Georgia: Mass movement overthrows Shevardnadze regime

The “November revolution” in Georgia culminated in the overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze. It was carried out under the flag of St George, first used in the 12th and 13th Century, when the then feudal country joined the struggle led by the crusader knights. The movement at that time was crushed by Genghis Khan. This historic symbolism mirrors what is happening in Georgia today.

In a more modern coincidence, about a month ago a new computer game hit the streets called “Republic – The Revolution”. The action takes place in a fictional former soviet republic, renamed the “New country”. New country is ruled by an unpleasant and corrupt President Karasiev – who immediately reminds you of each of the Presidents of the former Soviet republics. He uses the bureaucracy, the mass media and often the riot police to keep his opponents at bay. You play as one of Karasiev’s opponents, and attempt to recruit supporters, use PR, build parties and act either as a nationalist, Mafiosi or ex-General.

Of course in real life the struggle for power in Georgia proved more complex. But the makers of this game seemed to have captured the spirit of what happened over the weekend 22-23rd November, when the Georgian government was overthrown by a mass movement. The masses in this small country, led by an opposition little known outside of Tbilisi, the capital, kicked out the experienced and aged president, who was once foreign minister of one of the world’s two superpowers- the USSR. He was rumoured to have either fled to Germany or to be in hiding somewhere in Georgia.

Election fraud leads to mass protest

The protests in Tbilisi began on the 2nd November – the day of parliamentary elections. The opposition, with much justification, accused the government of falsifying the results. The “united opposition” which organized the protests included the right wing ‘National Movement’ of Mikhail Saakashvili, and the liberal block ‘Burdzhanadze Democrats’. Most importantly, they were joined by tens of thousands of youth who have nothing to lose in present day Georgia. The demonstrators carried nationalist flags and banners, and also symbols copying those used by the “Otpor” youth movement against Milosovic, the former ruler of Serbia.

The army, police and riot squads occupied Tbilisi in big numbers but they held back from confronting the crowds. Not far from Parliament Square, Shevardnadze’s supporters gathered – a couple of thousand Adzharists – led by Aslan Abasidze, the dictatorial ruler of the Adzhar region, which for the past few years as been practically independent of the Central Georgian government. They feared that if the nationalists came to power in Tbilisi there would be a repeat of the bloody inter-ethnic clashes of the early Nineties. Abasidze preferred the compromises offered by Shevardnadze.

The leaders of the opposition had called for the work of the local authorities to be blocked across the whole of Georgia and this happened in many areas. Then on the eve of the first session of the fraudulently elected Parliament the mass protests reached their peak with about a hundred thousand surrounding the Parliament buildings. To begin with, the group around Saakashvili attempted to disrupt the speech of President Shevardnadze. They were bustled out of the hall, only to be pushed back in by a crowd of thousands. The mainly young protesters began to throw chairs and confront the deputies, as Shevardnadze was rushed out of the hall by his armed guards. He fled to his residence on the edge of Tbilisi and declared a State of Emergency.

The old bureaucrat still had faith in the force of the Presidential Guard and the police. But not one police car or guard tank left their garages in his defence. The police simply disappeared from the streets as the masses spread out through the city. Shevardnadze resigned. The results of the parliamentary elections were annulled and presidential elections declared for 4 January. For the first time in many years people are full of hope. Unfortunately, without a mass socialist alternative, the future for Georgia looks grim.


Georgia is one of the countries that suffered most from the restoration of capitalism. Neither the abundant fruit orchards nor the artistic talents of this small country are needed by the international markets. Industry has declined yet further. This once industrially developed country, with its rich agriculture and tourist business, is in dire straits. The country’s budget is just $700 million and that is before it is further cut on the insistence of the IMF.

