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Tbilisi’s corruption busters

10.02.2012

Lessons from Georgia’s fight against graft

The Economist

ARE corrupt officials disproportionately fat? George Orwell thought so: the pigs that ran Animal Farm were “porkers” who gorged themselves on milk and apples. Perhaps the World Bank agrees. In a report released last week, Fighting Corruption in Public Services: Chronicling Georgia’s Reformsthe authors note that the country’s notoriously bent traffic police of early 2000s were “mostly corpulent”.

Of course, not all fat officials are corrupt. Kakha Bendukidze, architect of many of Georgia’s anti-corruption reforms, is blessed with a fuller figure. Nor does thinness prevent kleptocracy: think of President Mobutu of Zaire.

But the question is not as flippant as it may appear. When the Rose Revolution occurred in 2003, corruption, crime and dysfunctional public services plagued Georgia. Notoriously, the traffic police would even trump up charges against pedestrians to solicit bribes. Yet by 2010, Transparency International ranked Georgia the best corruption-buster in the world.

What can others learn from Georgia’s success? Leadership and political will are all important. So too is establishing early credibility: in early 2004, the government thought it had eight months to get quick results. Most famously, 16,000 traffic police officers received their waddling orders overnight. In an effort to sustain public support, attention-grabbing symbols matter.

The fight took place on many fronts simultaneously. Ideological purpose lent clarity to the government’s efforts. Driving out corruption became part of a broader, libertarian effort to roll back the state; a smaller government would give fewer opportunities for graft. To push through their reforms, they needed new staff – often young and western-educated – and salaries big enough to ensure they avoided temptation.

Some lessons lean towards David Brent-style management-speak: “develop unity of purpose and coordinate closely”; “tailor international experience to local conditions”; “use communication strategically”. But read in context, they make sense: a small team of officials at the highest levels met regularly to drive through reforms. They adopted other countries’ practices with enthusiasm, such as Italian anti-Mafia legislation and German police training techniques. Keeping public opinion onside was critical, although it was an area where the authorities could have done better.

Most controversial will be the recommendation to consider adopting “unconventional solutions”. In Georgia, that often meant cutting corners. Filming the arrests of senior figures on corruption charges helped communicate the government’s efforts to the public, but did nothing for due process. Similar was the decision, in light of the state’s empty coffers, to negotiate cash payments with jailed officials in return for their release than to keep them in jail at the tax-payers’ expense.

Did the government strike the right balance here? Key officials claim they had no alternative: extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures. Others are less certain. Some institutions, most notably the Ministry of Interior, remain overly powerful. Here, the report adopts the cautious, consensus-seeking tone: issues remain, some progress has been made, but more needs to be done.

Recent events suggest that the government’s authoritarian streak is alive and kicking. New regulations on political party funding aim to limit the ability of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, to use his wealth to drive the government from power. A coalition of leading non-governmental organizations claim the changes “jeopardize freedom of expression and freedom of property” and create “an uneven election environment”.

Meanwhile, the pardon in early December of two Israeli businessmen, Ron Fuchs and Ze’ev Frenkiel, who were imprisoned last year for attempting to bribe the Prime Minister, highlights concerns about judicial independence. . The government called it a humanitarian decision, as both men were in poor health. But on the same day the Ministry of Justice announced a settlement with their company, Tramex, which shaved $73 million dollars from the arbitration award against Georgia. Officials deny any connection between the two; not everyone is convinced.

The report chimes with Georgia’s efforts to sell itself as a model to fledgling democracies in the Arab world. It also underlines Mr Saakashvili’s rehabilitation on the international stage, which took a battering following Georgia’s disastrous war with Russia over South Ossetia in 2008. Last week, President Obama received his Georgian counterpart in the White House where he praised Georgia’s reforms, and discussed deeper cooperation over defence and free trade.

Mr Ivanishvili also took his battle to Washington last week in the form of op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Complaining of “a super-centralized, almost neo-Bolshevik style of governance, which exhausted itself long ago”, he urged Mr Obama to help ensure that Georgia’s planned elections are free and fair.

That will be an acid test. Georgia needs stronger institutions and checks and balances on executive power. But none of this should obscure the country’s real progress in recent years. That key politicians continue to favour the ballot box over street demonstrations is an important development. So too are its fitter, slimmer officials.


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