Nation Building & Police Reform: Lessons from Georgia

Georgian police officers block the entra

The world of today has no shortage of failed examples of top-down institution building, but that’s not to say that pulling a failed state back from the brink is an impossible feat. Just consider the case of Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic that is quietly writing its own success story far outside the notice of international headlines.

At the turn of the century, Georgia was being torn apart by a long list of socio-political problems, many of which were endemic throughout most ex-Soviet republics.  Large swathes of Georgian territory were effectively lawless and outside state control, the economy was in shambles, petty ethnic conflict was pervasive, Soviet-era social welfare schemes were terminated without replacements, and whatever remained of the public service and police force was corrupt, predatory, and ineffective.

And then the Rose Revolution swept through Tbilisi in November 2003, and by the time the dust had finally settled, the liberal-minded Mikheil Saakashvili had replaced long-time Soviet stalwart Eduard Shevardnadze as the president of Georgia.  If revolutionary historical precedent were to be trusted, what should have followed was a period of institutional instability, ineffective government, popular disenchantment, and finally a resumption of the anti-democratic rule that the revolution sought to evict in the first place. Post-revolution Georgia however bucked this historical trend. After assuming office, the government lead by Mikheil Saakashvili quickly embarked on a program of fundamental reform, resulting in tangible quality of life improvements that kept the population squarely in support of the Revolution.

These reforms were nothing short of monumental. They excised every remaining aspect of the Soviet system and introduced liberal mechanisms in their stead: state enterprises were privatized and the profits were re-invested into critical infrastructure, university testing was nationalized ending a pervasive culture of bribery in higher education, public health insurance coverage was drastically widened, and a variety of market reforms were introduced to make Georgia an easier place to invest. In all, the economic overhaul was so successful that Georgia is now ranked the 12th easiest place to do business in the world by the World Bank.

But perhaps the most impressive legacy of the Rose Revolution has been the total rebuilding of Georgia’s police force. Pre-2003, Georgian police officers were set in the Soviet mould: corruption was pervasive and they existed less to protect the rights of citizens and more to protect the state. Graft in the police force, particularly the traffic police, was taken as a given by most citizens to such a degree that the cost of a daily bribe had to be factored into any commuting budget.

When President Saakashvili was elected in January 2004, police reform was at the top of his list of priorities. Almost immediately after assuming office, Saakashvili fired 80 percent of standing officers with the aim of replacing a corrupt, bloated, and highly bureaucratized culture with one that was firmly grounded in professionalism. In the blink of an eye, a force of 15,000 was cut down to 2,300. A smaller size meant that resources could be put to more efficient use, and the force was equipped with a new fleet of vehicles. The remaining police officers were also held to an extremely strict legal standard on graft- just one instance of accepting a bribe over $50 would land them in jail for 10 years. And perhaps most important of all, police salaries were raised to around $600 (higher than the national average), eliminating much of the financial incentive to accept bribes.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the results of these reforms have been very impressive. Bribery has gone from an everyday occurrence to almost non-existent. When polled nowadays, only one percent of Georgians respond that they’ve been asked for a bribe by police. In fact, they trust the police force more than the very government that launched the reform program in the first place (81% and 56% respectively).

This painstaking process of police reform has not gone unnoticed by the international community. Transparency International (TI) is a NGO that tracks popular perceptions regarding corruption, and Georgia has rocketed up its global rankings from 124th to 64th in the years following the Rose Revolution. In other words, public sector corruption in Georgia has gone from being comparable to Haiti to comparable to Italy in only eight short years.

Georgia is a country that has excised an entire appendage of the public service, which in itself is not rare. What is far more remarkable however is that it replaced it with one that was not just functional but far superior; and all in a very short period of time.

There are lessons to be learned from the Georgia model as Canada and the United States continue their efforts to build up an effective and transparent internal security framework in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the most glaring lesson is a negative one. Georgia’s police reforms were effective for two reasons: the money ended up where it was needed most and the campaign against corruption extended all the way to the highest levels of power. These two factors also explain why some other ex-Soviet republics have failed where Georgia has succeeded.

Take the experience of Kyrgyzstan for example. Since last year, Bishkek has been trying to duplicate Georgia’s success and root out the corruption in its own police force. The government has implemented a pilot program of Western-style police patrols (following the Georgian model) and an emphasis on enforcement that strictly abides by the rule of law. However, this project has been sabotaged by the inability to execute the kind of mass firings that are needed to root out entrenched corruption (some of it going all the way to the top) as well as an overall lack of funding. The average salary of a Kyrgyz police officer is around $200, which is barely enough to support a family, and how can he or she be asked to clean up as a moral imperative when their boss is on the take as well?

This begs the important question: is police building in Afghanistan a fool’s errand when corruption is pervasive throughout the upper echelons of the political elite? The Georgian model suggests that this might just be the case, and given Georgia’s past successes, NATO may want to heed their advice.

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