Success of Georgia’s Police Reform Is a Function of Sovereignty

By Giorgi Kvelashvili

In his April 15, 2010 article in Foreign Policy, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wrote about the significant progress his country has made in nation-building and consolidation of a liberal democracy. In the piece entitled “Failed No Longer,” Saakashvili touched upon almost all aspects of Georgia’s internal development, foreign policy priorities, security issues, international engagement and, of course, the hurdles erected by Russia’s current leadership to obstruct Georgia’s freedom of choice.

The article appeared at a time when a high-profile Nuclear Security Summit, hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama, was taking place in Washington, DC in which the Georgian president was a participant. That was the reason why analysts working on Georgia-related issues paid particular attention to the part of the article that mentioned Georgia’s efforts to “break up numerous uranium smuggling attempts.”

But there was at least one revelation in President Saakashvili’s publication that also deserves due consideration and analysis. “Very early in my presidency,” Saakashvili wrote “then Russian President Vladimir Putin called me to say that he would be ready to accept our new Georgian regime, as long as … he could name our ministers of interior and foreign affairs.” Apparently, this conversation took place sometime in early 2004, shortly after the Rose Revolution – a peaceful popular protest in which the corrupt regime of Eduard Shevardnadze was ousted and liberal reformers led by U.S.-educated Saakashvili came to power.

It is not the first time that President Saakashvili openly talked about his phone conversation with Putin. Speaking to the Georgian public and media he had mentioned the Russian leader’s ‘offer’ before but, arguably, he never spoke of this in the international press.

Georgia’s de-Sovietization has been manifested in several directions but a comprehensive police reform has been by far the most illustrative example. Although the reforms carried out in the education, justice, economic and the public service systems are no less significant, the transformation that the Georgian police have undergone under Minister of Internal Affairs Vano Merabishvili truly leaves nothing to remind of the Soviet past or Russia’s present. Instead of a Soviet-styled force having almost no public support and deeply marred in corruption some six years ago, now Georgia has a police trusted by 81% of the public, according to the opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) nearly one month ago. For comparison, the same survey gives 57% to the Georgian president’s administration and 56% to the government.

Any westerner traveling across the countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union would say that police both in form and function are almost identical in all of them – except for the Baltic nations and Georgia – and have little semblance of what police really represent in the West. Russia and most of the post-Soviet states still even officially call their police force a militia (militsia) as in the old-Soviet times and their uniforms have only slightly changed if at all.

In Russia’s public discourse, interest toward Georgia’s police reform has been coupled with even bigger fascination with Georgian Minister Merabishvili’s persona and “sovereign rights.” He has been interviewed by Russian journalists more often than ever before and his laconic expressions have been broadly debated in the Russian press. One might even argue that a Merabishvili myth is being created in Russia, drawing on enigma and suspicion similar to those attached to Pyotr Stolypin, Russia’s reformist minister of the interior and then-prime minister under Tsar Nicolas II at the beginning of the 20th century.

On March 29, one of Russia’s widely-read newspapers, Kommersant, broadly covered Georgia’s police reform conveying to Russian readers the success story of Georgia’s Western-style, “top-notch” and “high-tech” law enforcement agency. The online edition of the newspaper even put out the musical advertisement that Georgian police use to recruit young officers.

Russians have reason to look to the Georgian police for inspiration and as a blueprint for comprehensive reform. According to Kommersant, only 22% of Russians trust their police, a force which is considered by the public as corrupt and inefficient. In his recent article published on April 4, Stephen Sestanovich, an influential Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote on the merits of Georgia’s police transformation and advised Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to follow suit. “Only one political leader in any post-Soviet state has ever attempted this kind of institutional upheaval, and the comparison is an ironic one for Medvedev. For that leader is … Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, who soon after becoming president in 2004 fired more than 80% of the country’s police officers…But however awkward the parallel may be, there are lessons in it for Medvedev. Saakashvili’s reform succeeded precisely because it was so radical.”

Let’s imagine that Georgia had had a Putin-appointed minister of internal affairs. Not only would that have meant the lack of even basic internal sovereignty, but would also have ruled out the possibility of any reform. That is how sovereignty and modernization are intertwined in Georgian reality and that is why Putin so vigorously opposes both.