CAUCASUS BLOG: Georgia’s corrupted anti-corruption strategy

CAUCASUS BLOG: Georgia’s corrupted anti-corruption strategy
Georgia's anti-graft efforts are said to have stalled. / TI Georgia.
By Iulian Ernst in Bucharest January 29, 2021

Transparency International this week pointed to Georgia as an example of how not to do things once you have earnt initial plaudits as a country moving ahead with anti-corruption efforts. “Georgia’s anti-corruption reforms stall amid political crisis and allegations of state capture,” was the headline on a blog post the Berlin-based NGO put out with its Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 (CPI 2020) released on January 28.

Georgia’s score of 56 points in the index is unchanged from 2019, when it dropped by two points compared with 2018. In fact, its score has actually stagnated since 2016, after rallying for two years from 2014.

“In a country once celebrated as a reformer, anti-corruption efforts have visibly stagnated over nearly a past decade,” TI Georgia stated in the blog post.

This statement needs some explanation since it might be seen to conflict with the data. Tracking the CPI scores reveals a sharp improvement over the initial years of the decade and stagnation thereafter—but, as it precisely reflects “perceptions” rather than fixed reality, the noted improvement might rather have reflected expectations ahead of the new regime that took office in 2012, when billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili was appointed as prime minister after the victory of the six-party Georgian Dream coalition.

The anti-corruption efforts of Georgian Dream more or less ceased after top officials of the previous regime, led by Ivanishvili’s main rival Mikhael Saakashvili—self-exiled in Ukraine and wanted back home on multiple criminal charges that he decries as politically motivated—were convicted. Former PM Ivane Merabishvili, a leading ally of Saakashvili, was in February 2014 found guilty of public corruption charges and sentenced to five years in prison. That made him the most senior official yet to be convicted in a series of seemingly politically motivated prosecutions that followed the ascent of Georgian Dream.

More than 10 other ministers and senior officials in Saakashvili’s former administration have faced similar prosecutions on an array of charges, something which supported the broad sentiment that anti-corruption moves per se were being pursued.

The stagnation period in anti-corruption efforts from 2016 to 2020 coincided with the second government of Georgian Dream.

“Georgia has not seen significant improvement in the ranking since 2012 when CPI scores became comparable year to year,” TI Georgia also commented.

In 2012, Georgia placed 51st on the world ranking with a score of 52 points; in 2020 it ranked 45th with 56 points. Nonetheless, Transparency’s statement is relevant in the sense that Georgia’s position has deteriorated since 2016 when it ranked 44th, the best position the small nation has ever achieved.

When releasing CPI 2019, the watchdog highlighted state capture and undue influence over key institutions as the main challenges to political integrity in Georgia. “This year’s results suggest that they have not been addressed,” TI Georgia concluded in the blog post.

It added: “What’s more, the 2020 National Integrity System Assessment found that Georgia’s political system is characterised by an extremely high degree of concentration of power, as a single political group wields disproportionate control over all key public institutions. The same dominant group also often aspires to unduly influence non-state actors, including the media and the private sector. The most vocal civil society groups continue to come under attack through government-sponsored disinformation campaigns.”

Concentrated power is undermining the government’s accountability, TI Georgia contends, stating: “Undue partisan influence over the law enforcement agencies has rendered them effectively incapable of investigating cases of possible high-level corruption. This has undermined the public’s trust in the law enforcement system: According to a 2020 survey, only 29 per cent of Georgians believe that cases of high-level corruption are investigated properly in Georgia, while 47 per cent think that they are not.

“Further, state capture has meant that the legislature and the judiciary do not properly exercise their oversight roles vis-a-vis the executive branch. Parliamentary oversight was especially limited during the state of emergency enacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

TI Georgia says that for Georgia to regain its lost anti-corruption momentum, a number of decisive steps are needed. The government, it sums up, should start by “supporting the proposal to establish an independent, multi-role anti-corruption agency that would fill the current void in terms of the enforcement of the country’s anti-corruption laws.”