Georgia Tames its Notorious Police

IN SITU | June 6, 2012     

Georgia Tames its Notorious Police ForcesFour years after its war with Russia, the Caucasian micro-state is leading the former Soviet space in the reform of public institutions – starting with its siloviki

The post-Soviet Republic of Georgia today mainly occupies the attention of Western analysts and publics because of its tense relations with Russia, which led to a brief war between the two countries in August 2008, as well as the linked conflicts between Georgia and separatist de facto governments in the country’s ethnic minority regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More and more tourists are also discovering Georgia’s scenic beauty, distinctive cuisine and wines. However, in policy circles, Georgia is gradually becoming known for something else: innovative administrative reforms in the public sector – starting with the country’s police and security services.

Until a few years ago, the few adventurous Westerners who explored Georgia were taken aback by the extent of blatant and frequently severe corruption that they encountered there. From customs officials who solicited bribes at border crossings, to highway police who routinely stopped and extorted money from motorists on busy stretches of road, to high-ranking officials who were openly in cahoots with organized crime bosses, Georgia was a country in which corruption was ubiquitous and constantly on display. The 2003 Rose Revolution and subsequent election that brought to power the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was motivated importantly by popular revulsion at the depths to which the country’s major government institutions had sunk in the post-Soviet period.

Upon coming to power, Saakashvili’s first and perhaps most dramatic domestic policy moves in 2003 and 2004 consisted of synchronized attacks on organized crime and on Georgia’s corrupt law enforcement institutions. Georgia has a long history of organized crime activity dating back to the Soviet period and even earlier, and by the early 2000s, the country’s mob bosses were among the leading crime figures in the entire former USSR. Saakashvili used draconian measures to prosecute the mobsters, imprisoning many and driving others into involuntary exile abroad. At the same time, top officials in many security ministries were fired, and in some cases forced – once again through draconian plea-bargaining agreements – to disgorge millions of dollars’ worth of assets believed to have been obtained through illegal activities.

The new president also comprehensively reshaped the country’s police forces. Thousands of officers were fired on the spot, and the most corrupt police service – the highway police – was disbanded altogether. Meanwhile, Saakashvili drastically increased police salaries and instituted stringent new hiring and promotion procedures, thereby recruiting into the force a new cohort of enthusiastic officers eager to earn an honest living by upholding law and order. The former highway police was reconstituted from scratch as a revamped, North American-style ‘Patrol Police’ that provides services to citizens from patrol cars that can be requested by dialling an emergency telephone number.

Since 2004, Saakashvili has comprehensively reformed police training by creating a modern police academy that recruits primarily from university graduates. The government has also made substantial investments in modern police equipment, vehicles and station buildings. Starting in 2009, responsibility for primary customs and immigration inspections was transferred to the patrol police, and a simultaneous crackdown on corruption was launched. Large signs in many languages were posted at border stations warning that attempts to bribe any official would result in prosecution. Closed-circuit television systems now monitor all border transactions, demonstrating to travellers that the government is serious about preventing bribes.

Other reforms to the public sector focus on improving customer service or reducing restrictions on citizens’ lawful activities. Georgia’s antiquated identification documents and the registration of births, deaths, marriages and other acts of civil status have been combined in a new government body, the Civil Registry Agency. In addition to digitizing thousands of civil status documents, the new agency has created and begun to distribute digital identity cards. Both the police and the Civil Registry Agency have opened up large ‘service centres,’ where the public can transact most kinds of official business in one visit – a huge departure from typical procedures in most post-Soviet countries, which involve citizens often having to visit multiple offices in order to pay a fee or obtain a document.

A further step toward reducing red tape came with the government’s comprehensive deregulation of most forms of business. Like the Indian ‘License Raj,’ the scores of licenses required in pre-2003 Georgia and many other post-Soviet countries made doing business frustrating, difficult and, of course, often corrupt. Since 2003, Georgia has repeatedly reduced the number of licenses needed for most business activities, and made it much simpler to obtain required licenses.

