BOB GARFIELD: The role of reporters as political actor was played out explicitly last month in Georgia, when the independent media there found themselves firmly behind the ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze. The results of parliamentary elections favoring Shevardnadze's party stunned thousands of voters who were ready to see him out of a job, blaming him for massive unemployment, poverty and corruption. Widespread vote-rigging was suspected, and there followed three weeks of outrage from the political opposition and the public. Finally, on November 23rd, the president tendered his resignation. The resolutely independent elements of Georgia's media kept up a steady drum beat of support for the opposition throughout, and commentators are now saying that without those voices, the overthrow may never have happened. Thomas de Waal is the Caucasus Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. He's just returned from Georgia and joins us now from his home in London. Tom, welcome to the show.
THOMAS DE WAAL: Hello there.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's begin with the central oddity of this story: an apparently rigged election, and a robust free press. It's like what's wrong with this picture?
THOMAS DE WAAL: Well I think this is a classic example of a little democracy is a dangerous thing. Shevardnadze is -- was, I should say -- one of the more democratic of the leaders of the former Soviet states, but not very democratic. He, after all, was the Communist Party boss of Georgia way back from 1972. And yes, he did try and rig the elections, although by the standards of other elections in the region, it wasn't that spectacular. And yes, he has tolerated an opposition media, although it has to be said, the main television station Rustavi-2 which has been the opposition's mouthpiece during this whole crisis, he did try and close it down, and the people resisted. They rallied in front of the television headquarters, and Shevardnadze backed down. That was two years ago. And now, in retrospect, that looks to have been a very significant event.
BOB GARFIELD:Well let's discuss Rustavi-2, which, along with the independent newspaper 24 Hours seems to have been pivotal in the president's overthrow.
THOMAS DE WAAL: We're talking about a very professional journal. They've had a very strong focus on corruption. They've got their own version of 60 Minutes. They've also got a political cartoon show which satirized the government over all this time. And during this whole crisis, they were running live reports from the street demonstrations which obviously showed people in the rest of Georgia what was going on in the capital -- the scale of opposition. And, also, they were regularly broadcasting alternative results, because there were organizations monitoring these elections, and Rustavi-2 was giving them a voice.
BOB GARFIELD:Now, as what has been called "Roses Revolution" was under way, the state TV was broadcasting a documentary about penguins. What do you suppose will happen now that the democrats are in power? Will they flip flop?
THOMAS DE WAAL: Well of course the cynics are saying that that's exactly what's happening -- that Rustavi-2 is now looking more and more like state TV. The new lot are, are coming in. They're appointing their friends and cronies. I'm sure there's some of that going on, but I'm a bit more optimistic than that. I think we're also seeing in Georgia a younger generation taking charge, people who've --more likely to have studied in the West than in Moscow; people who've got a more liberal outlook in general. Another interesting feature of this whole thing is the part played by George Soros and his Open Society Institute. They very much backed the opposition. They funded Rustavi-2 and 24 Hours, and I don't think Mr. Soros would look kindly at his money being spent on setting up just an alternative state channel.
BOB GARFIELD:In fact, in your interview with Shevardnadze about a week after his fall, he blamed non-governmental organizations which he believed had agitated for the Roses Revolution. Do you think that, in effect, George Soros overthrew the Shevardnadze regime?
THOMAS DE WAAL: Well, certainly Mr. [LAUGHS] Shevardnadze seems to think so. He didn't mention him by name in the interview with us, but he has mentioned him by name before and called for Soros's offices to be closed down. Obviously that's a bit simplistic. But there is one other startling fact which is that Soros paid for member of the Georgian opposition to go to Belgrade earlier this year, and what they were discussing was actually the peaceful overthrow of Milosevic, and Rustavi-2, of course, was broadcasting meanwhile a documentary about the peaceful overthrow of Milosevic. So, again, Soros's money was funding this kind of activity which helped the Georgian opposition to copy the Serbian model.
BOB GARFIELD:The United States has a checkered history, to say the least, through its CIA of toppling governments in Latin America and the Middle East and elsewhere, and it to varying degrees is out of that business, at least through the CIA. But now comes a private, non-governmental organization funded by Soros's billions, also with the announced aim of toppling regimes, largely by financing media. Should we be concerned about this? I mean who's watching the watchdogs?
THOMAS DE WAAL: Well, I think that's a very interesting point. The key difference here, as opposed to the CIA in Iran or Chile or wherever, is that no one got hurt here. But Soros has been funding what you could call pluralistic politics, and I suppose the argument from his side might be that if you don't fund that kind of pluralistic politics, that just drives the opposition underground, which is what you see, for example, in the Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union -- places like Uzbekistan, and that just creates violence, and that if are actually financing a responsible opposition, you are doing the authorities a favor as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Thomas, thank you very much.
THOMAS DE WAAL: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:Thomas de Waal is the Caucasus Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. [MUSIC]