Why Moldova Fails while Georgia Succeeds in Fighting Corruption

A Soviet past and hopes for a European future encapsulate a tumultuous history and high aspirations for both Georgia and Moldova. The two countries have had an awfully similar fate during the last two centuries, falling prey to an expansionist Russian Empire then sharing what is now pejoratively referred to as Soviet experience. Following the dissolution of the ‘Evil Empire,’ its 15 subjects faced a crude reality of having to grapple with the soviet legacy on their own. Naturally, some were more successful than others. Baltic countries surged ahead without nostalgia, whereas Georgia and Moldova kept looking back. It is only now that the two countries have seemingly committed themselves to European integration in an attempt to turn the page on their shared past. Yet, hardly anything of the soviet ills turned out to be more resilient than corruption. After more than two decades of independence, both countries still struggle to combat it effectively. Georgia, however, managed to drastically reduce its corruption level in the aftermath of the 2003 Rose Revolution.  Moldova, despite having a revolution of its own, dubbed by media as 2009 Twitter Revolution, largely failed to live up to Georgia’s glory.

Georgia’s Internationally Acclaimed Police Reform

Georgia’s success is all the more astonishing, given how deeply rooted corruption was in Georgian society. A history of alienation from the state, perceived as something foreign, coupled with lack of democratic institutions and strong commitment to family ties at the expense of civic relations bred distrust or indifference towards the state (Kukhianidze 2014). In fact, the country was considered among the most crime ridden and corrupt regions of the Soviet Union (Kupatadze 2012), while its police was infamously dysfunctional (Light 2014). Things have further deteriorated during the lawlessness of the ‘90s. Abject poverty and a weak state created fertile grounds for police to take matters into their own hands. Police fought organized crime by employing brute extrajudicial coercion only to overtake their illegal market share, resulting in criminalization and systemic police corruption (Kukhianidze 2009; Light 2014).  This state of affairs raised regional and even global concerns as both Russia and the US were critical of Georgia’s government involvement in weapons and drug trafficking to Chechnya (Kukhianidze 2009; Light 2014). Yet, more importantly, corruption threatened the very existence of the state, given that its police and security forces were infiltrated by Russian intelligence and organized crime, increasingly resembling a failed state (Kupatadze 2012). However, it was also the police that ushered the change by siding with the peaceful protesters in 2003.

Rose Revolution is a turning point in recent Georgian history. Mihail Saakashvili managed to capture the masses with highly inspirational promises: reintegrate the country, curb Russian influence, eradicate corruption, including, if not primarily, in the police (Light 2014). Fighting corruption has, therefore, become a way of legitimizing the consolidation of power behind the revolutionary zeal (Kupatadze 2012). Nowhere was this eagerness more vivid than in the Gordian-Knot tactic applied to police reform, particularly traffic police, perceived as being the most corrupt.  Within two years, Saakashvili and his bold team of ‘revolutionary’ reformers dismissed 16,000 of the 60,000 staff working for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, whereas the entire institution of traffic police was liquidated in 2004, with its 2700 staff fired on the spot (Kukhianidze 2009; Light 2014). This, inevitably, disrupted the chains of syndicated corruption.

A set of measures were then employed in the hope of achieving a western style police service. Apart from various departmental restructuring and renaming, considerable amount of training, equipment and pay raises were introduced for a synergistic effect. Namely, US and EU experts trained new recruits in American style Police Academies, including on ethics and community relations, while significant investments were made into new vehicles, communication systems, uniforms and weapons (Kukhianidze 2009). Salaries of rank-and-file officers increased 15 fold from a mere 25 dollar to a more than competitive 600 dollar monthly wage (Light 2014). Coupled with generous social benefits, police work became a competitive career path just like the private sector. A reformed profession attracted a high supply of young graduates, whose vision and motivation compensated for their lack of experience and institutional memory loss, thus ensuring sustainability of reforms.

Shock-therapy applied to anti-corruption in police sector quickly bore fruit. Polls were consistently showing a tangible decline in corruption perception and steep increase of public confidence in police integrity. By 2006, only 25% believed that police would ask for bribes, compared to 80% in 2000 (Light 2014). Impressively, according to Transparency International police began to be viewed as the least corrupt public institution in the country (TI 2010). From its 133rd place in the 2003 CPI, Georgia made a huge leap to 68th in 2010. By 2012, ranked 51st Georgia was considered less corrupt than Latvia, Slovakia and Czech Republic (TI 2012).