A more modern, orderly public sector has begun to emerge in Georgia. Crime has fallen dramatically since the onset of police reform, and the police services have even begun to tackle persistent public order and health problems, such as accidents caused by reckless driving. Citizens have grown used to largely corruption-free interactions with public officials.

Why did this happen in Georgia, how did the government do it, and can these successes be exported to other countries? The reasons for public sector reform in Georgia are complex. While other post-Soviet countries have wrestled with corruption problems, the severity of state dysfunctionality in the Georgia of the early 2000s created a possibly unique public consensus in favour of radical reform. This gave Saakashvili a mandate to pursue this course of reform – even using harsh methods.

Georgia’s foreign policy disputes and related internal problems may also have played a part. Saakashvili came to power in part on a promise to reintegrate the separatist-dominated regions into Georgia, and in general to prevent the decay of the Georgian state, which many feared was becoming ungovernable. These considerations dictated the creation of disciplined internal security services that would reliably execute the central government’s instructions. Moreover, because of its conflict with Russia, Georgian elites have developed a highly Westernized orientation, and have been extremely receptive to policy initiatives for public service reform stemming from Western governments and NGOs.

A final important point concerns the financing of administrative restructuring. While Georgia received substantial financial aid for its public service reforms in the early years of the new government, Saakashvili has also moved to improve tax collection. Revenue laws have been simplified, and enforcement has, simultaneously, been stepped up. As a consequence, Georgia’s police and other public services are now fully financed by domestic revenue.

While Georgia’s reforms are impressive, the picture is – to be sure – not entirely rosy. Administrative reform is not a substitute for political transformation, and indeed reform itself is always embedded in a particular political system. While few doubt the professionalism and devotion to public service of the Georgian police, the reformed force is fiercely loyal to President Saakashvili, while the interior minister, Ivane Merabishvili, is one of Saakashvili’s closest advisers and allies. Since 2003, the police have been repeatedly criticized for harsh treatment of protesters at anti-government demonstrations. While the police are answerable to the courts and to Georgia’s human rights ombudsman, reform to date has not included the creation of routine civilian oversight of police activities, such that policy continues to be set principally by the interior ministry in Tbilisi. In addition, because most of the broadcast media – at least outside of Tbilisi – is sympathetic to the government, rumours that high-level corruption still exists go without full investigations.

More broadly, some critics of the government argue that, since 2003, there has been too much emphasis on crime-fighting, and that not enough political and policy attention has been given to other social concerns. While few contest the need to subdue Georgia’s pre-2003 organized crime networks, under Saakashvili, draconian penalties have also been instituted for many ordinary criminal offences. The result has been that the country now has among the highest incarceration rates in the world. And while police services are adequately funded and officers themselves earn a decent living, the same cannot be said for all public sector workers – many of whom, like teachers, still barely scrape by on relatively meagre salaries.

Nonetheless, Georgia’s successful campaign to attack public sector corruption and improve efficiency in public services has begun to attract attention in other post-Soviet states like Moldova and Kyrgyzstan. It remains to be seen whether the political conditions that made reform possible in Georgia – namely, a combination of determination by a new political elite to root out corruption, and public support for muscular measures – exist elsewhere. Meanwhile, in Georgia itself, administrative reforms continue at a brisk pace. Still, the ultimate deepening and institutionalization of the reform process may actually have to wait for a new government not headed by Saakashvili. Georgia’s reforms were initiated by a revolutionary government that came to power following a wave of street protests, and the course of reform remains tinged with the lingering residue of its origins in a moment of emergency. Only a transition to a new political leadership following free and fair elections can create a public sector that truly belongs to the state and the people of Georgia, and not to a particular governing regime.

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Matthew Light is Assistant Professor at the Centre of Criminology and Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), University of Toronto.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / AP / Shakh Aivazov)

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