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BBC Shiny Palaces Themselves are no Guarantee of total Transparency or Rule of Law

July 10, 2013

BBC publishes Steve Rosenberg’s article “Georgia; Are glass-walled police stations enough to tackle corruption?” The author of the article says that A decade ago, Georgia had a terrible reputation for corruption. Political changes brought about substantial reform - including much-vaunted glass-walled police stations. 

“In recent years, the ancient city of Tbilisi has acquired something of a modern sparkle, with glass palaces popping up across Georgia's capital. At first glance, they look like car showrooms.
On closer inspection, they're police stations - see-through to make the officers inside more accountable to the public.

Glass police precincts symbolise the new transparency which Georgia has been promoting since the 2003 "Rose Revolution", Steve Rosenberg writes.

The author of the article quotes Mark Mullen of Transparency International Georgia who said that “There was a sense of pride here about corruption”. 

"There are a lot of words in Georgian for admirable sneakiness - like "magarichi", which means "gift among men''. This was a small country among big empires which had skimmed a bit from the caravan and had done well by saluting the powers that be - while taking care of family and friends." Mark Mullen said.

BBC correspondent notes that corruption was strangling post-Soviet Georgia.

“If you wanted a construction permit or to register a company, you had to give a bribe. If you wanted to get into a good university and guarantee good grades, greasing someone's palm was the way to do it. Some people even paid bribes just to get their lights switched on at home, because of power shortages - certain jobs could only be secured by a backhander.

Georgians used to pay massive bribes to get a job in the traffic police. Once in, new officers would start taking bribes themselves to recoup their losses. The result was a system rotten from top to bottom.
In 2003 things began to change.

Incensed by rampant corruption and a rigged parliamentary election, people power swept away the old guard. Mikheil Saakashvili became the new president and promised Georgians something they'd never had before - transparency.

Cue the glass police stations. And a revamped police force”, Steve Rosenberg writes, who spoke to Georgian Captain Nino Gvinianidze, who recalls that "many people tried to give police officers money. But nowadays everyone knows officers don't take money."

Following the article It's not just the police that became more transparent.

The Georgian government opened giant public service palaces, to enable Georgians to obtain documents without having to pay bribes. Transactions that were once under the table, like getting a passport, are now out in the open.

“By cleaning up its act in the police and public services, Georgia seemed to have fulfilled a mission impossible. From being right down near the bottom of the global league table on transparency, it rose to a ranking higher even than some EU states.

But some Georgians complain that their shiny new system of transparency had strict limits” Steve Rosenberg notes.

Steve Rosenberg writs that he met Mamia Sanadiradze, the former owner of one of Georgia's largest telecom companies, who maintains that the same government which claimed to be fighting corruption was putting pressure on his business. His problems began, he says, when the interior ministry asked him to facilitate secret surveillance of internet users.

"I refused," Mr Sanadiradze says, "They told me other telecom operators are wiser than me and that I might have problems in the future."

Mr Sanadiradze claims that, soon after, some of his company's cables were cut. Then, he received a $7.45m (£5 million) fine from the tax office which he couldn't afford.

The author of the article writes that after the parliamentary elections last year, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili came in power. 
“He believes the anti-corruption government which preceded him was no beacon of transparency”, Steve Rosenberg writes, quoting Prime Minister’s words: "what happened was that the money which had previously been divided up among the lower levels was being shared by a small group of people higher up. This was elite corruption."

Steve Rosenberg writes that Mikhail Saakashvili denies the accusations.

"You can say that the judiciary was not totally independent. I would agree with that," President Saakashvili tells BBC correspondent. "You can say that prosecutors were somehow overstretching their limit. I would agree with that. But nobody was taking bribes. Nobody was stealing money. And the only reason they were sometimes overstretching their limits was just to try not to allow corruption back into our country."

Following the article, the president has been accused recently of spending public money on private whims. President Saakashvili spent thousands of dollars from his security budget on luxury hotel rooms, paintings and beauty treatments in New York - including Botox injections. 

"Look at me. Look at me! Can you see anything?" The President asks Steve Rosenberg pointing to his face. "Look at the prime minister and his friend Vladimir Putin and you will see the difference. The point is, is that all they could claim and find? Where are all these 'millions' and 'billions' 'misspent' or stolen'? Nowhere. Because this country was clean”, Saakashvili said.

“Georgia has achieved so much, so fast. Never in its history has corruption been so difficult here to conceal.

But Georgia's story shows that shiny palaces themselves are no guarantee of total transparency or rule of law. As long as politicians on all sides - in their glasshouses - are still throwing stones”, the article reads.