Georgian unrolls the ‘velvet’ revolution

Times Staff Writer

She’s a soldier in a different kind of war.

Every few months, Nini Gogiberidze is deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians.

Gogiberidze is among Georgia’s “velvet” revolutionaries, a group of Western and local activists who make up a robust pro-democracy corps in this Caucasus country -- so much of it funded by American philanthropist George Soros that one analyst calls the nation Sorosistan.

“Velvet revolutions require the same type of discipline as military revolutions but without the guns,” the 28-year-old Georgian lawyer says. “People, if they stay united and disciplined, can change a lot of things.”


Georgia’s status as a kind of laboratory for such groups is a little-explored dimension of the recent battle between Moscow and Tbilisi. It is a conflict between imperial ambitions rooted in the 19th century and the soft power of 21st century electronic media and global culture -- the iron fist versus the velvet glove.

The velvet revolutionaries, whose name comes from the peaceful 1989 uprising against communist rule in Czechoslovakia, have racked up numerous successes, including Georgia’s Rose Revolution, which brought Soros protege Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency in 2004; the Orange Revolution later that year that toppled the Kremlin-backed government in Ukraine; and the Cedar Revolution of 2005 in Lebanon that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops.

The Kremlin openly despises Soros. Along with other authoritarian governments, it views the so-called color revolutions as U.S.-sponsored plots using local dupes to overthrow governments unfriendly to Washington and install American vassals. Moscow regards Saakashvili and his crowd with the same disdain as it views the English-speaking, laptop-toting liberals who it believes brought post-communist Russia to financial ruin in the 1990s.

‘These do-gooders’

Critics say the velvet revolutionaries are naive, trying to graft foreign political solutions onto countries with long histories and regional realities.

“These do-gooders, thinking themselves to be doing good, walked themselves into a trap, sensing they could do whatever they wanted regardless of the long and tangled history of this place,” says Thomas Goltz, an American journalist and scholar who lived for years in the Caucasus and has written books about Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“Get real!” he says. “You’ve lived here for thousands of years.”

Billionaire financier Soros, who grew up under communist rule in Hungary, launched his Open Society Institute after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in an attempt to encourage Western-style democracy in the former Soviet bloc, and eventually other autocratic states.


In Georgia, the Soros-funded activists occupy a low-key three-story office building called the Open Society Institute of Georgia here in Tbilisi, the capital. An alphabet soup of international and local groups also makes its home there. Locals call it the “Soros Fund” building.

Like Saakashvili, who studied law at Columbia University, many of the velvet revolutionaries spent time abroad. Gogiberidze studied for two years at the London School of Economics.

She is slender and energetic, inhaling cigarettes and downing cups of coffee. Her husband, an investment banker, has learned to appreciate her late hours and devotion, even helping her out sometimes, she says.

And she unflinchingly answers sensitive questions about her employer, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas. The group is funded in part by the International Republican Institute, which many describe as the international arm of the GOP, and Washington-based Freedom House, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government.

“I have nothing to hide,” she says.

Some governments have grown increasingly wary about groups such as Canvas and others associated with Soros, and have clamped down. Authorities shut down Soros’ Moscow offices in 2003, seizing computers and documents.

Gogiberidze travels to third-party countries for the training courses, which attract between five and 25 students. Security is a concern. She doesn’t exchange phone numbers or e-mail addresses with any of her students, for fear they will get into trouble for trying to contact each other. Twice she had to change locations of workshops in Turkey, fearful that Iranian spies were on to them. At one point, Tehran canceled direct flights to the Turkish resort town of Antalya, where the training sessions were held.


“These are very brave people,” she says. “They know the risks of what they’re doing.”

On assignments, she encourages students to use nonviolent tactics to agitate for change. Avoid political rhetoric or demonstrations if they are too dangerous, she advises. Complain about services. Demand good government.

Above all, be creative. One group of Iranians began plastering its hometown with outlandish quotes from hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Authorities didn’t know whether to revere or rip down the posters.

Leader was poster child

Saakashvili was the poster child of the velvet revolutionaries, and when he came to power in 2004, he brought with him many of the leaders of Georgia’s “civil society” movement. Soros even helped finance the broke government after he took over.

Last November, Saakashvili cracked down violently on anti-government protesters and opposition media. Many, including Gogiberidze, were disillusioned. Even Soros reportedly soured on his onetime protege.

Other observers were disturbed by the way Saakashvili seemed to push controversial agendas, including seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; buying up millions of dollars in U.S. military equipment; and establishing Georgia as a base for fomenting color revolutions, regardless of the sensitivities of the country’s neighbors.

A revolution meant to open up society and bring fresh thinking to politics was pursuing policies that reinforced Moscow’s worst fears. “The irony is you have a bunch of political do-gooders pushing a military agenda,” Goltz says.


Citizens devised protests

During the recent conflict, as Russian troops who had advanced into Georgia in armored vehicles dug trenches and set up checkpoints, its citizens employed velvet revolution-style tactics to protest.

They led food and clothing drives for displaced people. They organized rallies where they held up flags and approached the Russian checkpoints, phalanxes of local and international media in tow. They mass-produced bumper stickers that said, “Russia Out!”

Gogiberidze stayed up until 6:30 some mornings editing video that chronicled Russia’s alleged abuses. Joining relief missions, she went on forays into the occupied city of Gori, talking her way past Russian checkpoints.

She feels frustrated by Russia’s continued occupation of parts of her country, which she is certain is meant to wreck Georgia’s liberal democratic experiment, and still dreams that hers can be an open society oriented toward the West, rather than the stodgy autocracy it has been for hundreds of years.

“I believe in human rights. I believe everyone is free to choose their own government,” she says. “Why couldn’t Georgia be a democracy like the U.S.? Just because we live near Russia? We should be able to choose how we want to live.”