However, as no major success comes without a price, Georgia was not an exception. Saakashvili’s revolutionary agenda was in effect a state building project sustained at the expense of democratization. By 2008 Saakashvili government had full control over all major TV stations, which decreased public and media oversight, allowing for ‘elite corruption’ to go unchecked (Kupatadze 2012).  Even the generally supportive US government criticized Georgia in its 2008 Human Rights Report for failing to go after ‘high-level’ corruption. There have been numerous cases of politically motivated corruption prosecutions. Irakli Okruashvili, former Defense Minister and close Saakashvili ally, broke the silence on elite corruption and accused the president directly. In retribution, Okruashvili was himself arrested on corruption charges, but released on bail only to defect to France where he continued with his high profile accusations. After Saakashvili’s party lost the 2012 parliamentary elections, largely due to public discontent about lack of citizens’ control over those reformed law enforcement services, the new government led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili immediately deployed police against Saakashvili and his supporters (Light 2014). It is indeed ironic that the very professional and honest police force Saakashvili had built was ultimately used against him.

Moldova’s Half Measures in Anti-corruption Police Reform

Moldova’s failure to implement swift and robust anti-corruption police reform is all the more disappointing given that Moldova used to be less corrupt than Georgia. In fact, during Soviet times Moldova, along with Ukraine, was considered average in terms of corruption (Kupatadze 2012). It was the mishandling of independence that allowed corruption to flourish. A concept tailored by Lucan Way to address Moldova’s unique condition immediately after independence describes the situation with surgical precision and is still relevant today. According to Lucan Way (2003, 454), “Moldova is best understood not as a struggling or unconsolidated democracy but instead as a case of failed authoritarianism or ‘pluralism by default’.” Indeed, taking into account how weak Moldovan state was and still is, how tenuous its elite networks are, not to mention how politically and ethno-linguistically polarized, it becomes clear why no individual or group was able to monopolize state power, but this also created perfect environment for corruption.

After drifting with no clear sense of direction for most of the ‘90s, Communist rule from 2001-2009 gave the country a sense of economic stability, albeit at the expense of democracy. Communists were successful in mitigating organized crime, but failed to seriously address corruption. In fact, president’s son Oleg Voronin is believed to have amassed a 2 billion dollar fortune during his father’s eight year presidency, along with some other business people close to the ruling family (Tudoroiu 2014). However, the center-right coalition that replaced the communists in 2009 did not make corruption their number one priority, largely because many of the new rulers were part of the same corrupt establishment. It was not until December 2012 that a comprehensive police reform bill was passed, in line with a broader, yet largely populist, anti-corruption offensive.

Police reform mainly focused on decoupling policy making from actual management of daily police work. A downsized Ministry of Internal Affairs was charged with only policy related functions, whereas a newly created General Police Inspectorate was tasked with carrying out actual policing. Its two main departments: Investigations and Patrol are at the core of the new structure. Renaming various departments (ex. Border Guards became Border Police) was something that media picked upon as a sign of superficiality. To be fair, there was also some short term training provided to the staff as well as new uniforms, equipment and vehicles, though mostly from EU and US donations. Wage increases of 20%-30% were insufficient to make the jobs competitive with private sector. To make things worse, at the height of the economic crisis, the year before the reform, government had cut housing subsidies and other benefits that police enjoyed, making the later on wage increased largely irrelevant. Frustrated with the role of scapegoats in the 2009 protest related violence, offended by the cut in subsides, but also fearful of the new integrity testing, many officers retired early or resigned, while consequent recruitment was very slow, hardly making up for the attrition. Even if we assume that some of the corruption chains have been disrupted, there is no evidence to suggest that it will not be picked up by the new comers. In fact, recent polls should be a reason for concern.

It must be pointed out that corruption has been consistently ranked as the fifth major concern among Moldovans, following poverty, salaries, unemployment and children’s future, while police have been ranked third least trusted institutions, slightly ahead of political parties and parliament (IPP Barometer 2008, 2012, 2014). National public opinion polls commissioned by the Moldovan Institute of Public Policy have been carried out twice a year for a decade now. It is interesting to notice that 8% of respondents have ranked corruption as their primary concern in 2014, while only 1.4% said the same in 2008. This could be explained by more media coverage of corruption in the aftermath of communist departure, or it can be perceived as a sign of actual growth of corruption during the new center-right government.  It probably is a combination of the two. Yet, even more surprisingly, after the 2012 reform, data indicates that resolute trust in police has only increased by a statistically insignificant 0.6% and ambivalent trust by a mere 3%. However, distrust of police remained strong. The number of those who do not trust police at all actually went up by a whopping 15%. This should sound an alarm bell for policy makers. Still, it could be argued that not enough time has passed in order to effectively assess the outcome of police reform on corruption perception and trust. The 2013 political scandal dealing with the cover up of a hunting incident that involved law enforcement, including the police, may have skewed the data as well, but it does not diminish the point that police reform was a far cry from what the public expected based on what it was promised.

