David Kezerashvili: 20th Anniversary of the Rose Revolution in Georgia

23.11.2023 - Category: Politics

23 November 2023: It was 20 years ago today that a peaceful coup in the Georgian Parliament was heard around the world. Following years of disputed parliamentary elections, the revolution successfully ousted the sitting president and brought an end to autocratic post-Soviet rule in the country.

David Kezerashvili was a key part of the movement to bring hope, freedom and democracy to the region in the wake of the ‘Rose Revolution’. In this Q&A interview, David reflects on the events of 2003, what is left of its legacy in Georgia, and what the future looks like for his country.

Q1: How involved were you in the Rose Revolution and what do you remember from the weeks leading up to it?

David Kezerashvili: In 2001, together with my university friends, I joined the newly formed United National Movement, led by Mikheil Saakashvili. The UNM had a very clear goal - to transform Georgia from a failed state into a modern European democracy. The corrupt Russian-backed government at the time had other ideas of course and tried to rig the 2003 parliamentary elections. That was the trigger for millions of Georgians to take to the streets and force change.

I’m very proud to be one of those young Georgians who fought for democracy. The bloodless Rose Revolution indeed was a historic moment in the history of Georgia and the entire region. I like to think we proved that with genuine will, you can really make a difference. I remember every single moment from those days, bearing the flag of Georgia, marching in the streets of Tbilisi, rallying my friends to join the protests. It was a huge moment personally for me as a young man. But it was an even bigger moment for Georgia. The whole world sat up and took notice.

Q2: The Rose Revolution in Georgia was soon followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Tulip Revolution in Moldova. What was it about the Rose Revolution that triggered a domino effect of uprisings across the region?

David: The Rose Revolution in Georgia demonstrated what was possible. We were the first in the region to challenge the status quo of rigged elections, autocracy, and corruption, to stand up and say that we deserved better.

Our movement created a precedent. We didn’t resort to violence; we didn’t need bullets. Armed with only a red rose, we stormed the Georgian Parliament and kick-started its transformation from one of the most corrupt in the region, to a democratic success story. In doing so we provided a blueprint for others to realise their own freedom.

Crucially, the success of our campaign gave others in the region the confidence to stand up to injustice and challenge a ruling elite that was paying no heed to their interests.

It also quickly became clear to others in the region that the more pressure we could pile on the Kremlin, the better. Putin was frightened by the events in Georgia, and our neighbours in Ukraine, Moldova and elsewhere were keenly aware of the greater power we had as a collective to trouble the Kremlin and undermine its attempts to rule us by stealth.

Q3: Did you feel that you had international support for the Revolution?

David: At the start of the Rose Revolution, we did not have international support. We had no money, and we had no network. We were undoubtedly the underdogs, but that would not stop us fighting for what we knew was right.

However, slowly but surely, word began to spread about what was happening in Georgia. As it did, the international community began taking notice.

George Bush, in particular, saw the potential of the Georgian model to help reverse the spread of Soviet ideals in Europe more widely. Ultimately, Georgia and the US shared the same goals - to spread freedom and democracy as far as we could. Bush started to notice the momentum behind our campaign and the effect it was having on the rest of the region. While we were used to doing things ourselves, the movement was no doubt emboldened by the American support for what we were trying to achieve.

Q4: To what extent do you think the legacy of the Rose Revolution is still intact in Georgia?

David: Sadly, today, the Georgia we fought for in 2003 has been altered almost beyond recognition. Ever since the day we marched to the parliament in Tbilisi, Putin and his cronies have been working to steadily undermine due process, civil liberties, and the rule of law in our country.

Today, largely under Kremlin instruction, the ruling Georgian Dream Party has been rapidly rolling back on the democratic reforms that we fought so hard for and thwarting the will of the Georgian people as it goes.

Corruption has undoubtedly returned to Georgia and with each election that passes, the results become more and more tainted. The continued illegal detention in Georgia of my good friend and the spearhead of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, is yet another tragic reminder of the sorry state of our shared homeland.

Georgian foreign policy too is increasingly resembling that of the Kremlin. Just this year the party attempted to introduce a ‘Foreign Agents Bill’ - a Kremlin-inspired effort to crack down on any Western presence in the country. It provoked widespread protests - a stark reminder of the huge gulf between the Georgian Dream Party and the people it governs.

Q5: What worries you most about recent Kremlin actions?

David: What concerns me most about the Kremlin is the subtlety with which it can carry out its dirty work. The Kremlin have dusted off their old playbook and, just like they did prior to our successful coup in 2003, they are finding increasingly covert and undercover ways to infiltrate politics and the way of life in Georgia.

Q6: What does the EU’s recent decision to consider Georgia for candidacy status mean for the country? Does it give you hope?

David: The EU’s recent decision to consider Georgia for candidacy status is a huge win for Georgia. Despite the best efforts of the Georgian Dream Party to thwart Georgia’s way in, the EU are clearly aware of the true desires of the Georgian people. Its decision to start paving the way for Georgian membership is a clear signal of this.

The Georgian Dream Party itself has done nothing to earn a spot at the EU table. However, opinion polls have repeatedly shown that more than 80% of Georgian people want a seat at the EU table. We should make no mistake that the EU’s decision is a gift to the overwhelmingly pro EU Georgian society, who without their help will remain at the ruling party’s behest.

The Commission has made it clear that Georgia still has much work to do in reforming its judiciary and committing itself to free and fair elections next year if further progress towards full EU membership is to be made. The Dream Party ought to pay heed to this and respect the will of the Georgian people.

Q7: Finally David, Georgia is 20 years on from the Revolution. What reforms would you like to see delivered in Georgia over the next 20?

David: Next year’s parliamentary elections will be absolutely critical for Georgia. There are already signs emerging that the ruling party will stop at nothing to ensure these are not conducted in a fair or democratic way. For me, this shows that they are scared. They know that they have defied the will of their own people and that next year’s election could be a potentially catastrophic referendum on their leadership.

My hope for Georgia’s future is that it sees a new government, returned through a peaceful, democratic transfer of power. Where there are blocks in the road - and no doubt there will be - I hope that the next generation of pro-Western, pro-European, anti-Soviet Georgians will heed the lessons of 2003 and stand up to injustice now as we did then.

I also hope that Georgia can continue down the path to EU membership. Not only does it deserve to be welcomed back into the fold, but its very democratic fabric depends on it. Without the support of the EU and indeed the rest of the international community, we only risk seeing Georgia fall further into the Russian grasp.

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