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Reform & Revolution

I arrived to the country of Georgia on an unusual night of riot police and torrential rains. My handler advised me that it was too dangerous to leave the hotel. I had not heard this from anyone since my time in Iraq.

I immediately dropped my bags and left for the protest areas. The demonstrators were given flag poles with no flags. This made them appear, instead, as either as elderly people with bright white walking sticks, or masked youth vigilantes toting imposing clubs. Depending on the media source, that’s how they were portrayed. They stood in droves, under the pouring rain, and shouted only for the president to resign peacefully.

It was the day before Independence Day, the day when, 20 years prior, they had broken free from the Soviet Union. Given the recent war with Russia, to cancel the festivities was not an option. Unfortunately, the only way the government found to clear the square in advance was to bring in the riot police.

The opposition thugs seemed aggravated, but not too dangerous. The rain seemed to have tempered their moods. They were paid off to be there, but obviously hadn’t read all the terms and conditions of playing the part.

The global atmosphere of support for protesters in the recent Arab spring reminded me of outside observers back then. Many outsiders to Georgia simply assumed a similar situation was erupting in the Caucasus; I watched and received messages from followers on Twitter, calling for the ousting of the despot. Unfortunately, they got it backwards: This is the home of one of, in my opinion, the world’s only living and successful revolutionaries. I later flipped on the TV and saw the slew of videos running over the international news headlines: “Riot Police Break Up Opposition Protests.”

These protests were against the new President of Georgia, Michael Saakashvili. He came into power through a peaceful uprising in 2003 that was dubbed the Rose Revolution because he broke into Parliament as demonstrators filled the streets outside and handed the country’s actual despot Eduard Shevardnadze a flower, asking him to step down.

The Rose Revolution brought a lot of excitement to the post-Soviet world, spreading a belief that perhaps the new oppressors could be replaced with a fresher democracy. The fall of the Berlin Wall left chaos, poverty and corruption in many of the Soviet satellites. This did not match the vision of the West that people in the East imagined their countries would turn into overnight.Where was the freedom and prosperity? Communists from the old guard retained power, promising that their politics had changed and that they had converted from loyal communists to honest democrats.

Unfortunately, true reform is hard to achieve.

As people took to the streets in Tbilisi in 2003, I was living in neighboring Armenia. My girlfriend at the time was Armenian, but living in Georgia. I took to visiting her when I could. The contrast between the countries was almost poetic. Hers was without stable electricity. Mine, without a stable water supply.

Ridiculous arguments ensued between opposing points of view on the same problems. My rationale—and the correct one—was that water could at least be stored between those times when it would be shut off (two hours of shortage was considered a good day). But an electrical cut rendered the refrigerator useless, plummeting everyone back to the dark ages. Hers was that people could have generators but that storing water in the bathtub makes it hard to shower.

Political discussions with others in the region diverged much more radically. I was working part-time directing documentary films with a local studio that had me traveling all around the country. It was interesting to hear how many people were pleading for a political alternative, but shocking how many desired a figure like Stalin to “set things straight” again (i.e., remove corruption, set priorities, provide housing and install pensions). It seems there was less concern for the 25 million people Stalin killed while he was “efficiently” providing such basic necessities to his people.

Meanwhile, up north in Georgia, a story spread of a young activist who was gaining popularity by protesting the lack of electricity. I used this as proof of my position’s weight in our little dispute.

As an American company tried to come in and charge old babushkas (grandmas) for their electricity for the first time in their lives, Georgian citizens started to get into the streets. They began demanding a power shift away from the old corrupt regime that was profiting from their misery by privatizing what were formerly state assets. As in much of the world, democracy was young and the party system was underdeveloped. There was only the ruling party, and the opposition. Moreover, there was little room for public discourse with the cronyism and heavy hand of the state involved.

Taking up the tactics of non-violent resistance, the youth group Kmara! (Enough!) swelled protest ranks and rallied around the young leader of the opposition, Michael “Misha” Saakashvili. President Shevardnadze attempted to open a new session of parliament, but was interrupted as Misha and his colleagues burst in with flowers in their hands.

