How Georgia Abolished its Police

The police were the first Georgians I met. Arriving in the capital, Tbilisi, at ten to midnight there were police officers waiting on the tarmac.
A member of Georgia's reformed Politsiya directing traffic in Tbilisi.

Some  were uniformed, others just had ‘the look’. They even had a German shepherd with a little vest that said ‘K-9’ on it. Which I thought was odd because Georgia has its own alphabet (which looks like elvish) and the K-9 pun surely only works in English/latin. Regardless it was a pretty dramatic welcome – very Midnight Express. Each passenger was asked to present their passport and hand-luggage for inspection but it was clear that Tbilisi’s finest were looking for someone in particular.

After a few minutes waiting in the darkness the man of the hour finally stepped off the plane. He was a paunchy middle-aged guy with a thick moustache and a big leather jacket. The plainsclothes police recognised him at once and he greeted them like a friend who’d gotten lost on the way back from the pub. If I ever end up in that much trouble I’ll be grateful for one tenth of that man’s confidence.

I never found out what that particular drama was about but it felt like early confirmation of my worst assumptions about Georgian police. I’d heard about police corruption in Russia and the former Soviet states and figured Georgia would be no different but, as I learned over the following weeks, Georgian cops are quite well-regarded. For a country that’s still struggling in many ways the quality of its police force is a lonely point of pride for many Georgians.

The reputation of Georgia’s police is not built on bullshit either. Unlike Americans Georgians were never subject to the endless TV shows and films glorifying police work. Instead Georgian police have had to overcome a mountain of public hostility built up over 70 years of Soviet rule where policing was characterised by varying degrees of terror, incompetence and general misconduct.

A Failed State

When the Iron Curtain fell off its rail in 1991 Georgians initially celebrated but the reality of independence soon hit home. Georgia was one of more than a dozen states that broke away after the collapse of the Soviet Union but its economy and its infrastructure was still bound up with that of Russia. To take a slightly patronising analogy the former Soviet Republics in 1991 were like a bunch of teenagers who were suddenly freed from their abusive foster parents but still living in the granny flat in the backyard.

Some, like Georgia, tried to cut ties with the motherland but soon found themselves with debts to pay and a currency that the rest of the world only used as a punchline. To add insult to injury they discovered that their western neighbours, who’d been encouraging them to break free for years, weren’t willing to pony up the cash required to help out. The West offered advice but held back providing the loans required to fix decades of Soviet neglect. Instead Europe and the US adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach to find out how committed the new republics were to getting rid of the habits they’d picked up from their parents.

Gangster’s Paradise

Rather than go crawling back to Russia for aid Georgia decided to go it alone but the cracks started to appear almost immediately. High unemployment, crippling inflation and rampant crime undermined the credibility of Georgia’s newly independent government.

The only inheritance that the new republics had received from the motherland came in the form of a vast cache of Soviet weapons. So, starting in the early 90s, various nationalist movements in the Caucasus raided local armories and began carving out territory for themselves or joining back up with Russia. The Georgian government came down hard on several ethnic enclaves that attempted to found their own ‘breakaway republics’. Russia got itself in a very ugly fight trying to discourage Chechenia from doing something similar. Meanwhile Armenia and Azerbaijan did despicable things to one another over a fenceline dispute and haven’t spoken since.

Suffice to say that the 1990s were a dark time for Georgians. Civil wars were still simmering, the economy had tanked and the police – known as militsiya- were basically viewed as a uniformed criminal gang that extorted their income through bribes, bogus fines and licensing fees.

The level of civil disfunction in the former Soviet Union is hard to imagine but you can get a glimpse of it in Bert Kreicher’s famous account of a field trip to Moscow during that era. To cut a long story short, within a few years of the break-up of the Soviet Union, most regional militsiyas had been co-opted by their respective mafias.

