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Moscow Times
November 29, 2004
Comparing Roses and Chestnuts
By James Wertsch
James Wertsch is a professor and director of International and Area Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and co-editor of Caucasus Context. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

A bitter campaign marked by predictions of vote fraud culminates in an election that all Western observers call seriously flawed. On election day, exit polls show the opposition candidate clearly in the lead, but the official central elections commission comes up with the reverse result. Large crowds gather in the capital to protest, vowing to stay until the results are thrown out or a new election is held, and state authorities respond by issuing dire warnings of civil unrest and unpredictable consequences.

This describes the "Chestnut Revolution" in Ukraine in 2004, but it fits last year's "Rose Revolution" in Georgia just as well. The parallels have been noted by many, including those brandishing Georgian flags at political rallies in Kiev. Do these flags mean that the Chestnut Revolution in Ukraine is a carbon copy of the Rose Revolution? If yes, in what respect? If not, why not?

In order to answer these questions we need to ask what defined the Rose Revolution, and in this regard I think four factors need to be kept in mind.

The first is a free press that represents a range of political perspectives. In the months before the events in November 2003, the media in Georgia covered all parties involved in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This coverage included remarkably strong criticism of the government of incumbent President Eduard Shevardnadze, something that became only stronger once the election results were called into question. The media -- especially the television channel Rustavi-2 -- were owned and operated by forces outside the government and were sometimes themselves sharply criticized, especially by the authorities who didn't like what they had to say.

A second factor is the framework of civil society that had begun to emerge by the time of the Rose Revolution. Nongovernmental organizations had been very active in encouraging this development in Georgia and were some of the country's most trusted institutions, ranking well ahead of the government. This is not to say that NGOs called the shots during the revolution itself. They did not. But they did help prepare the Georgian population for its role, and without this preparation the event very well may not have occurred, or it might have unfolded in a much less peaceful and productive way. The striking contrast between the resolute and disciplined civic action of the Rose Revolution and earlier Georgian susceptibility to demagoguery and violence can be attributed at least in part to the work of these NGOs.

The third factor in the Rose Revolution was the weakness of the state. By the autumn of 2003 the power of the Georgian government had so deteriorated that it almost invited resistance. Police who had not been paid for months began to declare their allegiance to the opposition several days before Shevardnadze stepped down. Shevardnadze has always asserted that he did not call out the police and army because he refused to shed blood, but in fact it was unclear what these forces would have done had he called for their assistance.

And finally, there was a high level of support for the Rose Revolution from people across all regions and backgrounds in Georgia. The Shevardnadze government was viewed as controlled by a small group of self-interested actors, and as such it was discredited in the eyes of the vast majority of Georgian citizens. Less than two months after the revolution, its leader Mikheil Saakashvili was overwhelmingly voted in as president in what Western observers judged to be a free and fair election.

So what has been the role of these four factors in the Chestnut Revolution? First, an open and critical press did not play a role. Opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko received very little coverage, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych received very little criticism.

Second, a fledgling civil society has played a role in Ukraine not unlike that in Georgia. In both cases the efforts of NGOs to create some basic habits of democracy seem to be paying off.

With regard to state authority, there are both similarities and differences. By the time of the Rose Revolution, state authority had largely disappeared in Georgia. In Ukraine it still was very much in evidence. Even so, doubts arose as to whether the Ukrainian army and police would respond to orders.

Lastly, the Ukrainian and Georgian events differ most strikingly in terms of the breadth of support for the protesters. Even the most optimistic exit polls of the Ukrainian opposition revealed that it enjoyed only a slight majority of the voters. The population was deeply divided along regional and ethnic lines, something that correlated with differences over whether the country should cast its lot with the West or with Russia.

So where does this leave us? The bottom line seems to be that the Rose Revolution served more as a general inspiration for events in Ukraine than as a blueprint. The main thing that those Georgian flags brandished in Kiev may have signified was a newfound conviction by citizens that the power of disciplined mass protest can undo the results of a stolen election.