Successfully removing a dictator is hard. Transitioning a society peaceably and fairly afterwards is even harder. Misha was the youngest leader in the entire Euro zone. One of his methods was to ensure youth voices in his government by enforcing a rule that few people in the new government were over the age of 35. This was a radical move; one contrary to more traditional methods of institutional vetting championed by western policymakers. The Georgian youth thus appointed suffered from a lack of experience, but were strengthened by their lack of Soviet upbringing and its attendant mentality. One of their challenges was the disproportionately high burden of caring for elderly citizens who lived at low income levels. These older groups only possessed outdated work skills from another era. They had to protect these people and prevent volatility, but still cultivate young skill and stop a brain drain of youth leaving the country.

Routing out corruption after the transition proved similarly difficult. Fire the corrupt staff, or teach the current staff new methods? Seeing the results of teaching communists what democracy looks like, Misha’s administration tried the latter, and cut many of the government watchdog programs. They were quickly accused of being Western-educated extremist libertarians.

But it my opinion, this judgment depends on your angle. Does dismantling the food safety agency increase or decrease food safety? At first glance, this measure might appear dangerous. That’s the tricky part about corruption: nothing is as it seems, because the only truth is the one that belongs to the highest bidder. In food safety, the ability to pass inspection by giving bribes is plainly unsafe. Who watches the watchers? Bribes can also ensure a failed inspection for the competing food company. Preventing those without extra capital lying around from entering the market helped institutionalize a mafia-like system. In the first 5 years of Georgian transition, GDP tripled.

After the revolution, a 27-year-old woman fired 14,000 police officers in one day by way of a single signature. By the end of the year, Ekaterine ZGULADZE, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, had dismissed 96% of a 30,000 total police force. In my opinion, it’s hard but necessary to protect a new police after firing the old, corrupt one. She gave them better gear, and raises to prevent corruption from taking root again. These same officers were armed in riot gear and cleared the square that night that I arrived in Georgia, just ahead of Independence Day celebrations.

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This police policy was one of post-facto lustration. Many transitioning Soviet republics put laws on the books that prevented the continuation of abuses committed under the former regime by barring communists from political positions. Since this measure was not initially taken in Georgia, it was forcibly implemented 20 years later. The first 6 months of funding for these reforms came from UNDP and OSI support. These international NGOs paid minister salaries and then raised salaries across the board in order to root out corruption. Eventually, the country saw an actual decrease in crime.

It’s now a much safer place than the one I remember from visiting my ex-girlfriend. Heroin was popular back then, and drug trafficking and street crime scenes were plainly visible. In the capital, these phenomena are no longer in plain sight. Bureaucracy has been trimmed to make Georgia a place to do business. The country even has a positive migration flow; exactly what I had been aiming for as a benchmark of success for my own efforts as the founder and board member of a youth art and technology center in Armenia. That’s not to say that Georgia cleaned up perfectly, or easily. Routing out the mafia meant facing many charges of extreme police brutality from human rights groups (violations, from what I have heard, supposedly perpetrated by those remaining 4% of police forces).

Mass firings don’t happen without their complications. In May 2011, Misha spoke candidly to me (in my capacity as President of Digital Democracy) about how much harder it is to host revolution successfully in a small country. His experience was that in a small country of only 4.7 million people, “complications arise when You chase Them from power, because They will hate You for it.You see them walking in the streets the next day.” His estimate was that 16% of the old regime ended up hating the new regime, with another 10% harboring personal vendettas. Not a great way to start political unity, especially with hostile neighbors and separatist regions. He then noted, “Putin wants to hang me from certain parts of my body.”

New technologies make governmental reform more exciting, especially when people like Tbilisi’s mayor can take questions via Twitter and Facebook, answering directly back to the people. Or when decisions that occur in Georgian Parliament are SMSed to interested constituents. Or when good citizens can report power outages, graffiti and other community issues directly to the appropriate authorities, straight from their mobile phones. After all, Georgia is a country that rebuilt their Ministry of the Interior (formerly the KGB) building entirely from glass, as a testimony to “transparency” in structure and form. Can and will other revolutionary countries do the same?

