Where does the truth lie: Is Georgia the "number one reforming country" or a "nest of elite corruption"?
It is hard to recall a subject which has such a large divide in opinion as the level of corruption in Georgia. On the one hand, articles by foreign journalists and reports by international organizations often cite Georgia as an example of successful reforms and eradication of corruption.
On the other hand, both under the former and under the current governments, there has been much talk and multiple accusations regarding stolen millions, nepotism, and politicians’ involvement in businesses. So who is mistaken? Is it the international organizations who are delighted with the Georgian reforms, or the Georgian journalists and NGOs who frequently talk about the possible cases of corruption? This supposedly puzzling situation is, in fact, not surprising at all, and Georgia is no exception in this respect either. It all stems from the confusion concerning two questions: (a) what is corruption, and (b) how we can measure it.
Before we attempt to measure the level of corruption in a country, we need to agree on what exactly we are trying to measure. Opposing views regarding the level of corruption in a given country often arise simply because different people consider different factors when they speak of corruption.
What is corruption?
There is no universally accepted definition of corruption but the most commonly used one can be summarized as follows: corruption is the use of power for private gain rather than for the public goals established by law.
However, even if we agree on a definition of corruption, measuring it still remains an extremely difficult task. How do we determine how common a type of activity is which is punishable by law and is therefore conducted in secret? Should we look at the statistics of criminal cases? It is certainly possible, but we are then bound to encounter the problem of interpreting the figures: For example, if more people were charged with corruption in Georgia than in Armenia in a given year, does that mean that corruption is more common in Georgia? Or could it be that the prosecution is simply more effective in Georgia than it is in Armenia? For this reason, the number of criminal cases is not a reliable measure of corruption.
Experience of corruption
Another common way of measuring corruption is asking citizens’ opinion about it. This approach is usually referred to as ‘corruption experience studies” and Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) is one of the most prominent surveys of this kind.
According to the 2016 edition of the GCB, four percent of the people surveyed in Georgia had been asked to pay a bribe for public services, which is one of the lowest figures throughout the world. A similar figure was 15 percent in Azerbaijan, 19 percent in Armenia, 23 percent in Ukraine, and 27 percent in Russia. Does the fact that a large majority of citizens have not paid a bribe mean that the level of corruption in Georgia is very low or that corruption is no longer a serious problem in the country? No, it does not. Although Georgian citizens rarely have to pay a bribe for public services (which is, by itself, very good and points to the success of the reforms implemented in this field), bribes paid for public services are not the only type of corruption.
Perception of corruption
Let us consider a few possible situations:
- A public official manipulates the terms of a government tender in order to ensure that a preselected company wins the contract.
- A public official helps a private company obtain a logging license before resigning and accepting a lucrative job offer from the same company.
- The government signs a multi-million-dollar contract with a private company without a competitive selection process. A few days later, the same company makes a large donation to the ruling party’s campaign fund.
A majority of Georgian citizens would probably agree that these situations (which are not hypothetical at all but are taken from actual studies conducted in Georgia) are examples of corruption. However, since the majority of citizens are not involved in public procurement, privatization of public assets or financing of political parties, cases like these are not reflected in the surveys of their personal experience.
While most Georgian citizens have not paid any bribes recently, they believe that there is corruption in the country. This is their perception. According to an opinion poll conducted by Transparency International Georgia in the spring of 2016, 40 percent of the respondents believe that the abuse of power for personal gain by public officials is common in Georgia (only 11 percent of the respondents said that it is not common).
So we have a situation where only a small minority of Georgian citizens have personally dealt with corruption (the ‘corruption experience’) but a much larger part of them still believe that corruption is common in the country. Such an indirect indicator of corruption can be described as the ‘corruption perception’. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) is the best-known international survey which annually examines the level of perceived corruption in different countries. In this year’s CPI, Georgia was ranked 44th among 176 countries with a score of 57 (on a 100-point scale). What does this result tell us? On the one hand, Georgia is the highest-ranked country in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and it is well ahead of all former Soviet countries (except for the Baltic states).
This means that the reforms implemented in Georgia since 2004 have, indeed, made a significant impact in terms of reducing corruption.
Still, with its score of 57, Georgia is lagging considerably behind the survey’s top countries, which indicates that the country continues to face serious problems in terms of corruption.
How to become Denmark
A majority of Georgian citizens therefore agree that: (a) the country has achieved considerable success in terms of combating corruption, having almost completely eradicated bribery in public services and that (b), overcoming other types of corruption still remains a problem. What do we need to do in order to achieve comparable success in fighting those other types of corruption? How do we catch up with Denmark which (along with New Zealand) topped this year’s CPI with 90 points out of a possible 100? While any short answer to such a complex question is bound to be superficial, we can still highlight the common traits of the CPI’s best-performing countries: An independent judiciary, strong parliamentary control over the executive branch, free media and an active civil society.
To put it differently, the level of corruption tends to be lower in developed and consolidated democracies. Building the principles of transparency and accountability into the governance system is the best way of reducing corruption risks: public officials are likely to refrain from using power for personal gain, if they know that citizens can easily access information about their activities (transparency) and that whatever crimes they commit will definitely result in punishment (accountability). It is effectively impossible to have transparency and accountability mechanisms (such as an independent judiciary or free media) in an undemocratic system, so there are no examples of corruption having been eradicated in such countries.
So, if we want to measure the level of corruption or corruption risks in a country, we must definitely also look at the state of the institutions that are involved in preventing or uncovering corruption.
How free is our media? How independent is the judiciary? To what extent is the prosecution service protected from political influence? The answers to these questions are quite good indicators of how serious the threat of corruption is in the country.