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Trouble in Tbilisi

Trouble in Tbilisi

Mini Teaser: Liberty and security are hard to combine. Georgians risk losing both.

by Author(s): Whit Mason

On the eastern shore of the Black Sea, in the wine-soaked country where Jason and his Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece and Stalin felt his first dark impulses, a stark battle between the forces of good and evil has entered its second year. On one side, a charismatic young lawyer leads a government of idealistic young people committed to ending their country's age-old domination by an unholy alliance of criminals and corrupt officials. On the other side, a cabal, for whom their chosen ends justify any means, including violations of virtually every precept of the rule of law, controls all levers of power. It is a classically Manichean struggle in which both the United States and Europe have committed enormous resources to help the heroes prevail. But alas, there's an unhappy catch: In this drama the heroes and villains are the same people, and the forces of light and of darkness are two sides of the same crusade.

Mikheil Saakashvili was lifted to the presidency of Georgia in January 2004 on a tide of frustration with the status quo under Eduard Shevardnadze. Since the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, networks of crime and corruption permeating every level of society had kept most of the country's 5.4 million people unhappily toeing the brink of penury. Saakashvili announced that his administration would focus on two priorities: restoring Georgia's territorial integrity (by reasserting government control over three break-away regions) and establishing the rule of law.

Both the United States and the European Union have responded with millions of dollars in support of Georgia's reform process, particularly the rule-of-law effort, which both see as key not only to Georgia's stability but to the security of the wider region and the vital pipelines that run through it. The U.S. Agency for International Development invested $2.6 million in Saakashvili's campaign in 2004 to support rule-of-law efforts and will spend the same amount again this year. And for the first time in its history, the European Union has sent a mission devoted solely to supporting reform of the criminal justice system. Fourteen experts are now working alongside Georgian officials to devise a strategic plan for reforming everything from prisons to the education of lawyers to the management of judges. Yet despite the lofty rhetoric and strong Western support, many legal experts in Georgia, both local and foreign, say the level of justice in Georgia has seriously deteriorated since the Rose Revolution.

A Culture of Crime?

It is difficult to do justice, so to speak, to the role of crime and corruption in Georgian history. Ruled for more than 15 centuries by a succession of imperial overlords--Byzantine, Persian and Soviet--Georgians have traditionally viewed breaking the law as an almost patriotic duty. Experts on organized crime say the Georgian mafia is probably the best organized and most effective in the former Soviet bloc. This culture was carried over into government as well. Last October, Transparency International's corruption index ranked Georgia 139th out of 146 countries. Before the Rose Revolution, police officers considered it beneath their dignity to collect the pittance they received as a salary. Any self-respecting cop would support himself and his family exclusively from what he could make in bribes. In all spheres of state administration, lower-level officials passed a portion of bribe earnings to their superiors and on up the pyramid to the ministers themselves. Crime is not a parasite feeding off Georgian society; it is part of its social DNA.

Western rule-of-law programs emphasize reforming the machinery of justice: the police, lawyers, courts and prisons--the equivalent of boosting the body's immune system. Saakashvili has instead pursued the political equivalent of gene therapy, focusing on the criminals and corrupt officials themselves and the passive public support that allows them to thrive.

Last summer the Georgian government summarily dismissed all police patrolmen. For two weeks while a new force was being recruited, there were no police on the streets at all. The new force received just two weeks training and were equipped with 130 Volkswagen Passat patrol cars. All of them gathered in Tbilisi's Freedom Square, and the president declared them ready for service, grandly dispatching them to patrol the various districts of the capital. The new force includes few veterans of the old force and many more women. They wear new uniforms modeled on those of American police officers. They earn between 400 and 500 lari ($230-$300), a huge increase from the previous rate.

So far, most seem to be walking the straight and narrow. Drivers say that in the old days, traveling between Batumi or the Armenian-Georgian border and Tbilisi, one would be stopped by police and forced to pay a small bribe 15 times or more. Now such petty shakedowns have virtuallystopped. Driving some 200 miles back and forth between Tbilisi and the Black Sea coast in December, my driver and I were stopped just once by police--to insist that we put on snow chains. Everyone agrees, however, that the new police need more training, particularly to inculcate a new service-oriented ethic. A human rights specialist working at the Ministry of Justice told me that in the space of five minutes, he'd seen five incidents of the new police beating demonstrators--at a celebration of the anniversary of the Rose Revolution in Freedom Square! Despite the increase in salaries, some of the new officers have already been dismissed for corruption. And yet, the facts that a Justice Ministry official would criticize the police and that some police officers would get dismissed for corruption are hopeful signs.

Of course, the anti-corruption campaign is not limited to beat cops. Arresting officials of the old regime and their cronies has been a hallmark of Saakashvili's tenure. So too has been the practice--which the government refers to as "plea bargaining" and Transparency International calls "ransom"--in which those arrested are offered an opportunity to "buy" their freedom by paying some of their presumably ill gotten gains into the state treasury. According to the Georgian General Prosecutor's Office, property worth a total of 55,703,573 lari (approximately $30.9 million) was confiscated between January and November 2004. The confiscated assets include about fifty apartments and houses, shares in different companies, land, 27 cars and the contents of various bank accounts.

Saakashvili has repeatedly responded to concerns about this practice by saying that he'd rather see these ex-officials walking free with some of their ill-gotten gains transferred to the state budget than have them in prison with the money still in their private bank accounts. While pleased to see corrupt former officials getting soaked, the public recognizes this practice as a form of massive official corruption in its own right. Whether because lawmakers had seen the error of their ways or because they knew that all good things must come to an end, the Georgian parliament approved a draft law on tax and financial amnesty for those who evaded taxes and hid property and other assets before January 1, 2004. All property must be declared by the end of 2005 and will be legalized only after owners pay 1 percent of its value to the state. The amnesty will not apply to those suspected of terrorism, arms smuggling, or trafficking in drugs or human beings.

What may be even harder than persuading criminals to part with their hard-stolen money is persuading ordinary Georgians to cooperate with legal authorities in providing information against criminals. "Even law-abiding citizens won't cooperate with the police", says Levan Ramashvili, head of the Liberty Institute, a local think tank. The public views the justice system as thoroughly corrupt and the police as a legal mafia in competition with organized crime. Legislation creating a witness protection program to encourage people to testify against criminals is still pending in parliament. Ramashvili hopes that public attitudes will change if a constitutional amendment to introduce jury trials is adopted. Moreover, Saakashvili has promised to decentralize the police and make them accountable to locally elected authorities.

But while the police still are viewed with suspicion by many Georgians, the "thieves-in-law" can still count on the passive loyalty of many others. Formed during the 1920s, thieves-in-law evolved into a recognized caste in the 1930s and 1940s in Stalin's gulags and operated throughout the USSR. They were particularly strong in Georgia. In the Soviet period, thieves-in-law controlled prisons and penal camps. Outside of prison they acted as mediators in their neighborhoods, and many law-abiding citizens looked to them for protection. For many young people in Georgia, the thieves-in-law became symbols of freedom and independence. Their popularity mirrored the near-universal contemptfor state authorities.

Essay Types: Essay