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Iran’s failed 2009 green revolution backfired on its people, thanks in part to technology.

People took to the streets to protest the disputed victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential election. Angry citizens, mostly youth, took to the streets, calling for justice. Digital tools such as Facebook and Twitter helped to spread awareness and coordination of events. Famously, a State Department staffer asked his friend at Twitter to keep the site on, instead of going through scheduled maintenance. But it was really only when Neda Agha-Soltan was shot and killed—and a video of this incident was uploaded to YouTube (in what TIME called “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history”)—that the world really started to take notice of Tehran.

After the protests failed, the Iranian security state started rounding up alleged dissidents. The people in the Neda video protected their identities. Others were not so lucky. The joyous protest photos started to backfire as elite security forces started posting pictures on their own sites, circling faces, and asking Iranian patriots to log in and identify perpetrators so that they could be arrested.

When I met Misha, this leader of the more-successful “colored revolution” was sitting alongside leaders from the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. We agreed: The Arab spring so far has yielded some exciting results, but it’s nowhere near over. People continue to stay in the streets and sleep in their revolutionary squares, cautiously optimistic but aware that their revolutions didn’t sweep a reformist leader into power. The military is now in control. Misha advised quick action.

“Big issues evade you if you follow polls,” he told us. “Your popularity should be spent on reforms.” Is that even possible when there is no popular figure around whom to rally? And what does reform look like, otherwise?

In the case of Georgia, the ousted leader Shevardnadze still lives in his villa outside the capital. Egypt has instead taken the approach of prosecuting their leader. These different approaches have traditionally provided different outcomes. But technology has the opportunity to play a unique role in the transition.

I’ve been working on different interactive systems whereby people can take a more active role in the future of their country, participating by now-ubiquitous mobile phones to gain direct access to the political process and at a fraction of the cost of running campaigns. Instead of pitting party and opposition against one another, perhaps transitions will be helped along civilly as the citizens themselves become more engaged.

When I arrived in Georgia this most recent time, it was to meet with senior political figures and give a series of lectures to the public. After the recent five-day war with neighboring Russia, they had been increasingly trying to align with the rest of Europe. The occasion was one of Georgia showing off its cultural, religious and intellectual similarities with Europe by bringing foreign dignitaries and thought leaders to discuss a variety of topics facing the country. I visited to understand what a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy looks like, and to meet with the people who ran the transition to hear directly from them how they succeeded where so many other countries had failed.

I had the pleasure of being invited to speak on two panel discussions at public events, and to meet a number of invited revolutionaries trying to transition their countries of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria, as successfully as the Georgians had theirs. Upon meeting the President, Misha spoke to us from the heart of his lessons and insights. He emphasized a Kantian paraphrase: “You cannot be ready to be free until you are free.”

It was incredible not only to hear him, but also to see Bassem Bouguerra from Tunisia spring into action when he did. Bouguerra is an engineer from Yahoo!, but also a civic activist who has been aiding resistance against an oppressive leadership since the Tunisian Revolution began in December 2010. Until recently, he said, they were succeeding. But despite ousting Ben Ali, Bouguerra reported huge problems. He expressed how state police continued to beat demonstrators in the streets and how, despite making huge progress, there were times when it felt to him that his country was backpedaling.

In true netizen fashion, he pulled out his computer. We hopped onto the President’s wifi network to live-stream the conversation to his friends and fellow revolutionaries back home. When I asked Bassem if he’d asked permission to use the network, he laughed, saying that he’s finally free. Why ask for permission?

You cannot be ready to be free until you are free. And technology is now tool and method of both—and all—freedoms. The question is how are the tools being used to support freedom and the methods incorporating the lessons from past struggles. That’s what I freely search for the answer to.

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