Why did Georgia Succeed and Moldova Fail?

First and foremost, corruption was perceived as being a much more serious problem in Georgia than in Moldova. Georgians risked their lives in a popular uprising that was largely an anti-government corruption movement. Moldova’s 2009 revolt had more to do with communism fatigue and allegedly rigged elections. Georgians were fearful that corruption was undermining their state sovereignty and independence. Police reforms, specifically, was seen by the Saakashvili government as essential for withstanding Russian influence; establishing the legitimacy of the new regime; and proving its credibility to Georgia’s Western partners (Light 2014). Even though Moldova also has a separatist region (Transnistria) and a pro-Russian autonomy (Gagauzia), the threat perception of Russian is much lower compared to Georgia. In fact, Russian is still regarded as a strategic partner in Moldova’s key foreign policy documents. As for the problem of police corruption, it neither reached the levels of urgency and public awareness witnessed in Georgia, nor is fear of Russian infiltration into Moldovan law enforcement a driving force behind the feeble reform.

Unlike in Georgia, Moldovan government did not draw its legitimacy from combating corruption through zealous police reform, instead Chisinau leadership drew its legitimacy from a rather declarative pro-European integration agenda, which combating corruption was only a small part of, and police corruption even less so. Thus, police corruption in Georgia was framed as a national security issue, whereas in Moldova it was yet another socio-economic problem, by far not the most important one. As we have seen, bread and butter issues such as wages and unemployment top the list of concerns among Moldovans; this indicates the failure of both government and civil society to link corruption to economic decline. Yet, it also transpires that Moldova generally lacked the financial resources and political will required to initiate and sustain quality reform. In this regard, Georgia, and earlier Hong Kong, is a good example of consistent determination.

Thus, it appears that Moldova’s police reform agenda was mostly driven by its desire to appease Western donors, or development partners, as the government prefers to call them. In line with Moldova’s European aspirations, Chisinau government committed itself to a number of reforms mainly under the EU-Moldova Visa Liberalization Action Plan, including police reform as part of a broader anti-corruption effort.  However, research on EU conditionality shows that in the absence of consistent internal and external pressure, governments that are guided by excessive political expediency can ‘pick and choose’ the lowest common denominator reforms with little regard for democratization and rule of law (Borzel, Stahn, and Pamuk 2010). Not surprisingly, EU conditionality, without a membership perspective that would imply considerable scrutiny, failed to produce vivid positive change.

Finally, objective conditions of different political realities and interests of the actors involved lead to rather diverse outcomes. Saakashvili was by en large a western educated outsider, with little or no personal economic vested interests. While in Moldova, not only did you have the problem of collective action given the coalition setting and the three party leaders, but they also each have deeply rooted interests pulling the strings against genuine anti-corruption reform (Roman 2014). Abiding by a post electoral political algorithm, police ended up being distributed to Liberal Democratic Party’s control, whereas Prosecutor’s Office and National Anti-Corruption Center went to the Democrats. Police reform was, therefore, a constant tug of war between Lib-dems and Democrats, with civil society having no voice. Some argue that, in fact, reforms have done little to mitigate the state capture epitomized by private and party interests controlling state institutions, thus continuing to threaten Moldova’s democracy and sovereignty (Tudoroiu 2014). However, such calls mainly from foreign diplomats and expat academics fall on deaf years.  It is all the more disappointing that, as recent developments indicate, even Georgia’s much heralded success is being reconsidered in light of politically motivated prosecutions employing the very professional and ethical police force many inside and outside Georgia have come to admire. At the end of the day, despite Moldova’s humble record in combating police corruption, Georgia remains vivid proof that Moldova as well as others can also do better.


Note: This is a term paper for my ‘Corruption, Corruption Control and Global Governance’ class at CEU. Should anyone be interested, I can also share the bibliography and other insight on the matter.


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