The Rose Revolution One Year on
The Rose Revolution One Year on
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Fenced In: Stabilising the Georgia-South Ossetia Separation Line
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

The Rose Revolution One Year on

One year ago, Mikhail Saakashvili led protesters through barricades around the Georgian Parliament and launched the fundamental movement of change the world has come to know as the “Rose Revolution”. A few weeks later, on 4 January 2004, he was given a tremendous popular mandate, receiving over 96% of the vote in a presidential poll notably more democratic than past elections.

The youngest president in Europe has ridden a wave of post-revolution euphoria over much of the past year, and the enthusiasm has spread outside Georgia as well. Saakashvili has successfully strengthened his country's ties with the European Union and the U.S. especially. An international donors' conference pledged close to $1 billion for Georgia in June. After scaling back assistance in 2003 out of disappointment at the slow pace of reform, the U.S. invited Georgia in 2004 to apply for the Millennium Challenge Account, which promises approximately a further half billion dollars worth of investments in the coming years. Georgia also secured U.S. support for new military assistance to train Georgian troops in peace-support operations.

But Saakashvili’s central pledge twelve months back was to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity. At a highly symbolic inaugural oath at the grave of David IV, creator of a united Georgia a millennium ago, Saakashvili stated this would be the priority of his presidency. His success in rapidly bringing the fractured country back together, however, has been decidedly mixed.

In Ajara, a breakaway region on the Black Sea, Saakashvili was successful despite initial international scepticism. Through a skilful mix of threatened force and imaginative diplomacy, he manoeuvred former Ajarian strongman Aslan Abashidze into peacefully releasing his thirteen-year grip on the province in May 2004. After a constitutional law on the status of Ajara was enacted, and elections to a local council were held, the region that had for over a decade been a thorn in Tbilisi's side, began to deliver custom and tax revenues to the capital. Economically and politically, Ajara has been fully reintegrated into Georgia's fold.

Saakashvili's bold designs have been far less successful in South Ossetia, a former autonomous region located in the north of the country, which seceded from Georgia in 1990, triggering a violent conflict. After closing a sprawling black market near the old administrative border between Georgia and South Ossetia, the Georgian administration expected the de facto South Ossetian government to collapse. Instead, separatist leaders solidified their positions and harnessed a new upsurge of popular support among the Ossetian people. The Georgian-South Ossetian zone of conflict became increasingly militarised, and in July and August 2004, exchanges of fire killed at least 22 people.

The revolutionary zeal that brought Saakashvili to power and helped him resolve the Ajara crisis so swiftly and bloodlessly failed to work its magic a second time; in fact, it put Georgia face to face with the spectre of a new war. The South Ossetians’ political and economic grievances could not be addressed by the sweep of Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution, so from bold bluster, Tbilisi was forced to turn to gradual steps: step by step confidence building measures and detailed political negotiations, rather than a quick fix.

Revolutionary ambitions also appear to have been tempered when Saakashvili's administration was confronted with a political crisis in the country's other self-declared independent region in Abkhazia in the west. On 3 October, the breakaway republic held presidential elections and swiftly brought a political crisis upon itself when the outgoing president of the region refused to recognise the opposition’s claim to victory, and the Abkhaz Supreme Court ruled for a new vote. The opposition leader still plans to take office on 6 December.

Perhaps showing he is moderating his revolutionary fervour, Saakashvili has resisted the temptation to get involved in the Abkhaz electoral dispute, and he has not tried to use the power vacuum to push for Abkhazia's reintegration into Georgia. The only critical public statement from Tbilisi on developments in Abkhazia condemned Russia for threatening to resort to "any means" to protect its own interests in the region. Tbilisi has continued to underline that it will resolve its differences with Abkhazia peacefully, through dialogue and offering economic incentives for re-integration. 

Saakashvili’s early rhetoric suggested he would try to pull off a quick hat trick and speedily bring Ajara, South Ossetia and Abkhazia all back under Tbilisi’s control, but he seems to have accepted along the way that not every goal comes easily. That the bloodshed in South Ossetia was contained and that Abkhazia is being given its breathing room shows he has learned bluff and bluster can only get you so far.

A year ago, Saakashvili showed the world he had the vision, energy and skill of a triumphant modern day revolutionary. He has now begun to refine this message, to define what steps are needed to build the needed trust and confidence among the Ossetian and Abkhaz people to resolve Georgia's territorial disputes peacefully. Saakashvili has at least four more years to create this legacy and establish himself as Georgia's great post-independence president: at least four more years to see if “Rose Diplomacy” can succeed where the Rose Revolution could not.


Former Program Director, Europe & Central Asia
Former Analyst, Caucasus

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