Primer For a Revolution
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page A19
ISTANBUL -- How do you make a peaceful democratic revolution? That's the big issue these days for political activists from Cairo to Hong Kong. I put the question to the past year's most successful revolutionary, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Saakashvili led last November's so-called "Rose Revolution," which toppled the regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. The new Georgian leader, who is just 36, was visiting here for the NATO summit last week. He outlined for me a step-by-step primer to guide change agents of the 21st century.
I should say at the outset that Saakashvili, like many revolutionaries throughout history, has a touch of Messianism. Left unchecked, it could prove dangerous to the democracy he fought to create. I'll explain later how he defends himself against critics. But first, here are his rules for revolutionaries:
• Burrow from within. Like many reformers, Saakashvili began as an insider with the regime he later toppled. After studying law in America, he returned home in 1995 and joined parliament in Shevardnadze's ruling party. But he was an agitator from the start, pressing for legal reforms, and when he became minister of justice in 2000, he used the platform to attack his political enemies.
• Use nongovernmental organizations to help build a political base. Saakashvili worked with such nongovernmental organizations to rewrite Georgia's legal code in the late 1990s. He invited the American Bar Association to come to Georgia and supervise the selection of Georgian judges. The ABA administered judicial exams that were broadcast live on television. These reforms helped strengthen civil society in Georgia, and correspondingly helped weaken the power of the ruling party.
• Create a political movement that is modern, media-savvy and well-connected in the West. Saakashvili called his group Kamara, which means "enough" in Georgian. It was modeled on a Serbian group that had toppled Slobodan Milosevic in a bloodless coup in Belgrade in October 2000. The movement was funded partly by contributions from billionaire George Soros's Open Society Project. It trained its members in nonviolent protest, and cleverly used the Georgian media to get free publicity.
Saakashvili says help from private foreign groups was useful, but he cautions that would-be revolutionaries shouldn't overstate the importance of outside support. "Nobody can pay for a revolution," he says. "You can't buy the enthusiasm of people."
• Never show fear. Kamara made its move last November, after Shevardnadze's party had triumphed in elections that were widely seen as fraudulent. Saakashvili and his followers occupied the Georgian parliament building, almost daring the authorities to evict them. He says that when the takeover occurred, he was prepared to die. That fearless personal commitment galvanized his supporters. "If we had been scared, people would not have followed us," he says.
Another key tactic was not to initiate violence, no matter what the provocation. "The temptation to use force is huge," Saakashvili says. "But once you cross that threshold, you can never get back."
• Cultivate your enemies. The smartest thing Saakashvili did was to woo the Georgian army and police. His followers showered the troops with roses, paid visits to their families, invited them to share food in the chilly streets outside parliament. When the soldiers were ordered to attack the protesters, they refused -- and the revolution triumphed.
Another crucial factor, says Saakashvili, was that there wasn't another international crisis that week, which meant the global media eye was focused on Georgia. That probably checked Shevardnadze. "If we had disappeared from public view, it would have been easy to destroy us," the Georgian president explains.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Saakashvili about the Robespierre problem, the historical fact that today's revolutionaries often become tomorrow's dictators. The Georgian leader is already criticized by some of his countrymen for pushing his reforms so hard that he is becoming an autocrat.
Saakashvili responded with a final rule: "Once you start reform, you have to do it all." He said that as part of his anti-corruption campaign, he is firing 19,000 police, 2,000 tax officials and 1,500 customs officials. Inevitably, he says, he is making enemies. But he wants to keep pushing until his reforms are irreversible. "Reformers don't get a second chance," he notes.
What will keep him from becoming another dictator, Saakashvili says, are the free media and free elections he helped create. Eventually, the public will tire of his policies and throw him out -- perhaps at the end of his first five-year term. When that happens, he says, "it will show that Georgia has become a normal country."
The Bush administration talks about democratic change. But it's the Saakashvilis, armed with their homegrown how-to manuals, who actually make it happen.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company