Inspired by Georgians, Back on the Streets Demanding Democracy
The War in Ukraine and Protests in Georgia are part of a common struggle for democracy and Europe and against Putin-supported dictatorship.
From the very beginning, Vladimir Putin’s election as president back in 2000 was an uneasy signal for small d democrats working on democracy promotion and consolidation inside Russia and other post-Soviet countries. As mentioned previously in my last post here, three weeks prior to his first election, I wrote an article in The Washington Post, warning of Putin’s autocratic proclivities. At the time, I was traveling back and forth to Moscow, as I co-led the Russian domestic political program at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Back then, all those studying politics in Russia or fighting to preserve democracy in Russia were nervous, but not yet despondent.
One day in these early Putin years, on my way out of the U.S. Embassy, I ran into my American colleague, who at the time headed a prominent U.S. non-governmental organization working on democracy promotion in Russia. I was surprised when he told me that he was leaving Russia. Instead, he was heading back to Georgia, where he had worked before, to continue supporting democracy in Tbilisi, not in Moscow. His reasoning was simple: Georgian civil society was much more vibrant than Russian civil society. You can make a difference there, he explained.
He was right. In 2003, Georgian pro-democracy forces, led by young and charismatic Mikheil Saakashvili — currently dying in detention — joined together in a peaceful uprising to protest a falsified election and demand the resignation of the pro-Russian president Eduard Shevardnadze. This dramatic set of events eventually became known as the Rose Revolution, deriving its name from the brave act of demonstrators interrupting a Parliament session with red roses in hand. This was a democratic breakthrough in Georgia. Saakashvili and his supporters instilled hope around the entirety of the post-Soviet world about the possibility of democratic renewal. (Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, democratic consolidation had only succeeded in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.)
The following year, in 2004, pro-democracy forces in Ukraine used a similar playbook as their Georgian friends. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians congregated and camped out on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv, protesting a falsified presidential election and demanding a new vote. Eventually, they won too, like activists in Georgia. Re-election took place, ousting pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych and bringing to power the pro-democratic, pro-European Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine’s victory came to be known as the Orange Revolution, an event labeled by many — including me at the time — as a second long-awaited democratic breakthrough in the region. In 2006, alongside Anders Aslund, I edited a book about these events, called Revolution in Orange.
The coincidence of these two peaceful, massive, grassroots movements happening just one year apart created a special bond between believers in democracy in Georgia and Ukraine. This bond has remained in place ever since.
Neither the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 nor the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 led to consolidated democracies or thriving market economies. But what both events did reveal was the depth and strength of Georgian and Ukrainian civil societies. As someone actively traveling between and writing about Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia at the time, the vibrancy of the democratic movements in Tbilisi and Kyiv compared to Moscow was palpable. This was not just the opinion of us, the Westerners. Russian opposition and civil society leaders felt that too. They traveled to these neighboring countries to get inspired. Boris Nemtsov, a friend and a Russian opposition leader, assassinated in Moscow in 2015, was one of those energized by the successes of his fellow small d democrats in the region. He always told me that the best thing the West could do for democrats and democracy development inside Russia was to help democrats in power succeed in Georgia and Ukraine. Ukraine especially.
Both “color revolutions” lost momentum. In Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili — a billionaire aka oligarch who obtained his fortune in Russia — gradually asserted political control, pulling Georgia back into Russia’s orbit. In Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych — the politician trying to get elected through a falsified vote in 2004 — won in a free and fair election in 2010 with strong Russian backing.
And yet, in both countries, civil society remained mobilized, fighting for democratic renewal yet again. In 2013, Ukrainian civil society took to the streets again, this time to protest Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an accession agreement with the European Union. After weeks of widespread bottom-up civil mobilization which Yanukovych tried to suppress through violent means, small d democrats in Ukraine prevailed once again in February 2014 in what they now call the Revolution of Dignity. Putin had a different name for the Revolution of Dignity. To him, it was a neo-Nazi coup d'état orchestrated by the United States. To weaken the new democrats in power in Kyiv, Putin annexed Crimea and supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. And when these actions failed at undermining democracy in Ukraine, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Putin allegedly has many objectives in this war, though most of them unfilled so far. But top of the list was to destroy Ukrainian democracy, preventing its further deviation away from Russia. To date, he has failed miserably.
Georgian democrats have been embarrassed and dismayed by the lack of support that their government has extended to Ukraine since Putin launched a full-scale invasion last February. But Georgian civil society did not disappoint. Over the past year, thousands of people repeatedly took to the streets to peacefully protest against Russia’s war and express solidarity with Ukraine. Just two weeks ago, 30,000 demonstrators gathered for a rally outside of the Georgian parliament to commemorate the one year of Ukraine’s fight for freedom on the active frontlines.
Georgian democrats have also been worried about what would happen to them when the whole world was rightfully focused on the fight for democracy in Ukraine. Despite the uncertainty, they continue to fight peacefully for their own democracy, pushing for European integration. Today, however, Georgian society is back on the streets again and the world is watching. Like Putin in Ukraine, the pro-Russian “Georgian Dream” party, currently in power, has overstepped. On February 22, 2023, the Georgian parliament decided to expand the scope of a new “agents of foreign influence” law, which Putin implemented in Russia years ago and has been using to crack down on media and civil society ever since. This law, if passed, would (1) obligate NGOs, media, and individuals receiving more than 20 percent of their annual revenue from foreign entities to register as “agents of foreign influence” (failure to do so will result in anything between fines to five years in prison) and (2) take Georgia’s prospect of EU membership off the table since this agent law will violate recommendations of European Commission (Article 7 and 10). While using different means, Georgians are fighting for the same ideals as their Ukrainian friends—democracy, freedom, and sovereignty.
I, of course, do not know how things will end in Georgia, just as I don’t know how the war in Ukraine will end. I do know that grassroots civic activists in both countries have been vibrant for decades. They are motivated by better ideas than their oppressors. They also represent the future in both countries – younger and more educated than their opponents. I wouldn’t bet against either. As Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But it doesn’t bend alone. People committed to justice bend the history and they are doing so right now in Ukraine and Georgia.
I was OSCE's representative in Kyiv 2005-2008. I can remember the jubilation of Ukrainians as they defeated the election-stealing schemes of Yanukovych and his ilk, and made progress in establishing the rule of law. Even so, in those early days, Ukraine was mired in its Soviet past, with rampant corruption, and heavy penetration by Russia in all spheres of life. People were jubilant, and didn't quite seem to realize just how far they still had to go before they could establish a true democracy. But they were happy, and their course was clear.
One of our principal tasks at OSCE Kyiv was to help Ukraine establish the institutional underpinnings of democracy. Working with the Central Election Commission, among others, we had many successes, but as I left Kyiv in 2008, it was clear that the storm clouds were gathering once again.
A long path of suffering lay ahead for the Ukrainian people. Putin's reflexive hatred and fear of democracy, and his continuous efforts to undermine its progress in the former Soviet Union, and to re-establish the Russian Empire in some form, have defined this period of post-Soviet history.
The struggle continues, and the outcome is uncertain. One thing I do know, however: Ukrainians will never, ever give up. Neither will Georgians.
Well that was interesting. I learned stuff. I will definitely follow the (scanty) news from Georgia with greater interest now. Perhaps the Ukrainian war will help the Georgian democrats with Putin being too busy to interfere effectively.