As trust in the militsiya evaporated Georgia experienced a golden age of organised crime. By some estimates more than half of all economic activity in the country took place in a parallel economy of black markets and untaxed business ventures. A 2002 survey of high school graduates in the city of Kutaisi found that about two thirds of the young men aspired to membership in a criminal gang and the majority of the women hoped to end up as gangster’s wives.

The Spoiled Barrel

Social scientists refer to the sort of corruption seen in the former Soviet Union as a system of ‘patronage’. In his thesis on police reform researcher Liam O’Shea who compared police practises in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, recorded a succinct summary of the typical arrangement from one Kyrgyz policeman, “The whole system is bad. I take from the taxi driver, my boss takes from me. He gives to the minister. The minister gives to the President”

The ability to profit from militsiya membership meant that potential recruits had to bribe their way into the police force. Managing the entrance exams and assessments at Georgia’s police academy became a lucrative racket. In the early 2000s becoming a traffic cop cost anywhere between $2,000 and $20,000 in bribes. Graduates could expect an ‘official’ paycheck of about $78 per month and the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) sometimes couldn’t even provide fuel for patrol cars.

To make back their investment new recruits had to constantly shake down the public for money. One covert survey of the traffic police found that bribes were demanded in seven out of ten militsiya interactions. For the average citizen dodging the militsiya was a daily challenge as 90s Georgia had one Policeman for roughly 80 citizens. By comparison Australia has about one policeman for every 450 people. Even working out exactly how many police were employed was a challenge as there was no central database. As one policeman reported to researcher Mathew Devlin:

“since they didn’t pay them a salary, they didn’t give them cars, and they didn’t give them gasoline, why should they care how many there were?”

The Rose Revolution

In the early 2000s Georgia’s political system had reached breaking point. The president, Eduard Shevardnadze, had spent the latter part of the 90s dodging assassination attempts and installing family members in key ministries. His re-election in 2000 was widely seen as fraudulent and Transparency International – the Forbes of political corruption – ranked Georgia 124th* out of the 133 countries they surveyed. Another rigged parliamentary election held in 2003 sparked protests across the country. Frustration was all-encompassing. The name of the main youth movement in the country – Kmara – translated simply to ‘Enough!’. As winter set in demonstrators in Tbilisi handed out roses to pacify the soldiers who had been brought in to restore order.

After three weeks of street demonstrations and sit-ins Shevardnadze attempted to open the first session of his new parliament. During his opening speech several opposition figures led by Mikheil Saakashvili mounted a protest within the legislature. They confronted Shevardnadze with roses of their own and forced the president to step aside.

Saakashvili, only 36 years old, parlayed his act of defiance into a campaign for the presidency – promising to fight corruption and modernise the government. Saakashvili had been educated in the US and wanted Georgia to join the EU and become a member state of NATO. Less than two months after Shevardnadze stepped down Saakashvili was elected to the presidency unopposed.

The Purge

Politicians in the former Soviet Union often campaigned on platforms of anti-corruption but few followed through once they came to power. Right from the start Saakashvili’s program revealed that it had teeth. Borrowing the phrase used by American apologists for police corruption Saakashvili recently explained to Foreign Policy that:

“In Georgia, we had more than a few bad apples. To transform a rotten system, we had to remove all of them.”

In 2004 the Georgian MoIA dismissed 30,000 employees – half of them in a single day. Fearing an all-out rebellion, the government provided two months’ pay and amnesty from past crimes. To fill the ranks 20,000 new cadets were given a crash-course in policing and a starting salary five times the former pay grade (roughly $400 a month) to discourage them from supplementing their income.

