The Origins of Common Wonders

Eduard Shevardnadze may have survived an attack of rocket-propelled grenades launched at his motorcade five and a half years ago, but dance music and roses were too much for him.

Last week the people of Georgia, a poverty-stricken fledgling sliver of a state hugging the Black Sea, overrun with gangster capitalism, did more than correct a fraudulent election and give themselves a new leader. They helped midwife human sanity for the 21st century.

Even some members of the U.S. Congress were paying attention, or so rumor has it. Hmm … you mean there are other ways of implementing regime change than shock and awe bombing, ground troops, occupation quagmire and $87
billion in stopgap appropriations?

When we come to our senses as a nation and a planet, when we outgrow not just tyranny but the first horseman of the Apocalypse, war itself — that sinkhole of moral relativism, which debases every cause and, as it is waged today, leaves catastrophic environmental as well as social and psychological devastation in its wake — perhaps we’ll remember to salute the protesters of

They stood their ground unarmed and called Shevardnadze’s bluff. “The eyes of these people showed they weren’t afraid of anything,” he said, and resigned. There was no bloodshed.

We should also salute Shevardnadze himself. He came to his senses when he saw he had lost his mandate to rule. He took a small step; he walked into retirement, rather than try to rally whatever loyalty he had left among the Georgian army and turn Tbilisi into Tiananmen Square so he could stay in power.

“Gotov je!”

And the triumphant cry in the capital city — “He is finished!” — was Serbian. This is the wonder of it. The Georgians’ “revolution of roses” didn’t bloom in a vacuum. Shevardnadze’s opponents learned from the Serbs how to oust an entrenched strongman: how to organize, how to resist, how to find and exploit a regime’s vulnerabilities.

The Serbs — specifically the student-led organization Otpor — should know; they dislodged the brutal ethnic cleanser Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000, through civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, accomplishing what NATO carpet bombing the previous year failed utterly to do.

No tyrant, however ruthless, can stay in power without the cooperation of the governed and oppressed. The people confer legitimacy and, therefore, can take it away, if they have patience and courage.

Power flows not from the capacity to intimidate, but from a loyalty to the social order that is freely given. Massive, nonviolent withdrawal of that loyalty can ultimately topple anyone.

We seem to be just now learning this, though in fact nonviolent resistance and change are as old as human history.

Scholar and author Gene Sharp, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, has documented the history of nonviolence in his seminal
three-volume work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, and numerous other books. Otpor got much of its inspiration and ideas from Sharp’s work.

“This is a way of fighting!” he says passionately, speaking of nonviolent action. It’s not a morally symbolic disavowal of violence (pacifism), but rather, sheerly, a more effective means of achieving the sort of ends – everything from regime change to better working conditions – we tend to think of as resulting from armed, bloody struggle.

“Whatever the merits of the violent option … one point is clear,” he says in From Dictatorship to Democracy. “By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly.”

It is not enough to oppose war. We must also embrace the pugnacious sanity of nonviolent change, and learn from the courageous fighters in the streets of Tbilisi and Belgrade.