Georgia's Culture of Graft

Time and again the Georgian government targets corruption but it just seems to be part of the make-up

Georgia's Culture of Graft

Time and again the Georgian government targets corruption but it just seems to be part of the make-up

In the early Seventies the Kremlin denounced the leadership of Soviet Georgia for being steeped in corruption. Then serving as interior minister, Eduard Shevardnadze was chosen to take over the reigns of government. He promptly spearheaded a war on graft.

Seeking to curry favour with his bosses in Moscow and the folks at home, Shevardnadze resorted to draconian measures. No one was exempt. Many, including the premier's closest allies, were sentenced to long prison stretches; some were executed. But Georgia, he vowed, would be cleaned up.

Despite his verve in the early years, Shevardnadze's first term as Georgian president in 1972-85 is regarded as the most corrupt in the country's recent history. Economic statistics were rigged, bribes to top Russian and Georgian officials became commonplace.

Thirty years on and Shevardnadze, now head of an independent Georgia, is faced with the same problem. He has set up the Coordination Council on Anti-Corruption Policy run by an optimistic Mirian Gogiashvili. "My major objective is not to collect political dividends but to deter corruption," he said. This is something Georgians have heard before.

Justifying his positive mien, Gogiashvili points to recent investigations into corruption within the energy sector which was regarded by a parliamentary watchdog as the worst culprit. Several high-ranking officials ended up behind bars and others were dismissed on embezzlement and corruption charges.

But another member of the anti-corruption council, Givi Targamadze, does not share Gogiashvili's confidence, admitting in an interview with the daily newspaper Alia that the body faces an almost insuperable task and that he didn't think there was "any ground for optimism".

The current Shevardnadze administration has already been weakened by a series of scandals. Last year, while compiling a report into the 1999 budgetary crisis, the finance ministry fell under adverse scrutiny. It appeared that finance minister David Onoprishvili had granted a host of privileges to a number of businesses who, in exchange, gave their full support to Shevardnadze's Citizens' Union of Georgia during the latest presidential and parliamentary elections. The deal is estimated to have cost the country around 10 million US dollars.

"If you ask me who is responsible for the budgetary crisis," said the head of the investigating committee, Levan Gamkrelidze, "my answer will definitely be: the Citizens' Union of Georgia."

In the end, the shortfall in the budget was somehow adjusted and after a brief flurry of interest in the parliament the scandal was forgotten.

But on the heels of this domestic imbroglio came another fracas involving international donors. Attracting the most attention was a five million dollar US grant from the Japanese government scheduled for agrarian reform. The idea was for the agricultural ministry to purchase farming equipment, sell it on a hire-purchase scheme and reinvest the proceeds.

That was how it was supposed to work. However, the machinery acquired was of inferior quality - and expensive to boot. Snagging the blame, the deputy minister for agriculture, Guram Didbaridze, and the head of the department for external affairs, Aleko Kakashvili, were dismissed and an inquiry was launched into alleged embezzlement. But when the case came to court, it was sent back for supposed lack of evidence. Even though it hasn't been closed, some observers believe the process has been permanently put on the back burner.

There were also rumours that ministry officials were asking farm equipment contractors to pay up to twice the 25 per cent required purchase price of the equipment as down-payment. Proving this has been made virtually impossible given the fact that many of the companies who had paid this money were declared insolvent. So, in effect, the money simply vanished.

Corruption is so difficult to crack because it is not just a governmental problem but has become a way of life in Georgia. Faced with inefficient public services, people feel it is preferable to pay baksheesh rather than suffer through interminable bureaucracy to get, say, a passport or a telephone line. Similarly, bureaucrats make up meagre pay packets by taking bribes to get a job done - for which their bosses charge their take for tolerating the practice.

Faced with this local reality, those with the wherewithal to do something about it are reluctant to do so. The anti-corruption council has come up with a number of suggestions but parliament seems none too keen to adopt them.

"The councils' powers are completely uncertain," said council member Targamadze. "The authorities say that nobody limits the council but, in fact, we are deprived of the power to do anything."

Justice Minister Mikhael Saakashvili has proposed confiscating the property of people charged with corruption but has been rebuffed by both parliament and the government on the grounds that he has been stooping to populist gestures.

Even if cases do reach the courts there is a problem of partiality. So far a special commission under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court has screened 89 cases relating to abuse of office. Eight civil servants have been dismissed and others have faced disciplinary procedures.

On August 15 Shevardnadze announced that the findings of the Coordination Council would be released in two weeks, However, he has already admitted that the report indicated that corruption was rife in all government departments.

Some independent analysts believe that any true reform will come about only if it serves the president's personal political agenda and that corrupt practices are unlikely to be rooted out of the system.

Former chairman of the Georgian Constitutional Court Avtandil Demetrashvili is also sceptical about the success of the review. "Every judge remains impartial and independent to the extent that he wishes to be," he says. In other words, judges will come down heavily when they are not paid by the unscrupulous to do otherwise.

Many argue that any measures to combat the problem will ultimately fail unless there is real determination right from the top. Targamadze insists that the only person who can make a difference is the old anti-corruption campaigner himself, the president.

As an independent expert argues, "The anti-corruption council in its present form will achieve next to nothing because responsibility starts at the top. Reforms will have a chance if there is the political will." Since the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are demanding that measures be taken to tackle corruption, talks will continue. It remains to be seen whether words will be turned into action or whether the well-greased wheel will take another turn.

Zaal Andjaparidze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.

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