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Twenty Years After Rose Revolution, Georgia's Political Parties Hate Each Other. But They Also Largely Agree.

People wave Georgian and EU flags -- and roses -- to mark the anniversary of the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi in 2021.
People wave Georgian and EU flags -- and roses -- to mark the anniversary of the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi in 2021.

TBILISI -- It was 20 years ago that Georgia's Rose Revolution applied a radical jolt to the country's politics, economy, and foreign policy. For many in Georgia and abroad, the revolution and the man it brought to the presidency, Mikheil Saakashvili, represented a new hope for the poor, isolated country.

But when the anniversary is marked on November 23 -- the day Eduard Shevardnadze, the country's president and Soviet-era leader, resigned -- many in Georgia won't be celebrating. Especially the current leadership.

"The Rose Revolution brought to this country torture, corruption, the loss of 20 percent of our territories," said Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, last week. "To celebrate the 20th anniversary is simply shameless."

The degree of vitriol between Georgia's current and former ruling parties is hard to overstate. Georgian Dream, which took power in 2012 after defeating Saakashvili and his United National Movement (ENM), to this day defines itself primarily in opposition to the former regime. Saakashvili, now in jail on a variety of charges from his time in office, calls his successors Russian puppets and says the charges against him are politically motivated.

Polarization in Georgian politics is so deep that the European Union emphasized it as one of the key issues in the country's bid to become a candidate to join the bloc.

That bitter animosity, however, obscures just how much the Georgian Dream government is continuing along the path that the Rose Revolution began to blaze 20 years ago. From foreign policy to resolving its separatist conflicts to the economy, the government today is in significant ways fulfilling the legacy set by its hated enemies.

Irakli Kobakhidze (second right) and other members of Georgian Dream address a rally in February.
Irakli Kobakhidze (second right) and other members of Georgian Dream address a rally in February.

The divide in Georgian politics "is not really polarization in classical terms like in Western countries, where it is based on ideologies," said Kornely Kakachia, the head of the Tbilisi think tank Georgian Institute for Politics. "In Georgia, what we have is more like personality-driven polarization.... They are just cursing each other, talking about how bad their opponent is, but never talking about issues."

A 2021 study by a group of political scientists for the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that the policies of the two main feuding blocs -- Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's ENM -- had more commonalities than differences, especially in terms of economic policy.

Under Shevardnadze's rule, the economy was stagnating and there were widespread allegations of state corruption. Suspicions of vote-rigging in November 2003 parliamentary elections led to thousands of Georgians taking to the streets, culminating on November 22, 2003, with Saakashvili supporters storming parliament, prompting the embattled president to flee.

Elected by a landslide in new elections six weeks later, Saakashvili and his government had a strong ideological vision: a staunchly pro-Western foreign policy and a radically free-market economic policy.

Under his rule, the country became a close ally of the United States and its enmity with Russia deepened to the point that the two fought a war in 2008 over the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The economy opened up to such a degree that, in the last year of Saakashvili's rule, the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings placed Georgia ninth in the world.

Supporters of the Georgian opposition hold portraits of opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili during a protest outside the parliament in Tbilisi on November 10, 2003.
Supporters of the Georgian opposition hold portraits of opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili during a protest outside the parliament in Tbilisi on November 10, 2003.

But Saakashvili and the ENM were voted out in 2012 by Georgian Dream, a diverse coalition assembled by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili that had little in common besides a desire to remove a regime that was seen as being increasingly authoritarian. Saakashvili's party was accused of persistent abuses of power, exemplified by a prison-torture scandal that broke shortly before the elections.

What came after Saakashvili, though, did not amount to a drastic change or a new political direction. "Ivanishvili is not a very political person. He doesn't have a vision or any ideology or program," Kakachia said. "This affected the whole Georgian Dream; they were more opportunistic than ENM, which had its own political vision."

Once in office, Georgian Dream did bring in a few policy innovations. Most notably, the new leadership has taken a less confrontational approach toward Russia, even as it continued moving closer to the West at the same time.

In the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Georgian Dream has doubled down on its policy of accommodating Moscow. Just how Georgia should deal with Russia has become the sharpest point of contention in the country's politics.

Lately, Georgian Dream has taken a sharp turn toward social conservatism, embracing rhetoric of "family values" and identity, inspired by the example of Viktor Orban's Hungary. (While Saakashvili and his government were not outspoken liberals, cultural issues played little role in the way they governed.)

Supporters of Georgian Dream attend a rally ahead of the runoff of local elections in Tbilisi in October 2021.
Supporters of Georgian Dream attend a rally ahead of the runoff of local elections in Tbilisi in October 2021.

But to many Georgians, the similarities between the two regimes still outweigh the differences.

Take the loss of 20 percent of the country's territory that Georgian Dream Chairman Kobakhidze mentioned. It refers to the war over South Ossetia in 2008, which resulted in a Russian invasion of Georgia and Moscow's subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics. Both now host thousands of Russian troops.

While the territories broke away in the early 1990s, well before Saakashvili came to power, the 2008 war cemented the loss. It is one of Georgian Dream's favorite talking points.

But Georgian Dream for the most part follows the agenda set by Saakashvili's government, argues Paata Zakareshvili, who served as state minister for reconciliation and civic equality in the early days of Georgian Dream rule and is now a sharp critic of both regimes.

While the previous government under Shevardnadze had held regular dialogues with representatives of the de facto governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Saakashvili halted those talks. "There is no point in talking to Abkhazians and Ossetians. They are nobody. Russia and Moscow decide everything," Zakareshvili said, paraphrasing the previous government's approach. "That was [Saakashvili's] concept."

