Georgia's National Police Corruption Project

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has targeted corruption in his first year of office. To that end, he revamped the police force — by firing all of the traffic police in his country, cutting 30,000 police from the payroll. Robert Siegel talks with Saakashvili, who is in New York for a world summit of the United Nations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Among the world leaders converging on New York this week for a United Nations summit is Mikhail Saakashvili. He is the president of the Republic of Georgia, the former Soviet republic. Mr. Saakashvili is an American-educated lawyer who led Georgia's Rose Revolution last year. He came to our New York bureau to talk about one area of reform that his government has undertaken, reforming the police.

President MIKHAIL SAAKASHVILI (Republic of Georgia): Basically, we had one of the most corrupt police forces. And the way it functioned was very simple. Government told the policemen, `You are supposed to be out there, keep order. You need to have some kind of cars, but we are not going to buy for you any cars. We are not going to put in any gasoline in that car, so you have to get money for it yourselves. You need to wear some kind of uniforms. We don't care where you get them from. And you also should sustain yourself, I mean, of course, because we are not even going to pay you because the payment was pretty symbolic. And not only do you have to take bribes from the people but you also have to share part of your corrupt income with your superiors--I mean, with the government that appointed you.'

SIEGEL: The cop was a thug with a franchise from the government (unintelligible) yeah.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Absolutely, absolutely, that was what it was. And so what we did--I mean, for the first few months we tried to temper it. You know, we urged them to be honest, you know, increased their pay. It didn't help. So, in the end, basically, 80 to 90 percent of all policemen were fired.

SIEGEL: And how many individuals are we talking about ...(unintelligible)?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: We are talking about 25 to 30,000 people.

SIEGEL: All of them fired?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Yeah,

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: And it was pretty miserable. Now people thought that we would have disaster because it was in the beginning of holiday season; therefore, that we will have a real chaos with traffic disasters. Nothing like of this sort has happened because what it proved was that this police was not only producing order, it was producing disorder.

So then we had new guys recruited. And it took us two to three months to find good guys and to give them initial training at an academy which is sponsored by the US. But what we also did, we gave them new, nice uniforms that look very much unlike the old Soviet ones. We gave them new, nice German cars, American radios, the US kind of looking badges and painting which we gave them. So...

SIEGEL: Appearances are important here, you're saying?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Yeah, it is.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: But besides, we gave them 20 times, in some cases, higher salaries, which they started to...

SIEGEL: Twenty times higher salaries?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Well, we are talking very roughly--I mean, we--they used to get like 30 to $40 and we got them minimum salary now--minimum money is 3 to $400, but we are talking about men...

SIEGEL: Per week? Per week?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: These are monthly, but for Eastern Europe these are pretty high salaries. And...

SIEGEL: Now what do you do with the 30,000 cops you fired? Are they barred forever from becoming police officers? Are they barred from public employment? What happens to them?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: No. First of all, most of them did have savings because they were corrupt and they had money. You know, in the beginning we had trouble recruiting people because many people would not take jobs that had such a bad reputation. Now there is a long line of applicants.

SIEGEL: Is the crime rate in Tbilisi lower today than it was three years ago, say?

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: You know what? If you look at figures it's much, much higher, but I'll tell you why. Because police in the old system would not register crimes. Nobody--many people wouldn't even bother going to the police because it was extra headache. Now people for even the small family conflict, a lot of the spouse will go and call the police or somebody--I mean, I had neighbors that, say, lose their key and they will call the police and say, I mean, `We lost our keys. Would you please help us to open the door?' And all these cases get registered.

But I think that the overall picture of crime has decreased. The old police used to beat up people. They basically used what amounted to torture to extort the evidence. And the new police force was educated and is controlled in a way where nothing like this--there is zero tolerance towards torture. Zero tolerance. Everybody thought that there was no way to keep crimes checked unless you occasionally beat them up or managed them with beating them up or blackmail them into something. No, our examples show that you can reverse the crime trend even by being civilized.

SIEGEL: Well, President Saakashvili, it's very good to talk with you once again.

Pres. SAAKASHVILI: Thank you, enjoyed it.

SIEGEL: Mikhail Saakashvili is the president of Georgia. He's in New York attending the session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

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