In 2001 Mikheil Saakashvili, then the justice minister of Georgia, resigned over endemic government corruption. As his last act, the Columbia Law grad scandalized a cabinet meeting by holding up pictures of mansions owned by top officials. In 2004, when Saakashvili won the presidency following the 2003 Rose Revolution with over 90 percent of the vote, he immediately purged the police force and public administration. To root out graft in higher education – a university spot fetched up to $50,000 in 2003 – the government introduced a common entrance exam the same year.

These are just three of many examples in a new World Bank report of the extraordinary anti-corruption efforts in Georgia in the past decade. Drawing on myriad data and interviews with government officials, Fighting Corruption in Public Services: Chronicling Georgia’s Reforms tracks the former Soviet country’s road from basket case to model reformer in a region where graft and public misconduct are often thought to be culturally entrenched.

The report goes back to the 1990s, but it focuses on the post-revolution period, using 2003 as the benchmark. Back then, the average Georgian motorist – pedestrian, even – couldn’t cross the street without being shaken down by a traffic officer, running a laundry cycle took days because power was so spotty, and university entrance was bribe-based, not merit-based.

The picture today is quite different, according to the bank. The police-to-citizen ratio is down 75 percent, electricity runs around the clock, and few Georgians report paying bribes. Tax collection represents 25 percent of GDP, more than twice the 2003 figure.

“Georgia’s transformation since 2003 has been remarkable,” the World Bank says. “The lights are on, the streets are safe, and public services are corruption free.”

Other international observers are impressed. Since 2003, Georgia has advanced over 50 spots in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In comparison, Ukraine has dropped roughly 30 spots since 2004, the year of its Orange Revolution. Freedom House, a think tank, has also improved Georgia’s rankings on several indicators in its annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World.

Georgia’s secret?

The World Bank credits the boldness of Saakashvili and the relatively small group of young, often western-educated technocrats he recruited to the executive branch. Rather than trying to fight corruption piecemeal, the World Bank says, Team Saakashvili launched a “blitzkrieg,” capitalizing on the president’s popularity and a cooperative legislature (his United National Movement won a parliamentary plurality in 2004). Some 16,000 traffic police were fired overnight, replaced with 2,300 new officers within months. All 2,200 public registry employees got pink slips in a single day.

The World Bank says Georgia discredits the notion that “corruption is culture” – “a product of traditional local culture, and – as such – inevitable.” The bank offers 10 lessons for other countries, everything from the obvious but extremely difficult – Exercise Strong Political Will – to lesson six, Adopt Unconventional Solutions. In an example of the latter, the government negotiated the release of officials and businesspeople jailed for corruption in exchange for cash. One former oligarch bought his freedom for $14 million.

“The logic was very simple,” Saakashvili tells The World Bank. “We could not keep every corrupt public official in jail – there were too many. Rather than having them sitting in jail, costing money to a bankrupt state, it was better to take their illegally obtained money and let them go free. Once they paid, they tended to lose steam.”

Many of the data and stories in the report are remarkable. Can you imagine a top minister in Ukraine or Kosovo or Bosnia outing his colleagues and then running the country a few years later – and, don’t forget, retaining office while purging the public administration? Sure, the sackings may have helped Saakashvili consolidate power, but they could just have easily led to revolt.

But just how replicable are Georgia’s gains? I’m skeptical. For one, Saakashvili’s mandate was extraordinary. Moreover, as The World Bank concedes, Georgia realized so many anti-corruption measures so quickly because the executive concentrated power within its ranks and muscled them through. This might have worked in Georgia, but it’s hardly a model for other nascent democracies.

Here’s Transparency International on Georgia in 2011:

…the concentration of power at the top tier of the executive branch and the weak system of checks and balances creates possibilities for abuse and raises concerns about the commitment to the rule of law.

I also doubt the average Georgian would agree with The World Bank’s rosy conclusion, quoted above, that ” … public services are corruption free.” Overall, the report seems too glowing. It conflicts with other accounts I’ve read, and lacks the first-hand perspective of the citizenry.

How do Georgians see the government’s anti-corruption efforts? How have their lives been affected? Did the government perhaps move too aggressively? Could it, in fact, have done more?

These are just a few relatively obvious yet important questions. So I’d like to close this post by inviting Georgia watchers to write in. TOL frequently covers the struggle with corruption in the former Eastern Bloc – I’d like to hear your insights and, especially, your stories.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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