “moving, but in fits and starts,” and that on the whole he saw “no master plan.”

“The pyramidal system of paying for jobs that let them extract money from the population and then kick it upstairs has basically been broken,” Mullen said. “Institutions are still sufficiently weak that especially at the middle and higher government levels, there is probably still some money changing hands under the table.”

Giga Bokeria, deputy chairman of the Georgian parliament’s judicial committee, acknowledged that the reform process contributed to administrative paralysis. “For years, the mid- and low-level bureaucrats were used to the corruption game,” Bokeria said. “The problem is that now they’re afraid. That’s good, they should be — but now they’re afraid to act at all.”

And while ordinary Georgians noticed drops in bribe taking among police and passport officials, many expressed disappointment with low salaries and a lack of jobs.

“What kind of revolution was it? It’s just like it always was,” said Luiza Gorodze, an employee at Tbilisi’s Vere Palace hotel. “If you don’t have any backup — rich family, connections to people in the parliament — there’s no chance of making a decent living.”

One student at Tbilisi State University said that the new university entrance exam had not led to fundamental changes. “Students may not have to pay bribes during entrance exams anymore, but they still have to pay bribes,” said Lyuda, 22, who asked that her last name not be used. “The only thing that’s changed is when you pay.”

Still, the vast majority of Georgians continue to support their charismatic president. An October 2005 Gallup poll gave Saakashvili a 75 percent favorability rating, and his Rose Revolution ally, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, 73 percent.

“Our greatest achievement is having such a high level of popular legitimacy,” Saakashvili said.

Other political veterans of the color revolutions have not had Saakashvili’s luck. A year after the Orange Revolution brought Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko into office in circumstances similar to those in Georgia, allegations of corruption prompted him to fire his government, including his Orange Revolution ally Yulia Tymoshenko. A recent poll by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Research said only 12 percent of voters planned to support Yushchenko’s party in March’s parliamentary elections.

Yushchenko and Saakashvili have been key allies as they move their respective countries toward closer ties with the West — to the great annoyance of Russia. Old CIS ties, already complicated, were further strained last month when Russia said it would introduce sharp price hikes for natural gas shipments to Georgia and Ukraine.

Belarus, whose autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko is a key ally of Moscow, will continue to enjoy below-market rates for Russian gas.

Such disputes have been raising questions about the future of the CIS. Saakashvili and Yushchenko were among nine presidents of East European and former Soviet countries in Kiev last Friday for a gathering of the Commonwealth of Democratic Choice — a forum they conceived to discuss strengthening democracy in the region.

Saakashvili said Russia was in the midst of “a very hard process of self-definition,” but played down disputes, emphasizing instead Georgia’s need for ongoing internal reforms.

“Once the show is over, you need patience, you need perseverance,” Saakashvili said. “We need to follow up on the things we started. This is the hardest part.”