The entire traffic patrol division was disbanded. For weeks Georgia had no traffic cops at all. If you’ve witnessed how Georgians typically drive you’ll understand how terrifying that idea is. As a stop-gap measure police officials were temporarily assigned patrol duties and, for a brief period, all of Georgia’s traffic cops could lay claim to a university education. They may have been highly educated but they lacked expertise and the temporary police force copped criticism but Saakashvili’s officials were committed to their approach – summed up by then deputy minister of state security Batu Kutelia, “better an inexperienced officer than a corrupt one”

A strict code of conduct was brought in and enforced by the General Inspection – the watchdog of the Ministry. Funding for the General Inspection was ramped up and access was given to reporters, legal officials and several prominent human rights NGOs. Over the following months The General Inspection purged the remaining ranks. Metaphorically they took no prisoners. Literally they sent a lot of people to prison. Georgian prosecutors sent police to jail for taking bribes as low as $50 and sacked officers for infractions as minor as misusing the loudspeakers on their vehicles.

To keep the old guard on their toes the Ministry also created a hotline for the public to report police misconduct. They advertised the number on TV and radio and on billboards across the country and raised its profile to match that of the actual emergency number.

Meanwhile sting operations were set up to catch corrupt police and government officials in the act. As the dragnet closed in many militsiya veterans simply quit in protest. Some believed that their vehicles and offices had been bugged. Arguably they should have been more worried about TV camera crews. Starting in 2004 the Ministry created its own prime-time TV show – ‘Patrol’ – that televised the arrest of police and government officials. The broadcasts had a powerful effect on a culture steeped in ideas of honour and shame.

Re-branding the Police

No grimy stone was left unturned. Saakashvili demanded that the whole identity of the police be transformed. The Soviet-style ’militsiya’ was re-branded as a ‘politsiya’ and their uniforms and vehicles were given a modern makeover**. ID cards were updated so the glut of ex-policeman couldn’t impersonate their replacements and the ministry was restructured to better differentiate policing from border control and protective services. The only backlash came from the cosmetic decisions. Initially the new patrol cars were marked with ‘politsiya’ in English characters on both sides but, after some nationalistic outcry, the design was updated to include the Georgian script.

As part of the re-brand police stations across the country were remodelled to quite literally provide transparency. New ‘public service halls’ with glass facades like car showrooms replaced Soviet-era police buildings and offered a one-stop-shop for many government services. Years later local police stations are often the only glass-fronted building in many small towns.

Policing strategy changed as well. Instead of a centralised anonymous police force the ministry adopted the concept of community policing where the same officers patrol and work in the same area on a permanent basis. By doing so the public are encouraged to interact with police and identify problems before they require serious intervention.

Finding the Cash

Funding the root-and-branch overhaul of the police took an immense toll on Georgia’s budget. The small nation has a population of less than four million people and, in 2004, it had a vanishingly thin tax base to draw upon. Saakashvili lobbied hard for international aid and the dramatic layoffs helped convince foreign observers that he was serious about his anti-corruption campaign. In response the United Nations Development Programme, the Soros Foundation and several EU governments provided additional funds. Belgian and US police forces donated vehicles and equipment. France’s gendarmerie provided much needed training and assistance and the European Commission sponsored advisers to help with reforms. The US state department even funded a Georgia-to-Georgia Exchange Program so that Georgia-The-State could teach Georgia-The-Country about their wildly successful war on drugs.

But the real windfall came from taking back what had been embezzled in the chaos of the 90s. Right from the start Saakashvili’s government went after the fledgling oligarchs that had thrived under his predecessor. The president and his cabinet set up a secretive ‘Law Enforcement Development Fund’ and encouraged ‘patriotic businessmen’ who wished to support the reform efforts to contribute. International observers were suspicious but deputy Kutelia insisted that secrecy was necessary to protect donors from mafia reprisals. The Georgian judiciary also introduced their own take on the western system of ‘plea bargains’. Those charged with criminal activities could pay into the Development Fund to avoid lengthy jail terms. Using this system Saakashvili’s government confiscated money and assets from corrupt former officials, mafia bosses and business associates connected to the former president. In a few short years the state confiscated roughly $1 billion in property alone.

The Results

After the Rose Revolution Georgia began to recover. In the years following his election Saakashvili’s government managed to refill the state’s coffers – raising the state’s tax revenue from 7 per cent of GDP in 2003 to 24 per cent in 2012.

