When bogus parliamentary election results in Georgia prompted a wave of protesters led by the country’s youth to flood central Tbilisi on November 3, 2003, no one knew what to expect. Twenty days later, the thousands who had gathered daily got what they had quickly come to feel they deserved -- the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Natia Zambakhidze, a journalist at private Rustavi TV, found herself in the middle of one of the most dramatic events to shake the world emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fifteen years later, the woman who coined the phrase "Rose Revolution" recalls how quickly the protests grew, even in the cold and drizzle of Tbilisi in late autumn.
“This revolution was about corruption, kleptocracy, autocracy, power outages, economic hardship. There was no perspective,” Zambakhidze, now the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, says. "The younger generation wanted to steer where the country was going. There had been no hope, no sense of direction, everything was kind of gloomy. But there was that feeling, that people have power, they can change something, and that those who are in power must listen."
Georgia, located strategically in the heart of Eurasia and crisscrossed with pipelines carrying Caspian oil and gas to Europe, pulled itself out from under the umbrella of the Soviet Union in 1991.
A military coup in January 1992 toppled President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a dissident scholar and writer, replacing him with former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevarnadze in an acting capacity until he was formally elected in 1995.
Shevardnadze’s administration was almost immediately wracked by defeat to Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia, in western Georgia, and ethnic conflict in South Ossetia, in the country's north.
Adding to the instability, the economy stagnated, infrastructure decayed, and allegations circulated of widespread state corruption.
Zambakhidze says Georgians dared to hope for change with the November 2, 2003, parliamentary elections, only to have it pulled out from under them after results raised suspicions of widespread vote rigging.
“It started right after the elections. Exit polls showed that the opposition had a lot of the vote, but the results that were released were different. But it wasn’t just the exit polls, it was also the mood of the people and the electorate,” Zambakhidze says. "Our impressions were far from the reality the government was telling the people."
While many were on edge, the protesters stepped up the pressure.
Their choice of weapon on the front lines? Flowers, which they passed out to soldiers confronting the crowds.
Shevardnadze fought back with words. His office put out a statement on November 22 declaring a violent coup was taking place.
It was that contradiction between reality and political maneuvering that gave rise to the revolution’s name.
"I remember I read the statement on the air and then I said: 'You know, I don’t think it was a violent coup. The people weren’t armed. They were armed with flowers and if it was something, if we should call it something, it was a flower revolution, a rose revolution because there were roses in their hands,'" Zambakhidze says.
The moniker quickly caught on, she adds, noting minutes later it was heard around the world.
“And then I had [Mikheil] Saakashvili" -- a reference to the U.S.-educated lawyer and rising opposition star who would go on to succeed Shevardnadze -- "on live from the parliament building, and I asked him the same question about if this was a 'rose revolution,' and he said yes, it was a rose revolution. Of course, then he had an interview with CNN and he repeated that and CNN took it and it became a line on CNN and it went much wider,” Zambakhidze says.
A showdown the next day brought the protests to a head.
Shevardnadze, who had ruled Georgia as its Soviet-era Communist Party boss, was attempting to hold parliament’s first session after the vote. If he succeeded in getting a quorum, the election results would stand, which would enormously undermine the protesters' position.
“There was uncertainty as to whether this session would open and make it a legitimate parliament after the elections. At that point, Saakashvili and his supporters entered the building and didn’t allow Shevardnadze to finish his speech and open parliament,” Zambakhidze says.
“I don’t remember thinking about what was going to happen. It was just happening right in front of us and we were just following events, covering what was happening. It was exciting because we were looking for some change,” she adds.
With opposition leaders and others waving Georgian flags from behind the speaker’s desk in parliament, euphoria swept over the thousands gathered outside.
Shevardnadze, seemingly reluctant to resort to violence, acquiesced.
As protesters continued to mill about the presidential palace in the capital, the embattled president promised talks on new elections, saying he was “ready for dialogue and, if you want, to discuss early presidential and parliamentary elections.”
There was only one catch: the protesters had to leave parliament.
Instead, with Saakashvili waving a rose in front of the then 75-year-old leader and shouting “Resign!” it was Shevardnadze who backed down.
Bodyguards quickly whisked the president out the back door of parliament on November 23 and suddenly, power changed hands. The bloodless revolution so many had come to try and force was theirs.
Parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze was installed as interim president until elections could be held. In January 2004 Saakashvili was elected president. Two months later, his National Movement-Democratic Front won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.
Zambakhidze says covering the revolution was the challenge of a lifetime.
“We were walking a very fine line as journalists, trying to be observers and not part of the process. That was a predominant feeling for me. It wasn’t fear of what was going to happen,” she says.
The revolution also put the country on the map.
Instead of being perceived as a backwards post-Soviet banana republic, Georgia had followed the European way to change.
“It was important for Georgia to have that kind of revolution, a nonviolent revolution. In Georgia, there was always this feeling that we belonged to Europe, and velvet revolutions were part of the eastern European experience, and if we had that kind of nonviolent, peaceful change of power, without blood, we would feel it legitimized it even more.”