Europe

Georgia: Are glass-walled police stations enough to tackle corruption?

Georgian police station

A decade ago, Georgia had a terrible reputation for corruption. Political changes brought about substantial reform - including much-vaunted glass-walled police stations - but have the issues really been dealt with?

In recent years, the ancient city of Tbilisi has acquired something of a modern sparkle, with glass palaces popping up across Georgia's capital. At first glance, they look like car showrooms.

On closer inspection, they're police stations - see-through to make the officers inside more accountable to the public.

Glass police precincts symbolise the new transparency which Georgia has been promoting since the 2003 "Rose Revolution". For a country which was being described a decade ago as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, cleaning up its act has been a challenge.

"There was a sense of pride here about corruption," says Mark Mullen of Transparency International Georgia.

"There are a lot of words in Georgian for admirable sneakiness - like "magarichi", which means "gift among men''. This was a small country among big empires which had skimmed a bit from the caravan and had done well by saluting the powers that be - while taking care of family and friends."

But corruption was strangling post-Soviet Georgia.

All commercial transactions were under the table. If you wanted a construction permit or to register a company, you had to give a bribe. If you wanted to get into a good university and guarantee good grades, greasing someone's palm was the way to do it. Some people even paid bribes just to get their lights switched on at home, because of power shortages - certain jobs could only be secured by a backhander.

Georgians used to pay massive bribes to get a job in the traffic police. Once in, new officers would start taking bribes themselves to recoup their losses. The result was a system rotten from top to bottom.

Mission impossible

In 2003 things began to change.

Incensed by rampant corruption and a rigged parliamentary election, people power swept away the old guard. Mikheil Saakashvili became the new president and promised Georgians something they'd never had before - transparency.

Cue the glass police stations. And a revamped police force.

Captain Nino Gvinianidze takes me out in her US-style patrol car. When she pulls over vehicles, she greets drivers with a salute and a smile. The Patrol Police replaced Georgia's notoriously corrupt traffic police force, which was scrapped with the loss of 16,000 jobs. The new recruits were better paid and monitored closely to make sure they didn't take bribes.

"In the past," Captain Nino recalls, "many people tried to give police officers money. But nowadays everyone knows officers don't take money."

Image caption Georgia's public halls enable people to obtain documents such as passports without having to pay bribes

It's not just the police that became more transparent.

The Georgian government opened giant public service palaces, to enable Georgians to obtain documents without having to pay bribes. Transactions that were once under the table, like getting a passport, are now out in the open.

"I remember when I was 16 years-old and I was asked to bring a bribe for my first passport," Public Service Hall manager Givi Chanukvadze tells me. "Right now people are coming here, just taking a photo and that's it. They don't need any other documents."

By cleaning up its act in the police and public services, Georgia seemed to have fulfilled a mission impossible. From being right down near the bottom of the global league table on transparency, it rose to a ranking higher even than some EU states.

But some Georgians complain that their shiny new system of transparency had strict limits.

'People screaming'

In a small office in Tbilisi I meet Mamia Sanadiradze, the former owner of one of Georgia's largest telecom companies. Mr Sanadiradze maintains that the same government which claimed to be fighting corruption was putting pressure on his business. His problems began, he says, when the interior ministry asked him to facilitate secret surveillance of internet users.

"I refused," Mr Sanadiradze says, "They told me other telecom operators are wiser than me and that I might have problems in the future."

Mr Sanadiradze claims that, soon after, some of his company's cables were cut. Then, he received a $7.45m (£5 million) fine from the tax office which he couldn't afford.

"I had no choice. I had to transfer the company under the control of governmentally well-connected business groups. The government were acting like a criminal gang. They were using state institutions - ministry of interior, chief prosecutor's office, tax police - to push rich individuals in Georgia to give up their properties."

Givi Maisuradze did go to jail. His sister, who lives abroad, had bought a section of an old gas pipeline in Georgia that was being auctioned off. Two years ago Mr Maisuradze was arrested and told his sister's pipeline must be given back to the state as a gift.

"I spent four months in prison," he tells me. "Every evening I could hear people screaming, it sounded as if they were being tortured. I was a hostage. My sister said: You're a hostage because of ME. So she signed the papers and handed the pipeline over. Two days later I was freed."

'Elite corruption'

Last October, President Saakashvili's party, the UNM, was voted out of office after nearly a decade running Georgia. Mr Saakashvili remained president, but there was a new government. It was headed by his rival, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. He believes the anti-corruption government which preceded him was no beacon of transparency.

Image caption Prime Minister Ivanishvili believes the previous government failed to tackle top-level corruption

"When it comes to fighting corruption on the low and medium levels, our predecessors were successful," Mr Ivanishvili explains to me. "But what happened was that the money which had previously been divided up among the lower levels was being shared by a small group of people higher up. This was elite corruption."

Mikhail Saakashvili denies the accusations.

"You can say that the judiciary was not totally independent. I would agree with that," President Saakashvili tells me. "You can say that prosecutors were somehow overstretching their limit. I would agree with that. But nobody was taking bribes. Nobody was stealing money. And the only reason they were sometimes overstretching their limits was just to try not to allow corruption back into our country."

But the president has been accused recently of spending public money on private whims. The procedural committee of the Georgian parliament has published what it says are expense records showing how President Saakashvili spent thousands of dollars from his security budget on luxury hotel rooms, paintings and beauty treatments in New York - including Botox injections. It's the Botox claims that appear to cause President Saakashvili particular offence.

Image caption President Saakashvili is incensed at allegations that he spent part of his security budget on Botox injections

"Look at me. Look at me! Can you see anything?" the president asks me, pointing to his face. "Look at the prime minister and his friend Vladimir Putin and you will see the difference. The point is, is that all they could claim and find? Where are all these 'millions' and 'billions' 'misspent' or stolen'? Nowhere. Because this country was clean."

If that is the case, why are a string of President Saakashvili's former ministers and party officials now under investigation? Is this about fighting corruption at the very top, as the new government claims. Or is about settling scores?

"Is it politically motivated? Yes, it's politically motivated," believes Mark Mullen of Transparency International. "Is it a reasonable exercise in the rule of law? Yes it is, because there were so many laws broken. The thing to watch is the trend line - will this continue? Is this going to be a way of making sure there is no opposition?"

Georgia has achieved so much, so fast. Never in its history has corruption been so difficult here to conceal.

But Georgia's story shows that shiny palaces themselves are no guarantee of total transparency or rule of law. As long as politicians on all sides - in their glasshouses - are still throwing stones.

There will be a series of special reports and articles this week as the BBC examines why bribes and backhanders are part of the system in so much of the world, looks at countries which have tried to roll back the tide - and explains how corruption works.

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