In May 2003 the Executive Director of the IMF declared that despite a small growth over the past two years, Georgia is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its foreign debt is over $2 billion. In this year alone, Georgia has to pay $160 million alone in interest – a quarter of the country’s budget. Next year it will have to pay nearer to $170 million. To boost the budget income Shevardnadze was forced by the IMF to try to increase the price of goods and services, such as electricity and bread. The latter is the main food for the majority of the population. The US firm that ran Georgia’s energy network in the mid-Nineties, and now the Russian company that has taken its place, regularly switch off parts of the country’s network in order to persuade the population to pay their bills.

The minimum wage – on which pensions and benefits are based – is $10 a month. It is reported that 2.1% of the country’s 4.4 million population lives in extreme poverty – with less than $12 a month to survive on. 10% live a bit “better” with $20. Over 50% of the population gets by on $50. Over a million Georgians, a third of the working population, have emigrated in search of work, many going to Russia.

This economic catastrophe has made the problem of bureaucratic corruption even worse. This is the case in Tbilisi and also in the three separatist regions of Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Large deposits of oil and gas, which have helped some of the other neighbouring republics, do not exist. But the country does have strategic importance.

Relations with Russia and the US

Shevardnadze is a representative of the old nomenclature clan which has tried to balance between Russia and the US. He wanted to open the country to western investment whilst keeping the country’s wealth in the elite’s hands. Shevardnadze was a Stalinist bureaucrat, who from 1946 to 1990 climbed all the steps on the Soviet bureaucracy ladder, beginning as secretary of his Komsomol branch and ending up on the ruling Politburo. In 1995 he became President of Georgia promising civil peace and growing incomes after the republic was torn apart by ethnic clashes.

But none of his promises were fulfilled. On the contrary, all the worst aspects of the old and new orders were found – an unbounded bureaucracy together with rocketing prices, ordinary people left with no rights, and the local elites with unlimited power in their hands. Money allocated by the IMF and Western partners quickly disappeared. When the US began to show its dissatisfaction with the “grey fox”, as Shevardnadze was known, the Georgian President was left with no other option than to begin the dangerous game of playing on the contradictions between American and Russian interests in the republic.

From the very beginning, the new Georgia became a zone of heightened interests for the US, Turkey and Russia. Shevardnadze was never particularly loyal to Russia, especially when Russia began rocket attacks against Chechen rebels hiding in Georgia’s Pankiskii Gorge. The elites of both countries used dirty tactics to defend their interests. Both supplied local armed bands, set up military camps and supplied weapons (for example, Russia’s assistance to Abkhazia and Georgia’s “neutrality” to Chechnya) and the visa regime was enforced between the two countries.

It is obvious that Russia as an imperialist power has acted in a brutal and brazen way. The growing Russian imperialism looks on the other republics as its own, exploiting them as it wishes. The policy of the USA and NATO is another story. But to understand what is going on in the Caucuses, the general outlines need to be explained.

The US is interested not only in Caspian oil but also in the important strategic position of the Caucasus. With their military bases in this territory they are within striking distance of Iran and Afghanistan, control Black Sea shipping, influence the situation in Central Asia and hold Russia at bay.

On the 21 March, this year, the Georgian Parliament ratified an agreement with the US which means US troops can enter and leave the country without visas, and army units, aircraft and ships can cross Georgia’s borders in any direction without restriction. For this right the US pays an annual $75 million – 10% of Georgia’s budget, which is supposed to go to reforming the army to NATO standards. To begin with, there will be four battalions of Commandoes and Black Berets to defend the pipeline from Baku to Dzhekan, which is currently under construction, and the gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey.

These raw material arteries are intended to try and cut across Russia’s ability to supply Europe and, in particular, to end its monopoly of gas supplies. The US is so interested in this project that it has agreed to finance Georgian troops to patrol the borders with its separatist republics. One of these patrols is already active on the Georgian – Abkhazian border and a second is being prepared for South Ossetia. These activities fit in with NATO’s plans to resolve “internal conflict”. The big money people behind the pipe-lines get very nervous when they see separatist activity, break away republics or any form of social instability. In its turn, the Georgian elite earned more money from the US superpower by sending 75 soldiers to serve in Iraq.