A column of Russian armored vehicles travels through Rukhi, Georgia, on its way to Abkhazia in October 2008.
A column of Russian armored vehicles travels through Rukhi, Georgia, on its way to Abkhazia in October 2008.

When Georgian Dream came to power, little changed. "They took the same approach, they just modernized it," Zakareshvili told RFE/RL. The government continues to refuse to talk to the de facto entities, for the most part out of inertia and fear that doing otherwise would expose it to criticism, he says.

"They are afraid to touch this topic," Zakareshvili said. "As soon as Georgian Dream would start talking to [Abkhazians and South Ossetians], the nationalists would say, 'You see, they are carrying out a Russian policy....' They don't have a policy, they only have inaction."

In relation to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgian Dream accepts the premise that Russia is the only party worth dealing with; its innovation is trying to accommodate and placate Moscow rather than confronting it directly, as did the ENM leadership. But both suffer from the same fatal flaw, Zakareshvili notes.

"Russia is a problem. They are 80 percent of the problem, but the other 20 percent is our problem with the Abkhazians and Ossetians. As long as we don't solve this problem, Russia is going to take advantage of it," he said.

Despite Kobakhidze's protestations about the human rights record of the Saakashvili government, many argue that the two regimes are following similar trajectories: an initial opening up and liberalization, followed by gradually increasing authoritarianism.

"With every successive regime, we have returned again and again to a single-party system that controls more and more institutions," President Salome Zurabishvili said in a recent interview. The president was elected to the largely symbolic post in 2018 with the backing of Georgian Dream, but has since become an outspoken critic of the ruling party.

Georgian Dream recently tried to impeach the president over trips she made to the European Union without the consent of the government, but the motion failed to gain enough votes in parliament.

The petty corruption that Saakashvili famously stamped out with a full-scale overhaul of the law enforcement system has been almost wiped out in Georgia, while the high-level variety -- politically connected businessmen getting favorable treatment -- remains present.

But it is in the economic sphere where the continuity between the two parties' time in power is most pronounced. The radical economic changes that the Rose Revolution wrought -- a strong adherence to the free market and deregulation -- if anything have only deepened.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili appears at a concert in Tbilisi on November 8.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili appears at a concert in Tbilisi on November 8.

Under Saakashvili, Georgia placed a heavy priority on attracting foreign investment, believing it was the key to attracting the capital required for the country to grow. So, it reduced and simplified taxes and slashed regulations. To woo foreign investors, they touted the fact that the country has no minimum wage. "Establishing a laissez-faire state after the Rose Revolution became one of the central discourses of nation-building," political economist Ia Eradze wrote.

That strategy did attract investors and boost GDP growth, but the benefits did not accrue to ordinary Georgians, Eradze says. And when Georgian Dream came to power and started publishing economic development strategies, they initially criticized the previous government's approach. "And I thought, 'OK, this looks kind of promising, let's see what happens,'" Eradze told RFE/RL. "But then there was really no substantial change."

Toward the end of the Saakashvili era, the government passed the Economic Liberty Act, which enshrined principles of austerity in the constitution. The law made it impossible to significantly raise taxes without a referendum, for example. The law, Saakashvili promised when introducing it, represented "an ambition to turn Georgia into a real flagship of the world liberal economic ideology."

Critics say the law hamstrings the government's ability to manage the economy and, in 2017, there was an effort to revoke it. But, in the end, the government kept it on the books for 12 more years.

"We are still dependent on the agenda that Saakashvili set," said Beka Natsvlishvili, a lecturer of political economy and a former member of parliament in a social-democratic faction of Georgian Dream. (Natsvlishvili pushed for the revocation of the Economic Liberty Act and broke with the party in 2019 over its economic policies.)

"Nobody [in the current government] talks about economic policy, because it is the conventional wisdom that the market would regulate everything, we have this kind of path dependency," he told RFE/RL.

In some ways, Georgian Dream even goes further than its predecessors. This year, the government rolled out a new pension scheme in which individuals themselves have to choose how to invest their retirement savings.

"In the case of pensions, they even deepened the neoliberalism," Natsvlishvili said.

In 2020, the last year the World Bank did its Ease of Doing Business rankings, Georgia had continued to climb, reaching seventh in the world. For a party largely uninterested in economic issues, staying devoted to the free market is the path of least resistance, Eradze says.

"This existing kind of view of development, that as a state you just create all favorable conditions for [foreign direct investment] to come in and then everything just happens on its own -- it's an easy way to think of development," she said. "It can also bring fast revenues. So, you have this kind of immediate result and then, as a prime minister, you can get on TV and tell the population, 'Look, our economy grew' and who cares how."

A more hands-on economic policy, by contrast, takes a lot of work. Eradze says a more actively engaged government would have to work out a policy sector-by-sector, coordinate the actions with the central bank, and implement corresponding education reforms.

"This all has to go hand in hand, and you might see the results after 10 years. I have a feeling nobody wants to put that much effort into it," she said.

Eradze notes that opinion polls consistently show Georgians' top concerns are economic. A new survey, released in mid-November by the International Republican Institute, asked, "What is the most important problem facing our country today?" The top four answers -- representing 67 percent of the responses -- were all economic.

"If you look at our politics and the parties, neither the ruling party nor the opposition really brings up this topic," she said. "It's a huge, huge gap. I don't know how long that can go on."