Meanwhile the anti-corruption measures dramatically restored public confidence in the police. According to a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute the new politsiya ranked as the third most popular Georgian institution after the army and the Georgian Orthodox Church. When Transparency International reassessed the country in 2015 Georgia had risen to a respectable 48th place. Russia, by comparison, languished at 119. Before the Rose Revolution many Georgians had managed to convince themselves that the mafias were an intrinsic part of their society. According to Nona Shahnazarian, a researcher at The George Washington University:

“Saakashvili proved this wrong. National identities and political cultures are not set in stone. His boldness as a reformer did more than change the social order in Georgia. He broke the stereotype that corruption is “naturally” embedded in one’s political and societal culture, in Georgia’s case of an honor-and-shame society.”

Rose-Coloured Glasses

The reform efforts themselves set the stage for the backslide that followed. To paraphrase Gotham’s fictional district attorney Saakashvili held power long enough to see himself become the villain. The drastic measures taken to weed out corruption resulted in a massive incarceration rate. Georgia became the top 4th incarcerator per capita in the world in 2011.

Likewise the success of the ‘Law Enforcement Development Fund’ established a dangerous precedent of shoring up government expenditure with private donations – voluntary and otherwise. After successfully dismantling mafia networks, prosecutors soon succumbed to pressure from Saakashvili to target his political rivals.

The focus on uniformed police also neglected other institutions and allowed conditions in the country’s overcrowded prisons to fester. Finally, in 2012 a major scandal erupted when videos were leaked showing guards abusing inmates at Gldani prison. The entire leadership of the MoIA penitentiary department resigned but the damage had already been done. Saakashvili lost the 2012 Parliamentary Elections despite vote rigging and intimidation tactics by his party. Writing for the New Eastern Europe Givi Gigitashvili pointed out that, in stepping down from his position, Saakashvili became:

“the first leader to concede defeat and peacefully transfer power without attempting to hinder the democratic process.”

In a great example of damming with faint praise Gigitashvili called Saakshivili’s concession his “most important gift” to Georgia’s democracy. The former president now lives in exile in the Ukraine having given up Georgian citizenship to avoid extradition over various charges of corruption.

A member of Georgia's reformed Politsiya directing traffic in Tbilisi. Among the many reforms initiated by president Saakashvili following the Rose Revolution was a decision to remodel Georgia's police stations with glass facades to literally convey their commitment to transparency. Georgia remains a devoutly Christian nation and senior clergy a say in everything from local issues to foreign affairs but Orthodox Church has been rocked by scandals in recent years including public allegations that the Prime Minister conspired to murder the Patriarch of the Church.

*Actually equal 124th alongside Angola, Azerbaijan, Cameroon and Tajikistan.

**There’s a great promotional video celebrating Georgia’s police but, be advised, it goes for about three minutes too long.
Liam O’Shea – Police Reform and State-Building in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Russia
The World Bank – Fighting Corruption in Public Services
Mikheil – Saakashvili – I Abolished and Rebuilt the Police. The United States Can Do the Same.
Matthew Devlin – Seizing the Reform Movement: Rebuilding Georgia’s Police 2004-2006
Center for Public Impact – Seizing the moment: rebuilding Georgia’s police
Daniel Kharitonov – Police Reform in Georgia
Charles H Fairbanks Jnr – Georgia’s Prison Rape Scandal—and What It Says About the Rose Revolution
Gerald Mars – Locating Deviance: Crime, Change and Organizations
Givi Gigitashvili and Robert Steenland – Mikheil Saakashvili’s contribution to Georgia’s transition
Nona Shahnazarian – Police Reform and Corruption in Georgia, Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabakh
Gavin Slade – Mafia and Anti-Mafia in the Republic of Georgia
Louise Shelley, Erik R. Scott, Anthony Latta – Organised Crime and Corruption in Georgia
Foreign Policy – The Cops Who Would Save a Country

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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