Georgia’s new politicians

The new generation of Georgian politicians clearly orientated to the West includes Burdzanadze, currently acting President until the elections, and Saakashvili. Typical is the biography of the leader of the nationalists and US puppet Mikhail Saakashvili, who looks as if he will be the future President. He was only twenty four years old when the Soviet Union broke up. This young man was given a grant by the US Congress and sent to Columbia University. He completed a Doctorate at the University of George Washington. When he returned to Georgia his career shot ahead. First he became leader of the pro-Presidential ‘Green Party’ and then won a reputation as an outspoken nationalist – often called the “Georgian Zhirinovski”.

Nino Burdzanadze, the second most important leader of the “managed revolution”, is daughter of the bread magnate Anzor Burdzanadze, a friend and colleague of Shevardnadze. She also started out as a supporter of Shevardnadze before going into opposition.

As the years have passed, Shevardnadze and his ruling bureaucracy have increasingly failed to satisfy all the players on the Caucasian chessboard. Georgians, fed up with “reforms”, became completely disillusioned with the President and many emigrated. The young political elite became dissatisfied as their path to careers and big money were blocked by the old nomenclatura. The Russian-inclined bureaucrats and capitalists hated the apparent control the US had over the country. The US, in their turn, were fed up that billions of dollars just disappeared with no hope of any return.

The old intriguer Shevardnadze continued to try and maintain his independence from Russia. In August, two of the Russian energy giants stepped into the Georgian market. Chubais’ Russian Energy bought a large packet of shares in the Georgian Electro-distribution Company, Telasi, and Gasprom signed a strategic agreement for 25 years. Notwithstanding strong opposition from George Bush’s energy advisor, Steven Mann, and from the US Ambassador Richard Miles, these deals have held. The US government then attempted blackmail by threatening to stop building the pipelines on Georgian territory and by cutting off financial assistance. But Shevardnadze was overconfident, speaking of equal relations with the US and Russia. By doing so he signed his own death sentence.

“The Revolution is over. Thank you everyone!”

On 4 July former US State Secretary James Baker visited Tbilisi. His aim was to look at the leaders of the opposition and discuss with them a step by step plan for taking over the government. This plan included the idea that the Presidential Administration would “lose control” of the electoral procedure. A peaceful transition of power to the new elite would take place, with guarantees of safety for the old guard. A new ethnic war is, after all, incompatible with US oil interests.

Riding the wave of mass discontent and loyally supported by the US administration, the opposition to Shevardnadze played out its role brilliantly. The hundreds of thousands of Georgians protesting were allowed to let off steam but only after a couple of days, Nino Burdzanadze called on the police to “do their job”. In an interview, in Russia, in the ‘Nezavisimaya Gazeta’ paper, she said: “We have already asked the law enforcement bodies and heads of local administrations to stop any attempts carried out in our name to get even”.

The third member of the opposition triumvirate, Zurab Zhvaniya, commented: “The revolution is over, now in Georgia we have to restore law and order”. Maybe he could have said it more bluntly, as did one pro-capitalist journalist: “The Revolution is over. Thank you everyone!”

Who will take the spoils?

Georgia is not the only country in the former USSR that has seen mass movements against governments. Both Azerbaijan and Ukraine have faced clashes between the police and thousands of demonstrators. The merging of the former Soviet bureaucracy and gangster capitalism that has spread over the whole of the former USSR is abhorrent to millions of working people. But Georgia is the only country where the mass protests have led to the overthrow of the regime. The Georgian population have been so impoverished that just a “little help” from the US administration in this small country was enough to topple the regime.

Will these political changes lead to improvement? If so, for whom? There is no need to ask how a President who gained his education thanks to the US Congress will act. Liberalisation – the full “opening” of the economy to international capitalism- and complete political and economic dependence on the US and NATO are on the agenda of the new regime. And any other problems faced by the capitalists will also be solved at the expense of the masses.

