In 2002 in the eastern European country of Georgia, and more precisely in Tbilissi the capital, a wedding is taking place. The young policemen whom the wedding is dedicated to has assured his position through paying the right people thousands of Dollars, and has to pay an amount of money each week to keep his position. But how can he make it if his salary is no more than 50 Dollars a month ?
The secret is in the daily briberies he will be expecting to perceive. This example represents Georgia’s situation in the 2000’s, once one of the most corrupt countries. The stunning report published by the World Economic Forum in the previous months has shown how damaging corruption can be : Slowing down economy, creating misery… but what can be done about it ?
Going back to Georgia, ten years after the policemen’s wedding, his country changed drastically and will be the witness and the answer of how can a corrupt country change to the better.
For a start corruption permeated the very infrastructure of the state, which is something that Natalia Anzelova, a Georgian journalist that witnessed the corrupt era of the country, remembers well. She recalls the electricity shortages in her neighborhood that were caused by the undone repairs, whose money already went to the pockets of the ones concerned. The situation was worse in the countryside, were people were constantly in the dark and children were dying because of the lack of heat and electricity.
She remembers using kerosene lighters a lot when she was young as a light replacement. And it was not only the electricity and the water supply that were targeted, corruption also dictated what can be found on the shelves of the supermarket. Natalia states that she was obliged to get up very early to queue for bread in very cold winters, caused by the selling of wheat by the minister of agriculture. Back then, all the most lucrative jobs were related to the state, despite that the pay was so low and considered as symbolic. Civil workers managed to enlarge their salaries potential by expecting bribes. Everything could be fixed if you say it the right way, that would eventually mean “bribe” in a coded manner.
In 2003, Georgia had become so corrupt that everyone was fed up. But it was that year’s elections that finally sparked a revolution. Michael S., who made a name for himself two years previously when he burst into a cabinet meeting waving pictures of officials paying bribes from public funding, was leading a new party who seemed fresh and different from any other they have seen before. His main motto : fighting corruption.
In November 2003, he and his supporters stormed the parliament building, as the president fled and the country held new elections that everyone considered clean and fair. The results were astonishing : Michael’s party won by 96% of the vote.
The new president was so convincing that he managed to secure the financial backing of big institutions like the World Bank and the UN. At that moment, Georgia had a group of strong young reformers with the right financial resources to transform Georgia.
Shota U. worked for the Georgian foundation for strategic and international studies. Back in 2004 when the reformers were recruiting all the fresh talents that the country had to offer, they asked Shota to join them. Sitting in his office, he was told that him and the other fresh recruits had a tiny window of opportunity, just 8 or 9 months to start making a visible difference. Every official that have ever been elected In Georgia had promised to tackle corruption, but all they have ever did was to replace their predecessors staff with their own family and friends. The government knew that if they wanted to be taken seriously, they had to act fast. They decided to begin with the traffic briberies, not because it was the most important issue to be solved, but because it was the most visible. The traffic was an opportunity for policemen to extract bribes : in a 400 Km journey you were expected to be stopped 20 times to pay up. It felt like tipping the waiter back then as it was in the culture. So how do you persuade policemen who made almost all their lifetimes earnings out of bribery ? In one answer : you don’t. According to the young officials, the key was to start from 0.
Overnight they sacked 60000 people, the entire traffic police force of Georgia. But that created a new problem : until they manage to replace them, there will be no one regulating the roads. On the contrary, traffic accidents went down because the old police was never interesting in road safety anyway. The new resolution was to recruit a much smaller force that could be managed more easily and would not cost a lot of financial funding and built on a selection based on merit, and the whole squad had to be run by a new code of conduct.
The decision of acting fast was the right decision to be made by the president, as the window of opportunity to change something was not ought to shut down. Mostly because corrupt systems are like viruses, if they are given time to adapt to new situations, they become widespread. The government had not only the obligation to act fast, but they also had to apply all these directives to almost every ministry in the country. Shota explains that the intersection of systems that are correlated to each other should all be reformed, if the police system was reformed other departments had to follow : Tax system, healthcare system, educational system… .
In the first two years as the new government took power, they made tens of thousands of people redundant. And as they acted quickly and were backed by the public’s support, there was very little resistance. So if you want to take down corruption, you need to tackle the entire system at once, you need to be ruthless, and you need to act fast.
But as this would not stop the old practices from coming back, a separation of the public from the administration is needed.