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Georgia’s Transformation


By S. Adam Cardais, TOL (Editorial)

In my recent post about The World Bank’s new report on corruption reform in Georgia I challenged some of the bank’s rosy conclusions, starting with the notion that “public services are corruption free” today thanks to Mikheil Saakashvili’s Wyatt Earp-style war on public misconduct since winning the presidency in a landslide after the 2003 Rose Revolution. I also faulted the report, which relies heavily on interviews with government officials, for not paying sufficient attention to the citizenry. How do Georgians see the government’s anti-corruption efforts? I asked.

Tbilisi responded with some impressive public opinion survey data. They support The World Bank portrait of a Georgia transformed from the wild days of the late 1990s and early noughts, when a university spot fetched tens of thousands of dollars and traffic officers were known for shaking down motorists and pedestrians alike, into a model reformer.
Some highlights:

• Trust in police – much feared in Georgia before Saakashvili purged the force in 2004, famously firing 16,000 traffic officers overnight – nears west European levels today, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s (EBRD) 2010 Life in Transition survey of Central Europe, Eurasia and Turkey, the so-called “transition region.”

• Of the nations the EBRD surveyed, Georgians are the least inclined to believe that bribes are paid in public administration; very few, both relative to the sample and in general, feel unofficial payments for public services are necessary. (On the latter indicator, Georgia is comparable with many west European countries). Moreover, fewer than 6 percent of Georgians reported paying a bribe in 2009, putting them in a club with the Australians, Canadians and Danes, according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2010. Neighboring Azerbaijan is in the 30-49.9 percent club.

• Finally, 78 percent of Georgians believe corruption fell between 2006 and 2010, the highest percentage in the EBRD’s Transition survey.

It’s hard to argue with these findings and the complementary anecdotal and scientific data cited by The World Bank. Hyperbole in The World Bank report aside, Georgia’s progress is remarkable given the depths of government dysfunction before 2003, when Georgians enjoyed only a few hours of power a day because leaders were selling the nation’s electricity to Turkey and Armenia. But it’s especially so in a region still scrubbing the stain from decades of communism – a period when corruption, not rule of law, “worked,” as a former adviser to Vaclav Havel once put it to me. The World Bank might be right that Georgia dispels the myth that “corruption is culture,” but graft and misconduct do become culturally entrenched. Otherwise, Georgia wouldn’t be so exceptional.

These bold strides came at a cost to democratization. In a Washington Post Op-Ed last month, Georgian billionaire and emerging opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili criticized President Saakashvili’s ” super-centralized, almost neo-Bolshevik style of governance … which not only impedes the nation’s progress, but also jeopardizes its own achievements.” Transparency International  was more succinct in October: … “executive power is going unchecked.” That’s mostly because the president’s United National Movement party controls 80 percent of the parliament and most government institutions. Everything from the judiciary to the media and civil society suffer as a result, Transparency says. Team Saakashvili would surely respond that its commitment to rout corruption required swift, decisive action, and that the record speaks for itself. This year’s parliamentary elections and the 2013 presidential polls will say a lot about whether Georgians want a leadership equally committed to democratic ideals.

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