Unfortunately the Georgian ‘left’ proved to be absolutely impotent during the November events. The Communist Party only participated at the last minute to support the opposition. And it only took a few days for the Party Secretary, Zumber Patiasvili, to withdraw from the Presidential race in favour of the nationalist Saakashvili.

And what will be the attitude of Russia towards the new government? The regime change is not in the interests of Russian imperialism. It is thanks to their links with Shevardnadze that Russian Energy and Gasprom got their base in Georgia. But the former opposition was always openly critical of the Russian economic “occupation”. The Russian Foreign Ministry did all it could, up to the last minute, to calm the opposition to Shevardnadze. However, once the floodgates burst in Tbilisi, Russian imperialism tried one of the oldest weapons in the imperialist arsenal to maintain its position – divide and rule. The leaders of the three breakaway republics were encouraged to strengthen their borders with Georgia for fear of “disruption spilling over”. After that, they were invited to Moscow to discuss “improving their relations with Georgia”. However, Edward Kokoiti, leader of South Ossetia, already sees a chance for his breakaway territory to link up with Russia.

Russian imperialism will probably avoid direct annexation of South Ossetia but will use the threat of it to blackmail the new Georgian government. The Kremlin now has the chance to play on the contradictions between Tbilisi and the regions in Georgia. This raises the danger of a return to the bitter armed conflicts of the early Nineties. After all, the Kremlin still has “favours” to ask of Tbilisi – including, perhaps, allowing it to maintain its troops in Georgia as “peacekeepers”.

Not one riot cop and not one soldier

Most of the media are now concentrating on how smart the opposition was, what a clever role the American diplomats played and so on. The November events are portrayed as a fine surgical operation masterminded by the diplomats and political technocrats. But whether you call the mass revolt “accurate”, as does Burdzanadze, or, “velvet”, as Saakashvili puts it, the November events remain a revolutionary movement – that is, the confident expression of the dissatisfied masses that they can force change. The mass media with its suspicions and fears tries to undermine the role of the masses. But the television pictures of youth tearing into the Parliament buildings– the icon of “capitalist democracy” – were shown throughout the world.

The events in Tbilisi should act as a warning to all those post-Soviet politicians who think they are now out of danger and can do what they like without punishment. Sooner or later, people begin to see through their lies. Sooner or later, the masses stop fearing the police truncheons. Sooner or later, hundreds of thousands come onto the streets to oppose the regime, and millions more cease to give their passive support. And then, as the example of Tbilisi showed, the ruling elite will not find one riot cop and not one soldier prepared to defend those who for so long have robbed and lied and put their opponents in jail.

The Georgian people have shown that at the end of the day, the desires, activities and decisiveness of the masses decides what happens. The masses saw their own strength. They can not be blamed that once again they have been used. As long as there is no mass workers’ party in Georgia other forces will use the energy of the masses. If the government is overthrown without a workers’ alternative another pro-capitalist gang will fill the vacuum.

However some of these lessons are already being learnt. Every mistake made in the November struggle will be remembered by many workers and youth, so that the next time their blows can be struck decisively at the heart of the capitalist system. A mass workers’ party, armed with a socialist programme, will prove to be the most effective weapon of the 21st Century for social change.

We say:

  • No support to the right wing politicians, nationalists or marionettes of imperialism!
  • American, NATO and Russian troops – out of Georgia and the Caucasus!
  • With no alternative candidates, working people can have no confidence in the Presidential elections.
  • For natural resources and the pipelines to be taken into public ownership under democratic workers’ control!
  • For workers and youth to organise their own action committees to control the elections and to fight for their political, democratic and national rights!
  • For the right of self-determination of all Caucasian peoples!
  • For a voluntary and equal Socialist Federation of the Caucasus!

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December 2003